Prologue: In national politics these days it sometimes seems as if we re-litigate battles won decades ago, and at times I wonder whether those 20 or 30 years younger than I even know what happened back in the day. So here are some snippets. Although specific to my time at Brown University, similar things happened in the same time frame at institutions of higher education all over the country. So, dear reader, yes, DO generalize.

1968: As a graduate student in biology, I was the first in my department to wear pants instead of dress, heels and stockings to the lab. I refused to serve tea at the reception for our guest speakers because the rule that the male grad students showed the slides (anyone remember slide projectors?) and the few female grad students served the tea and coffee seemed wrong to me. Take turns at these jobs, I said. Let the women learn how to operate the technology and the men how to pour without spilling.

1971: Now I’m a postdoctoral fellow. My department chair disinvites me to lunch with a prominent visitor who had the potential to positively influence my career in biology. The reason? They planned to eat at the University Club which did not admit women nor allow them on the premises. It took another decade for the University President to refuse honorary club membership and ban the conducting of university business at the club.

1971. 5 of us, all assistant professors are huddling in the Faculty club for lunch. Éminence(s) grise(s) wander by and ask if we are plotting against them. This seems amazing since there are five of us and hundreds of them. We are in the lowest ranks and they the highest. But also, yes, we were. We were plotting how to bring more of us into the professoriate and how to keep some of us there through tenure and beyond.

Plot 1 (1971-1977) Get more women: first, we thought, get our facts straight. How many of us WERE there really? Oh, nobody knew. The Provost and Dean did not keep track of such things. No need to. We are objective academics. We don’t “see” gender, or race either, for that matter. Why count? The only way we could find out was by going to each department and asking if there were any women working there. Our one feminist, and female, dean helped us out by getting her secretary to call. Here are some of the numbers from those early days: 3 full professors, 15 assistant professors, a larger number of instructors and non tenure-track women for a total of maybe 75. Overall faculty size was about 400. The above numbers are from memory. The reports we wrote yearly in those days are in Brown’s John Hay Library for anyone who wants total accuracy.

The plotting thickens: We learned that mathematician and former dean of Pembroke College, Nancy Duke Lewis (1910-1961) had left money to endow a chair designated for a female professor. But after the first Nancy Duke Lewis Professor died in a tragic boating accident, the university didn’t rehire, preferring to plow the money back into general funds. When confronted, the then Provost said there wasn’t enough money in the endowment to hire a professor. When confronted again, he said the terms discriminated against men! Through the efforts of powerful Pembroke alumnae we raised enough money to complete the endowment. Through tough negotiations, we figured out a non-discriminatory wording (“a senior scholar in any field who is distinguished in an area of gender studies”), and in 1980 we hired Joan Wallach Scott as the second Nancy Duke Lewis Professor.

The plotting leads to a game changing law suit: Assistant Professor of Anthropology Louise Lamphere was denied tenure in 1974. She filed suit in 1975, and in 1976, with a class action lawsuit under active litigation, I became one of a cohort of 5 women granted tenure, more than doubling the number of tenured women at Brown. But, we were assured, our promotions had nothing to do with the suit. Louise won that suit and the university operated under a court decree for 15 years, while it cleaned up its act. It took many more years of negotiation with administration and faculty governing groups to incorporate fair hiring, retention and promotion rules into its personnel practices so that finally, we could take a stab at this fairness thing without court supervision.

Plot 2 (1972-Present) The Women’s Studies Plot: We heard, “That can’t be a serious topic”, “there is no scholarship about women”, “students won’t be interested”, “It’s just a fad”, “We don’t teach basket-weaving at Brown.” A group of us offered the first women’s studies course at Brown as an extra, i.e. over and above our already full time teaching duties. I figured if I didn’t mention it to my department and I did all my departmental obligations without complaint I could get away with it as an extra load. I wonder if an assistant professor in today’s corporate university could help to start an initially despised field of study and successfully fly under the radar long enough to get tenure? Today we have a Gender and Sexuality Studies Program, an undergraduate major, and very modest monetary support from the university.

