How the Tenure Process Can Marginalize Women’s History

Miami Herald women's pages , 1950This post was inspired by Heather Cox Richardson’s post yesterday about mothers in the academy. In addition to excellent points about motherhood, she offered a reminder of what women often bring to research as they sometimes look for new topics or at an issue in a different way.

In looking back post-tenure, it worries me that the requirements needed for tenure at an R-1 institution may lead to the marginalization of women in history. At my university, like many other schools, tenure means being a national expert – publishing in national journals. This means that research is largely about national figures, usually men. In fact, in what was intended to be helpful advice during my initial evaluation, an older male colleague asked if I had considered researching men.

My goal since becoming a researcher was to tell the stories of otherwise unknown women journalists – those in the women’s pages of newspapers. Luckily, I studied a few women that reached national stature, such as Dorothy Jurney, Carol Sutton, and Marjorie Paxson. But most of my research subjects were women who had more of a local appeal.

I did try to make arguments for women with a more regional appeal. For example, I sent out my manuscript about Arizona and California women’s page editor Maggie Savoy to a national journal. I had gone through archives, studied her work and interviewed those who knew her. The journal’s response was what I rather expected – the research was strong but Maggie did not have a national presence. It was rejected.

Ultimately the article was published in the California History Journal focusing on her work at the Los Angeles Times. It was the right fit for my article. The editor added information about Los Angeles I had not known and an archivist was incredibility helpful in adding visuals that would not have been printed in the national journal.

While lacking a national appeal, most of these women’s page editors were incredibly important to their communities. Flo Burge told the stories of maids in the hotels in Reno, Nevada. Aileen Ryan helped the fashion industry grow in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Bobbi McCallum documented the difficulties of teen mothers forced to give away their babies in a home for pregnant teens in Seattle. Vivian Castleberry helped change the lives of women in Dallas, as Marie Anderson did in Miami, Florida.

Writing about these regionally important women (women’s page journalists) means publishing in regional journals, which have the same rigor and peer review as national journals. Yet, under my tenure guidelines, regional journals count half as much as a national journal publication, which meant I would have to work twice as hard to tell the women’s stories. My research life would have been much easier if I had chosen to study Ben Bradlee.

I felt it was more important to tell the stories of untold women journalists, who built their communities behind the scenes and helped move society forward in cities across the country. And while each publication counted as half on the tenure list, the work to tell each woman’s story actually took more effort. These were people who were unlikely to leave behind papers or be part of oral history project so more time and work went into gathering and verifying information.

I hope that the increasing pressure to be a national expert does not lead to the marginalization of women in history. My life would have been easier if I had taken my colleague’s advice about studying male journalists. Yet, if I had, the stories of more than 20 women would not have been told. While I would do it over again, the system seems unfair. It rewards those who study big names (most likely to be male) and forces those who study regional figures (more likely to be women) to work twice as hard for the same reward.

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