100 Years of Sexism: An AAUW Fellow Reflects on Women’s Treatment in Academia

A vintage image of a lecture hall filled with women students, with a professor teaching up front

A Radcliffe professor teaches a lecture in the business administration program, circa 1954. Image via Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America

July 12, 2016

Anthropologist and 1942–43 AAUW Fellow Elizabeth Colson remembers a time when female students at Radcliffe College were only allowed to use Harvard’s reference library if they stood. If they sat down to work in earnest, they would be asked to leave.

Colson recalled in an interview for the University of California Digital Libraries that when she was in school, Radcliffe College students were barred from attending many Harvard classes in order to keep the sexes segregated. She successfully sought permission from a Radcliffe professor to sit in on one of his Harvard classes, though she was not formally recognized as a student. Other women, she remembered, had no choice but to sit in the hallways to hear the lectures at all.

And things were not much better for women working in academia. Colson recounted how her early mentor, Ruth Sawtell Wallis, lost her position in academia when she got married “because married women were not to have jobs.”

Colson worked to rectify discrimination in academia. In 1969, she co-chaired the University of California, Berkeley, Academic Senate Subcommittee on the Status of Women. The committee found that the school had fewer women faculty in 1969 than it had had in the 1920s. Though Title VII had been instated five years earlier to protect women’s professional opportunities, putting gender equity into practice took effort. Colson described the delicate balance of pushing for parity while trying not to rock the boat: “I’ve integrated more [faculty] committees than I wish to remember — I used to think of it as a process, something like that of a birdwatcher. You kept very quiet until they got used to your being there, and then you could move.”

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While legal protections like Title VII are meant to guarantee availability of career opportunities, not every workplace abides by these laws. Colson and her colleagues urged their male peers to keep this in mind when hiring and forming working groups. She remembers pointing out the absence of women on influential committees to her male peers, only to be told that women should form their own organizations rather than seek admission to the established ones. “At that point,” she said, “I felt it was advisable if the council remembered that, like universities, it was vulnerable [to legal prosecution].”

AAUW’s report Barriers and Bias: The Status of Women in Leadership confirms many of the challenges Colson faced in academia. Although women today are more likely than men to hold secondary and postsecondary degrees, they continue to be underrepresented in academia. Not only are there few female deans and presidents, but there are fewer female than male professors and tenured faculty. More women in positions of authority mean more women are likely to be hired, so this lapse in higher-ranking faculty has far-reaching ramifications.

While the problems may have persisted, many of the strategies Colson used to improve things for women in 60s and 70s also remain relevant and effective. Exposure to female role models and mentors, for example — such as in the relationship between Colson and Ruth Sawtell Wallis — can make a positive difference in young women’s professional confidence and ambitions.

Aside from advocating for women in academia, she also fought for social justice through anthropology, specifically studying the effects of forced relocation. As she approaches her 100th birthday next June, Colson is held in high esteem in her field. She currently holds the position of professor emerita of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley.

This post was written by AAUW Archives Intern Teal Gregory.



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