Education

Veteran Feminists Recall Past Battles, Gaze Ahead

Friday, July 6, 2001

A virtual who's who of feminist academics gathered at the Barnard College campus to relive the old days a bit and recharge their batteries for current equity battles within the ivory tower and beyond.

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Sheila Tobias

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--The doyennes of the women's movement in academia and progeny came together here on a warm summer weekend to remember the battles of the past and fortify themselves for the work still to be done.

The heady days when "Our Bodies, Ourselves" was first published were recalled, as were the bad old days when discrimination was not thought to apply to women. At the same time, these academics issued challenges for their colleagues to reconsider their roles within educational institutions and not to sacrifice activism and passion to academe and scholarly treatises.

The recent convention of what its members wryly call the Veteran Feminists of America, held at Barnard College campus in June, honored educators active during one of the most intense periods of feminist scholarship: 1967 to 1977.

The 130 veterans who attended represented a virtual who's who in scholarly feminism. The celebration included a panel on "Feminist Education: Old Frontiers and New," organized by Sheila Tobias, author of "Overcoming Math Anxiety" and "Faces of Feminism." It featured Bernice Sandler, senior scholar at the Women's Research and Education Institute in Washington, who was instrumental in the development and passage of federal law requiring gender equity in education; Nancy Hoffman of Brown University, who made connections among expanded careers for women, the low social value accorded teaching and a teacher shortage that threatens the future of the country; and sociologist Lenore Weitzman, who has examined the disparate consequences of gender on subjects ranging from divorce to the Holocaust.

Florence Howe, founder of the Feminist Press and the Women's Studies Newsletter, which later became the Women's Studies Quarterly, also was honored. Janet Jakobsen, a younger feminist who is director of the Center for Women's Studies at Barnard College, cited her experience as a token lesbian feminist professor of women's studies to point out some of the pitfalls of progress.

Veteran Feminists of America is a nonprofit organization for pioneers and veterans of the Second Wave of the feminist movement, including women and men, especially from 1963 to 1973, although it includes others who share a commitment to feminist activism. It seeks to renew the spirit of commitment to a cause, to honor the pioneers' accomplishments and pass the torch to a younger feminist generation. Current projects include a directory, "The Women's Movement: Pioneers of the Second Wave 1963-1973. "

In 1969 Terms Like 'Sexual Harassment,' 'Sex Discrimination' Didn't Exist

The afternoon panelists and the evening awards ceremony recalled the beginnings of the women's movement with an immediacy that evoked the excitement and frustrations of those early days.

Bernice Sandler"In 1969 words like sexual harassment and sex discrimination hadn't been invented yet," Sandler recalled. "There were no newsletters about women, no conferences about women and there were no laws prohibiting discrimination against women and girls. There was no equal pay act and no such thing as discrimination based on gender on the books. Today, we have the best set of laws in the world on sexual discrimination, although they are not always enforced."

Sandler also detailed the widespread discrimination against women in the ivory towers. For example, before 1967, the Cornell School of Veterinary Medicine accepted only two women each year, no matter how many female candidates applied. Now, up to 75 percent of all veterinary students are women, and Cornell's numbers now are high.

And Sandler recalled the time when pregnant teachers were forced to resign, when women faculty could not join the faculty club but only the faculty wives' club and when male professors and department heads would routinely announce, "We will never allow women to get tenure in our department."

Things began to change--women faculty and students banded together and began to organize, first in their own disciplines, then outside their departments and then outside the university, Sandler said.

Today, 600 Women's Studies Programs, Thousands of Courses

The activism did not stop at equal opportunity and equal pay, however. Feminist academics created their own courses and researched topics that had long been ignored. Sandler recalled that in 1969, only a handful of colleges offered women's studies. Now there are thousands of courses within 600 programs on campuses nationwide.

Jakobsen, director of Barnard's women's studies center, recalled the activist nature of much of the research in the early days, such as "Our Bodies, Ourselves," a book that almost single-handedly changed many women's expectations of their medical professionals and women's own attitudes about their bodies.

Times changed, and the demands for women's and homosexual rights became commonplace and often intertwined on the nation's campuses. Jakobsen found herself teaching at the University of Arizona. Much to her surprise, even though it was a state-supported institution in a region known for its political conservatism, she did not experience discrimination because she was openly a lesbian.

Rather, she said, she felt as if she had been "embraced by the university" as their "poster girl for domestic partnerships" and "tokenized with my public status as a lesbian."

She found herself being called by everyone for information on anything related to gender issues, she said. At that time, the university had found a real person who could also be used as a symbol of the institution's progressiveness, Jakobsen said, adding that her identity was being used to further the legitimacy of an institution, and she questioned how such appropriation could be avoided. "Was my being out really a political challenge to the State of Arizona?" she asked, or by being openly lesbian did she provide the university a symbol of acceptance that did not reflect the reality?

In a sign of how much the situation has changed since Jakobsen's years there, the University of Arizona has launched the Millennium Project to study the work life of all faculty at the university's 15 schools, including gender inequities in salaries, research funds and laboratory space. The project follows on the heels of an unprecedented acknowledgement of sexism in academia. Nine of the nation's most prestigious science and engineering colleges pledged to rectify bias against women by working toward diversity, fairer pay and more family-friendly work conditions.

Even Progressive School Reformers Focus on Race, Poverty--Not Gender Equity

Another prominent scholar, Nancy Hoffman, professor of education at Brown University, added that when education for elementary and secondary schools is discussed, even the most progressive school reformers focus on the impact of race and poverty--and rarely raise issues related to gender equity. If the well-being of girls in urban schools is discussed, she said, too often the talk is about "protecting their bodies, not their intellects."

Hoffman said too many women teachers fail to see a connection between their low status and pay and how their girl students perceive them.

"Women teachers don't think about what their working conditions mean to young girls in the classroom," she said. That might change now that the shortage of teachers is gaining more attention, Hoffman added, even as she pleaded with her colleagues to encourage their students who wish to go into teaching.

"Feminists need to think of teachers as colleagues in a more profound way," she said.

Sharon Cucinotta is a free-lance writer living in Brooklyn, N.Y.

For more information, visit Veteran Feminists of America:
http://come.to/vfa/

 
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