- That's Us:Women's History and Academic Careers
One of the perks of globalization is that discussions taking place in countries on the other side of the globe become interesting because the idea that "it might happen here too" inspires hope and fear. Thus, in the past, women's historians in many European countries have looked with envy and with hope to their American colleagues who found jobs, began to occupy positions of authority, and could publish their work, who were, as Linda Kerber says in her essay, "doing what they loved" and were also "being paid to do it." Far into the 1980s and 1990s conditions in many European universities seemed definitely bleaker. The struggle to make gender a "useful category of historical analysis" rarely ended in personal victories for those who participated in that struggle.
I have read the perceptive observations of Linda Kerber from a position as a tenured professor at a publicly financed university (private universities are rare) in the Netherlands. I was around when tenured jobs for women who were historians were very rare, and such positions for historians of women even more so. I had temporary contracts for six years before I got tenure. I recognized many of the events and developments Kerber describes. Although in the Netherlands women are entering academia at a much slower pace than in the United States, or within Europe for that matter, I too see that the most blatant protection against female competition in the field of research and teaching is now finally shrinking. "We" now have tenured jobs and some of us hope to make a difference. I can identify with Kerber's concerns too; about the extremely low percentage of men and women of color who enter the university and who make it to the top, about the unhealthy workloads.
The heartbreaking question of whether it is possible to combine a paid job with the joys and duties of non-commercial love, sex, and care is obviously not limited to academics in universities.1 Men and women all over the world have—often long ago and often to their disadvantage—discovered that the answer is a clear and resounding no. Labor migration in all its forms is accompanied by disruption of family life, and middle-class marriages in the West often do not survive the career and endless commutes of one of the partners (often the husband), among many other obstacles.2
Is it naïve or hopelessly idealist to expect that women who have entered universities can change this, for themselves, for others, in general? Professions and fields where women have entered earlier and in greater [End Page 172] numbers (nursing, teaching, textile industries) do not support that idea. But Kerber's argument goes beyond the mere presence of women; she speaks about the responsibilities of those who succeeded and who are now in positions where they can indeed regularize tenure procedures, enhance women's access to fellowship, and make the academy a "more decent, more open, more ethical institution."
That the discussion is now taken up by the editors of the Journal of Women's History suggests that women's historians may have a special stake in this discussion. I would agree: most of "us," women's historians and scholars in gender studies, are women and our research has produced more serious knowledge and expertise about the way work, universities and family are gendered than any other field. What have "we" to offer towards the solution of the heartbreaking dilemma? I want to make two points that are especially relevant in the context of Europe and in the Netherlands. The first has to do with the way work–family arrangements are being discussed here, the second with the specific European context of changes in higher education.
I think one cannot consider discussions about working conditions at the university separately from political debates in general about welfare arrangements that support or hinder work–family combinations. Women's historians have shown convincingly that work–family arrangements are determined by socio-economic relations that go beyond the idealism and fairness of people in positions of power. Histories of the European welfare states make...