Beyond Limits: Leaping Above the Net
Caryn McTighe Musil
By Caryn McTighe Musil, director of the Program on the Status and Education of Women, Association of American Colleges and Universities
I walked into the gymnasium on the outskirts of Phoenix with my nephew, who had spent the morning at the softball field with his younger daughter. Along with eighty-five other fourth and fifth graders, she was trying out for the city’s club teams. Despite never playing organized softball before, Karly had smacked her first pitch to the outfield and then grounded the next two into the infield. From the softball field, they had sped to meet me at their house and then to the gym, where my nephew’s wife had been since 7:00 a.m. with Kali, their seventh grader, who was in a volleyball tournament. For this pre-Title IX great-aunt who has spent her life trying to create a world without limits for women and girls, the scene we found there was breathtaking.
The gym was teeming with adolescent girls leaping above the net, sliding along the polished wood floor to save a point, and whacking their serves to the far corners of their opponents’ court with a studied ferocity. Their hair pulled back into practical ponytails and their outfits designed to give them freedom to play unhindered, these young athletes were moving with unconscious grace. Without fanfare, they were claiming the power and possibilities of what their bodies could do and learning by trial and error how much more successful they were as a team when they moved as an organic unit.
Forty Years of Labor
The scene caused me to wonder, “What has my generation bequeathed to this group of young girls that has helped them leap above the net rather than get entangled in it?” And what will they require from their college educations to gain the knowledge, skills, commitment, and vision they will need to be positive forces for change throughout their lives, to claim lifelong learning along with lifelong allegiance to gender equality reformulated for their age and its particular challenges?
To answer that question, I reflected on what helped my generation leap above the nets that confined our thinking, our careers, our civic agency, and our futures. In 1971, when Bunny Sandler was hired by AAC&U’s president to start the Program on the Status and Education of Women (PSEW), I was just beginning my professional career as a college professor. Despite the revolution of the civil rights movement that ended our apartheid higher education system, most campuses were still overwhelmingly monocultural by race. Title IX and affirmative action had not been instituted, and to most people, gay meant a state of euphoria. The field of women’s studies was only a whisper and the overall curriculum was distorted by exclusionary habits. Despite women’s climb to being over 40 percent of all college students by 1970 (US Department of Education 2010), women presidents were a rarity, deans not much less so, and the 23 percent of faculty members who were female were usually located in lower ranks and divided among only a few departments (Glazer-Raymo 1999, 49).
Four decades later, there is much to be proud of. As PSEW’s fortieth anniversary brochure timeline indicates, by all kinds of measures, women and girls have stormed the imposed limits—physical, legal, intellectual, and professional. Billie Jean King’s triumphant victory over Bobby Riggs was but a foretaste of the full flowering of women and girls’ athletic prowess that we almost take for granted now (although male teams, even losing ones, continue to draw larger crowds and to launch athletes into much more lucrative professional athletic careers). Women now earn the majority of undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral degrees and nearly half of law and medical degrees; are 42 percent of the faculty; and are nearly a quarter of college presidents (US Department of Education 2010; American Council on Education 2007). Hardly an academic discipline has not been affected by feminist scholarship, and our institutions are now richly, if not yet representatively, diverse across multiple markers.
The transformation did not occur simply because time passed, but for three major reasons. We feminists in the academy organized at multiple levels across many arenas; collaborated with others rather than working solo; and invented new structures and vehicles needed to achieve the changes we were seeking. We did all of this against a backdrop of political change that was moving the country toward a more fully participatory, less racially exclusionary democracy, and while working in concert with a wide-ranging women’s movement that benefitted from the scholarship and theory being generated by the academy—which benefitted in turn from the questions and issues the women’s movement was raising. Finally, most of us were carried through the difficult transformation inspired by a passion for intellectual investigations, a devotion to the intellectual and moral growth of all students, and a calling as educators, whether in the classroom, the administration building, or campus life.
