E arly last fall, I was chatting with two students in my office when a staff administrator I work closely with, and consider a friend, popped her head in — ostensibly to say hello and catch up about a workshop we’d given together the previous week.
"Hey," she said. I noted that she, too, had a couple of students in tow. That was not unusual for either of us. Most female faculty and staff members spend a chunk of our "free" time helping students. Whatever the reason, what matters here is that what happened next had five witnesses.
She leaned further in, lowered her voice, and smiled conspiratorially: "You got something you wanna tell me, sister?"
I racked my already beleaguered brain, coming up short. "I don’t think so?" I said, raising my voice at the end in a question mark.
She leaned further in. "You got a bun in the oven? Because the rumor mill is on fire about it."
I imagine — no, I know — that I turned red with horror and shame. I was not pregnant, nor intending to become so.
In fact, I am already a mother. For several years, I was a single parent of my son, and, for the past three years, I have also essentially been the stepmother to my partner’s daughter, Stella. Motherhood figures strongly into the narrative of my own life over the course of the last five years, and also my working life. As a feminist, and a professor of women’s studies, I stand by the old motto that "the personal is political." Moreover, I am fortunate enough to work at a place, Stockton University, that is relatively family friendly — at least for academe.
When my colleague and friend said those words to me on that day in September 2015, I was smack dab in the middle of my very first week on the tenure track.
I’ve read the articles on the challenges of being a mother in academe. I know about the "baby penalty." As Mary Ann Mason wrote The Chronicle in 2013: "Family formation negatively affects women’s — but not men’s — academic careers. For men, having children can be a slight career advantage and, for women, it is often a career killer. Women who do advance through the faculty ranks do so at a high personal price: They are far less likely to be married with children than are their male colleagues."
Academe’s tenure clock is especially punishing for women with small children. We have six years or less to: publish a book, present at the best conferences, give it our all in the classroom (as measured mostly by student evaluations, which are also, we learn from study after study, hugely biased against female faculty), and perform feats of service to our institutions, typically after 4 p.m., the time we need to pick up our children from school and day care. In the end, academe remains particularly hostile to pregnant women and mothers. And while I spend a great deal of my professional life teaching about, writing about, and speaking out against that reality, it remains my reality.
And one of my greatest fears. At 36, I am in a very happy, entirely loving, and stable relationship, yet I still sweat the arrival of my period every month. Despite the fact that I would, ultimately, love to have another child, another child would probably preclude the possibility of my securing tenure in a job that I love, and desperately need.
So, like many women in academe, and particularly in the field of women’s studies, I live in two worlds. In the theoretical world of my writing and teaching, I speak out actively on behalf of women’s rights and against gender discrimination. But in my professional life, I find myself in an unsecure place as an untenured female faculty member for whom pregnancy now would almost surely mean certain death to my career.
That day in my office, I was suddenly confronting both of those worlds and feeling equal measures of shame in each. Shame at the university rumor mill alight with a false, and — pardon the pun — pregnant narrative about the outspoken feminist who messed up but good, and got herself knocked up before the tenure clock even started. Shame at my body, at the extra 10 pounds I’d put on in the last year, trying to deal with the stress of being a full-time faculty member for the first time. After all, part of my public identity at the university was as an attractive, young, outspoken feminist. I am not stupid enough to imagine my looks had nothing to do with that. So there went another chink in my already weak armor.
But beyond that — deeper than that, since in the end, of course, I knew I was not pregnant — I felt shame about feeling any of those things at all. Hadn’t I spent my career teaching and speaking up about owning our bodies and owning our lives?
My selves sat, split, and red-faced, surrounded by students and faculty alike, crashing in on one another, and bouncing back.
"No," I said, "I am not pregnant."
I n the next week, the halls of my campus, usually friendly, were bizarre. Three people congratulated me awkwardly, including an elderly music professor known for her flamboyance, who walked into my classroom in the midst of a lecture to my freshman developmental-writing course, rubbing her belly, and shouting, "CONGRATULATIONS! I AM SO EXCITED FOR YOU!!" before walking out, singing at top volume. Two other people in my program asked me if there was anything I needed to tell them. I made a very clear statement on social media, where I have a fairly large presence, that I was not pregnant.
But I was stunned by the experience, by what it produced in and around me. Coincidentally three weeks later, another new tenure-track faculty member in my cohort announced her pregnancy — unplanned, a single parent. When we spoke about it, she said she’d never felt like a bigger failure. Imagine: A 34-year-old doctor of philosophy, with a university teaching job, feels — having found out she is carrying a child — like she’s made the worst mistake of her life.
When I discussed all of this with my department coordinator, a close friend, she said the words that have stuck with me ever since: "Our bodies are always under watch."
B odies under watch. It bears remembering that the university descended from an institution designed to train monks. Women had, for the better part of a millennia, literally nothing to do with it. The American university, which has adapted the original model to exist within the capitalist mode of production and dissemination, exists to perpetuate itself. Academics want to produce little academics, yet there is scant room for babies in that equation. And pregnancy is no boon to academics, as the numbers bear out.
But more than that, academe is what it has always been: insular and insulated. The term "the ivory tower" may no longer be literal, but literal elements of isolation remain. At my own institution, the campus is set back miles from the road, miles from much of anything. That physical isolation and privilege is mimicked by academe’s place in American culture — the privileged space that culture grants the academy shields it, too often, from answering to, and for, the difficult questions of gender discrimination that second- and third-wave feminism demanded, and often received, from the workplace. It makes sense, then, that in a work environment that perpetuates gender bias and discrimination, our graduate students would experience the same problems.
And they do. My pregnant students report broad versions of the problems I described: The pregnant body is treated, in academe, as an aberration, a disease, something to be "dealt" with, rather than celebrated. Confronted with a pregnancy, a student’s advisers too often ask, "But what about graduate school?," disappointment leaching into every syllable.
Across academe, both male and female academics need to begin to make physical, emotional, and intellectual space for women’s bodies, and the bodies they birth. Without that space, we remain forced into a kind of drag — women acting the part of men, in the hopes of gaining a place at the table. Without the ability to model these behaviors and abilities for our students — and without an expanded understanding of what accommodation for pregnant, nursing, and parenting students means, in terms of support both on and off campus — little change will ultimately occur.
It is up to us — as educators, and participants in the culture of higher education — to change that culture from within so that our students may have a chance at true equity, and diversity — which, of course, is not a possibility without pregnancy in the first place.