In 1962, I began teaching ancient Greek in the graduate school of the Johns Hopkins University. I was twenty-seven and looked younger, and some of my graduate students were almost as old and looked older, so I tried to adopt the manner of a Hopkins “Herr Doktor Professor,” hoping that would give me some authority in the classroom. In my first course, which was on Homer’s Iliad, an argumentative student kept up a disagreement on one Homeric point. When I could not convince her of my position, I huffily quoted Dr. Johnson to her: “I have found you an argument; but I am not obliged to find you an understanding.”
When I told my wife, Natalie, about that day’s class, she was shocked. I had used my position to humiliate a student who was just trying to get to the truth. When I told her the student was a woman (the sole woman student I had amid that hostile university atmosphere of 1962—undergraduate “co-eds” would not be admitted to Hopkins for another eight years), Natalie was distressed. I was not only humiliating a student but bullying her. She asked how I would feel if that happened to our then one-year-old daughter, Lydia, when she went to college. After being put in my place by Natalie, I tried to stay there (it is very helpful to marry someone smarter than yourself).
Even after that correction, I was ill-equipped to cope with the presence of women in a university. There were none in my classes when I was a graduate student at Yale, where they would not be admitted as undergraduates until six years after I got my doctorate. The fact that there was a woman in my graduate class at Hopkins was an oddity, as it would have been at many of the major universities in America. Women had been admitted to graduate programs at Hopkins beginning in 1907, but in a probably apocryphal but typical story, the great classicist Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve (1831–1924) complained that he could not teach the racy Athenian comic dramatist Aristophanes to women. His class was known for its scholarly thoroughness in dragging to light all the slyly dirty jokes in the plays. If he was forced to admit a woman to his Aristophanes class, he said, she would have to sit behind a screen, presumably so he could not see her blush and she could not see him squirm. That was the condescending attitude toward “the fair sex” of the day.
But our day at Hopkins was not much better than Gildersleeve’s. Though I kept the respect instilled by my wife for the one woman in my class, I did not appreciate the effort that student had had to make just to get there. I learned a little about that at my first faculty meeting to allot fellowship money to applicants for the department. When the résumé came up of a woman who clearly merited admission, our archaeologist, John Young, said that no fellowship money should be given to her. “That is just throwing away money that should be saved for those who will advance the profession. Why give money to a woman who, as soon as she becomes pregnant, will drop the profession and start taking care of her babies?” Young was no shining star of the classics world himself, and I would find over the years that some of the people most intent on showing that women could not meet high standards had barely met those standards themselves, if at all. Yet I did not argue with Young. Since I knew that the head of our small department was with him on this, I went along with the policy. No woman received any money over the six years I was in the department.
I knew that opposing the admission of women to protect the standards of the classics profession was a phony argument. I had come to Hopkins from the inaugural year of Harvard’s Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, where I was part of the first class of six junior fellows (young scholars of promise given time off from teaching to develop their research). There were three fellows from America and three from abroad—one from Germany, one from England, one from Italy. The Italian, and our lone woman, was Anna Morpurgo. She was the youngest and clearly the brightest of us. She knew more languages than we did and knew them better.
One day, when we were debating which of Dostoevsky’s novels we considered his greatest, we were struck to find that she had not read any of them. But we soon learned the reason. She said she was waiting until she learned Russian to read him—which, we suspected, might happen tomorrow. Though all the members of this group except me went on to bright careers in philology, she became a particularly dazzling light at Oxford. Even while spending her year with us, she was making the world’s first lexicon of Mycenaean Greek, (“Linear B,” which had been deciphered just five years earlier), and she would prove later on, at Oxford, that the famed Hittite Hieroglyphics were not, in fact, Hittite. I cannot imagine any standards high enough to exclude (or even to faze) Anna.
My next full-time teaching job, after a decade as an adjunct professor at Hopkins, was in the history department of Northwestern University as its first Henry Luce Professor of American History. The opportunities available to women had changed dramatically in that interval. They were being hired for all kinds of jobs—never, of course, in proportion to their numbers in the population, but with increasing frequency. Once, when Natalie and I got on a commuter flight with a woman pilot (at a time when the major airlines were not hiring women), she said, “We were never safer,” since we knew that this pilot had to pass twice the scrutiny any male pilot did. Even advances for women, then, were also inhibitors: they had to earn it twice over.
The Northwestern history department that I joined in 1980 had a few women on the faculty, but two of them were especially overworked. There was such a demand, beyond their fields of American and Renaissance history, for their help—with women’s study groups and for individual counseling of women students—that the women on faculty kept asking for more women to be hired. That should not have been a problem, since there were plenty of candidates, as well as pressure from feminists to add female members of faculty as a mark of diversity.
