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February 23, 2011

When I first thought about writing this essay, I was a little afraid of what I might say -- and who might read it.

From my perspective as a woman in higher education, I've seen many changes over the years. For instance, since the advent of the feminist movement, many other feminisms have arisen representing those who felt disconnected from the original effort. Courses in Sociolinguistics and Women's Studies have been developed and populated by people who ardently support women's issues and equality. Many women have encouraged and accepted men into the movement, believing that a feminist is "each and every politically and socially conscious woman or man who works for equality within or outside the movement, writes about feminism, or calls her- or himself a feminist in the name of furthering equality," according to Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards in their book, Manifesta. Indeed, academia has become a place where you'd think that women would find a resolution of gender-related issues. But -- I'm sorry to say -- I've seen many backward steps in academic settings that tend to keep women in marginalized positions.

I wholeheartedly agree with Merle Hoffman, who notes that "thought and action are the fault lines that matter." And for years, I have watched the actions of women around me in academia. What I have found is that, many times, those women are far worse in their treatment of other women in subordinate positions.

At one institution where I worked, a thriving Women's Studies Program developed over several years. The woman who was the driving force was a tenured associate professor. Due to student and faculty interest, time and financial resources were devoted to establishing the program. For a few years, various women taught the classes, and male and female students enrolled in them. The program gained visibility at the institution and in the area. An office and library were designated for its use, and greater reassigned time was granted to the director. About ten years into the program's existence, however, the state's economy sagged. First, the office areas were reassigned. Shortly afterwards, the director resigned her position, suggesting that an adjunct faculty member be appointed instead. This temporary faculty member became solely responsible for overseeing a program that had no office or library space. The following year, a near-fatal loss of money budgeted for the program dealt another terrible blow.

As I observed the situation and tried to help my then-colleague manage a program with no resources, I also witnessed the complete disregard of the other women -- all of whom identified themselves as feminists -- for the temporary faculty member and her work. Often, the new director spent her own money (her salary was a fraction of what the former director earned) to buy supplies and books. Although the university continued to offer the courses, the numbers of faculty willing to teach them dwindled. Increasingly, students took one introductory class, but few undertook a more lengthy course of study.

During my time at another institution, I observed mistreatment of female administrative support staff. Once, I walked into the main department office and heard a faculty member -- our leading "feminist" -- screaming at a staff member over travel reimbursement. Apparently, the faculty member had filed forms that had been processed by the staff member. When the resulting check had not appeared, the faculty member blamed the staff member rather than the myriad other offices processing the paperwork. This same "feminist" was a woman who, later in the semester, entered my office and shouted at me for not demonstrating what she believed was an appropriate amount of respect for her personally, forgetting -- it seems -- how respect is earned.

At yet another institution, I saw a steady parade of young, female graduate students move through a graduate program, gaining power from their associations with tenured male faculty members. While I don't know the exact nature of these women's relationships with senior faculty members, I did see these women use their bodies to gain advantages over other graduate students, both male and female.

My point here is not necessarily to expose bad behavior in academia. Instead, I want to emphasize that, in a supposedly enlightened professional environment, women are often part of cycles of disrespectful treatment of themselves and others. And if the academy is a microcosm of what occurs in other professional environments, then I am deeply concerned about the future of feminisms in our country.