First Response to Philipsen: Building Intergenerational Networks of Support for Women in Academe

Article excerpt

I graduated from college in 1968--age twenty-one--and eight months pregnant. I think I was the only pregnant graduate at the University of Connecticut (U-Conn) that year although I suppose it would have been hard to tell given those billowing gowns we wore. At least I was the only obviously pregnant graduate and it was, in fact, very obvious. I walked across the platform to accept my diploma from the hands of the same dean who, three years earlier, had told me that I was unsuited to college and should go home, get married, and have children.

No woman in my family had ever been to college. And no woman in two generations--childbearing or not--had ever confined her work to home and family. They worked in factories, hospitals, and restaurants, as telegraph clerks, secretaries, seamstresses, and shop assistants. Great hopes had been pinned on my success at college. Nevertheless, "A girl like you," the dean had said, "doesn't need a college education. You should be a wife and mother." My Aunt Lil, a Rosie the Riveter during World War II, intervened and (shockingly) drove up to campus in best hat and gloves to have a word with the dean. I stayed.

My story, of course, has its own particularities. It was a long time ago. As strange as it often seems to me, I am now, myself, a dean. And that old dean at U-Conn must be long dead. But have the misogynist assumptions from which he operated truly disappeared? I think not. Clearly, some things have improved for women in higher education as well as for students from ethnic and racial minorities and the working class. Statements like "A gift like you doesn't need an education. You should get married and have children," probably don't roll off the tongues of many deans anymore. But sexism, racism, and classism, as well as religious hatred, homophobia, xenophobia, and ageism are alive and well and continue to contour the national landscape--and, necessarily, our educational institutions. In what follows I've reached back to offer some personal blast from the past stories that connect to Maike Philipsen's concern to understand the experiences of women in academe as they attempt to balance the demands of their personal and professional lives.

There was no daycare center at the State University of New York at Buffalo when I started graduate school so I joined a group of parents who took over a basement in a building on campus and started one. We also demonstrated. And we made the newspapers. A feminist socialist alumna from the 1930s saw the coverage and endowed a daycare center. It was a cooperative--very progressive, intentionally anti-sexist and anti-racist. The student radio station decided to do a story on the center. A student reporter interviewed some of the children. One of the questions was, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" My daughter, Bess, almost three, answered, "I want to be a doctor and have breasts."

At that time, I was directing an urban teaching center, doing my graduate work, and teaching at night in a largely African American community college in an abandoned Catholic school in the inner city. When we were home, if I sat down at my improvised desk to write, Bess would crawl onto my lap. I realized that if I was standing or walking or active in some way, that is, if I had no lap on which to sit, Bess would happily occupy herself in play. The solution? I set up the ironing board and did my writing standing up.

When I became an assistant professor at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) in 1979, I joined a faculty of four women and thirty-six men in the Department of Education. Only one of my four female colleagues had children. (By that time, I had had my graduate school baby, Emily). I was advised by one of my graduate school mentors--also a feminist with children--not to mention my children. I should say, for example, "I have a previous appointment" instead of "I have to take Emily to the doctor." Emily contracted chicken pox my second week of classes--which made things difficult since children with chicken pox can't go to daycare. …