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Female academics challenge status quo.

BOSTON - Six years ago, sociologist Sharlene Hesse-Biber got the idea of starting a national organization of women who teach in Catholic colleges and universities. She had her own war stories to tell; she knew others did too.

From her position at Boston College, where she is associate professor of sociology and cofounder of the women's studies program, she set to work. The sociology department agreed to give her an office. She recruited an intern by advertising in Sojourners, an ecumenical journal linking biblical theology and social justice. Next she and the intern ordered catalogs from Catholic schools, compiled a database of thousands of female academics, and, with funding from her dean, invited them to a national conference.

"I wanted to bring these women together, to find out what life was like for them - to talk about salary, treatment of women" and to develop networks of support. "Something about being at a Catholic college adds another dimension" to being a female academic, she said. "I wanted to find out more about that."

Some 250 women came to a symposium in Boston in 1992 - professors and adjuncts, administrators, students and staff from more than 80 schools - and the National Association of Women in Catholic Higher Education was born. "We were all amazed at the outpouring," she said. "People said it was wonderful."

A second conference was held in Chicago in 1994 and a third this summer at Boston College where, amid consternation that the association was teetering, visions of even greater things were born.

"The conference in July was important in helping solidify our organizational structure," Hesse-Biber said. Until now, she has run the association almost single-handedly, mustering help wherever she could from students, colleagues and friends. In July, she put out a strong appeal for help and a steering committee formed. That group is laying plans to increase institutional support. At $500 each, a broad base of college and university memberships would put the women's group on solid financial footing.

Participants at the recent conference suggested starting with Jesuit schools because of their 1995 document, "Jesuits and the Situation of Women in Church and Civil Society, which encourages Jesuits "as individuals and through institutions, to align themselves in solidarity with women."

Another dream Hesse-Biber has for the association: To get funding and "reclaim some of the oral history of Catholic women's colleges that were built with the labor of women." Many of those have already been swallowed up by larger schools that formerly served only men. "A lot of the sisters are actually still around who can still tell us the history of their schools," she said. She would also like to explore the effects on women of those mergers.

Four conference tracks

Each of the conferences sponsored by the women's association has featured four simultaneous subject tracks for small-group sessions: administration and policy; research on women; women's studies; women's academic lives. Workshop topics in July included Catholic identity in light of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Pope John Paul II's apostolic constitution on Catholic universities; how to preserve Catholic identity as Catholic campuses become more diverse; responding to discrimination against adjunct professors, who are disproportionately female; conservative backlash and the changing academic climate; elements of a strong women's studies program; and functioning as a non-Catholic professional in a Catholic environment.

This year's keynote speaker was Trinh T. Minh-ha on "Gender and Cultural Politics." Minh-ha is a Vietnamese-American writer, filmmaker and composer and professor of women's studies and film at the University of California, Berkeley. Other speakers included St. Joseph Sr. Kathleen Kelly, vice president of Mount St. Mary's College, Los Angeles, on "Multicultural Voices" and Jesuit Fr. David Hollenbach, Boston College theology professor, on the Jesuit document on women.

"NAWCHE (pronounced NAW-chee) is an important voice for women in Catholic higher education, a voice not heard very often," Hesse-Biber said. "Women feel that this is important work, and we have to continue."

Her strong interest in women and work, tapping some of her earliest memories, has been both the basis of much of her career and recently, she believes, its potential nemesis.

She grew up in New York City and then, after her parents divorced, on Staten Island, where she watched her mother struggle to raise four children by working as a designer and cutter at a uniform factory. Men doing the same work were paid at a much higher union scale. Women couldn't join the union. Male cutters worked upstairs in an air-conditioned room. Her mother, the only female cutter, worked in the basement, "I was concerned about the economic survival of my family from a very young age," she said.

She vividly recalls her bittersweet, emotional farewell to her mother and to her blue-collar world when she stopped by the factory on her way to the University of Michigan. There she would break barriers by becoming the first woman of her generation in her family to graduate from college. Although her father was paying college tuition for her brothers, she would have to pay for hers on her own.

Hesse-Biber got scholarships, she worked and she excelled. Phi Beta Kappa. Graduate school. Fellowships. "I found Ann Arbor to be an incredible environment: the city, the culture. It became a second home for me." By her late 20s she had earned a doctorate, and a year later, in 1975 she was hired by Boston College as an assistant professor of sociology, competing against 400 applicants for one of two openings. The right combination of interests," including a specialty in social demography, helped her get the job, she said.

"If I had said I was interested in feminism and methodology, as I am now, I think I would have been passed right over," she added.

Consciousness grows

At that point, I would not say I was a feminist, although I was aware of gender issues and inequality from looking at my mother's life." Her consciousness grew, in part because of a public storm of protest over Boston College's dismissal of Mary Daly after she wrote The Church and the Second Sex, critiquing misogyny in the church. (Daly was restored to the faculty, given a promotion and tenure.)

"I think the university was reeling from the controversy," Hesse-Biber said. "There was a lot of concern about feminism at the university at that time."

Hesse-Biber was promoted to associate professor with tenure in 1981. By then she was married to Michael Biber, a physician, and had given birth to two children. She recalls the time leading up to tenure as particularly difficult because of her impression that new mothers "weren't welcome" at Boston College. Seventeen years ago when her first child, Sarah, was born, the school had no maternity policy. Hesse-Biber paid graduate students from her own pocket to help with her classes in the first postpartum month. With a second baby on the way two years later, she felt "aberrant deviant," and went so far as to try to hide her pregnancy from colleagues and administrators by wearing a long down coat on campus. Fortunately, she said, Julia was not born until June, during summer session. Nevertheless, she said, "I was really terrified I would not get promoted, that people would think that because I had two children I wasn't serious enough."

