What It’s Like to Be a Woman in the Academy by Linn Marie Tonstad
Last fall, I was asked to sit in on the women’s pre-doctoral colloquium at the divinity school where I teach. In the course of a wide-ranging lunchtime conversation, the central question to which the students wanted an answer was: “what is it like to be a woman in the academy?” The question took me by surprise at the time – mostly because I’d expected to be asked more nitty-gritty questions about applying to graduate school, writing samples, and personal statements – but it has stayed with me in the weeks since the lunch as I’ve found myself trying out answers from different directions.
The first answer, and perhaps the most obvious one, is this: there is no such thing as being “a [generic] woman” in the academy (or anywhere else). This kind of answer comes from the direction of anti-essentialist and intersectional analysis in feminist theory, but it is also the result of looking at the successful academic women one knows, and noting how different they are from each other and how differently they negotiate the challenges they encounter. I say this not, by any means, to underplay the significant ways in which the academy, especially the religious and theological academy, remains a male-dominated space in which women experience significant barriers to full participation. But there is something that gets lost if one assumes that individual women are likely to meet the same kinds of challenges and to negotiate them in substantially identical ways. Intellectual styles and preferences, personalities, life situations, desires, and orientations all play into which challenges one encounters as well as into the ways one negotiates such challenges. In the actual conversation with students, I shared some of the concrete strategies I use in negotiating gender issues in the academy, but as I suggested then, my negotiating strategies may not work well for others. This is why the practice of consciousness-raising remains so valuable for strategies of solidarity and negotiation, because it allows a greater variety of experiences and practices to come to the foreground while also leading to the discovery of structural commonalities in and across differences.
The second answer, then, is that the way to find out what it’s like to be a woman in the academy is to ask. The philosophical blogosphere, with initiatives and resources like the Gendered Conference Campaign (directed toward conferences with all-male lineups of speakers), What a Philosopher Looks Like (philosophers submit pictures of themselves to challenge the tweed-clad, pipe-smoking white male image of the philosopher), What Is It Like to Be A Woman in Philosophy, and What We’re Doing About What It’s Like is way ahead of the theological blogosphere in this regard (compare the recent brouhahas at the Theology Studio and at Tony Jones’s blog at Patheos over the absence of women). I want to focus here on What It’s Like, which gathers stories about what it’s like to be a woman in philosophy. The stories vary widely, and serve as a valuable resource for noting not only the ongoing prevalence of gender-based discrimination and bias in the academy but also for drawing attention to the protean forms such discrimination takes. Similar initiatives are, sadly, almost entirely absent from my own field of systematic theology.
The third answer, and here’s where it gets personal, is that for me, one of the most significant aspects of being a woman in the academy is negotiating my own shyness (which is not necessarily a gendered attribute, but takes gendered forms) in professional settings. I am almost incapable of going up to someone and introducing myself, even if it’s someone whose work I’ve long read with appreciation, or someone with whom I have relatively close (but impersonal) professional connections, or even if it’s someone who I know knows who I am (let’s say we have friends in common). Shyness here functions not as a personality trait so much as a result of fear of engaging in any practice that might smack of networking and thus of self-promotion. During AAR last November, knowing that this sort of thing is now in a sense part of my job, I managed – in the course of the entire conference – to take the initiative to introduce myself to a total of three people, which I counted as a significant victory (yes, I did count, and even boasted about my grand tally to a close friend!). Maybe next year it will be four? At the same time, my discomfort with networking also reflects concern about how it advantages those who are socially adept already, and serves as a behind-the-scenes way to get involved in interesting conversations and opportunities that others then miss out on as a result – as we know, such practices often serve to privilege the already privileged even further.
I’m curious, though, about other responses. How else might the question about what it’s like be answered? Ought we to take a leaf from philosophy and campaign more directly, and more specifically, on these issues? Many of the most important of these conversations have to be had in private (which leads to the topic of mentoring, which I’ll take up in a later post), since I encourage students to take a ruthless inventory of their strengths and weaknesses, analyze how they come across to others, and then seek to maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses while at the same time working to change the academy’s strictures on gendered forms of expression and its continued hostility to feminist, womanist, and other forms of critical thought and activism. How do others negotiate fear of and hostility to networking? What advice, and what answers, would you give if asked this question: what is it like to be a woman in the academy?
Linn Marie Tonstad is a constructive theologian working at the intersection of Christian systematic theology with feminist and queer theology and theory. She is an assistant professor of systematic theology at Yale Divinity School and earned her PhD in religious studies from Yale University. She is currently completing her first book, provisionally entitled God and Difference: Experimental Trinitarian Theology.