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Balancing Work and Family in the Historical Profession Lizabeth Cohen Historians of women have expended great energy analyzing the way women historically have reconciled their roles as mothers and wives on the one hand and as workers on the other. That issue, in fact, was at the center of the conflict between expert witnesses Rosalind Rosenberg and Alice Kessler-Harris in the notorious Sears case over how female employees viewed sales positions in "big ticket item" departments which paid well, by commission, but often required working evening and weekend hours. Despite scholarly attention to the way women have prioritized work and family, historians ironically have evidenced relatively little interest in how the thousands of women who have entered the academy over the last fifteen years have handled the conflicting pressures and demands of the family and the professoriate. I urge that we put some of our analytical skills to work examining the structures and cultural assumptions underlying our position as female academics, and with that understanding, advocate change where needed. It is cathartic and even useful to share our private strategies of survival, but my historian's instinct tells me that there is a larger structural story here warranting our attention. My purpose is to raise some issues for discussion. Much of what follows relates specifically to women but has relevance to men depending on how involved they are in family responsibilities. I fully recognize that many men are also doing a precarious balancing act between work and family. Moreover, although most of my remarks will assume that family responsibilities primarily involve children, I realize that they can entail care for elderly parents or other relatives as well. I have divided my discussion of balancing work and family in three parts: first, a critique of the structure and values of the colleges and universities in which we work; second, some observations about how women academics have adapted to these institutional realities; and third, some suggestions to encourage discussion about how we might make our institutions more "family friendly" and ourselves happier and more productive parents, teachers, and scholars. It need hardly be said that colleges and universities have been shaped by men for a labor force that is still assumed to be male or—if it includes them—females expected to function like men. There are many manifestations of this situation, some of which are shared by women in other lines of work. Academia does not make it easy for women to be productive as well as reproductive human beings. Not only do women routinely encoun- © 1993 Journal of Women's History, Vol. 4 No. 3 (Winter) 148 Journal of Women's History Winter ter inadequate provisions for family leaves to care for newly born or adopted children, but the parental leave policies which exist are often ambiguous. Many universities assign the task of working out specific terms of a leave to the applicant's department head or dean, putting the needy person in the position of asking for favors or depending on the whim of a supervisor. While the parenting leave policies of U.S. businesses may not be generous when compared to counterparts in other countries, at least they are clearly spelled out. In contrast, the culture of negotiation which prevails in U.S. universities turns legitimate need into potential vulnerability . How to secure time off for a few months with some way of surviving financially is not the only problem facing new parents in academia. They also must contend with the impact of child bearing—to say nothing of child rearing—on their ability to achieve tenure. While all professional women are burdened with a "double load" to some extent, the tenure system brings unique pressures for anywhere from six to nine years. In recognition of this situation, some institutions have begun to allow new parents to "stop the clock" for one to two years. Some controversy exists, however, over what the true "feminist" position on stopping the clock should be, a controversy reminiscent of the debates earlier in this century over protective legislation for women workers. Do women want equal or special treatment? The American Association of University Professors (AAUP), for example, has opposed renegotiating tenure...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2036
Print ISSN
1042-7961
Pages
pp. 147-151
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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