Sunday, February 11, 2007

Faculty Wives

A grad student was commenting recently that she didn't know what to say to her advisor's wife when they met at social functions. The concept of a 'faculty wife' (stay-at-home mom with professor husband) seemed very strange and remote to the student. I sort of know what she means, and I hate it when people think I am a traditional 'faculty wife' just because my husband is a professor, but I thought the student's discomfort was a bit extreme. I had dinner with a colleague and his very traditional 'faculty wife' last week, and we had a great time talking about the things you talk about with people who aren't necessarily scientists: politics, travel, books, etc. I know that the situation is not completely analogous -- it is easier for me as an 'older person' to interact socially with colleagues and their wives than it is for the student to socialize with professorial spouses -- but the point is that 'faculty wives' are not necessarily alien beings with whom one cannot converse.

Perhaps part of the student's discomfort related to the fact that her advisor is a very private person and it was therefore disconcerting to be confronted with part of his private life. Perhaps the student feared that her advisor's spouse would start talking about what she was getting her husband for Valentine's Day, or what kind of socks he likes to wear. In an effort to convince the student that she could relate to her advisor's wife, someone told her that this particular spouse is in fact a brilliant scientist who was not given a faculty position here when her husband was hired, who spent years raising her own salary from grants and contracts, and who finally gave up and now just stays at home with the kids and does volunteer work at schools and so on. This information really shocked the student, and it occurred to me that this might make the student more rather than less uncomfortable around her advisor's wife, knowing that bit of history. But it's the truth, and I think it's best that the student knows it, whether or not it helps her find things to say when standing around the cheese tray at the next department social function.


Mr. B. said...


First - hopefully, in the not too distant future - same sex partners of faculty will attend such functions. As you no doubt know there are some openly gay faculty members even in chemistry departments quite high up the greasy pole. Mr. B. thinks this is a good thing.

But your post actually reminded me of the Pauli Exclusion Principle (really). My advisor (RB) at University was at Princeton as a graduate student in the thirties, when Wolfgang Pauli was there. Pauli had a young wife; she liked to dance, particularly with graduate students. RB was dancing with her at the end of a party and it was snowing. She offered to have Wolfgang give him a lift home. When they went to the car, Pauli noted that his wife had forgotten her boots and asked the graduate student to retrieve them. When he did, Pauli asked him to deposit them in the back seat and then sped off leaving RB standing there.

This is an example of the Pauli exclusion principle.

KT said...

When I was a graduate student I was torn many times at gatherings. Talk science with the old men, or talk current affairs etc with their wives. I like to meet new people, so often I would want to meet the wives and get to know them - heck I saw their husbands everyday. But I wanted to be taken seriously, so I should hang with the men....or does it matter. Often this debate was going on in my head during parties.....

Maybe it shouldn't have, but it was.

Anonymous said...

And then there's my husband, who has some science background but is not a scientist. Does he get to talk with the scientists or is he relegated to the "wives"? (I personally would often rather talk about anything BUT sciente in a social gathering, but that's beside the point.)

I join Mr. B. in hoping that the diversity of "science spouses" increases rapidly!

Anonymous said...

Sounds like the student has a bad case of academic snobbery to me. Not being able to socialize with people they don't know because they are not scientists? Please. Leave the lab once in awhile.

Anonymous said...

As a 'faculty wife' in the 1970's and 80's I often found myself the centre of attention by male professors, colleagues of my husband, who it seemed saw me first as an attractive but likely empty headed young woman and then later as the increasingly pathetic and aging woman, bored as a hang about or tag along at faculty parties. With female professors, on the other hand, I was seen as a welcome breath of fresh air who was not competing with them for prestige or placement in the world of academe but who, rather, lived in the more immediately gratifying world of the mother and wife caring for the things that mattered most to everyone: the children, the home, and the private spaces of both faculty member and his spouse. Thank you to those young female assistat professors, for example, whom I met at academic conferences and who welcomed me amongst them just as I silently supported and encouraged them on their chosen paths. At the base of all the competitiveness and fear they seemed to know that we are all just ordinary women, and the loving human beings we were always meant to be. Not professors perhaps, but learning throughout each day of our life, and sometimes ultimately also leaving.