Sharing the Journey: Three Generations of PSEW
Caryn McTighe Musil and Bernice Resnick Sandler
By Kathryn Peltier Campbell, editor of On Campus with Women
On January 5, 2011, Bernice Resnick Sandler, Caryn McTighe Musil, and I gathered in AAC&U’s offices to discuss the history of the Program on the Status and Education of Women (PSEW), founded in 1971 just as the women’s movement was beginning to take hold across the United States. It was a poignant reunion: Bernice Sandler (known as Bunny to many) had served as the program’s founding director and guided its prodigious output for its first twenty years, while Caryn McTighe Musil stepped into the directorship to lead the course of its second two decades. Despite this shared commitment and related collaborations over the years, our meeting represented the first time the two directors had sat down together specifically for the purposes of discussing the program. I was honored to be part of that conversation.
As someone born years after Title IX’s passage, I have frequently taken it—and, consequently, the work that organizations like AAC&U have done to support it—somewhat for granted. I never lived in a world where women went to college in small numbers, where open gender discrimination was both acceptable and legal, or where girls weren’t told (whether the evidence existed or not) that they could become president someday. I have Bunny and Caryn, and countless others like them, to thank for that. Their work has paved the way for the gender equity advocacy that I now do as a PSEW staffer, and for the shared work that we engage in to advance women in higher education. Our conversation brought to light the institutional history behind that work over PSEW’s past forty years.
Advocating for Women: 1971–1991
In the early 1970s, the landscape for women in higher education was relatively bleak. Bunny outlined some telling statistics: Most medical schools accepted only a few women by quota. Cornell University’s veterinary school accepted two women a year. In the early 1960s, twenty-one thousand women were denied admission to Virginia state colleges and universities—during a time when not a single male applicant was turned away. Yet despite these obvious restrictions, there were no data available that demonstrated the scope of women’s disenfranchisement in higher education as students and as faculty—for example, that higher ranks corresponded with fewer women. As Bunny recalled, discrimination against women was overt and framed to seem rational. It was not unusual for a department chair to tell a female job candidate, “Your qualifications are excellent, but we already have a woman,” or to ask, “We see you are married. How will this affect your job?”
Women were beginning to protest against these conditions through publications, speeches, and public demonstrations that were starting to appear in the press. As the debate about women’s equity gained momentum and public recognition, AAC&U—then the Association of American Colleges, or AAC—decided to take a stand by creating the first national project on the status of women in higher education. The association’s then-president, Frederick Ness, had five daughters, and Bunny speculates that this gave him a deep awareness of the challenges women faced. When AAC contacted Bunny, she had recently completed her work at the US House of Representatives, where she testified and organized hearings on Title IX. By day, she was finishing the education section of a larger report on sex discrimination prepared for the secretary of what was then the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. At night, she was filing charges of sex discrimination against institutions of higher education. Female faculty, staff, and students were not covered by any antidiscrimination laws, but Bunny had discovered a little-known executive order that bans employment discrimination in any entity holding federal contracts. She realized that many colleges and universities had such contracts and knew the order would provide recourse. As a member of the Women’s Equity Action League (WEAL)—a relatively moderate organization at the time—Bunny gathered data and filed administrative charges against colleges around the country. Her experience gave her the deep expertise AAC needed to launch its new Project on the Status and Education of Women.
Bunny became PSEW director in 1971 and began her work at AAC with a single assistant. These were the days before the Internet, and as the project began to find its legs, Bunny realized that a newsletter would be an important contribution to the higher education landscape and an invaluable tool for advocates and administrators on campus. Seeing that women in academe were becoming actively engaged in organizing and lobbying for new programs and policies concerning women on campus, Bunny knew that academic women could be even more effective advocates for themselves and others if they had the information they needed. She recognized that campus administrators needed the same information so that they could effectively implement the changes necessary to provide a more equitable environment.
