The Chronicle Review

Gender, Generations, and Faculty Conflict

Will academe's mothers and daughters repeat the errors of its fathers and sons?

Bettmann, Corbis

Harvard U. on April 10, 1969. Earlier that day, police had cleared University Hall of students protesting military training on the campus.
November 19, 2012
Gender, Generations, and Faculty

Bettmann, Corbis

Harvard U. on April 10, 1969. Earlier that day, police had cleared University Hall of students protesting military training on the campus.

"What was it about the 60s, Mom?" my daughter asked. The question made me think, for my daughter's puzzlement didn't seem like my own childhood curiosity about the 20s, when my mother learned to smoke and wore bangs, or the 30s, when the banks failed and my father had to go to graduate school on one meal a day.

The time before we were born is always mysterious, known only through the stereotypes provided by others, because we were not there to observe it ourselves. But I knew, as a child, how one characterized the decades before the Second World War. Although they were remote, they had their labels and symbols—"roaring" or "crash," flappers or bread lines and suicide leaps. For my daughter, there seemed to be something about the 60s, as my friends and I occasionally talked about them, that had no easy label, that was truly ungraspable, that had utterly vanished. And I found, upon reflection, that I could not answer her question.

Why would a woman of my generation (I was born in 1941) find the reply so difficult? The answer holds the key to a major change in academic culture to which we are still heirs and heiresses.

Many of those 10 years older than I are more certain. They "know" what it was about the 60s—an era of self-indulgent middle-class kids attacking exactly those comfortable values and incomes that gave them the opportunity for attack. Many of those 10 years younger "know" also—the idealism and courage to challenge an immoral foreign war and, at home, a desire to save the disadvantaged, although it was all a little hazy owing to drugs and fear of the draft. Yet I cannot say.

Because women were on the sidelines of this predominantly male drama, a conflict of fathers and sons, our 60s and 70s were different from theirs.

I remember singing "We Shall Overcome" on the Boston Common, crying with tear gas in my eyes in Harvard Square, arguing late into the night about boycotts and bombings. I remember bumping into a fellow graduate student in front of the Cambridge Trust Company and, when I remarked how gray and exhausted he looked, learning he was suffering from "creeping property-owner's mentality." The son of a wealthy manufacturer, he had just taken out a mortgage on the house his commune lived in. (It is hard to say which is more astonishing from the perspective of 2012: a rich Harvard student in his late 20s buying a house for a group of unrelated young people, or his paroxysms of guilt about having enough money for a down payment.)

I remember the anger and the idealism, the sense of infinite possibility and the self-righteousness, that seemed to bind us into a community of the young. And yet ... I am not certain what my emotions were, for I also remember feeling very, very alone.

Was it because I was a little older than those throwing rocks through the windows of the Harvard Trust or registering voters in Mississippi? Was it because I was a graduate student, already partly co-opted into an older generation? I think it was because I was a woman.

For all the heady possibility of the 60s, academic leaders were male; the anger that spurred the idealism and the rebellion was male anger; the danger of being killed or killing in Vietnam was a male danger. And because women were on the sidelines of this predominantly male drama, a conflict of fathers and sons, our 60s and 70s were different from theirs.

My 60s came, in fact, in 1970, when Janet Martin and I, two assistant professors at Harvard, in classics and history, founded the Women's Faculty Group (such a modest-sounding name!) and distributed the "Preliminary Report on the Status of Women at Harvard," detailing a clear pattern of discrimination. During Cambodia Spring, while police confronted a crowd of some 3,000 demonstrators in Harvard Square with nightsticks and tear gas, we were on the top floor of Boylston Hall cranking an ancient mimeograph machine to make copies of the charts and graphs we had put together ourselves (when we probably should have been writing the articles that might have earned us promotions).

Yet there is a connection between the 60s and women, especially academic women. It is the relationship of absence to presence.

In the 60s, women were not there. By the late 70s, we had broken into academe. What Martin and I did in 1970 initially seemed to fail. The Harvard faculty passed none of the legislation suggested by the investigative committee founded in response to the Women's Faculty Group. Martin and I both left the university.

But by 1980, things were different, both nationally and at Harvard. They were, to be sure, still not easy. But discrimination was no longer permitted; there was first a word for, and then procedures against, "sexual harassment"; the phrase "we are especially interested in women and members of minorities" not only appeared in advertisements, it meant what it said. It was the absence in the 60s that prepared for those later successes.

The marginalization of women in the civil-rights and antiwar movements has been often remarked upon; the link between that marginalization and the emergence of what we then called "women's liberation" has been pointed out. My point is not to make such general connections.

I want to point out exactly what broke in academe in the years between 1968 and 1972—and how that rupture allowed the margins, the unperceived, the absent to move to the center. I want to suggest that what broke in the late 60s was what I call male "filiation," the long chains of academic fathers and sons that had forged academic careers during the whole of the earlier 20th century.

