Haven’t we at least progressed to “faculty spouse”?

February 17, 2009

This morning, my Chronicle daily digest featured a new entry in The Adjunct Track column, “The New Faculty Wife” by, presumably, a woman who has given up a tenured job to follow her husband to a tenure track job elsewhere. (Sorry, a subscription is required to follow that link.) She now works as an adjunct while he works the more-than-full time that it takes to teach and earn tenure. I know these columns aren’t meant to hold deep thoughts, but there’s a glaring shallowness to this writer’s point: that the institution of the faculty wife is not dead, it’s merely been transformed to include women who put their careers second to their husbands’ and take it upon themselves to become the manager of all things domestic: “The role of the new faculty wife (and more rarely, the faculty husband) exists because it adequately meets people’s needs. So let’s pause a moment to consider its pros and cons.”
She mentions briefly that men could and often do fulfill, but leaves the rest of the piece squarely pointed at women,  always using “she” as the pronoun and by extension leaving untouched the thought that men could and should feel equally obliged to respond to the pressures of raising children, keeping a home, and navigating the annoying realities of basic living. In this piece, it’s never the spouse, it’s always the wife, and because of that, it reads like an apology for blatant sexism. This is the way it is, let’s examine it as a fact.

The pro’s and con’s she mentions sound, in this context, like one more tired repetition of the reasons that have been put forth generally over the last half century for why women shouldn’t work even if they have the choice not to rather than an analysis of how the demands of an academic career are immense and don’t really work for families. In particular, she commits what is, in my mind, the cardinal sin of reasoning that if she found full time work, most of the salary increase would be taken up by childcare costs (which come only out of her salary why? isn’t that an expense both parents take on by working?) and relishes the fact that she gets to go along for the full benefits ride while her husband has a full time job (I can understand and imagine a variety of reasons why a wife might find herself in this situation, permanently or temporarily, but to see virtue in turning your PhD into an Mrs as a benefit strikes me as unhelpful). Yes, it is hard verging on impossible to make it in academia at all, even harder to do so w/ an academic partner, and you do what you have to do to get through–but what is this adding to the solution? The message becomes, it’s hard, ladies, rather than it’s hard, people.

Underlying my frustration with this is my own experience at my current place of employment. I am, happily, the breadwinner this year as D completes his graduate studies in accounting. We live in a small town where the very good salary that our college pays can support a couple quite well, and that’s important, b/c the town is also small enough that it is not always easy for the second person to find work, especially in a one-year job situation like mine. So, when we go to parties, and I introduce myself as a librarian at the college and D introduces himself as a faculty spouse. And you know what? He’s not alone. I’d say there’s a pretty even split, at least in my trending young social circles, as to whether the trailing spouse is male or female. I know plenty of faculty husbands.

As for the argument that, as nice it as it might be to pretend that the faculty wife has become the faculty spouse, it’s still mostly women that end up in these circumstances, I say, exactly. If we talk about it like a reality, it’s even more likely to stay a reality. Changing the way we think about people’s work (not men’s work and women’s work) starts with using language that includes both genders in the decision-making process. Until the arguments for a stay-at-home mom become arguments for a stay-at-home parent, this will remain an unhelpful discussion.

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2 Responses to “Haven’t we at least progressed to “faculty spouse”?”

  1. Emily Says:

    A spot on analysis of that piece! I was troubled by those implications too …

  2. B.A. Styles Says:

    I know little of the specific issues you are pointing to here (the article itself, the complexities of childcare) but I find your attitude incredibly refreshing, and your perspective something that is sorely lacking in what is supposed to be an open, modern society. Thank you for taking the time to write this.

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