The Tenure Trap: Women at Universities in Life and Novels

Carolyn Heilbrun, professor, critic, and mystery writer

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.”

Sound familiar?

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!

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