Heather Cox Richardson
A recent study shows that having children hurts women in academia at every stage of the profession. This will not be news to any woman who has had to sneak out of a meeting to pick up a child before the daycare fine system kicks in, who has had to explain to an older male colleague that his insistence on scheduling his pet seminar from 4 to 6 guarantees she can never attend no matter how angry it makes him, who has worked all night in the office because search files could not leave the premises and there was no time during the day to get enough time to read them all, and who has heard those chilling words: “You can have tenure or children, but not both.”
There is a push to change the mechanics of university life to address this problem, offering maternity leave to graduate students, for example, and extending tenure clocks for mothers. (More first-floor bathrooms wouldn’t come amiss either, by the way; two flights to a bathroom when you’re eight months pregnant is no picnic.) These steps are important, to be sure. But for historians, even more important to remember is that, by cutting more than half the population from the study of humanity, we are skewing our scholarship so badly it threatens to lose all meaning.
This is not a theoretical argument; it has real-world meaning for the study of history. Having a family—and nurturing it—is crucial for historians. (And this does not seem to me to have to be birth or adopted children, by the way. Investing in community does not require youngsters who actually live in your home.)
Here’s why: history divorced from the real concerns of everyday people is so rarified it is often meaningless. And when it comes to distinguishing important issues from theoretical fancies, there is nothing like having to explain to a five-year-old what mommy is doing. “Mommy is trying to figure out why sometimes white people aren’t very nice to black people,” was my age-appropriate explanation when writing The Death of Reconstruction, and the constant reminder that my discoveries had real-world implications for today that mattered to my kids made it a much stronger book than it would have been had I emphasized instead the theoretical implications of my argument.
Similarly, constant interactions with kids—your own and others—helps you to recognize which of the many issues that grab you is actually of interest to anyone who isn’t bowled over by the beauty of history for its own sake. Kids actually love real stories (which is, after all, what we discover) and chewing over their meaning. But which story you’re telling matters. The general history of mass protests in the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s that led to liberation for a number of groups that had previously borne much discrimination . . . not so much. The story that mid-20th-century New York City laws deliberately targeted drag queens by making it a crime to wear articles of clothing associated with the opposite gender; that this forced gays and lesbians to frequent bars owned by the Mafia, which could afford to pay off the police; and that a bunch of well-oiled gays and lesbians had finally had enough when police raided the Stonewall Inn in late June 1969 and took to the streets to demand equal rights . . . that story rings true to young adults. It’s personal. It taps into their own sensitivity about discriminatory rules, and offers not just a lesson about historical change but also the example of people who stood up for their principles.
Your colleagues will happily argue the theoretical implications of mass movements for months. Your students will pretend to listen when you expound on the importance of movement theory. Your non-academic friends will nod as if they’re interested in what you have to say about theory, the same way you pretend to care about the insurance market. But your kids and their friends will always remind you that there’s a reason they are called “theoretical underpinnings.”
The perspective of kids, who are not yet sophisticated enough to pretend interest in anything for appearances’ sake, also helps one’s writing. “How can I explain what I learned today in such a way that it would interest my fifteen-year-old?” is a much better guide to narrative structure than “This is so cool, in all its intricate detail!” I can see the second my kids begin to glaze over as I tell them about a recent discovery, and try to remember that moment of disconnect when my prose gets hijacked by the intricacies of historical events that are so deeply fascinating . . . to me and about three other people.
It’s great to see discussion of the problems of motherhood in academia, but the discussion is hardly new: it was in full swing when my first son was born, twenty-one years ago. While our discussion seems to use more sophisticated words now, the actual world of the academy seems pretty much the same, if not worse than it was in 1992. So how can we actually create change? Part of the problem might well be that the drive to include mothers in the academy tends to focus on how unfair discrimination is to those excluded. That angle is painfully obvious, but it offers nothing to those doing the excluding except the chance to be noble. Evidence suggests that nobility doesn’t interest authorities enough to make much of a difference. But the discipline of history—and, I daresay, all other fields—needs to find a way to keep mothers in academia not so we can pat ourselves on the back for our generosity, but because without them the field runs the risk of becoming so insular it makes itself entirely irrelevant to the real world. It is not a mother’s battle, or even a women’s battle. It is a battle for the relevance of history itself and, as such, should be waged by every historian who thinks our scholarship matters.
Encouraging mothers to stay in the academy might be good for mothers, but it is imperative for the academy.