Tuesday, October 25, 2011

University Women

When I started my first tenure-track faculty position, the university resource center sent me a brochure with information about a University Women's Club. I thought "Great! It would be interesting to meet other women professors, researchers, staff..", but then I saw that this club met in the mornings, on weekdays, for tennis, bird watching, a book group, handicrafts.. It was a club for faculty wives and partners. I was confused by the name; to me "University Women" included me, when in fact, it did not in this context.

Every new faculty member got this brochure, whether or not they had a wife. I guess it was more efficient to send it to everyone than merely to have it available for those who wanted it. I recycled the brochure and didn't think about it again.

Years later, on arrival at University #2, I saw no such brochure, or, at least, don't remember getting one, and I don't think my husband was given one either, but we arrived with an infant and didn't spend a lot of time going through our campus mail at that time. There may be such a club; I have no idea.

Fast forward 20 years from the first incident: During an extended visit to another university, my husband was given a brochure to give to his wife in case she wanted to get together with other faculty wives at a University Women's Club, which met on weekdays, typically in the mornings. There is tennis, bird watching, a book group, handicrafts..

That's fine. Some of my good friends and neighbors are married to professors; some of these women work, some do not. I am not criticizing anyone for the choices they make in their own life, and I am not criticizing the existence of such clubs, but..

and it may seem like a small 'but'.. but ..

I wish these organizations had a different name.

The name University Women no doubt derives from bygone days when women were far more likely to be connected to a university by marriage than to be employed there as a professor or administrator. The phrase "University Women" used in this classic sense therefore refers to women who are married to professors and administrators (etc.) at a university, not to women who are professors. The University Women are in-laws of the university.

I think the phrase University Women should instead imply 'women who are directly related to a university; i.e., as students or as employees'. The archaic use of the term University Women to refer to faculty wives is rather unhelpful to those of us who would like to overturn the stereotype (at least in certain fields) of professor = man.

If you heard the term "University Men", would you think of the husbands of female professors? I must admit that the term doesn't evoke that for me, or male professors for that matter. What comes first to my mind is an image of well-groomed male students (wearing sweaters, I don't know why). I am therefore not advocating that University Women = Female Professors, just that University Women does not equal Faculty Wives.

I have no idea how active these groups are, and whether their members are mostly/entirely of a certain age, and (I repeat) I have nothing against these groups, I just think the name of these organizations shouldn't imply that the main association that women are likely to have to a university is as wives.


33 comments:

Science Professor Mum said...

We have one here too! I was completely unaware of its existence until recently - but it too started as wives of university staff with similar lecture series, walks etc, mostly during the morning or afternoon.
However, recently, the senior posts in this group have been taken over by two very dynamic women (one the retired first female pro-vice chancellor of the university) and one the wife of a Royal Society professor who I know quite well because he was my PhD advisor. They came to a recent meeting of our "University Women's researcher Group" (therein lies a different story.....) and told us that they wanted to get involved with the "real university women" and do something for women who work here. So far this has meant moving their weekly "walk and talk" session to a lunch time and starting from campus so that more people could join in and use it as a 45 minute break - I feel I should try to attend to support their motives, but surprise surprise I haven't managed it yet! I sent an email suggesting that they could help organise events to showcase women academics, or organise a mentoring scheme, however nothing has come of that so far.

What would we want a "University Women's Club" to look like or do?

Anonymous said...

Ha! I went to a meeting of my university's women's group in my first year too. I LOVE handicrafts, birdwatching, and tennis. I so clearly did not belong there and it was uncomfortable for everyone. And I should have known too -- my mom had the same experience 30+ years ago.

SocSciProf said...

This post prompted me to check what the organization is called at my university. It is the Vanderbilt Woman's (sic) Club. They meet at lunchtime (or brunch, luncheon, or tea - who knew we women had so many names for lunch?) and have events that involve female speakers, like the CEO of Cracker Barrel. Seems interesting, but with an infant and a faculty job, I definitely have no time to check it out.

Anonymous said...

I am curious how open those clubs would be to husbands.

DRo said...

This would bug me too, FSP.

Anonymous said...

I'm very unhappy about this nomenclature too.

In a related vein, at my alma mater (an engineering school in India, almost completely male in faculty and student lists), at annual alumni get-togethers, there is usually a program for accompanying wives. It has now been renamed program for accompanying spouses (AH! VICTORY!!). But in content it is still exclusively oriented towards "feminine interests". What would my husband do there?

Another FSP

Dallas said...

