A Word About White Supremacy

Grupo feminista - Spain

Grupo feminista – Spain

“How I survived as the only woman in business school” in the Financial Times on September 1, 2017 is an interview with emeritus Professor of International Accounting, Jöelle Le Vourc’h. It’s a story I really resonated with!

Professor Le Vurc’h’s interviewer, Emma Jacobs, tells us that in 1970, “Jöelle Le Vourc’h contemplated giving up her place at business school in the very first term. The problem was not the course, which she enjoyed, but the isolation and occasional discrimination from students and professors.”

My experience as the only woman in the class of 1970 at the Graduate School of Economics at University of Wisconsin, Madison was quite similar—although it was the preceding year in the graduate school English Department that really set the stage for my alienation from academia.

This was in spite of my deep love for learning, the UW campus, its students, libraries, lakes, and the city of Madison.

In the English Department from 1969 to 1970 I received a great deal of hostility – the first coming from the only female professor, a famous Shakespeare scholar, who threw a pack of 3 x 5 index cards at my head with the bibliography I’d compiled for my work-study job, screaming “You didn’t alphabetize these cards”.

She disappeared the next day, never to be seen again, apparently from a “nervous breakdown”. Then my professor in my Victorian Literature seminar refused to take questions from any woman in the room – only the two men in the seminar. He told one woman who protested she should “go have babies.”

In the spring semester, the English Department, in reaction to a Teaching Assistant strike, voted to cancel Freshman English classes. With one quick show of hands, the majority of the all white male department invalidated my promised Teaching Assistant position for the following year.

Three weeks before moving from Philadelphia to Madison I was notified that the college raised out-of-state tuition for graduate students by $900. I could only raise $300 from a State of Pennsylvania student loan and $300 from a second work-study job at UW. By 1970 I was broke. I couldn’t even afford to leave town—let alone stay in school.

When I talked of my plight, the husband of a friend suggested I apply to the Economics department. “Econ has money, lots of it,” he said. So I applied.

I was told that thanks to “Affirmative Action,” after taking the GRE math exam twice, I was let in with a score of 97% — permitted to join the all-male club because 97% for a woman was deemed equal to the 99% expected of the men accepted into the department.

Not one man in the class of 1970 ever spoke to me that year. I, along with one very smart black fellow from New York City who vanished after three weeks, were the odd ducks out.

But to me these white males in Economics seemed incredibly un-socialized compared with my English lit buddies. After being asked by one of them to dance  at an all-new- graduate student mixer who quipped, “Oh, an English major who can add,” I studiously avoided my ‘peers’ in the Econ department.

However, between the ‘C’ in the only undergraduate course I’d taken, (i.e., Econ 101) and the freeze-out by the guys, I was scrambling to catch up with my classmates, all of whom had B.A.s in Economics. I was utterly lost.

In a panic I finally went to my macroeconomics professor. After he asked what my background was, and I said literature, he patiently explained that the algebraic formula he’d put up on the blackboard by an English Lord named Keynes was simply telling “a story”.

Then he explained what each letter in the formula meant. With that, mathematical economics were no longer a mystery.

My microeconomics professor, on the other hand, tried to make me feel welcome by pointing out to the class I’d gotten a Masters in English Literature. He then made all of us feel even more awkward by reading a truly terrible poem aloud to show his appreciation of great literature.

For my well-paid Research Assistant (RA) position in Economics I was shipped over to the other side of campus to the Agricultural Economics department to work for my Economics department advisor’s wife.

There in a course on ‘underdeveloped’ nations, I made friends with males from Nigeria and Guatemala – they were far more friendly and interesting than my ‘peers’ back at the Econ Department.

My boss had a PhD in Economics, but she was working in Ag Econ, a practical rather than theoretical department, because “nepotism” was frowned on by her husband’s Economics department – a top ten graduate school that did not have even one woman professor.

This woman professor also developed a nervous breakdown at the end of the year after her husband got a better position in another state, in an institution her father founded, located in small town that could offer her no work to do.

I began to have grave doubts about my desire to gain a PhD or to become a professor, as all three of my older brothers had done. I confessed my doubts to my macroeconomics teacher.

He replied that my options with a degree were to teach college classes, or go live in Washington DC and work for the government. I was dismayed. Public speaking terrified me. And I despised politics.

Just before I’d gotten my Bachelor’s degree in English at Temple University, my oldest brother, Will, remarked he thought I was too much of a dilettante to get a PhD. He was right about the latter thing.

But not because I was a dabbler or non-professional. I wanted a good job working on a college campus.

I knew I would never get offered an academic position as a woman with a PhD in English Literature or Economics in the 1970s. After being awarded a Master’s degree in Economics and publishing my research in The Nation magazine, I left UW and later on got a Master’s in Library Science.

However, even after I earned my third Master’s degree in Library Science and I was the first woman hired at a UW campus library in western Wisconsin, gender harassment at work by my white male ‘peers’ continued for many years—both on and off campus.

One memorable example occurred while abroad. On a visit to Cambridge University in England I started to follow my husband into the prestigious Kings College library. I was stopped in the doorway by a man wearing a white shirt with sleeves rolled part-way up.

I said, “But I’m a librarian”.

He replied  “No women allowed in here” and shut the door in my face.

I was left alone to fume over white male privilege in the chapel next door, finally finding peace of mind under its most gorgeous stained glass windows.

And now again we we have a “backlash” by elite white males and their female allies who whine about being victims of “witch” hunts, a catcalling insult to women. Don’t be fooled by them. This is just the same old sexism, pure and ugly.


1 comment so far ↓

#1 Raoul Martinez on 10.07.17 at 7:33 pm

What amazing and interesting examples of discrimination against women in those years. Joelle Le Vourc’h expresses herself very intelligently and sounds believable. I tend to compare this type of sexism to the actions during our last Presidential election. There was a lot of discrimination against the Democratic candidate in the 2016 campaign. We should be looking at a women president today. RAOUL