That very demand made some uneasy about hiring women—or, for that matter, blacks or gays: Would we be seen as hiring them primarily because they were minorities? (Not that women are a minority except in the professional and governing ranks.) So there was especially intense scrutiny given to any of the women brought up for consideration and, once again, the most dubiously qualified male members of the faculty were often the most severe judges of candidates. This process was repeated often enough that our two star women faculty members soon left Northwestern and accepted offers at another school where they would not be overburdened in a department with so few women. That is, we lost two superb women colleagues because we would not hire completely qualified women who might not have been quite at their level.
This dynamic became clear to me when it was my turn to lead a search for our diplomatic historian post. The position had been empty after the retirement in 1980 of Richard Leopold, who had educated many political figures in his popular courses on international relations. Other searches had failed because diplomatic history was in that time a sensitive, if not radioactive, field: it had been in turmoil over cold war history, since bright young revisionists had put much of the blame for competition and escalation of nuclear threats on the United States, rather than laying all of the responsibility on the Soviet Union and its allies. To hire an eminent scholar—even if he (and they were still all men) were willing to move from the embattled post he had won—could be read as siding with the establishment, while hiring a younger voice might be seen, rightly or wrongly, as joining the revisionists.
Two searches had already foundered on this problem by the time my turn came to lead another. Prior effort had revealed that the least controversial senior professors were not interested in leaving their eminent posts, and the younger and more controversial ones had not found a receptive audience among my colleagues. Rather than repeat the earlier baffled searches, I corresponded with prominent older scholars who were above the field’s polarization, asking if they had recent or current students who deserved consideration and might be free of the bitterness of their seniors. After getting almost a dozen recommendations, I started reading just-finished or almost-finished dissertations of young candidates.
I circulated the more promising of these pieces of work to other members of the search committee, we conferred, and we agreed on what seemed an ideal candidate. She came with an enthusiastic recommendation from a famous scholar at the University of Chicago, who called her the best doctoral student he had ever had. Her dissertation was not complete, but it was already so solid that we sent it around the whole department and invited her to Evanston for an interview. She was asked searching questions, which was the praiseworthy practice of our history department, and she answered them carefully but timidly. She was understandably intimidated by a barrage of people determined to show they were not going to hire a woman unless she was above any suspicion of being chosen mainly or even partly because of her gender. Some said granting a position on the basis of an unfinished dissertation would set a bad precedent. I argued that her other work and interests, along with the championing of her adviser at the University of Chicago, made it certain that she would get the doctorate with honors. But she was rejected. I was so disgusted that I resigned my tenure as the Henry Luce Professor at Northwestern. I had spent most of a year hunting for this superbly qualified woman. I saw the same consideration at work that made us lose the two A-level women professors.
The university president, Arnold Weber, invited me to lunch to talk over my resignation. He asked me what had made me take such a rare step. I said I could not do the tasks rightly asked of me as a tenured professor: the time-consuming meetings for hiring, for firing, for tenure advancement, for curriculum changes, for debate on affirmative action and diversity. I told President Weber that these were appropriate debates, but I did not want to be perpetually embroiled in them. He said I could be excused from such debates and still maintain my tenure; but I did not think that was fair to other tenured members of the department. I said I could maintain a light teaching load as an adjunct professor spared all duties of tenure while I concentrated on writing books and long articles of political reportage for The New York Review of Books.
After observing the problems women encountered at the elite colleges where I taught, I noticed similar problems in the protest groups and radical communes I observed as a journalist covering the social turmoil around opposition to the Vietnam War. One commune in the Boston area was a kind of halfway house between the academy and the antiwar movement; several of its members were students or professors at Harvard. They claimed to be free of the “personality cult” found in other insurgent movements, but in fact they found it hard to ensure that they took turns at the “worker” chores with perfect equality. The most publicly recognized member was asked to write manifestos and recruit well-known participants to demonstrations, which made it hard for him to do his share of buying food, cooking, washing dishes, house-cleaning, ironing clothes, and taking out garbage. I was not surprised to find that the minority of women in the commune were doing a majority of these menial tasks.
In a different commune I wrote about in Canada, I found a tougher world of military deserters and draft refusers, and there as well I saw a natural leader doing the propaganda work of these activists, while the women complained that the political revolution their group was calling for did not reflect the sexual revolution actually happening in the world outside that of these radicals. The women were expected to service the men sexually, and they made little headway with their protests other than deserting the deserters.
The fact that such sexism was common on the left as well as the right really came home to me at the progressive Institute for Policy Studies in Washington. I had become a friend of the co-founders, Dick Barnet and Marc Raskin, who put me on the institute’s board. One of the most stylish and winning young fellows there was Ivanhoe Donaldson, the campaign genius of “Snick,” as the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was known, who then became the campaign genius of Marion Barry, the District of Columbia mayor. Both Barry and Donaldson went to prison later—Barry for a few months on a drug possession charge, Donaldson for several years on an embezzlement conviction (he stole nearly $200,000 from city funds).