The first few issues of the newsletter On Campus with Women (OCWW) were mimeographed. OCWW included as much information as staff could find about new developments affecting women in higher education: new guidelines on sexual harassment, new campus women’s commissions, emerging policies and practices, and various legal developments—including the implications of Title IX, which became law in 1972. Bunny recounted how the project became an information hub for topics like sexual harassment, which was just becoming part of the popular lexicon in the mid-1970s. People who were concerned about addressing these and other issues would call PSEW for advice and share their own stories in the process. PSEW drew attention to the new ideas garnered through these exchanges in its quarterly mailings to AAC members. The project’s staff framed the information as useful to colleges who wanted to be proactive not only in helping campuses avoid lawsuits, but also in creating fair and equitable policies and programs. At the same time, the project offered this information as a way to help women and their colleagues become successful advocates. The project grew prodigiously, at one point employing as many as twelve staffers. As the work expanded, it engaged in many “firsts”:
- The first analysis of how Title IX applied to single-sex educational programs
- The first chart comparing discrimination laws for a higher education audience (which the US Office for Civil Rights reprinted and mailed to every school in the country)
- The first set of papers on women of color in higher education
- The first analysis of how laws against age discrimination applied to older women on campuses
- The first national report on sexual harassment on campus
- The first national report on sex discrimination in collegiate athletics, which informed the Department of Education’s guidelines on athletics
- The first report on the “chilly climate,” another term the project invented
- The first report on how campus prizes can inadvertently exclude women
- The first report on campus “gang rape”—a term Bunny and her staff invented in response to stories they heard from women on campus
- The first report on campus peer harassment, including bullying
- The first report issuing guidelines for faculty search committees to help them identify whether applicants would be strong advocates for women
The project also produced papers on mentoring, on evaluating course content, and on nonsexist language, among many other topics. While Bunny was director, PSEW distributed about one hundred papers in addition to the quarterly publication of On Campus with Women.
At a time when the women’s movement was typically perceived as existing on the fringes, AAC’s imprimatur gave women’s issues, as well as the emerging discipline of women’s studies, credibility and legitimacy. In addition, the project produced reports that crossed the desks of college and university presidents around the country, raising their awareness even if some read only the headlines. The resulting impact was incremental but indispensible.
Joining Theory and Practice: 1991–2011
Long before joining PSEW as a staff member, Caryn could testify to its impact as an early and eager recipient of the materials the project sent to campuses. She joined the English department of LaSalle University in the same year that PSEW was founded and only a year after the college became coeducational. As one of only nine women on the faculty, she faced the challenge of instigating a true demographic and cultural shift. PSEW was a critical information source for her during her earliest years working to increase women’s presence on campus.
Thus just as Bunny was accomplishing a number of firsts on the national higher education landscape, Caryn was breaking barriers at LaSalle. While there, she taught the college’s first women’s studies course in 1973 and helped organize the Delaware Valley Women’s Studies Consortium, a volunteer-based, cross-disciplinary coalition of professors in the Philadelphia area working together to understand the discipline’s new intellectual work. She was an early Title IX coordinator, and she helped organize women faculty around shared concerns like safety for women students. In all this work, PSEW’s publications were a critical resource, providing the sense that the changes at LaSalle were part of a national movement even though sometimes the women there actually felt isolated.
In 1984, Caryn was appointed director of the National Women’s Studies Association, a role she fulfilled for seven years before bringing her experience in faculty development, curricular transformation, and student-centered pedagogies to AAC. She recalls coming to the program with “a real commitment to representing the voices and perspectives of multiple kinds of women who had many selves they could bring simultaneously” to their work in higher education. Describing herself as deeply influenced by the social movements of the 1960s, Caryn explained how race-centered activism had led her and others of her generation to articulate what was missing from higher education. She recalls beginning to ask not only “Where are the people of color?” but also “Where are the women of all races?” These key questions informed her consciousness about challenges to equity in higher education.
