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And Finally...

Still Blazin’ Trails: Women in Higher Education

by Lynette Danley Land

Lynette Danley LandAt an early age, I knew I was smart, precocious, intuitive, and courageous. I did not know exactly what I would do with these gifts, but did sense that whatever it was would involve motivating and helping people. From the moment I understood what a teacher was, and the role she or he plays, I was confident that by working hard and holding steadfast, I, too, would have the ability and privilege to empower students.

Quickly and painfully, I came to realize that society had already decided which options were available for me, an African American woman from an impoverished neighborhood, and a first-generation college student. And that did not include becoming a college professor, much less at a research-intensive institution. Nevertheless, life has taught me that while man can delay, he cannot deny what is destined to be yours.

Reflecting on my academic and social experiences, I see my hand rising in class, but not being called on by teachers, male and female. I recall wanting to take wood shop but, instead, being encouraged to take home economics, as my role of wife and mother would depend on how well I could keep house. I remember being told that only a third of us women would remain in class at the end of the term. I recall receiving more accolades for being a cheerleader and homecoming queen than a point guard and co-captain for my high school basketball team. And that it was not uncommon to see empty seats during women’s basketball games, with only standing room available during men’s games.

What really disturbed me? Was it the invisibility of women in senior-level administrative positions, or as faculty of varying ranks, whose perceived power was diminished when referred to as “honey,” “kiddo,” “sweetie,” “girlie,” or by their first names in meetings or classrooms­—where male faculty or senior administrators were addressed as Dr., Mr., professor, or given the courtesy of their respective title?

Fast-forward to the present day: The more things change, the more they stay the same. Many women still exist in a state of loud silence; a passive-aggressive state that calls for code switching at a moment’s notice. We live in the margins of this state, somewhere between strong scholar and submissive survivor. I, too, live that life, yet always secretly plot my escape: I resist monolithic definitions of what it means to be a woman, or black, or from a modest background.

The Equal Rights Amendment (1921), Women’s Suffrage Movement (1923), Civil Rights Act (1964), Higher Education Act (1965), Title IX (1972), and a 45-year history of Affirmative Action all accentuate that we, as stakeholders of higher education, must continue to understand and respect the bounty that women bring to humanity’s table. We feel the impact of the nation’s challenge to address the diverse needs of women. The American Association of University Professors reported in 2006 that, “the barriers for women in higher education not only raise questions of basic fairness, but [also] place serious limitations on the success of educational institutions themselves.” Women continue to have their scholarship questioned. We battle sexual harassment, struggle for parental leave rights, receive less pay for the same work as men, and are not given the same credit as men for knowing how to play and master the games associated with competitive environments and disciplines such as science and engineering or business. Even here, at the University of Utah, we are experiencing higher attrition and lower retention rates for women students compared to their male peers.

It is the women who dare go against the grain to demand respect at any cost, even if it means changing institutions or going into business for themselves, whom I recall with respect to counter these negative memories and facts. Maria Perez, a proponent for women in higher education for over 14 years and an activist for Latinos/Latinas, declares, “If they don’t select you, they may not be prepared for you. And in that case, they don’t deserve you.” I revere the women who resist marginalization as heroines who no longer seem like distant holograms but rather real people whom I can touch, feel, and believe in. I hear whispers of actualization, solidarity, and strength echoed in messages similar to the words of Zerrie Campbell, the first woman president of Malcolm X University, who once asserted, “Let’s stop apologizing for our competence.” The American Council of Education’s 2006 report on gender notes that “women’s success is not coming at the expense of men, but rather is the result of women’s college participation rising faster than men’s.” Finally, acknowledgment is the key to unlocking mental boundaries that limit the possibilities for women. Eleanor Roosevelt put it poignantly when she said: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

Yes, “We’ve come a long way, baby,” since the Seneca Falls Convention (1848), considered to be the beginning of the women’s movement, and the civil rights March on Washington (1963). While the battle to abolish inequality is not yet over, many battles have been won. More and more women are recognizing their ability to choose. Whether women are presidents of universities, community activists, students, Fortune 500 executives, instructors earning tenure and becoming full professors, stay-at-home mothers, partners, and/or any combination of the above, there is a legacy of resiliency that cannot be moved or shaken: Women are still blazin’ trails. While Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice may have been referring to her experience in government, her assertion is equally true of higher education when she emphasized: “No other environment can match the energy of a place like this, where leaders in their fields create ideas and transmit them to the best young minds in the world.”

These women­­—from the late Ida B. Wells and Juliette Hampton Morgan, who fought for social justice and gender equality, to Ruth Simmons, the first black Ivy League president, and my esteemed colleagues on the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women—all helped pave the way for me and so many others. They sacrificed much during their own rites of passage to seek what continues to be so basic: the right to be given respect and equity.

As an assistant professor, I am growing and understanding my privileges, voice, space, context, and responsibilities. I know the difference between assimilation and strategic navigation, and I struggle to remind myself of that distinction every day. Does the assurance of self-efficacy come with a price? Absolutely. But the journey is priceless.

—Lynette Danley Land, an assistant professor in the Educational Leadership & Policy department and Ethnic Studies program, is also a wife, a mother, a critical race feminist scholar, a social justice activist, and an active member of the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women.

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