Women's Studies Needs Respect

I MET a professor I know the other day. She is young, untenured, taking a year's sabbatical. She is working on a book, and her numerous articles have been widely praised.

People even say she has a decent chance of getting a tenured position here.

But the main topic on the professor's mind was the job market. She said that she had been offered tenured positions at two other universities. She said she would probably accept one of them.

This professor is one of Harvard's few feminist scholars. Soon, I suppose, she will be gone.

THE ironic thing about it is that this professor, as with the several other feminist scholars on Harvard's faculty, is affiliated with a department rather than the Women's Studies program here. Sure, her name is listed in the course catalog under the heading of "Faculty of the Committee on Degrees in Women's Studies." Certainly, her departure will be felt most keenly by those scholars--in all disciplines--who work together on feminist topics. And, yes, her work is valued most by those who come together under the rubric of women's studies.

But her institutional affiliation, as she'll readily tell you, is with one of Harvard's long-established academic departments. And that is also the reason why she will probably leave.

What this professor has learned, and what generations of Harvard bureaucrats have always known, is that autonomy is a sign of power. Women's Studies at Harvard has neither.

Women's Studies here is a degree-granting committee, not a full-fledged department. It cannot make tenure appointments except in conjunction with one of the other officially recognized academic disciplines. It has no graduate students, and no tradition of acceptance as a legitimate field of inquiry at the University.

In fact, all it has is burgeoning student interest, offices on Kirkland St. and a department chair stymied by her inability to bring any colleagues to the school. It offers two courses this semester--the required sophomore tutorial, "Women's Studies 10b"--and a junior seminar on women and popular culture. The seminar isn't even being taught by a Harvard faculty member. The reason? There aren't any.

Some of the University's more insistent traditionalists argue that these are good things. Women's Studies may not have courses of its own, but many other departments have classes about women--a sign, they say, of the extent to which women are being integrated into the curriculum. And they add that the lack of faculty members is simply a product of the field's newness, and of a tenure system that prizes a lifetime of work rather than a future of potential. Women's studies, they conclude, is an outmoded political statement--the goal should be its dissolution, not its strengthening.

But it's not an argument that has much credence, particularly when you look at who's making it. Harvard was the second to last school in the Ivy League to establish a Women's Studies program--a step which it took only three years ago. Since then, it has made only one tenured appointment in women's studies--to Professor of History and Women's Studies Olwen Hufton. And only one other person even holds any kind of faculty appointment in women's studies--Lecturer in Women's Studies Alexandra Owen, the concentration's head tutor.

The strategy is a classic one, as the experience of the Afro-American Studies Department shows. New and "politicized" fields of study are easily marginalized at a place like Harvard through the all-too-simple solution of refusing to hire professors with expertise in the contested scholarly area.

The key link in the chain is the lack of departmental status. A department means independence. It means having tenured professors, courses. An identity. It's the first step toward the full acknowledgement that must come before a field gains real legitimacy in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences' hidebound bureaucracy.

To accord departmental rank to women's studies, therefore, is inherently a challenge to the University's power centers. It does more than legitimate the fact that studying women is an important and worthwhile scholarly purpose; it would imply that the scholars--most of them women--who have done so much to challenge traditional academic assumptions should actually be allowed control over their own, new field of research.

So women's studies at Harvard will continue to be a nonentity, kept alive by the sheer buoyancy of professors' and students' interests in the field even as the administrators and old-line senior faculty remain able to prevent its expansion.

And young scholars like the one I ran into the other day will continue to leave Harvard for more inviting academic environs.

Susan B. Glasser '90 was managing editor of The Crimson last year. She will write on women's issues this semester.