When I was 12 or 13 years old, I discovered that I was a girl. Well, sort of. I discovered what it meant to be a girl. Prior to that age, I was lost in the delusions of equality. You see I am the oldest of four siblings, the first three of whom are girls. A child of divorce and raised by my mother, it was clear that a woman was in charge. I was often regaled with tales of my grandparent’s participation in the fights for votes for women, civil rights, all with a pacifist twist. I was proud of my heritage. Foolishly, I thought that the path to equality had been completed.
Then it happened. I was on the gymnastics team and it was a tight budget year. The school put forth a budget that eliminated girls’ sports. This was infuriating on many levels, not the least of which was that in that particular year, we were the only team winning anything. As the battle for funding went on, I discovered something even more infuriating. For years I had been selling candy bars and calendars to fundraise for the team. This never struck me as odd, I thought all the teams did it. But what I discovered was that my team was raising money to purchase the old floor mats from the wrestling team. The school had purchased a new set for the boys’ team, but we had to buy the old ones from them. I was pissed.
This aha moment was my first clue that the fight for my rights wasn’t over. I had several more discoveries about the work still necessary for gender and racial equity, as I started to notice the sorting in my high school, and later when I accidentally rented a house in a segregated neighborhood (I moved as soon as I figured it out). The blissful bubble in which just a few hold outs were still biased against me was burst.
When I became a parent, I saw the inequities even more clearly, for my kids and their peers. There was so much privilege in my experience. The fact that there ever was a bubble gave me a kind of power and confidence that other girls didn’t have. The fact that I was white protected me from the immediacy of knowing my status in the hierarchies of the world, a protection not afforded to my African-American and LatinX peers. As my children discovered the histories of race and sex in America, I noted that they too had a bubble of protection from me, a bubble many of their peers did not have.
So, here we are in Women’s History Month, and every year I wonder if we still need a separate month. Honestly, I kind of resent it. After all, we have always been here, and we have always been essential to the success of the species. Shouldn’t we be ever-present, instead of relegated to attention in March? Well, here are a few important things to take notice of:
- Although more women than men earn degrees in all levels (BA, MA, PhD) (57-60%), a recent report in the Chronicle found that very few women (24%) are among the top earners at research universities. When you add the factor of race, women don’t even register (less than 1%). This clearly isn’t a supply problem.
- Women’s representation among college presidents is improving (30%), but given our majority position among degrees conferred, this is still a low number. When you factor in race, it is 5%.
- Among the professoriate, women outnumber men at the assistant professor level – 34% male, 39% female- but at the professor level it’s 53% male, 27% female. If you sort by race, yep, the numbers are much lower (2-3% ranges).
Given that these statistics are in higher education, where we seem to believe we are a meritocracy, it seems like we might need to do a little reflecting on our practices regarding both race and gender. The statistics in higher education are just the tip of the iceberg. There is work to be done.
So, like every other year, when I think about having a special month to notice the contributions of women, I feel a sense of pride in the women who managed to thrive in the face of the obstacles they experience, but I continue to be disappointed that we need to do such a thing. I feel the same about all of the histories we find the need to pull out and celebrate with a special month. Those months reveal the biases we’ve had all along.
Nevertheless, I am thankful this year. I am thankful to see a woman elected to the second most important position in our government. When Vice President Kamala Harris was sworn in, I wept. I wept for all of the young girls of color who see themselves in her face. I wept for me, too, a white woman in my fifties, because I see myself in her face, too.
I am hoping that the electing of Vice President Harris will accelerate our paths towards greater equality in country. I am hoping that this next step forward will help us scrutinize all that we teach, encouraging us to weave in the contributions of all people in every discipline. I am hoping that we are ready to do the hard work of reimagining the paths to leadership, correcting for the obvious biases that are pervading our choices so far.
I am hoping that pretty soon we won’t need a special month anymore. But we’re not there yet.