On the Twentieth Anniversary of the Founding of NCTE's Women's Committee
by Aileen Pace Nilsen
On the twentieth anniversary of the Woodstock Music Festival, television, radio, magazine, and newspaper reporters searched out participants for interviews on how they felt their revolution had gone. And although the world hasn't exactly been waiting for a report on the twentieth anniversary of the founding of NCTE's Women's Committee, I, nevertheless, find myself sharing similar emotions with the Woodstock survivors: nostalgia for those heady days of total commitment, a sense of loss that twenty years have gone so quickly, and a feeling of surprise both at how much and how little the world has changed.
The NCTE Executive group approved the founding of the Committee on the Role and Image of Women in the Council and the Profession (soon shortened to "The Women's Committee") at the Las Vegas convention in November of 1971 and appointed Janet Emig as the first chair. The program did not list a formal Committee meeting; instead, there was a discussion group on "The Status of Women in the Teaching Profession." Several speakers became important in the early work of the Committee including Elisabeth McPherson from Forest Park Community College in Missouri; Lou Kelly from the University of Iowa; Alpha Quincy from Mt Diablo Unified School District in Concord, California; and Nancy Lauter from NCTE headquarters. Two men, John F. Knoll from Sagamon State University and Louis A Schuster, S.M., from United College of San Antonio, were also on the panel.
I didn't get to attend this session because this was the infamous year that several of the Las Vegas hotels didn't honor the reservations of English teachers -- undoubtedly we weren't considered high rollers. My most memorable moment at the conference was trying to register at the convention hotel and realizing that the elegant, strong-willed, and very irritated woman in front of me was Lou LaBrant. I later heard that someone stole the fur piece that first caught my eye and that she never came to another NCTE convention. I didn't speak to her -- she was in no mood for social chatting -- but it was a thrill for me to see this woman whose name plays such a part in the history of English Education. I've no idea where she laid her head that night. Fortunately for me, my parents had driven up from Arizona for a quick visit, so I slept in their camper and was glad I didn't have to pay for the hotel.
The first documentation of the Women's Committee appears in the 1972 Annual Report where Janet Emig wrote:
As chairperson of the NCTE Committee on Women (short title) established at the 1971 Las Vegas convention, I have spent the year trying to form a committee that accurately rep resents not only women in the four-year colleges and universities but also the range of women who teach the language arts and English in the elementary and secondary schools and in the two-year colleges. I have sought diversity in age, race, geography, academic level, and nature of academic responsibility (because of the nature of professional sexism, women administrators are the most difficult to find: we have on the committee one of the very few women principals in the New York City system).
In addition to the women named above from the Las Vegas program, members included Evelyn M. Copeland, Fairfield public schools; Vivian Davis, Texas Technical University; Marian E. Musgrave, Miami University; Esther Rothman, Livingston School in New York City; Sarah Youngblood, Mt. Holyoke College; and Iris Tiedt, University of Santa Clara. Tiedt, editor of Elementary English, began immediately to prepare a special issue which appeared in October of 1973 on the topic of women, girls, and the language arts curriculum.
In explaining why no men were on the committee, Emig quoted from an interview with Simone de Beauvoir:
First, if men were admitted to these groups, they wouldn't be able to restrain their masculine compulsion to dominate, to impose. At the same time, many women, consciously or unconsciously, still have certain feelings of inferiority, a certain timidity; many women would not dare to express them selves freely in front of men. Specifically, it is vital that they should not feel judged by the individual men who share their individual lives, because they also need to liberate them selves from them. For the moment, neither men's nor women's mentalities permit really honest discussion in mixed groups. (Ms. Magazine, July, 1972)
Emig hastened to add that "This is not to say that any of the members of this committee are troubled by timidity or feelings of inferiority!"