But PSEW’s Measure of Equity status report on women in higher education identified troubling news behind otherwise glowing figures from this period of extraordinary change (Touchton 2008). Alarming numbers of boys of color are not finishing high school; economic status typically still determines who is awarded a college degree; and certain academic disciplines such as the physical sciences, computer science, and engineering stubbornly remain the province of men. Women faculty advance more slowly than their male counterparts and are paid less for the same work. Meanwhile, the entire professoriate is undergoing a shift to contingent status, and women are a disproportionate percentage of those hires. The percentage of women presidents has flatlined without coming close to racial parity for either men or women of color. Unlike their male counterparts, women who do move into presidencies are typically unmarried and without children. The work is clearly not yet complete, and the limits are still in place.
These days, however, the nets are often made of finer threads and are thus less visible. Women in the United States are more prepared for leadership and achievement than ever before, but the arenas in which they study and especially where they work do not seem to be ready for them. Twenty-first-century women find themselves in organizations designed for an early twentieth-century world. While my generation helped open doors to hitherto male-only professional spaces, now that women are inside, those spaces can feel more like traps than opportunities. Many kinds of work still carry the vestiges of an old order—organized to accommodate a person with someone else at home to care for children and elders and attend to household matters, and rewarding the worker who accumulates hours the way a barrel collects raindrops in a thunderstorm. Women who didn’t really want to replicate the traditional male patterns in which work consumed the vast majority of one’s waking hours and hoped instead for arrangements that would accommodate their multiple commitments and dreams too often feel they have been snared, not liberated.
“I didn’t become a feminist,” a young woman in her early thirties recently said, “until I worked in my company for five years.” My husband often jokes that he keeps trying to give away his white male privilege, but even in his sixties, life keeps handing him more accolades faster and for less effort than many women he knows.
There are some guideposts to refer to for the next generation’s work in gender equity. As a young student and faculty member, I was cautioned not to invest in questions about women and gender because the preposterous notions those questions raised were irrelevant fictions—advice I gladly ignored. Likewise, women students today need to ignore assurances that this century is “beyond gender,” instead honing their analyses carefully to account for the complexities of who half the world’s people are and what they need. If the civil rights movement offered classic testimony about what happens when one seizes democratic power while being authorized to have none, today’s women and girls in the United States can learn from struggles for democracy around the globe. Egyptians, for example, thronged the streets in a well-orchestrated campaign, insisting on regime change. They were not asking to occupy the palace, but for the palace’s underlying economic and authoritarian structure to be dismantled and replaced with something more democratic and egalitarian.
My great-niece and her teammates on the volleyball court were coming into their own physical powers, but they were learning that individual prowess was of very little value if they didn’t work together in coordinated and strategic ways. Athletic courts after Title IX have offered girls and women genuine spaces of liberation and places to practice working on each other’s behalf toward shared goals. Kali and Karly’s generation will need to take that learning beyond the gym and the softball field and use it to shape the realms of work and civic discourse to build a world where people live responsibly in common with others. Part of what will equip them to take on such obligations and opportunities should be their college education. In the public space of higher education, now shared by the most diverse student body in our nation’s history, we educators need to offer the civic and intellectual experiences that will nurture new generations’ abilities to organize, collaborate, and invent as they are challenged to apply their knowledge and values to addressing the urgent problems of their century. These young women of such promise need to be able to leap above the net—not become entangled in it—as they work to transform their world. Higher education should do its part to be sure that happens.
American Council on Education. 2007. The American College President, 2007 Edition. Washington, DC: American Council on Education.
Glazer-Raymo, Judith. 1999. Shattering the Myths: Women in Academe. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Touchton, Judy, Caryn McTighe Musil, and Kathryn Peltier Campbell. 2008. A Measure of Equity: Women’s Progress in Higher Education. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.
US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. 2010. Digest of Education Statistics: 2009 (NCES 2010-013). Washington, DC: US Department of Education. http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d09/tables_3.asp.