Finding Women in History

Note: This post is a shortened version of the presentation Robert Townsend gave at the 2008 Berkshire Conference on the History of Women. See also last Wednesday’s post by David Darlington on coverage of the conference: Reports from the 2008 Berkshire Conference on the History of Women.

It is difficult to find a fair benchmark for assessing the progress of women in the history discipline. As you probably know, history is much less diverse than the larger American population, so setting the benchmark at 51 percent seems unfair. So for comparisons sake, let me use a benchmark that seems more comparable—the representation of women at the last Republican National Convention.

Proportion of Women at 2004 Republican Convention Compared to History Faculty, PhDs, and American Historical Association membersAccording to CBS, 43 percent of the delegates to the Republican convention were women. Unfortunately, history fails even by that modest test. The latest federal snapshot shows that just barely 30 percent of the history faculty in American colleges and universities are women. At the AHA we do slightly better, but only by just a bit. Currently 37 percent of our members are women. The only place where the discipline comes close to the Republicans is in the representation among new PhD’s—where women account for 42 percent.

The static picture depicted here seems troubling enough, but I think when viewed over time, the long-term trends appear even worse than this suggests. On each of these benchmarks it appears we have hit the glass ceiling and even modest progress has stopped.

Proportion of Women Earning Baccalaureate Degrees in Disciplines, 1965-66 to 2005-06The problems for the discipline start at the very beginning of the academic pipeline, among those earning their undergraduate degrees. Over the past decade, women have earned an average of about 40 percent of baccalaureate degrees in history, with very little change since the 1970s.

The static nature of these trends becomes much clearer when we compare history to the other humanities and social science disciplines. The proportion of women earning degrees in the social sciences was almost comparable to history back in the 1960s. But over the past 40 years women earning undergraduate degrees in the social sciences have become comparable to the larger American population. I think this suggests a fundamental problem for the discipline that goes beyond the leaky pipeline.

Proportion of Women Earning Doctorates in Disciplines, 1965-66 to 2005-06If you look at the trends among those earning doctoral degrees in history, you will see that women earn a slightly larger proportion of the degrees than they do at the undergraduate level (which is fairly unusual among the other disciplines). But here again, you can see that progress in this area has essentially stalled over the past decade. It is really only when you look back over a 40 year span that you can detect significant improvement in the discipline. But most of that improvement occurred between the late 1960s and 1980, when the representation of women among new history PhD’s expanded from 32 percent to about 38 to 39 percent. It was only by the late 1990s that history tipped over the 40 percent mark, and it has been essentially stuck there ever since.

This is markedly different from the other humanities and social science disciplines. Among the humanities disciplines, women were already earning half the doctorates by 1966, and they have been earning almost 60 percent of the degrees over the past decade. I think the more interesting comparison is again to the other social sciences, which lagged slightly behind history 40 years ago, moved ahead of history in the mid-1970s, and has conferred over half of their doctoral degrees on women since 2000.

Proportion of Female Faculty in Discipline So as we approach the situation for academic employment, you can see that we have a problem right at the start of the academic pipeline.

Just looking at history in comparison to the other two broad fields over the past decade, you can see that history has made some modest improvements. In a survey the AHA conducted in 1980 (which I don’t show here), we found that women comprised just 14 percent of all history faculty. By 1992 women reached 25 percent, and are now up to almost 31 percent of the faculty. But as this suggests, over the past decade, we have only been increasing the proportion of women in history at a rate of about two or three percent every five years. At this rate, the discipline may surpass the representation of women at the 2036 Republican convention.

Proportion of Female Historians at Rank or StatusBut the latest federal survey offers some rather troubling news when we break the gender distribution down by ranks. Compared to a decade earlier, we see the cohort of women who entered the discipline in the late 80s and early 90s moving into the higher ranks, but as you can see, there is a very troubling drop in the proportion of women entering the field at the assistant professor level. What is particularly troubling is that the proportion of female assistant professors is now lower than their representation among new history PhD’s. This suggests that there may be some retrenchment in the recent gains for women over the coming decade—at the very least, there will be fewer women to move up to the associate professor level.

Even without delving into the problem of leaks in the pipeline, the data suggests that there are fundamental problems in the pipeline from beginning to end. The numbers seem to catalog a number of difficult truths about the history discipline and the limited gains women have made over the past 40 years.

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