(From the Archives) Superserviceable Feminism

Katie Hogan’s “Superserviceable Feminism” first appeared in Issue 63-64 (2005) of the minnesota review. In this essay, Hogan problematizes and makes visible the ongoing service work that women conduct in the university economic structure.

Women’s lives are spent in service and servitude, learning to be superserviceable, being at the service of others, being serviced. We are a
service industry, serving husbands, lovers, bosses, children, aged parents,
families, colleagues. Few of us ever escape this entirely.
— Patricia Duncker

While most human beings, myself included, would not want to “escape” the opportunity to serve others—after all, human connection usually deepens intellectual, creative, political, and emotional development—in the academic world, an insidious and invisible economy of service has for years exhausted the energies of women, with women of color being particularly pressed into service roles. In some instances, this silent economy has cost women their health, jobs, and professional advancement, and it has tragically prevented many from expressing their creative, intellectual, and leadership abilities.

The fact is, as the Modern Language Association’s Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession (CSWP) argued in “Women in the Profession, 2000,” the identification of women with a profession, such as English, does not translate into gender or racial parity (193). An avalanche of evidence, in the form of status reports and books, supports what many women and ethnic-racial minorities already know from their everyday professional lives. The 2000 CSWP report quotes an NEH survey from 1995: “[I]n English, the largest group of white men were full professors; the largest group of men of color were associate professors; the largest group of women of color were assistant professors; and the largest group of white women were instructors or adjuncts” (201). Despite a handful of female academic stars (whose exceptional prominence is evoked as evidence that women have stormed the academy), in every category of professional life—from salaries to working conditions to promotion—women’s status in the profession has not changed that much since the first CSWP report was complied and published in PMLA in 1971. Women and racial/ethnic minorities continue to be overrepresented among tenured faculty in two-year, women’s, and non-research/teaching colleges, while these same groups are underrepresented among tenured faculty in elite research institutions and resource-rich public universities (Messer-Davidow; Valian; Wilson). In short, as Florence Howe noted in 1971, women are more likely to be
located in less prestigious jobs, in lower ranks, and in part-time positions
(Messer-Davidow 17).

In addition, women’s chances of earning tenure remain slim. In October 2004, the American Association of University Women published its Tenure Denied Report, which found that women who are denied tenure and turn to the courts have the odds stacked against them. Tenure Denied dots not delve into the conflicting discourses, epistemologies, and agendas hampering tenure-discrimination cases, but it neatly documents the difficulty of legal success and includes many of the ail-too familiar, depressing statistics: “Of the faculty at colleges and universities offering four-year degrees, only 27 percent of those awarded tenure are women”; and “Women make up more than one-half of instructors and lecturers and nearly one-half of assistant professors, but they represent only one-third of associate professors and a mere one-fifth of full professors”(l). The report’s conclusion: The neat trajectory of talented women armed with doctorates moving from graduate programs into academic positions in the profession has not materialized (2).

It is crucial for progressive scholars to familiarize ourselves with such statistics and the inequity they represent. It is equally important for us to think about what these statistics mean from a structural and policy perspective.

For more of Katie Hogan’s “Superserviceable Feminism,” visit our archive for Issue 63-64. You do not need a subscription to read this or any article from that issue.

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