Reflection’s of a Professor’s Wife

I have continued working on my new book  about faculty wives and I am almost done with the fourth chapter which is about the socioeconomic status of academics. The chapter starts in the 1910s and ends with the effects of the Great Depression on college communities.

This is an excerpt from the chapter. The life of the anonymous writer is eerily similar to many experiences I have had as a woman with a Ph.D who is married to a college professor.

In 1882, 65 college-educated women from eight colleges founded the Association of Collegiate Alumnae. The ACA published a journal until it merged with the Southern Association of College Women, becoming the American Association of University Women.

In the January 1921 issue, an anonymous writer described her discontent being married to a professor. When the couple first married they were equals; both were teachers. After two years of marriage they both enrolled in graduate school, pursing the Ph.D. “Looking back upon those years, I think of them as the happiest in many respects that we have spent together. We were more truly comrades than we have been at any other time…. We were in every sense equals.”[1]

After graduate school, the husband got a job at a state university in a small town. Her plan was to teach but a roadblock emerged in the form of “a ruling which eliminated wives of members of the faculty from teaching in the university.”[2] The wife could not use her education in paid employment and absent a salary she had to keep house.

“I put on my apron and went into the kitchen where for six years I have cooked a professor’s meals and pondered over the policy of our university. Can it be in the divine order of things that one Ph.D. should wash dishes a whole lifetime for another Ph.D. just because one is a woman and the other a man.”[3]

Her duties as a professor’s wife did not stop at housework. Social obligations required a considerable amount of “unpaid service.” “Through faculty women’s clubs composed of the women of the faculty and wives of faculty members and wives of faculty members she (the wife) spends much energy helping arrange receptions, teas and picnics for the faculty group.”[4]

Being unable to progress in her career or pursue her scholarship created tensions in the marriage. “… There is no real companionship between a husband and wife who are not growing together and it is difficult for them to develop equally under existing conditions.”

The situation of this writer who was probably anonymous as to not jeopardize her husband’s career, was typical of many faculty wives throughout the twentieth century. The nepotism rules that prevented her from working were widespread in the early twentieth century, increased during the Depression and World War II and persisted into the 1970s.

[1] “Reflections of a Professor’s Wife,” The journal of the Association pf Collegiate Alumnae,” vol. 144, 1921, p. 90-92.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

© Amy Mittelman 2018

One thought on “Reflection’s of a Professor’s Wife”

  1. The woman–the faculty wife–was always (I assume) the victim of the nepotism policy. Were there any work-arounds other than to play the dutiful wife and tea-party hostess? Did any husbands ever turn down positions that so isolated their wives, i.e., look for positions in places where one institution wasn’t the only game in town? Having seen my fair share of situations in which the lack of nepotism policies means that employing the spouse of the desired hire (male or female) is nothing more than money-laundering to secure the services of the “real hire,” though, it’s hard for me to oppose those policies, even while abhorring their historical consequences. I’d be very interested to know how many “trailing spouses” get jobs solely to secure the services of their mate and bring little if any added value to the enterprise. I think of such couples as “buy-two-get-one” deals, and know all too well the strain they place on institutional budgets and workloads.

    I am so excited you are writing on this topic. I can’t wait to read the book when it comes out.

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