She later learned that some other mothers-to-be on campus had managed to "cut deals" for themselves, such as teaching part-time while remaining on tenure track. Things have changed dramatically in recent years: maternity and paternity policies, a college-sponsored day care program.

But in the mid-1970s, "there was no institutional support at all," she said. "The message I got was just don't cause us any trouble.' People found their own ways of coping."

On a post-promotion sabbatical, Hesse-Biber created a new course called "Women at Work," also the title of her fourth coauthored book. Originally published by Mayfield in Palo Alto, Calif., an updated version is due out next June from Oxford University Press.

By the mid-1980s she saw new needs emerging at Boston College and helped to found a women's studies program, which remains an interdisciplinary minor field of study. Many female students were coping with parents, divorces, forcing their mothers into the workplace, and were becoming increasingly concerned about their own future careers, Hesse-Biber said.

She did a study on the career aspirations of Boston College students and learned that women thought about at a much later stage in college life than men and found fewer supports in the university environment.

Since then, much of her work has been concentrated in the field of women's studies. She has proposed a Center for the Study of Women's Lives at Boston College, where, at one point in the 1990s, women made up 57 percent of the student body. She has also proposed a doctoral program in women's studies. Neither proposal has gained favor so far.

Nationwide at Catholic schools, she finds "a real resistance" to funding women's programs. "Is it fear? Negativity? This is something we have to research to find out what's happening."

Meanwhile, her frustration grows, along with her commitment to NAWCHE, because she feels her own career is stalled. She worries that the problem is her advocacy for women. I've hit the stained glass ceiling," she said of two recent unsuccessful efforts to be promoted to full professor after 20 years at Boston College.

Hesse-Biber thinks she was given insufficient and vague reasons for the turndowns, the second as recently as February. Faculty members are evaluated for promotion in areas of research, teaching and service.

She notes that her 14-page curriculum vitae lists eight books and dozens of articles in professional journals. With two other scholars, she developed a computer program called "HyperRESEARCH" for analyzing data. She served as chairperson of her department from 1992 to 1995 and as director of the women's studies program from 1989 to 1992. She has directed NAWCHE from its inception.

She was fust denied promotion in late 1994. "I was told my latest book wasn't out yet and I should wait," she said. That book, about women and eating disorders was published earlier this year by Oxford University Press as Am I Thin Enough Yet?: The Cult of Thinness and the Commercialization of Identity.

On the second run at promotion, she said, "They told me my service record was exemplary but they couldn't evaluate my teaching because I had a course reduction while I was chair of the department. They also said they would have to wait for my book to be reviewed in academic journals."

Perhaps a charm

Both times she had the support of professors in her department, a first step in the promotion process. David Karp, chairman of the sociology department, said professors had recommended that she be considered once again.

"It was a shock for me to not be promoted," Hesse-Biber said, "and a heavy emotional cost. If I compare myself to people who have been promoted before me, I find my record is comparable if not exceeding the norms in the three areas," research, teaching and service. "I've taught here for 20 years. I had recent earned an award from the New England Sociological Association for excellence in teaching, I had favorable peer review My book had been favorably reviewed by two outside reviewers."

"Are these rules for everybody, or just for me?" she wonders.

Jesuit Fr. J. Robert Barth, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and chair of the promotion committee, said confidentiality prevented his commenting on specific cases where promotion was denied. Hesse-Biber's case, he said "was handled with the utmost fairness and integrity in precisely the same way as any other."

He added, "Her work as founder and head of NAWCHE has brought credit to Boston College and done a tremendous service to Catholic higher education in the United States."

Hesse-Biber said, "A lot of the work I do is feminist research. I want to be recognized for my life's work, but what I fear is a tendency to devalue feminist work." Although she is unsure how to proceed now, Hesse-Biber, approaching 50, feels she has to keep trying, if for no other reason, because nationally through NAWCHE and locally, at Boston College, she is a role model for other women.

"I think about my mother and what I told her when I thought she needed to fight injustice." (Her mother was eventually admitted to the garment worker's union. I think about my own daughters, who say, `You have to fight for what you believe in.' In higher education, there's an abundance of women at the adjunct level, but fewer and fewer the higher you go up the ladder."

To cite two examples. At Boston College, 19 percent of full professors are women, according to an administrator; a bit higher than the national average of 17 percent. At the University of Notre Dame, only seven percent of full professors are women - a factor in that school's recently adopted plan to target female scholars for new hires, along with minorities and scholars whose work "is informed by their faith," according to Carol Mooney, vice president and associate provost.

Hesse-Biber said, "Until we begin to reward women for the range of contributions they make that are different from contributions of men,, conditions at Catholic schools are not going to change.

She hasn't given up on Boston College, not in regard to her personal quest, nor in regard to women,s programs in general. A new president came on July 31: Jesuit Fr. William P. Leahy, formerly executive vice president of Marquette University in Milwaukee. "I've heard good things about him," she said. Leahy succeeds Jesuit Fr. J. Donald Mohan, at 23 years the longest-serving president in Boston College history.

As far as her own aspirations, Hesse-Biber is making emotional adjustments while hoping the third time she comes up for promotion will be that proverbial charm. "I've decided it's the process of my life that's important. The higher salary, the title, that's all nice, but the process is what really counts."
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Title Annotation:Catholic Colleges and Universities; National Assn. of Women in Catholic Higher Education started by Pro. Sharlene Hesse-Biber
Author:Schaeffer, Pamela
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Sep 27, 1996
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