Maria Cattell and Marjorie Schweitzer (eds.), Left Coast Press, 2006
Reviewed by Tiffany Worboy
Doctoral Candidate in Women’s Studies, Emory University
In February 1992, Maria Cattell and Marjorie Schweitzer were both attending an annual conference in Santa Fe when they undertook a friendly conversation about their shared interests and life experiences as wives, mothers, and anthropologists. They were particularly intrigued by their mutual experience of pursuing their doctorates “later” in life, and decided to put a call out for other “re-entry” women whose academic trajectories reflected similar circuitous routes. Through journal postings and symposium presentations, Cattell and Schweitzer collected accounts from women in North America who undertook their anthropological training in the mid-to-late 20th century after the age of 45. In the process, they crafted a project that engaged traditional disciplinary topics (e.g., culture, social history, and narrative) in addition to subjects that have been frequently relegated to the margins of scholarly inquiry: ageism in the academy; differential work/life demands for aspiring female academics; the dynamics of race and class in the pursuit of a Ph.D.; and the challenges that women face when constructing an academic identity. What began as a casual conversation at a conference blossomed into a professional collaboration that has spanned more than a decade. The creation of the OWAN Project (Older Women Anthropologists Personal/Professional Narrative) culminated in the publication of Women in Anthropology: Autobiographical Narratives and Social History.
In this volume, edited by Cattell and Schweitzer, the narratives of seventeen women were compiled in order to reveal the experiences of women who have pursued PhDs. in anthropology “later than usual” (16). Their narratives describe their individual rationale for returning to the academy, along with the larger social and cultural influences that affected their personal journeys. Each of the essays shares the same historical context. They collectively construct a “coming of age” tale for the years between 1920 to 1970 in Canada and the U.S., when gender role stereotypes were increasingly socially challenged. The majority of the authors commented that they were either subtly dissuaded from considering careers in anthropology during their youth, or had intentionally chosen to follow the dominant, white, middle-class path of traditional womanhood and domesticity in lieu of alternative professional avenues (16-17). Likewise, most of the contributors, when describing their return to the academy for graduate studies, spoke of varying degrees of discrimination and hardship they faced as a result of their gender, age, class, and/or race. Their positionality as older, female, re-entry students marked their doctoral experiences in particular ways. For instance, one of the authors (Judy Rosenthal) recalled the outright contempt she endured from a professor whom she had believed would become her dissertation advisor – and who wrongly assumed that she (as an older, working-class woman) could not handle his difficult, theory-intensive course (66). Thankfully, Rosenthal eventually found a much more supportive mentor – proving that some faculty were, indeed, happy to advise and guide re-entry students through their graduate studies. However, this example illustrates the difficulty some of the contributors faced in finding good mentors and academic advisors as a result of their non-traditional student status.
In spite of the accounts of overt and veiled discrimination which appear in many of the narratives in the volume, the authors make a strong case for the value of pursuing a doctorate regardless of one’s age. For some, there were immediate motivators for the degree such as the death of a spouse or a change in economic status. For others, the doctoral program was the final phase of a lengthy academic quest interrupted by family demands. In almost every account, the aspect of “time” figured prominently: it divided the author’s lives into periods dedicated to marriage, motherhood, graduate studies, fieldwork, and career. And while these categories were certainly not discrete, nearly all of the accounts did follow a distinct pattern of “coming to” doctoral studies in anthropology at the point of mid-life for these women. Most of the authors described a lure to the discipline throughout their life, but only one had any formal training in anthropology as an undergraduate. For many of the women, anthropology was a passion that had either been postponed or pursued through different means (such as through volunteer work or political activism). The decision to pursue a Ph.D. represented the beginning of a new phase in the lives of those women.
