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247 9 Women in the Humanities Taking Their Place Rosalind Rosenberg The humanities academy in the 1940s was an overwhelmingly masculine enterprise , more so, indeed, than it had been a generation before, because of the success of “professionalization”: women were moved out of jobs in English, history, and philosophy, even at many women’s colleges. Mary Calkins, for example, the philosopher and psychologist who trained with William James in the 1890s and spent her career at Wellesley College, was elected president of the American Philosophical Association in 1918, but she, along with women in other fields, enjoyed declining influence in later years, as men who were less “amateur” shoved women aside.1 Women were not able to reverse this trend until the late 1950s, when government funding and an expanding economy finally helped them begin to increase their share of Ph.D.’s and faculty positions.2 Women did more than increase their numbers. Inspired by the civil rights and feminist movements, in which they became central actors in the 1970s, they founded journals, created new academic programs,and questioned traditional approaches to scholarship in every discipline, from English to philosophy.They challenged traditional canons,attacked accepted disciplinary distinctions, called for greater diversity, and pioneered new methods. Above all, in an intellectual community that celebrated Olympian detachment, they championed personal engagement. In the beginning the work they chose to pursue contributed further to their marginalization, focusing as it often did on women, but by the end of the century women across the humanities had come to define their projects in more ambitious terms, not simply as a reclamation of lost lives and texts, but also as a reconceptualizing of the world as a place in which gender structured power relations and even perspective. The Fall and Rise of Women in the Humanities Women first entered academe in significant numbers in the late nineteenth century, and they steadily increased their share of all faculty positions into the 1930s.3 But a long-term trend toward professionalization—marked by the Rosalind Rosenberg 248 increased production of Ph.D.’s and growing emphasis on scholarly research— put women in higher education increasingly at risk. Shouldering family responsibilities from which society usually excused men, lacking the services of a wife who could support their careers, less able to claim the resources necessary to remain productive as scholars, women gradually lost ground. Women’s colleges held out longer than universities, but even they tended to give way by the 1930s and started to replace women with men.4 Women continued to find academic employment in the lower ranks, especially in the labor-intensive language departments, even without a Ph.D., but to become a professor a woman not only had to be better than any available man, she had to comport herself, as much as possible, as though she were one. The Smith College English professor Marjorie Hope Nicolson became a leading exemplar of this phenomenon when she left Smith in 1940 to become Columbia University’s first female full professor. A brilliant lecturer and prolific scholar, Nicolson came quickly to be known as “the best man at Columbia.”5 Higher education expanded dramatically after World War II, as universities grew to meet the needs of returning soldiers and as the federal government began to fund education deemed essential to the nation’s defense during the cold war. But women’s proportion of academic positions continued to contract (even as their absolute numbers grew), until it bottomed out at 20 percent in the late 1950s. The principal cause of both the expansion for men and the contraction for women was the 1944 G.I. Bill of Rights. Since 98 percent of returning soldiers were male, the chief beneficiaries of government funding through the G.I. Bill were men. It was this cohort that came to define the intellectual culture of the universities for the next two decades.6 Denied the economic benefits so widely available to men, would-be female academics also suffered from a cultural climate that, after fifteen years of depression and war, celebrated domesticity and maternity. As women’s average age at marriage sank below twenty and the birthrate soared, the challenge of combining a full-time academic career and family obligations, as then defined, became increasingly difficult. Not until the 1958 passage of the National Defense Education Act, which made money available for training in languages, did women begin to reverse their downward slide. As the baby boom generation came of...


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