Long ago, in a faraway universe – not so long ago or far away, in the brief context of academic women’s history – a campus policeman drove to an urban neighborhood, parked his cop car, and rapped on the door of the house of my friend’s mother, an Assistant Professor.
Needless to say, she was startled to see the police. She peered at him through her thick glasses, absent-mindedly holding one of Marge Piercy’s books, which she was rereading for the women’s lit class she was planning. She probably wore jeans and an untucked Oxford shirt. Or perhaps I’m mixing her up with her daughter, my friend, who wore her father’s oversized Oxford shirts untucked.
Though unhappy to see the police, my friend’s mother would have pulled herself together.
“I have a letter for you, Mrs. X.”
Now here’s the horrendous part. He had been sent to deliver a letter from the Acting Dean of Faculty. She learned from the letter that she had been denied promotion and tenure, in spite of stellar reviews from her department chair, her students, and the recommendation of the Promotion and Tenure Committee. The Dean disapproved of her feminist scholarship.
The newspaper ran an article about it. She told the reporter that the Dean’s sending the policeman with the letter was “insensitive.”
Humiliating and terrifying, I would think. A type of harassment, too. The subtext of the message: Don’t mess with us; you’re already gone. There would have been shock, disbelief, anger, tears …
Naturally, it didn’t end there. She filed a sex discrimination complaint, and letters were written on her behalf by her department chair and members of the the Committee for Promotion and Tenure. Her students circulated petitions and held a potluck in her honor.
And then what happened? The trail goes cold. Newspapers are not terribly interested in the fate of women professors who are denied tenure.
Does this denial of tenure – and degree of insensitivity- still happen to women academics? The stats themselves tell a story. According to a study by the American Association of University Professors, women make up 43 percent of full-time tenured or tenure-track faculty members and 54 percent of full-time, non-tenure-track professors. Another study says that about 51% of non-tenure adjunct jobs are held by women.
There is, however, no study of how women are notified about denial of tenure. Let us hope no one else was visited by the campus police.
Five Novels about Women in Academia
As a fiction reader, I am a fan of academic novels. Here are five that treat some of the issues facing women in academia.
In Adjunct, a self-published novel by Geoff Cebula, the heroine, Elena Malatesta, knows that her adjunct position is at risk: the university has cut the budget. Her colleagues, too, are worried. An expert in Italian horror films, Elena begins to wonder what is going on when fellow adjuncts start disappearing. This odd little book was reviewed in The New York Review of Books.
In Lynn Steger Strong’s stunning, realistic novel, Want, the narrator has an usatisifying full-time job teaching high school. She has a Ph.D., but there are no full-time academic jobs.
She still teaches as an adjunct, though. “I keep the night class even though I mostly know by now I’ll never get a real job from the institution where I teach this night class; I mostly know that real jobs at institutions like this don’t exist anymore. I keep the job because I spent all those years in school and mostly I’ve forgotten what I thought they might be worth.”
Marge Piercy’s Small Changes is not an academic novel, yet one of the characters, Miriam, deals with discrimination and harassment in an academic setting.
I wrote the following in 2016: Small Changes is a brilliant study of the women of the counterculture of the 1960s. Piercy interweaves the stories of two radical women, Miriam, a flamboyant, sexy mathematician-turned-computer-scientist-genius who is in love with and has sex with two egotistical men; and Beth, a working-class woman who runs away from a controlling husband, works for low wages as a typist, and eventually forms a women’s commune. Few novelists successfully managed to capture the earnest feminist politics and experimental living arrangements of the ’60s and ’79s. Piercy is savvy not only about feminism but about communes and the other politically-motivated structures.
Death in a Tenured Position by Amanda Cross (the pseudonym of Carolyn Heilbrun, the first woman to receive tenure at Columbia University) is an entertaining and savvy look at university life for women. In her critically-acclaimed mystery series, the heroine, Kate Fansler, an English professor and amateur sleuth, investigates many academic crimes.
Here is the book description for Death in a Tenured Position. “When Janet Mandelbaum is made the first woman professor at Harvard’s English Department, the men are not happy. They are unhappier still when her tea is spiked and she is found drunk on the floor of the women’s room. With a little time, Janet’s dear friend and colleague Kate Fansler could track down the culprit, but time is running out….”
Mary McCarthy’s The Groves of Academe, a satire of an experimental college during the (Joseph) McCarthy era, is clever, polished, and surprisingly twisted. I wrote in 2015:
If you expect Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim or David Lodge’s Changing Places, brace yourself: the intellectual Mary McCarthy generates a harrowing hilarity born of liberalism and her rejection of Catholicism. McCarthy, who was a member of the Partisan Review group in the 1930s and taught at Bard College and Sarah Lawrence College in the 1940s, takes no prisoners in her bitter skewering of academia. Every brilliant, sinuous sentence glitters with the mix of venom, idealism, maneuvering, lying, camaraderie, hostility, and cliquishness that characterizes academic politics.
The unlikable hero, Henry Mulcahy, a Joyce scholar and instructor at a small “progressive” college in Pennsylvania, learns that his contract will not be renewed. It is not a good time to be a leftist: he was fired from a university in California because of his radical writings in The Nation. He was hired as an instructor at the experimental college solely because friends called in favors to Maynard Hoar, the liberal president of the college. Now the budget has been cut and Hen Mulcany is fired.
And so he manipulates his friends into pleading his case, saying it is because he was a communist and that his wife Cathy is dying. But when they learn that Hen has lied (Cathy was ill after her last pregnancy, but isn’t now, and Hen was never a member of the Communist party), the group is furious. Although Hen is brilliant and popular, he is a lazy teacher, he doesn’t take the tutorials seriously, and turns in his paper work late. How far must they go to protect him?
Most of the academic novels I’ve read happen to be by men and to center on men: Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, David Lodge’s Small World, and Richard Russo’s Straight Man. I love these books, but do let recommend any women’s novels about academia. I do enjoy them!
8 thoughts on “The Tenure Trap: Women at Universities in Life and Novels”
Both by a man rather than a woman, but women in universities have important roles: Malcolm Bradbury’s Eating People is Wrong & The History Man.
Thank you for the recommendations! I did love Eating People Is Wrong, the only book I’ve ever found by Bradbury.
Elaine Showalter’s Faculty Towers is an excellent study of these sorts of books. Could you tell more about Death in a Tenured Position? I’m thinking of using it as a teacher in a course to be called Women Writing Detective Stories. I often read the summary of a book before I read it for all kinds of reasons. Thank you for these evaluations and summaries.
On the content: over the years I’ve known a number of women denied tenure or just almost fired on the spot with no just explanation. In all cases but one the court case disappeared — as reported ##MeTo cases disappear — for the same reason. There are too many semi-powerful people against whose interest it is to see such a case succeed.
Such a horrifying thing to happen – and probably so very common. I know that universities love their adjuncts because there are no obligations and they can pay very little. Yes, it is never a good idea to annoy powerful people, and if it’s your life’s work that upsets them, I imagine it would be difficult to fight back.
Faculty Towers – what a witty title! It has been years since I’ve read “Death in a Tenured Position,” but Cross (Heilburn)’s mysteries are excellent and well-worth reading. One of them is about a Joyce manuscript, and I’m pretty sure they’re all about academia.
Jane Smiley’s novel Moo has got to be right up at the top of that list. Very funny novel about a cow college in the Midwest.
Thank you! I did read this ages ago, and you’re right, it is extremely funny.