They should be the "auxiliary." My wife is a veterinarian, and while she was in vet school the student chapter of the AVMA had an "auxiliary"--a wives club, from a bygone era when vets were predominantly men. In this case, the auxiliary was mostly male, and we did things as a group and with our spouses too. The name felt so anachronistic, but compared to "university women" it's very progressive.

Amy said...

I am actually writing a book about faculty wives. Most faculty wives clubs started out, in the 1890s, with the name, Faculty Wives Club. In the 1960s and 70s many changed their name to University or College Women to be more inclusive. However many of the members of these clubs are now elderly and therefore they hold the meetings during the day precluding attendance by the working women they are hoping to attract. So it wasn't a mistake that you got the brochure; they probably would have been really happy to have you attend. Could you tell me the names of the schools where this happened?

Anonymous said...

Instead of thinking of it in terms of faculty women who feel excluded, imagine being a University educated woman a few decades ago, married to a University educated man who is employed by the University. There is no University job for her, but the club provides a context for meeting the other educated, underemployed wives.

Like AAUW, it's a place for women with education. My mother-in-law is one such, she stayed home to raise the kids but has an M.A. in education, and is an independent teacher of fine arts, but not employed by a college.

It's not just about the birdwatching, it's about having a community.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree.

Gears said...

I agree. The name "University Women" is totally implying a network-of-sorts of female faculty, staff, and admins that are directly involved with the university.

If it was the "spouse club" or something like that, the meaning would be much more transparent.

Anonymous said...

I agree that the description needs to be changed as it doesn't accurately reflect today's concept. Upon hearing "University Women", I too would think it is a meeting group for female professors, staff, administrators, students and technical support to come together to discuss issues at the University, rather than a support group for spouses of University members. Not to say that the spousal support group is without merit, but that the title no longer suits. Now the conundrum is what to call the spousal support group? (University Spouses just doesn't have a ring to it)

Anonymous said...

This post made me laugh! I am a FSP, offered my first TT position within the last 5 years. While I returned for the second visit, I was taken to several dinners with faculty and their wives. All these women are professionals, but they did try to use the "University Women's Club", and the cooking classes, etc. offered, as a selling point to the university (btw, it's also open to both sexes). I give credit to the head of my program, who upon seeing my expression of shock, wryly added: "I don't think she'll have time for that right now!"

That said, I am in a fairly rural part of the US, and the cooking classes are looking more interesting after a few years, especially to my husband. It would be a good way to meet people from outside one's department, but it would be hard on my ego to be confused for a housewife. I wish they had some type of "faculty club". I would even start smoking cigars for that!

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

Our campus does not have a "University Women" club, I believe. They do have a "Women's Center", which I believe is intended mainly for students, except that it is located on campus where few students will ever find it (at the edge of campus at the back of a parking lot behind a bunch of service buildings and garages). It is a nice building (it used to be the farmhouse, before there was a campus here), but I'm pretty sure it is underutilized.

Barefoot Doctoral said...

I'm glad someone else has this frustration. The "University Women's Club" at my university is actually quite active, but don't really know what to do with faculty members. My favorite story comes from a point when I showed up visibly pregnant to an event, showed my ID, and the woman at the door did a double take when she saw the word faculty written on it. She then proceeded to tell me all the activities they had for graduate students. I have to give her credit for trying.

Anonymous said...

These things exist because people use and support them out of tradition.

My father retired from the military more than 25 years ago but my mother is still involved in the local Officer's Wives Club. They are constantly surprised though at how few young women attend ...

This anachronism will vanish with my mother's generation. And, believe it or not, the military is far more misogynistic than the worst departments I have ever encountered (as a man).

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of when I was a child (80s/90s), every year my mother would accompany my father to a corporate event: "the officers' wives dinner" designed to celebrate the wives who graciously put up with their executive husbands. I remember being perplexed that women couldn't be company executives. My mother explained that they could, there just weren't any. It was a very well-meaning event but I always thought the name had unfortunate implications.

Anonymous said...

University Men do, unequivocally, wear sweaters. Mostly v-necks.

MamaRox said...

I had exactly the same image of University Men with the sweatered young men. Mine were in white V-necks, with blue trim...

University Women I can imagine only in black-and-white, playing tennis in long skirts.

Some gender-specific organizations like these conjure up bygone days, or at least polyester uniforms: boy scouts and girl guides. Although if you put a profession-specific word it, I imagine people like me, today: Society of Women Engineers, Association of Women Geoscientists.

How about University Families & Friends? That might be a club for unemployed/idle spouses, children, and alumni of the university...

Anonymous said...