At the time I met him, though, Donaldson was a star of the early civil rights victories. He liked to tease a young fellow at the IPS for her earnest feminism. She had taken an early stand for a married woman’s keeping her maiden name, and Donaldson used to chant her “important” name as a way of lampooning her feminism. She called him a clear misogynist, but I wasn’t sure. Then, one night when I had been arguing with Donaldson and said I needed to drive home to Baltimore, he wanted to keep the argument going and invited me to dinner, saying I could spend the night in the apartment of a rich patron (he seemed always to have one) who was on a trip to Africa. On the way to dinner, we stopped by the home of a black congressman, who had a liberal white South African woman guest. She was defending a gradual elimination of her homeland’s apartheid system, and when she tried to shout down Donaldson’s objections, he slapped her, hard. He and I were thrown out of the house. Then I was ready to believe the common complaint of women that many of the civil rights leaders were sexual chauvinists.
The commune where I found the most nearly equal division of labor between men and women was different from others in that its pacifism was professedly religious. But this commune in Baltimore had different problems in sharing its workload. The political demonstrations it organized sometimes led to arrests, trials, or imprisonment. Those who were, at any time, engaged in an “action,” as they called it, or in court, or in jail, had to have their domestic assignments taken up by the members who remained at the communal home. And when their numbers were reduced in this way, the less committed members reverted to the stereotypes of “women’s work,” which reasserted themselves even here.
That I found women in these very different situations—the academy and the communes—having to fight for their rights is, with hindsight, not unusual, given the constraints that women faced until very recently. When my wife graduated from Sweet Briar in 1955, for example, there were few professional paths for women in her small town of Wallingford, Connecticut. They could marry and have children, a subordinate role economically, or they could try to make a living on their own—but as what? Friends of hers had to choose from a small range of possible jobs: some were teachers, some nurses, some nuns (who were themselves liable to work as teachers or nurses).
Natalie wanted to leave her small town, but her options were few. One path that was available was to become an airline stewardess (now called a flight attendant). But here, too, since the supply of women was ample, the demands of the airlines could be high: in those days, they hired only single women, chosen partly for looks, preferably with a college education. If a stewardess married, she lost her job. This made stewardesses a cut above a Playboy Bunny and a cut below a Miss America—all three emblems of that paternalistic era. An airline ad of the time promised “We really move our tail for you,” and showed attractive stewardesses serving food and drinks to airplane passengers like airborne Bunnies.
When Natalie went to Eastern Airline’s stewardess school in Florida, she was taught how best to use cosmetics for her face type. Though there was no swimsuit competition, her male interviewer asked her to wrap her skirt tight around her hips and derrière and turn around (it was a “New Look” skirt, voluminous and mid-calf, popularized in the 1950s by Christian Dior). The pretense for this demand was that it showed she could fit down the aisle of the plane, but it was clearly a way to grade her figure. As objectionable as this all was, I am glad she ran the gauntlet, since I would not have met her otherwise. She did not move her tail for me on the plane; she moved her mind, criticizing the book I was reading.
Today, though it is only a short time ago, it can be hard to remember the condition of women then. My wife and daughter often compared the differences for women in each of their generations. Natalie went to Sweet Briar, a women’s college, and became a stewardess. Lydia went to the recently gender-integrated Yale and became a literary agent. After Natalie and I were married, she could not get credit at our bank without my authorization. Just as I had seen at Hopkins and Northwestern, well into the 1960s, women were considered bad risks for professional positions.
At a 1992 American Bar Association meeting that I attended in San Francisco, there was a crowded lunch for the Bar’s women’s caucus. A speaker at the dais asked those in attendance to stand if they were, or had been, the first woman to be the editor of her law school’s journal, to be a partner in her firm, to be the dean of a law school, to be a state judge, a federal judge, a member of her state’s supreme court. By the end of this roll call, hundreds of women were standing, and this had all happened in their lifetimes. Nearly the same thing could have occurred at meetings of doctors, business executives, military leaders, or religious leaders. When I started using the library of the divinity school at Northwestern in 1980, almost all the students there were men preparing for the ministry. Today, most of the students I see in the library are women.
Alter the status of women and you have affected all the most intimate and significant nodes of life: the relation of wife to husband, mother to child, sister to sibling, daughter to parents, worker to coworkers, and employee to employer (or vice versa). This change in women’s standing that happened what seems like yesterday, and is still happening today at an accelerated rate, is the most profound revolution that can take place in a society. It takes and gives energy to all the other reforms of our time. After all, the civil rights movement involves black women, the LGBTQ movement concerns lesbians, the disability rights movement affects disabled women, health care reforms implicate women care-givers and the objects of their care. Raise any part of our society to a more just condition and justice for women is centrally at issue. It is the reform of all reforms and the basic measure of our progress.