- Three Steps Forward, Two Steps Back
A couple of months ago, I was at a meeting of Jewish feminists at which we tried to formulate next steps for a cross-denominational feminist agenda. In order to keep ourselves from sinking into a sense of powerlessness and despair, we began by naming the many things we have accomplished over the last thirty-five years. It was quite an extraordinary list, including the huge changes in women's participation in Jewish religious life, new opportunities for study, and the founding of several organizations and institutions, like the Jewish Women's Archive and Kolot. One of the achievements of which we felt proudest was the creation of a "product"—a rich and varied Jewish feminist literature, both popular and scholarly, available for export around the country and around the world. This literature offers to those just stepping into Jewish feminist issues and those immersed in them, new rituals, new theologies, new histories, new textual commentaries, new political analyses, and much more. The vitality of Jewish feminism as a movement and field is obvious at the Association for Jewish Studies (AJS) Conference, not just in the sessions dedicated specifically to gender issues, but also in the many papers on gender throughout the program.
Yet if I ask myself why I agreed this year to come to the AJS for the first time, when I have spent thirty-five years as a devoted member of the American Academy of Religion (AAR), I would have to say it is because this seems to me like a perilous moment for women in the academy and in the Jewish community. The reason we in the Jewish feminist group I just mentioned felt the need to remind ourselves of our accomplishments over the last decades was our overwhelming sense of how much remains to be done, how subtle and insidious the obstacles to women's full equality truly are, and how tenaciously those in power have defended their positions and privileges.
Let me elaborate by focusing first on the academy and then making a couple of comments about the Jewish community. It hardly needs to be said—but it is very important to remember—that thirty-five years ago, it would have been [End Page 184] difficult even to imagine the AJS of today, with its large numbers of women scholars, its Women's Caucus, and its vibrant scholarship in women's, gender, and queer studies. But while the tremendous growth in women's presence has reduced the isolation of women academics and opened up important new areas of teaching and learning, the numbers of women in tenure-track positions has not kept pace with the increase in the numbers of women in graduate school. As recent studies on the status of women in the academy indicate, women are coming up through a "leaky pipeline" and are leaving or being pushed out of the academy at several points between receiving a doctorate and being promoted to full professor.1
There are many reasons why this is happening. A central issue that has concerned me since I was President of the AAR in the late 1990s is the disproportionate impact on women of the rapid corporatization of the academy. Precisely in the period that women have entered graduate school in large numbers, academic institutions have created a two-tier system of employment that is very much of a piece with larger changes in corporate culture. In the same decades that the overall number of part-time workers in the U.S. has risen dramatically, many colleges and universities have become increasingly dependent on adjunct faculty to teach many of their courses, at pitiful wages and with no benefits. In 1970, 22% of faculty appointments were part-time or adjunct; in 1993, the figure was over 40%. In the same period, the number of new non-tenure-track positions increased by 88%, while the number of probationary tenure-track appointments declined by 9%. Women hold 33% of full-time faculty positions and 51% of part-time positions. 35% of male faculty members hold part-time positions, while almost exactly half of women do.2
It is very difficult...