One of those exists at my university. It used to be called the Faculty Wives Club. Now it is the Faculty Spouses Club but it is still all older stay at home women. I went to one event (not knowing who was there) and promptly ran away as fast and as far as I could.

Anonymous said...

I would have thought that "university women" is the new p.c. term for the club. At my U, it used to be Faculty Wives Club and it is now Faculty Women's Club, "Open to all women who are spouses of U faculty or female faculty members". The title doesn't fit the former group as well, but is clearly an effort by the founding wives to be more inclusive and welcoming of the women faculty.

I've been to a few events and found them pleasant, but can hardly find the time to attend regularly. I don't have a problem with its existence.

Brenda said...

Although this article is from September (and thus you might have seen it already), I thought you might be interested in the news of grants being more flexible for women having children:
http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2011/09/27/nsf_announces_changes_in_grant_rules_to_encourage_women_in_stem_fields

Anonymous said...

I had exactly the Same thing happen at my University when I was hired 4 years ago. But my University seems to be stuck in the 1950s on a variety of issues.

Anonymous said...

In addition, the current name actively excludes non-working male spouses of women professors, administrators, etc. If we really want equality we have to make it as equally acceptable for men to stay home and take care of children as it is for women to do so. Men who currently choose this path are terribly isolated. Do the "University Women" Clubs allow non-working male spouses to join? I'd be curious. In any case, yes, a new name is in order.

Julia K said...

FSP, I think you are being generous. I am less inclined to see these organizations as merely benign. I think they hark back to the days when a professor's (man's) career was partly "made" by the support that his wife provided as primary caregiver to their children, as chef, as hostess, as homemaker, as nurse, as launderer, even as caregiver to his aging parents. These male professors' careers were greatly facilitated by not "having to" take on these roles.

It's a significant disadvantage, career-wise, to not have a "wife" to do these things. On the other hand, these men missed out on a lot of high points particularly in the lives of their children. I am not wishing to change places with these men. I just wish we would stop celebrating (as "choices") these kinds of institutions and practices that are largely unavailable to women. For many good reasons, most husbands/partners of female professors do not favor this model of marriage and in fact many female professors would not choose (and have not chosen) to have such a "wife", even if one was offered. I personally am glad to see the end of university clubs for faculty spouses. Yet, my own university DOES still have such a club, and YES as a new professor I was invited to encourage my "wife" to join it. I, too, recycled the invitation but I didn't forget about it.

Anonymous said...

We have one of these clubs, but no "Association of Women in Science" chapter.

Anonymous said...

In response to Anon 8:12, in my field we still have a number of professional meetings that include a wives' or spouses' tour. My coworker is a regular attendee and sometimes organizer for one such society, and her husband is often the lone shot of testosterone on the wives' tour (which that group still calls it). Apparently he has a blast hanging out with a bunch of women old enough to be his mother, and is in demand as the designated purse holder and shopping bag carrier for several of the ladies.

Anonymous said...

My husband was hired at my college a year after me, in a one-year visiting position. I was invited to the women's club twice: once when I was hired, then again when he was hired. Awkward.

Eve said...

So, this is pretty awesome: I also pictured the University Men in sweaters. Specifically shawl-neck sweaters, and looking like they came from an Eaton's/Sears catalogue.

Anonymous said...

Housewives of academe! Start the cameras rolling.

profacero said...

When I was a child there was a Faculty Wives' club. It became University Women in the 70s so that more could join and it as a women's organization could do more things. Get staff including janitorial staff involved; retired women faculty; etc. People not working or working 40- hours were in a position to organize to a degree working faculty can't due to the time factor. Some pretty good work can get catalyzed in these groups: I remember peace work, organizing against the oil slick, organizing for the grape boycott, etc. I wouldn't denigrate it just because it also has bird watching or because the one at your university is namby pamby and so on.

What we have here seems to be by college: friends of the library, friends of the liberal arts, etc., and it really means families and sometimes also plain old friends, trailing lovers, etc. of any gender. They get together socially to talk about things educated people would.

profacero said...

And/but also: the point of the old faculty wives' clubs was to sort things out. Wives find ways to smooth things over at work and so on. Yes *of course* it all comes from the bad old days and is part of the patriarchal structure and so on and so forth. And yes they have to invite you, all campus organizations do, otherwise they'd be excluding you, etc.

Anonymous said...

My father-in-law is an academic and my mother-in-law is one of the queen bees of the University Women's Club (as it is called). When I got my first academic position, I was told by my mother in law to join the women's club, to which I responded: "Isn't that a thing for faculty spouses? Shouldn't you tell your son to join the women's club?" Surprisingly, my husband has yet to join our university's women's club.