What powerful older academics felt in the years around 1970 was betrayal by a younger generation (it goes without saying, a male generation). Yes, the crisis of the job market in the early 1970s was a real factor in changing the academic marketplace. (According to the American Historical Association, in 1972 almost 1,200 new Ph.D.'s competed for some 600 new teaching jobs in history.) Crucial, too, was the empowerment of academic women by the women's movement (as we called it), which pushed even those who had their heads in musty books to notice their own marginalization. But it was the anger of fathers at their rejection by "academic sons" that produced a gap into which women could move.

Women in the university had never been considered "academic daughters." So they presented no threat of rejection to the fathers. Their repudiation of older values was as unperceived by the generation in power as they were themselves. And, never having been academic daughters, they expected little, were more or less unruffled by the fathers' anger, as they had been earlier more or less oblivious to the sexism that made only men heirs.

It is perhaps hard now to conjure up an image of how virulent the anger of the late 60s and early 70s was. I remember the master of the Harvard house with which I was affiliated saying to a male science tutor: "I may not be able to do anything about your politics, but I can at least make you wear a tie." I remember sitting in on an oral exam as a new assistant professor, with three powerful male examiners two decades my senior, and feeling extremely puzzled that the genial and rather fuzzy-minded young man we were examining was being browbeaten with such demanding yet trivial questions. I learned why when he left the room. "He's one of those left-wingers," said one of the senior professors, "I felt I had to show him a thing or two." No one took the female students seriously enough to worry about their politics. And, despite a few jokes about bra-burning, no one cared what we wore.

I am not suggesting that women posed no threat. No one who lived through the early 70s at Harvard could fail to remember the taboos that barred women from the main dining room of the Harvard Faculty Club, from the undergraduate library, from the senior common rooms and learned societies, or the backlash as each of those barriers was breached. But the deepest conflict was generational—and the truly telling anger was part of a father-son struggle.

In a decade of ideological warfare between undergraduates and senior faculty, male graduate students were caught in the middle. Many shared the cultural and political concerns of their juniors. But often, because their careers were dependent on senior faculty in a way undergraduate careers were not, male graduate students bore the brunt of their elders' disappointment. Moreover, they expected to join an "old boys' club"; they expected the father-son bonds to work. Many of them kept trying to rely on those bonds, to ingratiate themselves with an increasingly dyspeptic and disillusioned older generation.

Women, who had never been in the club, didn't notice much when it disappeared. Sometimes quietly, sometimes aggressively, they began to fill some of the few places that were available.

In 1979 a distinguished humanist of the older generation, whose two daughters had followed him into academe, commented to me: "Of course I would have preferred it if it had been my sons who succeeded me, but it was the girls. And mostly what I see today are girls. They're certainly better than nothing." Although he might have resisted the changes around him, he did not. (Nor had he done much to facilitate them.) He probably would have said that was because scholarship came first. But a decade earlier, he would have been grooming young men, placing them in jobs; now he was content to observe passively what was happening.

The breach between fathers and sons is not the whole story of how the social composition of academe changed in the years around 1970. But it is a part that has been little remarked upon, so I emphasize it here. Larger forces than my determination and that of my female peers opened the space into which we moved. Not only female courage but also male feelings of betrayal (and the perception of betrayal) by other males paved the way.

It seems important, even at this distance, to understand this period. Novels like Kurt Andersen's recent True Believers continue to pick away at the 60s, taking them as a locus for asking (as the publisher puts it) "what it means to be American." But understanding the years between the late 60s and early to mid-70s matters in a particular and acute way for today's academic women.

Present-day feminists would do well to listen. With our squabbles about how and whether to "have it all" and our talk of 70s versus 90s feminism—behind which we barricade ourselves, defending our choices and definitions—we are in danger of betraying our own next generation.

In the 1990s, feminists got so bogged down in accusing one another of "essentialism" (that is, reductive definitions of "woman") that they made it easy for the rest of academe to dismiss important issues in women's and gender history as "female squabbling."

In the first decade of this century, female professors often spent more time complaining that their students were no longer feminists than they did in understanding struggles to reconcile family obligations with career aspirations in a newly problematic economy and academic marketplace. Aware of how viciously discriminatory things were in the middle of the last century, older academic women sometimes today fail to recognize that progress does generate backlash; when younger women complain about harassment and insult, they are not just whining.

Although I fear that there will never in the lifetime of the current generation of academics be equality between men and women in the burden of mentoring and monitoring, women in academe simply must go the extra mile in being vigilant that female job candidates get fair treatment, that the numbers of female professors do not slip downward in certain fields seen to be "in danger of feminization," and that topics in gender history are not ghettoized in women's-studies departments or dismissed as "already settled."

If my analysis of the now-forgotten dynamic of male generational antagonism is right, it should not only help us to understand why women have made progress in academe; it should also warn us of the dangers of generational antagonism if we exacerbate tensions with our own daughters. If we waste our energies in refined analysis of how daughters betray mothers or mothers daughters, we leave a gap of anger and distrust into which others may move with alacrity.

Caroline Walker Bynum is a university professor emerita at Columbia University and professor emerita of Western medieval history at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, N.J.