It is the description of how the women traveled through their lives as they sought their degrees that is both a strength and weakness of the volume. As I mentioned, many of the authors often spoke of “time” as a concept in their narratives: how it arranged their lives (mostly in terms of motherhood and delayed careers) and influenced their decisions (such as how commute times were taken into consideration when choosing a university). Practical matters and “time” were interwoven, and often took precedence in the women’s choices as graduate students – including which classes could be taken or which dissertation topics could be pursued as a result of familial needs and demands. But “time” was also used as a way to construct the women’s lives into sections or compartments: an understandable narrative tool, but one that can obscure the “messiness” of lived experience in favor of a simplified linear model of storytelling. Consequently, some of the essays felt incomplete or simplistic, and left me wondering how much of the women’s accounts and experiences had been left out as a result of the chosen narrative strategy.
Undoubtedly, a purposeful attempt had been made by many of the authors to provide a sweeping historical overview of their lives as a way to link personal history with the broader social history of the time, which was a stated goal of the text (17). However, the emphasis on this aspect of the narratives was what I found most troubling about the volume and it lessened the critical power of the women’s accounts. Chapter Two’s focus on gender roles (which precedes the contributor’s individual stories) was intended to provide an “essential framework for understanding the lives of the authors” by exploring “the sociocultural norms and historical context that existed in North America from the 1930s forward” (41). While the chapter was supposed to frame the narratives historically and explain the links between the collection of life histories and social histories, its cursory treatment of the subject did not bolster the text as a whole. In fact, most of the readers who would seek out this collection for its subject matter would probably come to it with a sophisticated understanding of how gender has been historically constructed. As such, it is not readily clear who the intended audience is for the volume as it has been assembled.
That said, the women’s narratives themselves provide the core of the text. Their accounts represent remarkable achievements made by a small group of women during a particular moment in time. Accordingly, they serve as an important testament to the realities of experiences of women who have sought professional inclusion into the academy, and who fought against proscribed conditions to achieve academic identity and legitimacy. Another important contribution of the volume is the archival value of the narratives as they relate to the social history of anthropology. This book joins an impressive body of work that highlights the voices of female anthropologists (and, specifically, feminist anthropologists) to tell a more inclusive story about the development of the discipline in the last half century (e.g., Behar and Gordon 1996; McClaurin 2001; di Leonardo 1991; Rosaldo and Lamphere 1976).
A number of the contributors commented on their desire to serve as role models to female academics, and some explained this responsibility in terms of a personal investment in feminist ideals. While I found their commitment to both the discipline and future women scholars heartening, I was disappointed by the lack of vision that was projected in the accounts. As a feminist, a mother, and a doctoral candidate myself, many of the authors’ narratives resonated with my own experiences – but I kept hoping for a deeper link to structural issues that still need redress in the academy. For instance, what material strides have been made for aspiring women academics, particularly those who are labeled non-traditional, beyond changing the collective “face” of the modal anthropology student? For those interested in revisioning the future of the academy, there were few suggestions in the text for collective action or for proposing a new model for graduate study. How can we move beyond the constructed duality of choosing either “delayed motherhood” or “delayed doctorate?” And, perhaps more importantly, how can we conceive of discussions about “work/life” balances that move beyond gendered assumptions of motherhood and marriage as the central “cause” for re-entry students? This book provides important insight into success stories of re-entry female academics. Future research should build upon this to look at why others were not able to be successful. Such queries would explore alternative outcomes (including the decision to leave graduate programs) and possibly lead to a redefinition of the process of graduate work itself.
Behar, Ruth and Deborah Gordon, 1996, Women Writing Culture, Berkeley: University of California Press.
di Leonardo, Micaela, 1991, Gender at the Crossroads of Knowledge: Feminist Anthropology in the Postmodern Era, Berkeley: University of California Press.
McClaurin, Irma, 2001, Black Feminist Anthropology: Theory, Politics, Praxis and Poetics, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.
Rosaldo, Michelle and Louise Lamphere, 1976, Women, Culture, and Society, California: Stanford University Press.
For her dissertation research, Worboy spent nine months in an infertility clinic, conducting participant observation and interviewing patients about their physical experiences of the technologies.