Plot 3 (1971-Present) Child care: How could women take a full role on campus without a safe and affordable place for their children. None of the 3 existing full professors had children, but the new generations wanted a more complete life. Sorry to say we failed on this one. This year (2013) I attended a meeting at which yet another report on how to provide child care for Brown staff and Professors was discussed. Good will gestures got approval, but not a commitment to develop an affordable center for our community. Forty years, but still no positive result. I guess there is still some unfinished business to pass on to the next gen(s).

Plot 4 (1974-mid 1990s) Develop and Enforce Rules Against Sexual Harassment: This piece of the puzzle seemed to take forever, but finally fell into place after some especially egregious behavior led to parental complaints and the firing of two faculty members, including one who actually had tenure.

1972: Avuncular senior historian invites me to lunch in an evident effort to encourage me. His opening gambit: there WERE no women scientists before your generation because of all those barriers. But now the roadblocks have been removed, there will be many of you (and only yourselves to blame if you fail). He meant well, and he was an historian, but could that really be true?  Margaret Rossiter’s Women Scientists In America didn’t come out until 1982. In the meantime I started noticing and collecting snippets—on Beatrix Potter who pioneered mycology before she wrote Peter Rabbit. On Nettie Stevens, who discovered the role of the Y chromosome in sex determination, on Maria Mitchell an astronomer who discovered a comet and many more. What truly amazed and energized me was that there were LOTS of women who scientifically explored the world despite the barriers.

2013: Thoughts some 40-odd years later. In 2009, Brown recognized some of my accomplishments by honoring me with the Nancy Duke Lewis Chair, which, after a short five years I relinquish when I retire in 2014. I am gratified by that. And the exhilaration of struggle and pride in social accomplishments is strong. But so too is the hurt of rejection and marginalization. I think for my generation such pain lurks just under the surface. Pioneers get wounded; that’s all. Still, these days I get to travel all over the world and it is a thrill to work, however briefly, with women in Turkey, or France, or Sweden or elsewhere as they bend feminism and gender studies into shapes appropriate for their national and university contexts. Largely due to the force of the Civil Rights Act, feminism, and viewers like us, when it comes to equal representation of women the United States leads the pack, in pretty much all sectors, including academia. But of course, leading the pack still doesn’t mean we have crossed the finish line of equality.

This article is republished courtesy of Anne Fausto-Sterling. Originally posted on Boston Review.

Further Reading:

Gender and Science:

Race and Science:

Image credit: Luis García via flickr

About The Author

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Dr. Anne Fausto-Sterling is the Nancy Duke Lewis Professor Emerita of Biology and Gender Studies in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology and Biochemistry at Brown University, and former director of the Science & Technology Studies Program at Brown University. Dr. Fausto-Sterling has achieved recognition for works that challenge entrenched scientific beliefs while engaging with the general public. She is the author of several acclaimed books that are referenced widely in feminist and scientific inquiry, as well as scientific publications in developmental genetics and developmental biology. Her current focus is on applying dynamic systems theory to the study of gender differentiation in early childhood. Her ambition is to restructure dichotomous conversations — inside the academy, in public discourse, and ultimately in the framing of social policy — in order to enable an understanding of the inseparability of nature/nurture. She asserts that Dynamic Systems Theory permits us to understand how cultural difference becomes bodily difference. Dr. Fausto-Sterling is a frequent commentator and reference for journalists in some of the world’s leading media outlets, such as The New York Times and PBS. She regularly writes blog posts for the Boston Review, The Huffington Post, and Psychology Today. She has spoken widely throughout the United States and abroad about topics within her realm of expertise and has considerable experience as a workshop leader on college campuses interested in integrating the insights of feminist scholarship into science curriculum.