The Feminine Critique

When she takes the floor in the elegant atrium of Beinecke Library, Yale
Provost Alison Richard reminds us of a recent past that nonetheless feels
as ancient as the library’s volumes. "When I came to Yale in 1972,"
she begins, "there were six tenured women faculty. Now every year there
are more and more women. But I am not going to spout statistics at you."

She does not need to. Tonight’s audience speaks for itself. Almost a hundred
women have come together under the auspices of the Women’s Faculty Forum
(WFF) to welcome new women faculty and administrators and to recognize women
who have recently received tenure. These newcomers are now part of a community
of 148 female faculty members, nearly twice the number of ten years ago.

The Forum came into existence during preparations for the Tercentennial
last year. Professors, thinking it would be a temporary group, planned a
series of events to chronicle the effects of coeducation at Yale and the
growth of scholarship related to women since the 1970s. But despite the
prevailing optimism of the series, the women involved also became more acutely
aware of how many problems remained. In the wake of their success, the group
secured a charter extending its existence for three more years, resolving
to make sure that the University kept increasing diversity and that scholars
kept addressing women’s issues.

The group got to work identifying what needed to change in order for more
women to get tenure. After looking into the question, they decided that
their top priorities were childcare and parental leave policy. Elizabeth
Dillon, Assistant Professor of English and American Studies, spearheads
the WFF investigation into parenting faculty needs. "The biggest issue
is that people can’t find childcare and they cannot afford it," says
Dillon. "To get a place in a Yale-affiliated child care center, Assistant
Professor of English Amy Hungerford had to start paying a thousand dollars
a month to secure a place. This was before her kid was even born!"
Coming to Yale with two young daughters, Dillon found herself spending two
thirds of her salary on childcare alone. "The problem is that by and
large these people are junior faculty members. At the time that you are
trying to really struggle to get tenure is also the time that you are struggling
to care for your children." Not just policy, but attitudes need to
change. In the eyes of some colleagues, Dillon explains, "there is
a way in which you become body and not mind when you are pregnant."
Strategies that women have developed to cope with these obstacles can have
unforeseen consequences. "[Some junior professors] are putting it off
until they get tenured, and then often times they are no longer able to
have kids," she laments. "The shape of the academic career is
based on an old model, that of a male head of household and a wife,"
Dillon says. "The entire society needs to think through a new model
of family life and work life."

By and large, however, Dillon is less worried for women in the humanities
than for those in the still overwhelmingly male disciplines like math and
science. Megan Urry, Professor of Physics & Astrophysics and the Director
of the Yale Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics, agrees that women in
the sciences face more problems balancing career and family. "Younger
women are coming to me worried that they have to choose between being a
mother and having a career," she says. She identifies with some of
their fears. "When I got pregnant, I was afraid to tell people. I thought
they would write me off."

The WFF aims to eliminate these obstacles for future generations of female
faculty. In the coming year, they will continue sponsoring events and programs
and searching for solutions for parent professors. Only after we build such
new models of motherhood, Dillon argues, can the young women of the current
student population reach the heights they have been raised to believe they
deserve: "We need to think up the changes that will make possible the
kinds of lives that Yale students expect to lead, both as care-takers and
as people with careers."

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