Caryn’s commitment to this multifaceted vision of equity guided the many projects she took on as the second director of PSEW, the name of which she shifted from “Project” to “Program.” During Caryn’s directorship, PSEW has continued Bunny’s work to produce On Campus with Women as a resource for campuses and completed the women of color series that Bunny initiated. Significantly, the second two decades of PSEW also marked the integration of gender across AAC&U’s projects. During the 1990s, AAC&U (which added “Universities” to its name in 1995) took a fresh look at the critical intersections between the scholarships of diversity and democracy through its American Commitments campaign. It also drew from the theoretical contributions of women’s studies to conceptualize pluralism as broadly as possible. The organization began to move from asking separate questions about gender to seeing gender as playing a critical role in the comprehensive work of inclusive excellence.
Supported by a National Science Foundation grant in the early 2000s, PSEW contributed to the burgeoning work on gender and the curriculum with the Women and Scientific Literacy project. Project participants asked, “How can we include questions about women and gender in the science curriculum?” and “How can we integrate questions about science into nonscience courses?” Women’s studies had always brought nonscientific knowledge to bear in analyzing how science operated, but the Women and Scientific Literacy project opened the flow of information in the opposite direction, bringing scientists into the conversation. Project participants from multiple disciplines introduced women’s studies in their pedagogies and classrooms, in effect, as one project publication put it, “Building Two-Way Streets.”
Since 2000, PSEW has also leveraged AAC&U’s support to try to accelerate and amplify progress for women. Program staff played a key leadership role in the National Teleconference for Women in Higher Education that the University of Minnesota hosted in 2000—a pivotal event where participants looked both back and forward to establish “a new agenda for the twenty-first century.” When Campus Women Lead was formed as a collaborative to sustain the recommendations related to women’s multicultural leadership, PSEW offered administrative support and an institutional home.
New Horizons: 2011 and Beyond
If Bunny’s tenure represented two decades of raising questions about where women were missing from higher education and what issues of climate and practice were affecting them, Caryn’s directorship served to introduce the theoretical work of women’s studies and expand the program’s focus to include more intersectional issues and curricular reform. What challenges, then, will PSEW take up in the coming decades?
When I asked Bunny what barriers she saw remaining for women today, she reflected that when Title IX was passed, she thought discrimination against women would end within one year—“a vast underestimate.” She described current challenges in terms of a paradoxical situation where people are simultaneously more aware that phenomena like gender discrimination exist, but less aware that these phenomena represent widespread problems. And young women are less aware in general of the challenges they will face as they enter the workforce. In addition, Bunny noted that inequities are much more subtle than they used to be. Because much overt discrimination has vanished, it is hard for people to see and recognize the remaining nuanced forms.
Caryn agreed that awareness is a challenge. “One thing young women don’t have is a sense of common identity as women,” she noted. She also spoke of a lack of awareness that chilly climates still exist, particularly for people who experience multiple forms of marginalization due to race, ethnicity, ability, sexuality, class, or religion in addition to gender. At the same time, both Caryn and Bunny have great hope for younger generations.
As a member of a younger generation, I have to agree that the journey toward gender equity has reached a strange and difficult crossroads—one that my peers and I will need new maps to navigate. In order to create a world where equity is the rule, we will need to challenge gender norms and complicate the binaries that have limited what is possible for both women and men of all customs, creeds, colors, and countries. We will need to bring more men into the conversation, illuminating what they stand to gain from feminism’s legacy while remaining aware of the substantial limitations that women in particular have experienced historically. And we will need to do this while honoring rather than paying lip service to the rich diversity that brings texture to our lives. In many pockets across higher education, this work is already happening. But as far as we have come since 1971, we still have a long way to go before the vision of equity that Bunny and Caryn have spent their lives crafting is a reality.
As Bunny reflected, “It’s taken longer than a year, and it will probably take five hundred years to really change the world. It’s a social revolution, although I never would have said that in 1971.”