To have it all, get a wife

caketopper-fishingThe Blog Mama Ph.D. at Inside Higher Ed features a letter today requesting guidance on how to “have it all” as a woman in academia:

It’s still early for me, as I have no baby prospects and I’m nowhere close to finishing my PhD. But I’m a 28-year old female, halfway through my PhD, who feels a little bit isolated in an academic department that seems full of men who ‘have it all’ and a) very, very few women who have succeeded in landing a tenure-track position, and b) even less who have succeeded in doing so with children.

I am considering a career in the academy, but I also want children. I am just getting into the literature written on this topic and feeling very intimidated by the statistics that seemed very stacked against my hope to also have everything I want! I do know it’s possible, but….

I’m not sure if you’re the right person to contact, but just looking for direction or help or support. Also wondering if you know of any universities that acknowledge this issue and have taken steps to take on suggestions put forward by people (ie. Mason and Goulden)? Are there any universities in particular I should consider (in a few years, when applying for jobs) who do take motherhood into consideration for getting and/or achieving tenure?



Susan A. O’Doherty offers some helpful advice, which boils down to 1) “[K]eep tabs on universities that are working to make life manageable for parents,” and 2) “become active, now, in organizations and movements that advocate for parents of young children, both in your current institution and nationally.”  The first point is good advice for collecting information and strategies to put to work in #2–but one of the things about the academic job market to keep in mind is that few of us get to choose either the geographic region we work in much less the institution we work for.

In the service of coping with this fact–the lack of choice in most academic careers–Historiann would like to offer some of her own advice to all of the Mirandas out there who, midway through their Ph.D. programs, have looked at their professors’ lives and realize that women and men with Ph.D.s still have very different career and family paths.  Like Miranda, I’ve observed that the heterosexual men in academia have very different family lives than the heterosexual women, with many more women remaining unmarried and child-free compared to their male peers.  For many women, being unmarried or unpartnered and/or not having children is an affirmative choice, but not for all.

Clearly, what Miranda should be looking for is a wife, after Judith Syfers’ classic 1971 tract “Why I Want a Wife.”  I’m not suggesting that she change her (presumably heterosexual) orientation–I’m suggesting that she find a mate who is happy to play many (if not all) of the social roles that wives in our society have historically played.  One of the key advantages to having a traditional wife, as opposed to a traditional husband, is that wives tend to pack up and move to facilitate their husbands’ careers.  This is a key advantage that people with wives have over people with husbands, given the unpredictability of where you may find a lecturership or a tenure-track job, so if it’s at all possible, avoid husbands and find a wife instead.  Another key advantage of having a wife is that they are more likely to set aside their work and focus on the rearing of babies and young children than husbands are, even now, 38 years after Syfers published her essay.  The kind of geographic and temporal flexibility that wives offer their spouses is truly invaluable to young academics, who are frequently chasing tenure as well as toddlers around the house in their 30s and early 40s.

So, Historiann’s advice to all of you women academics who think you may want children is to find a mate–of whichever sex–who understands that ze will need to play the wife, and finding a wife usually means having somewhat different expectations than you’d have of a husband.  If you are attracted to Alpha-males with graduate educations and high incomes, you will be disappointed to find that few of them will want to leave New York or Los Angeles to follow you to College Station, Texas, or Kearney, Nebraska, or Oxford, Ohio.  But if you look for a man who’s a school teacher, a librarian, a pipe fitter, or a social worker, you will find that they’re more flexible geographically as well as with their time when the children come along than traditional husbands who are attorneys, cardiologists, or aerospace engineers.  When you meet someone special, be clear about your career and family goals and up front about what it will mean to be with you over the long haul.  Don’t be afraid that you’ll scare someone away by being ambitious–if ze’s intimidated by your ambition, then ze’s probably not a good pick for you anyway.  Someone who truly loves you will find a way to make hir life flexible enough to support your career.

Unlike a traditional husband, you should bend over backwards to support hir career too.  You may need to live closer to hir work than to your university, or to compromise on the number of children you have, or on the supplementary care you choose for them.  If someone moves across the country for your career, that automatically gives hir first pick in making all of the specific arrangements in your new location.  Be cheerful about being the person who packs the lunches and puts the kids on the school bus,  or the person who meets the bus in the afternoon, or about your 30 mile commute to work.  Think about the alternative.

Historiann knows–it worked for her!  I once told a man, about 6 weeks after meeting him, that I would need to move wherever, whenever the job offer came, so it would be best for him not to become a surgeon and instead to go into primary care medicine.  And now, I will confide in you something I have never, ever told you before:  dear readers, I married him.

0 thoughts on “To have it all, get a wife

  1. I don’t think academia isn’t family friendly. I think graduate school isn’t … it doesn’t encourage thinking that way. But professordom is VERY family oriented, I have always found.

    Let me do a census for my main department, tenured/tt. It’s a languages and literatures unit, granting all degrees through PhD but not all degrees in all subfields. It’s partly R1 and partly not, and teaching load varies, with highest official load on t/t being 3/3 (can go to 4/4 for hurricanes and financial exigency).

    Straight woman, no spouse, no children
    2 women, married, 2 children each
    2 women, married, no children yet but surely will have
    Lesbian couple (including spousal hire), no children

    Straight man, no spouse, no children
    2 gay men, no spice, no children
    Transman, 2 spice, no children

    Man, married, 2 children
    Man, married, 3 children
    Man, married, 5 children
    Man, married, 2 legit children + mistress with one child + other more random children

    The married men with all the kids are also the full professors. Having all these kids corresponds pretty clearly to being of an age where you could have a traditional family being a man and all.

    Interestingly, it’s the non-tt people who have the fewest kids. Their census is worth looking at:

    2 gay women, neither in a couple – dating
    2 straight men, neither in a couple – dating
    2 married women, each with 1 child

    NOTE also how married the t/tt people are. Note that I am the only unmarried/uncoupled woman, whereas 3 of 8 men are not in couples. Note that women really need a spouse to legitimate them in a way men don’t. Women really take a hit not being married, I notice — you look too defenseless, people fantasize about you in the wrong ways, and given lower salary/comparable worth issues you are broke all the time, too (although it is not guaranteed one’s spouse would be employed, I suppose).

    I am not married/don’t have kids because (a) I was not raised to be strong enough as a person to engage in a marriage and maintain an identity; (b) I was raised to accept the idea that you had to make a choice: identity + work OR marriage/children, which meant self loss … so I chose the non marriage option. I do not regret this but had I been raised in less severe circumstances I would have had a family and so on … I’d have liked it. But it’s not academia’s fault that I didn’t.


  2. P.S. I think I’d love to have a wife, as wives are described here — but maybe not, the reality is that that would reinscribe patriarchal relations, just in reverse.


  3. Prof. Z.–one of the things I have noticed about my friends who have been bullied at work is that they tend to be single (unmarried, unpartnered) women. I don’t think it’s an accident that they’re singled out because they’re seen as potentially disruptive and/or gender queer (in avoiding attachment to a man in particular) and as relatively vulnerable because they probably NEED their jobs in ways that married women don’t necessarily.

    It’s almost like the bullies think that it’s OK to push around a single woman because there won’t be an angry husband waiting on their doorstep to slug them. (As if most husbands behave this way–but still, I think it’s a primitive kind of fear that bullies may have of women who are attached to men.)


  4. Yes. At my first and worst job, and a very very fancy small SLAC, I was the only single straight woman on the faculty — not just in the department. I got guilt tripped about it a lot by other women faculty: no husband to oppress me, and no lesbian cross to bear. !!! They said these things straight out!!!


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