Harvard Educational Review
  1. Coming of Age in Academe

    Rekindling Women’s Hopes and Reforming the Academy

    By Jane Roland Martin

    New York: Routledge, 2000. 232 pp. $18.99 (paper)

    How can feminist scholars be accepted in the academy without dissociating themselves from women and their own ideals? Jane Roland Martin takes on this question and makes a powerful assessment of the state of women in higher education in Coming of Age in Academe: Rekindling Women’s Hopes and Reforming the Academy. Writing as an experienced scholar of education and philosophy, Martin, Professor Emerita of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Boston, introduces the book by stating, “These are heady times for feminist scholars” (p. 3). She quickly uncovers the ironic side of that statement in her introduction — these are also troubling times for women in the academy. Then Martin explicates her thesis in three sections, providing evidence, analysis, and recommendations.

    In the first section, “What Price Women’s Belonging?” Martin presents her findings from philosophical forays into the territory of academe made at the behest of an imagined Society of Feminist Scholars and Their Friends. Through reading widely and attending conferences in the United States and abroad, Martin finds that feminist scholars are estranged from one another, from women’s “lived experiences” and from “women’s occupations.” For example, Martin states that, in the 1970s, early feminist scholarship had its roots in the women’s movement and was admittedly not very self-critical. The 1980s, however, were marked by feminist scholars’ accusations of “essentialism” — discrediting any work that represented women as “possessing essential properties very different from” those of men (p. 13). Thus, research on any attributes that were traditionally associated with women (including gender, reproduction, motherhood) was attacked as creating “false generalizations” (p. 16) that did not take women’s differences into account and thus perpetuated stereotypes. This kind of critique has resulted in a culture of fear and separation within feminist scholarship, in which Martin sees feminist scholars “losing sight of our mothers, daughters, sisters, half-sisters, female cousins, and aunts” and “becoming divided from our past, present, and future selves” (p. 24). Martin concludes that this division is the price women pay to belong to academe. In the second chapter, Martin observes that the academy instills language that promotes “aerial distance” and “esotericism” and devalues the practical life experiences that drove earlier feminist activism. As a result, feminist scholars are distanced from women outside the academy. In the third chapter, Martin discusses what she calls “the education-gender system.” Not only does this system value disciplines, fields of inquiry, methodologies, curriculum, and research interests based on their gendered associations, it also operates mechanisms that promote “gender tracking” in which the low-status, low-paying professions — those in which “care, concern, and connection” are primary — are female associated. Among the many consequences of the education-gender system are feminist scholars’ turning away from subjects related to women and professions traditionally practiced by women — education, for example. Martin notes that the invisible education-gender system must be rendered visible and “dismantled” in order to achieve gender equality and reject conforming to “the old female stereotype” (p. 62). She believes that fundamental social reform can be achieved only through fundamental educational reform, not by simply appending feminist scholarship onto the existing system.

    Part Two, “An Immigrant Interpretation,” likens women’s entry into the academy to the immigration of Central and Eastern Europeans to the United States early in the twentieth century. The chapters in this part also discuss 1) “the new gender tracking,” which “ghettoizes” women in positions of lower status and financial reward; 2) how higher education maintains a chilly or hostile climate for female students and professors as part of a “filtering process” to prevent too many women from entering the academy; and 3) questions of assimilation and transformation. Martin suggests here that acculturation, a transformational process in which something new is forged from the addition of an immigrant group to a host group, is preferable to assimilation, a one-way process. However, a transformed culture is much more difficult to attain.

    Part Three, “Add Women and Transform,” consists of three chapters. In the first, Martin discusses the “brain drain,” in which scholars forsake the “real world” for the academy. In the two remaining chapters, she discusses the ways in which women scholars and women’s research are limited within the academy, and calls for a transformation of the university’s underlying system of beliefs and practices. One aspect of this transformation is the connection of women with each other in the academy. Martin describes the Swedish fika as one practice that could facilitate such connection. The fika is a regularly scheduled time at work when people come together with their colleagues “to swap ideas, share troubles, and generally engage in talk about work, home, and world” (p. 163). In Martin’s vision, a transformed academy would also encourage opportunities for the meeting of male and female minds, support feminist organizations, and work on the problems associated with coeducation — ultimately creating a coprofessoriate, developing a true cocurriculum, and integrating feminist scholarship to transform the education-gender system into a “woman-friendly academy.”

    Martin writes with clarity and focus. Although she often uses specialized language, she does so in a manner that allows the reader to glean her meaning, through repeated use of key terms and phrases (for example, “education-gender system,” “aerial distance,” “chilly climate”) in consistent context. Martin navigates this complex terrain with a competence born of familiarity with both the academy and feminist activism. She presents evidence from quantitative investigations of enrollment, proportions of women to men in departments at Harvard, and feminist publications in philosophy anthologies to bolster her point that despite structural appearances of assimilation, women are actually still severely underrepresented in the academy. And as feminist activist Gloria Steinem points out in the foreword, while less elitist institutions may be more open to outsiders, the academy as a whole is still far from transformed. Steinem cites a national trend over the past twenty years, documented by the American Association of University Professors, that shows “the number of tenured males is increasing 30 percent faster than that of tenured females” (p. xi).

    Martin ends the book by recalling that it took a “far-reaching and ultimately very aggressive campaign” (p. 182) for the women’s suffrage movement to succeed. She believes that creating a “woman-friendly academy” will take a similar mass movement of men and women working on many fronts, strategically as well as outrageously, through “acts both great and small” (p. 182).

    Coming of Age in Academe is a thought-provoking treatment of the continuing inequality in higher education and how it might be ameliorated. Although Martin focuses on women, her observations and analysis are often not far removed from the experiences of others who are marginalized in the academy. Clearly organized and written in a straightforward manner, this critical reflection of the loss of innocence that accompanies a coming of age should appeal to a wide range of readers.

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