A Berks Retrospective: Feminist Mentorship and Inequality in the Ivory Tower

By Beth A. Robertson

In anticipation of the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians, Adele Perry wrote of the ongoing power of women’s history to “challenge and unsettle”. Reflecting on the success of the Berks this past weekend, one cannot fault Perry for being optimistic. I had the opportunity to present at this conference, held in Canada (Toronto) for the first time. While there, I was struck by the diversity, depth and overall amiability of those I feel privileged to call my colleagues. A staggering array of panels were featured, with topics ranging from disability studies, sexuality, religion, medieval bodies, archival politics, materiality, global feminism and digital humanities.  Taken together, they demonstrate the continued cultural engagement and political salience of women’s history.

One lunch time session dedicated to ‘”Feminist Mentors” drew an especially large crowd. The speakers included several prominent historians, including Linda Kealey, Jill Ker Conway, Natalie Zemon Davis, Elizabeth Cohen, Veronica Strong-Boag, Andrée Lévesque and Susan Hill. Many told stories of their own experiences of mentorship and offered valuable words of wisdom. Although deeply appreciating all of their insights, it was Strong-Boag’s remarks that particularly resonated with me. While affirming the importance of feminist mentorship, Strong-Boag also cautioned her audience to not romanticize such relationships between women in academia. Moreover, she argued that feminist mentorship is by no means the solution to sexism, racism, homophobia and classism in the ivory tower and beyond.

Listening to her speak, I recalled the challenges women scholars face in not only history departments, but higher education more broadly. A number of articles over the last few years have warned that women are much more likely than men to be funneled into less prestigious, often contingent, part-time positions. (For a couple of examples of these articles, see here and here.) This issue has become so pervasive that the magazine The Nation referred to the growing ranks of contract instructors in North American universities as “The Pink-Collar Workforce of Academia.”

Some of the more comprehensive examinations of this problem have materialized in book-length form. These include Maureen Baker’s Academia and the Gender Gap (UBC, 2012), as well as Mary Ann Mason’s, Nicholas H. Wolfinger’s and Marc Goulden’s Do Babies Matter: Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower (Rutgers, 2013). These studies synthesize years of research with some startling findings. As Kelly J. Baker highlighted from Do Babies Matter,  “Looking at all academic disciplines, women are 21 percent less likely to get tenure than are their male colleagues.” This is especially the case if you are a mother of young children. According to the authors, “…universities perpetuate a culture that assumes that mother’s will take on the lion’s share of caregiving and that men are the breadwinners.” The result? “Mothers are more likely to sink to the second tier of academia or leave higher education altogether.”

The positive impact of more inclusive hiring practices over the last several decades is beyond doubt. Yet scholars who identify as women are still faced with many obstacles. Feminist mentors may indeed be valuable in relieving some of these impediments. Personally, I am indebted to several strong feminists who have offered guidance and encouragement at key moments in my life.

Yet much like Strong-Boag argued, such relationships do not eradicate the roadblocks that many women encounter when seeking an academic career. In fact, my concern is an over-emphasis on feminist mentorship may too often mask the systemic nature of these gendered barriers. Providing a highly individualistic solution that places the blame squarely on women for their own woes, an idealization of mentorship can potentially lead to the conviction that senior scholars simply need to reach out more, or that junior academics must be more proactive in pursuing potential “mentors”.

In contrast to being an isolated, individual problem, the “gender gap” in academia results in an array of consequences that not only affects women’s income, but the educational experience they provide for students, as well as their ability to voice controversial or dissenting opinions. Simply put, the growing number of contract instructors (who are disproportionally women) means that there are less and less people in academia who feel able to call power to account. Such a situation is bad news for all feminist scholars.

If there is a positive slant to this story, however, it is that the struggle for gendered and sexual equality in academia has been long in the making and is by no means over. The Berks, after all, were initially founded in 1930 as a means to help women historians network and alleviate their professional marginalization. If this past weekend is any indication, the Berks have not lost its power to inspire scholars from all walks of life to make meaningful connections and, together, struggle for greater equality in academia and beyond.

Beth A. Robertson is a Ph.D. graduate in history from Carleton University whose work focuses on gender, sexuality and the body. Her SSHRC funded dissertation, entitled In the Laboratory of the Spirits: Gender, Embodiment and the Scientific Quest for Life Beyond the Grave, 1918-1935, examines a transnational network of interwar psychical researchers from the perspective of feminist science studies and queer theory. 

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