- Risking Our Dreams
Once upon a time—35 years ago—in a country not very far away, on a landscape that would look very familiar in many ways, was a very strange academic world.
Women were a tiny minority in major graduate history programs; the average figure was 13 percent. There were fewer women in visible positions in the profession than there had been a generation before, when Nellie Nielson was president of the American Historical Association in 1943. (There would not be another woman president until Natalie Zemon Davis in 1987.)
When women entered graduate school in the 1960s, we did so on a slanted playing field. There were virtually no senior women faculty members in our graduate programs; indeed, there were few women professors at any level of higher education. (In the women's college I attended, there were a substantial number of women faculty members, but relatively few were married, fewer had grown children, and the woman professor who was raising young children was so rare as to be an anomaly: "Did you hear," the chilling—perhaps apocryphal—story went around, "she had a miscarriage on the stairs in Barnard Hall?"
In graduate schools, senior male professors were often (though not always) unenthusiastic about accepting women students, partly because they sometimes felt awkward about working with them, partly because they knew that even when the women wrote brilliant dissertations it would be almost impossible for them to find jobs worthy of their talents. (Carl Schorske, the distinguished cultural historian, once told me how that could be turned into an asset. When he went to teach at Berkeley in the 1960s, he remembered, the smartest male students gravitated toward political and social history; that's where the jobs were. The women knew they were unlikely to get jobs; they followed their hearts to his seminar on arts and society, and were his best students.)
Alumni gatherings at annual disciplinary meetings like the AHA were inhospitable; literally "smokers," they were men's clubs. The reason that women historians have the tradition of breakfast meetings is because in [End Page 121] 1971 the new Committee on Women Historians found it was the only part of the day on which we could carve out a space of our own.
The CWH was founded because of the energetic lobbying of the Coordinating Committee on Women in the Historical Profession, which functioned as a caucus, pushing the AHA to the left. The CCWHP's impatience enabled the CWH to present itself to the AHA's Council as moderate. (We usually understood what game we were playing.)
The first AHA ad hoc Committee on the Status of Women was a remarkable group. It was chaired by the distinguished historian of the American South, Willie Lee Rose. The other members were Patricia Albjerg Graham, Hanna Holborn Gray, Carl Schorske, and Page Smith. Fueled by their own angers (it was rumored that one member of the Committee had only gotten her first job after the chair of the hiring department asked whether she was physically able to bear children—the "right" answer was negative) they produced a remarkable report, tallying the declining number of women faculty in representative institutions and challenging a profession that claimed to be driven by intellectual principles to be true to itself.1
The ad hoc Committee had included in its demands that the AHA hire a new staff member charged with helping implement the agenda that the standing Committee would develop. The first standing committee, on which I served, hired Dorothy Ross, a recent PhD who lived in Washington DC and was unemployed. When, a few years later, the Council tried to eliminate the position as a cost-cutting move, we persuaded it to save the job by adding responsibility for sustaining the agenda of minority historians as well as women; Noralee Frankel has filled this role with zest for more than twenty-five years.
We also decided that it was not reasonable to claim to speak for the full range of women in the profession without a graduate student member, and we persuaded the Council to let us appoint the first graduate student member of any...