Commentary

The Sexism That Permeates the Academy

October 17, 2017

Taylor Callery for The Chronicle

The history department’s baby ceremony took place on a Thursday afternoon in the brightly lit Clausewitz Library, located in the windowless basement of one of West Point’s oldest buildings. Its walls are lined with black-, green-, and gold-bound tomes about military strategy and history, and the center of the room features clusters of glossy leather chairs appropriately uncomfortable to read them in. The Clausewitz serves as a quiet study space for the academy’s students, known as cadets, and a venue for faculty meetings and award ceremonies. On that afternoon, though, it was repurposed as a place to celebrate fertility.

"We are a very successful department," said the department chair, an affable colonel. "How do you measure a department’s success? By the number of new historians we produce for the world." He gestured to the roomful of babies and toddlers for illustration, who shrieked and ate Goldfish and tried to wriggle loose from the arms of their mothers — who were, without exception, my colleagues’ wives. Not papers published, books released, lectures given, students taught. Babies.

Carl von Clausewitz, the library’s namesake, was an early 19th-century Prussian general, a master military strategist and a brilliant thinker. He’s best known for rethinking war through the lens of the Enlightenment — understanding war as not just a violent act, but as a political, psychological, and moral one. "War," goes his most famous statement, "is merely the continuation of politics by other means."

He was also pretty enlightened on the subject of gender. His wife, born the Countess Marie von Brühl, was educated and intellectual, well read and politically engaged. She served as the editor and publisher for her husband’s books, and they reportedly considered each other equals, a radical notion when they married in 1810. And they had no children. As I sat in the back, I imagined the Clausewitz’s confusion-turned-dismay would mirror my own.

The sexism that I saw and experienced in my year of teaching history at West Point was at turns quiet and glaring, insidious and overt, exhausting and breathtaking. There were, of course, the momentary jabs any professional woman in a male-dominated field has learned to shrug off. I was talked over so repeatedly and egregiously by a male colleague in front of a distinguished guest that even the guest was made uncomfortable, and he intervened several times. I was corrected in front of my class by a junior male colleague.

Then there were interactions that were harder to shrug off. When a senior faculty member apologized to me for coarse language used in a meeting, he told me, "I wouldn’t want my wife to hear that language." Another professor regularly commented on my choice of clothing and manner of walking, sometimes calling those observations down the hallway at a 100-foot distance. There was the baby ceremony, which made it clear that the department would more readily celebrate women for their uteruses than for their brains. Monthly social events were held for the female professors to socialize with the wives of the male professors — events designed, it seemed, to remind us who our true peers should be.

Refusing to recognize the existence of a gendered power differential means not only denying the sexism women in those institutions experience, but also perpetuating it.

Past events provided context for more concern. In 2013, a former history-department chair resigned after an investigation into allegations that he had sexually harassed female subordinates in the department, as well as subordinate officers’ wives. We discussed this case during new faculty orientation as a surprise, a one-off, a bad apple. Who would have suspected? There was no connection made between casual sexism and more threatening, even dangerous, behavior; between a culture of machismo and an actually hostile working environment.

Sexism in higher education, of course, is not unique to West Point. Less than a third of tenure or tenure-track positions in the hard and social sciences are women; women make up less than a quarter of the full professors in those disciplines. The Survey of Doctoral Recipients’ national data show that married mothers of young children are 33 percent less likely to get tenure-track jobs than their male counterparts. Meanwhile, women are vastly more likely to serve in adjunct positions.

For those of us who do get hired on the tenure track, we will make less than our male colleagues, and pay a steep penalty if we choose to become mothers. Susan Fowler, whose blog post about the sexism and harassment she experienced as an Uber engineer led to an internal investigation and, ultimately, the firing of the company’s chief executive, Travis Kalanick, still found things better for women in the tech industry than it was in the academy. "When I was leaving academia for tech," Fowler wrote on Twitter, "someone who had worked in both said to me: ‘tech is a lot less sexist than academia.’ They were right."

And in a disturbing number of cases, this culture of sexism does indeed breed a culture of harassment. A recent study in the Utah Law Review found that one in 10 female graduate students in the United States have experienced sexual harassment or physical assault by a faculty member. Recent prominent cases at the University of California at Berkeley, Yale University, and Columbia University involve faculty members making unwanted advances on both graduate and undergraduate students.

But however prominent it may be in academe at large, sexism at West Point felt unique — and unique in a way that could serve as a warning. Despite considerable evidence to the contrary, the military explicitly denies the existence of a gender hierarchy or power differential. A colonel is a colonel, whether sir or ma’am. And if sexism officially doesn’t exist, then how can women experience its ill effects?

There is a warning in here for the rest of academe. As academic institutions march down the largely well-meaning path toward total gender equality, it is worth remembering that believing gendered hierarchy should not exist in the world that we want does not mean that gendered hierarchy does not exist in the world that we have. And refusing to recognize the existence of a gendered power differential — denying that women are often more vulnerable in hierarchical institutions like academia or the military — means not only denying the sexism women in those institutions experience, but also perpetuating it.

Carl von Clausewitz, the namesake of West Point’s history library, died of cholera in 1831, leaving an unfinished manuscript of On War, the book that would become his masterwork and enduring legacy. His wife, Marie, who had served as his editor, compiler, and ghostwriter during his life, finished On War shortly after he died, and published it in his name.

But in her preface to the first edition, Marie von Clausewitz erased her role in the book’s creation, along with any notion that she was her husband’s intellectual equal. "It will be understood, as a matter of course," she wrote, "that I cannot have the most remote intention of considering myself as the real editor of a work which is far above the scope of my capacity." Marie von Clausewitz had to bow to a gender hierarchy in the 1830s. Institutions, from academe to the military and beyond, that do not recognize that we still have such a hierarchy will end up requiring women to do the same.

Peggy O’Donnell is a postdoctoral instructor in the Pozen Family Center for Human Rights at the University of Chicago.