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  • “I Am Not Sure We Should Have a Woman in the Position”1Hiring Practices in the Mid-Twentieth-Century American Academy
  • Judy Tsou (bio)

In the early 1990s, in the search for a university music librarian, I received a recommendation letter describing a candidate as “a graceful and pretty lady.” This unsettling remark left me uncomfortable and perplexed. What did her deportment and appearance have to do with the position? To look for an answer, I examined several archival collections at the Music Library at the University of California, Berkeley, where I found that such descriptions were commonplace in the mid-twentieth century. Before the 1970s there were common threads of gender-based bias in the hiring of music faculty.

A survey of the literature on letters of recommendation for academic hiring reveals differences between women and men. A study by Toni Schmader found that letters written for men had more “standout words,” such as excellence, outstanding, and unique, and “ability words,” like talent and intelligence, than the ones written for women.2 Women were typically described with “grindstone words” such as “hardworking” and “thorough.” Similarly, Juan Madera found that women “were described as more communal and less agentic than men” and that “communal characteristics have a negative relationship with hiring decisions in academia.”3 Frances Trix and Carolyn Psenka found [End Page 27] that 15 percent of letters for women lacked commitment to the applicant, detailed comments, or any evaluation of their traits, as opposed to 6 percent of letters for men.4 Most of these studies were published in the first decade of this century, when both language and presentation were different from the mid-twentieth century; the letters in the published research were written after the passage of equal opportunity legislations and their documented effects. The letters I found from the mid-twentieth century, however, display no inhibition in praising masculinity or outright rejecting women because of their gender. Despite the difference in time period, the published research of the last decades is instructive; the language, though more subtle now, retains similar biases.

The published research covered many subject areas, including the sciences (Schmader), the social sciences (Gloria Cowan), and the humanities (Henrik Eger); most are quantitative studies, using isolated single words as indicators of bias, sacrificing the subtlety of contextual analysis.5 There has been no published research on recommendation letters in the feminine-identified field of music; moreover, it is difficult to acquire sufficient letters from over half a century ago for a quantitative study. The small cache of about thirty letters at the University of California’s Jean Hargrove Music Library archives provides a rich source. Even though the letters come from few institutions, the writers are varied, hailing from different parts of the country and Europe and from music departments or schools of varying sizes. The authors were mostly men, since few women were in positions of power.

A brief survey of our profession in the United States in the early to mid-twentieth century reveals that less than 1 percent of faculty positions were held by women, while women wrote 11.97 percent of the music dissertations.6 Women have been active in the American Musicological Society since its founding in 1935. Women’s active participation rate fluctuates from 11 percent to 20 percent, and women’s membership ranged from about 14 percent to 22 percent. Despite the early involvement of women in the field, the number of women in the academy was far smaller than the available qualified female candidates.

Fear of Feminization

Part of this bleak landscape could be attributed to a fear of feminization in a field that has always had a feminine identity. The early musicologists in the [End Page 28] United States insisted upon the masculinization of the discipline to gain intellectual legitimacy. Suzanne Cusick’s landmark article “Gender, Musicology, and Feminism” discusses an incident where Charles Seeger literally excluded women from a meeting.7 Ruth Crawford, Seeger’s student and fiancée, recounted in an angry diary entry (February 22, 1930) that the women in the apartment had the door closed on them, rescinding an earlier invitation to listen in on the discussion that was...


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