by Kendra Weddle Irons
The economic downturn precipitated my tenure “downturn”—or maybe it would be more accurate to reverse the terms and say “turn-down.” And my decision raises the question, Is it less feminist for a wife to choose to follow her husband’s career move than it is for a husband to choose to follow his wife’s career move?
Before you answer, I’d like to share my story. It underscores the quandary faced by numerous couples, whether in a heterosexual or same-sex commitment, as the partners try to balance work and family in a society that doesn’t make it easy.
In the spring of 2009, after six years of teaching, research, writing, and publishing at a Christian college in a job I loved, I was granted tenure. But what I had once envisioned as the high point of my academic career quickly disintegrated into perhaps one of the lowest. My attainment of tenure was preempted by the recession, which resulted in my decision to give up my tenure just two weeks after having received it.
And, despite my hopes that this is a sadistic nightmare from which I will awake, the reality is that this has actually happened. If I have any doubt, I can re-read my provost’s letter accepting my resignation—although with substantial regret.
How It All Happened
Six years earlier, my spouse had resigned from a specialized job so that I could pursue a tenure-track position. He found a job in his area of expertise in our new location, and we bought a house and settled in. Now, two jobs later, he was laid off and joined the ranks of so many who have lost jobs during this painful recession. Given two months of severance pay and facing a dim re-employment environment in his field—the high-technology industry that seems mostly to be in a free-fall—we were soon forced to re-evaluate our situation and take immediate action.
First, I withdrew my application for a sabbatical because it entailed a pay reduction. For his part, my husband broadened his job search to a wider area and sent resumes out of state. We’d make the hard decision later, we reasoned, if he were offered a job too appealing to refuse.
The necessity of facing that hard decision arrived earlier than anticipated, forcing us to choose our next step. And given many positive factors involved—an especially rare and unique offer for my husband, financial stability, geographical location, familial ties, among other things—we elected to make the move despite the glaring negative impact this decision means for my career. Adding to the weight of this decision was a self-induced gag order: we could tell no one because I was only mid-way through my tenure review process, an application I had no intention of rescinding.
Barely one month into the spring semester, my spouse moved two thousand miles away to a different state, and I inched closer to my coveted achievement—in silence. Finally, in mid-March, the culmination of all of my work and preparation arrived in one 30-minute meeting with the Board of Trustees. A hopeful glint in the eye of the provost as he escorted me out of the room was confirmed two days later when he emailed me to give me the positive verdict: I was tenured.
My Short-lived Celebration
Good friends who knew the assorted details of my accomplishment delivered a colorful and whimsical bouquet featuring an especially large balloon with a song mechanism rendering the refrain, “Celebrate good times, come on!” For two days—despite the potential for foisting too much celebratory glee onto colleagues across the hall, I tried to bask in the moment. Surely, after all this time, after all this frustratingly extra effort, I deserved as much? The department administrative professional sent me an arrangement of spring flowers. I tried to appreciate their vibrant colors and fragrant aroma, even as I pondered the reality that they would wilt and die: an eerily apt metaphor for my career.
And, this seeming academic suicide is only part of the story—my tenure trek had been filled with extremely daunting hurdles which required, at times, every bit of creative energy and patience I could muster.
You see, I had deliberately sought to teach at a conservative Christian college because I believed my experiences and training could be especially valuable for students willing to hear a different—a feminist—perspective. I, too, had once not realized my blindness to sexism and patriarchy; but now I could offer alternative ideas, teach students to read texts critically, provide them safe places to ask questions about privilege and power, equip them to find their voices and unmask their courage to speak. This was my vision, my calling.
But this vision had a price. Not everyone wanted to even see the problem, much less address it. Resistance took many forms. In the beginning, there were way too many new course preparations—more than my colleagues and certainly more than my peers at other institutions were creating. When graduate school friends and I gathered at various conferences and compared notes, my experience always garnered sympathetic surprise punctuated with encouragement to find employment elsewhere. The longer I stayed, the more they doubted the wisdom of my decision. “You’re making a colossal mistake,” they told me; “they’ll never give you tenure, and where will that leave you?”
The Politics of Change
Religiously conservative first-year students in an entry level course found my nonconventional approach and incongruity as “the feminist woman in the religion department” disconcerting. And my academic honeymoon ended virtually before it started. I learned firsthand the politics of change: students were alarmed because I required inclusive language. Protective “helicopter” parents—earning their hovering label with ease—wasted no time asserting their circles of influence to warn administrators they had no intention of supporting a university that employed someone so liberal, someone with the audacity to bring women into visibility by recognizing their presence in language.
Being the new faculty member, I had already committed the most egregious sin possible: I did things differently. So, as the churning storm clouds turned ominous, I stood in front of a class of 40 first-year very right and self-assured students, trying—in vain—to explain how language shapes our understanding and thus requires precision and care. As numerous accusations in the form of questions were hurled at me, I opted for transparency, sharing with these students how some of my early familial and youth group stories fostered in me a commitment to justice and fairness and that in my classroom, contrary to many of my own past experiences, we would be diligent to ensure all voices would be heard, even and especially those of women.
I was wrong. Some of these young students—especially females—did not want to be heard, nor did any of them think they wanted to hear from me.
There were ubiquitous rumors circulating early, often, and usually unchallenged by those who could have quelled them. It is true; I probably spoke too soon about the pervasive presence of patriarchal privilege. Hand-wringing concern about “our constituency” and maintaining financially beneficial relationships more readily resulted in supporting the status quo rather than confronting it. The safer option—the much easier road to travel—would have been to silently resist the power structure firmly in place or at least to pretend and let others think I didn’t know the effects of patriarchal blindness; to speak up only after securing the tenure safety net.
Hailing from their conservative Republican roots, some people labeled me the campus “femi-nazi”—an indelible image that haunted me each and every semester when at least one, if not several, students told me, “I’d heard that I shouldn’t take your class because you are a feminist, but I want you to know I have learned a lot from you and I appreciate your perspective.” Despite student experiences to the contrary, such a stereotype is difficult to expunge; and this one meant for me that I had to rehabilitate my image for each new class before I could be trusted to teach them.
Fortunately for me, I am just about the most competitive (some would say stubborn) person I know, and there was no way I was going to lose this battle. I rewrote syllabi, read books about crossing boundaries in teaching, revamped my grading system, changed my methods of delivery, and probably would have provided calorie-laden treats each session if I wasn’t also so staunchly opposed to such manipulation. The culmination of my teaching overhaul, of my six sometimes difficult but also fulfilling years, was achieving tenure, despite the naysayers.
And yet, ironically, the feminist label that created a rocky road for me at this conservative university is now being called into question in my decision to depart. Upon hearing I was leaving, one student asked, “How are you still a feminist?” Her question was not unlike the whispered conversations in the dining halls and lounges by those who don’t know me well or those who saw only the label.
Such wide-reaching assumptions belie the human tendency to explain with certainty the mysteries we can’t fully know. None of us are the sum total of our careers, though we sometimes expend energy and effort in ways that might indicate this is the reality. I am not only a professor; I am a spouse, a sister, a daughter, an aunt. And these complexities sometimes create competing values and responsibilities. If my decision to leave my current job was based entirely on my academic achievements, then I am, probably, an example of a failed feminist.
If, on the other hand, an explanation that more closely considers all of my life’s contours, it may be that my feminist convictions have not been so readily shoved into the closet as some might suppose. It is, after all, feminists who have helped me see that I do not need to accept tenure as the most important career goal worth having. And they have taught me not only to read against a text, but to act in accordance with personal values and goals, even if they are not in lock-step with predominating ideas.
I think by this point you know my answer to the question raised at the beginning of this essay: Is it less feminist for a wife to choose to follow her husband’s career move than it is for a husband to choose to follow his wife’s career move? I think not. Yes, I know it has been traditional for wives to think of their husbands’ careers as more important than their own in a “whither thou goest, I will go” sort of way. But my husband had already done this for me six years earlier and that was heralded as a feminist act on his part. Our decision this time was again part of the mutuality and equality we attempt to practice in our marriage. Some couples settle the dilemma through a commuter-marriage arrangement, but we wanted to be together so had made this difficult choice.
Prevailing academic opinion is that I’ve made a mistake that I will live to regret. I have no doubt this is true. I’ve been gone from my office, friends, and home only a short time and acutely feel the grief of loss. In the midst of new acquaintances and possibilities, I still feel like someone has reached into my chest and pulled out a mammoth piece of my heart, leaving a constant pain.
And yet, I have to believe that despite giving up my hard-earned status, I have valuable teaching left to do. My experiences of being counter-cultural and yet finding a way to be seen as valuable to a community has taught me much about life, about relationships with colleagues and students, about who I am as a scholar, teacher, mentor, and friend. These lessons and insights should enable me to find a new path in a new place. If my feminist convictions have taught me anything, they enabled me to see that I have choices—legitimate choices—that do not necessarily confine me to follow a prescribed plan.
All I have to do is convince another university of this; no little task, especially given this annoyingly persistent recession.
© 2010 Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus volume 33 number 4 Winter (January-March) 2010