In a telephone interview (April 3, 1991), Emig commented on the close connections between the development of the NCTE Women's Committee and the Modern Language Association Commission on Women. One of the traumas of my marriage was going to MLA in 1970 and having my husband, Don, asked to leave one of the meetings. He has never really forgiven the women's movement because he had been invited to the meeting as a program participant. He had consented to be the recorder for the session where I was giving a paper on "Women in Children's Literature," and it had been at considerable sacrifice that we had arranged to come a night early and leave our children (ages 8, 10, and 12) alone in the hotel room while we came to the meeting. We had thought it was to be a preparation meeting for the next day's program, but instead it was consciousness raising. I couldn't really concentrate because I was so perplexed in trying to figure out who was responsible for creating a chilly climate and for whom?
Even though we did not have men as members of the NCTE Women's Committee, we gratefully accepted -- or maybe "finagled" is a better work -- support from many men. For example, my biggest contribution to the work of the women's Committee was editing Sexism and Language, a book proposed as a joint venture between the Women's and the Doublespeak committees. My husband was a member of the Doublespeak committee and volunteered my services. And it was probably more than a coincidence that College English editor Richard Ohmann decided to devote the May 1971 issue of his journal to the publication of the papers on feminist issues that had been given at MLA the December before. One of the papers, "Emily Bronte in the Hands of Male Critics," was by his wife Carol Ohmann. For wider distribution, the issue (with one additional article) was later published by NCTE as a monograph, A Case for Equity: Women in English Departments, edited by Susan McAllester, College English editorial associate.
Another collaborative effort between the women of NCTE and of MLA was the planning of a three-hour panel discussion for the 1972 NCTE annual convention in Minneapolis. This was the convention where the Women's Committee first met in an official capacity, but it was the panel presentation rather than the committee meeting which drew the most attention. Participants included Margaret Mead, from the museum of Natural History; Florence Howe, president of MLA; Elaine Reuben, University of Wisconsin; Charlotte Croman, City University of New York; and Harriet W. Sheridan, Carleton College. In the annual report for that year, Janet Emig wrote that "Margaret Mead characterized the meeting as the most intelligent and stimulating session on women in which she had ever participated."
The following February, the Women's Committee met for two days at the Palmer House in Chicago with expenses paid for by the NCTE Executive Committee. The chief outcome of the two-day meeting was a decision to produce a series of guidelines in key areas involving professional women: publications, pro grams, textbooks, teaching and teacher preparation, women's and girls' studies, and the profession itself. The first to be prepared was the one on publications, which was ready for distribution at the 1973 CCCC convention. The MLA women's committee also distributed 3,000 copies in addition to the thousands sent out by NCTE.
Some of the suggestions were offered to editors and editorial boards:
-- Solicit and publish articles dealing with women's problems.
-- Ensure a fair balance of articles by women as well as for and about them.
-- Refuse advertising which discriminates against women or which purports to be representative when, in fact, it isn't.
-- Become consciously aware of unconscious sexist bias and hidden assumptions in every manuscript, whatever its subject matter.
-- Refuse to publish articles which contain such hidden biases and assumptions, not to limit controversy, but to see that conflicting views are presented openly.
Readers were encouraged to:
-- Watch for expressed and implied sexist biases and assumptions in language choice in comments about women's roles.
-- Protest biased articles with letters to the editor, to the organization that sponsors the publication, and to the author.
-- Congratulate editors who adopt these guidelines and praise them when they print good material on the role and image women.
The Guidelines for Women's Studies Grades 1-12, which came out in 1974, were unusual in focusing on women's studies in elementary and high school rather than at the college level. All the guidelines made the point that "Bias flourishes less from ill will than from ignorance," and in this leaflet, the writers were extra careful to say "We are not asking that the classroom become a propaganda organ for women's rights: we are only asking that it not be, consciously or unconsciously, an advocate for current negative conditions and attitudes."
New committee members joining in time for the Minneapolis and the Chicago meetings included Carolyn Allen University of Washington; Johanna de Stephano (soon to be named chair), Ohio State University; Audrey Brown, Joseph Sears School in Kenilworth, Illinois; Sandi Gilley, Fort Wingatt High School in New Mexico; and Janet Sutherland, Interlake High School in Bellevue, Washington.
The 1973 NCTE convention was in Philadelphia, and this was the first formal meeting of the Women's Committee that I attended. We made plans to propose a pre-convention workshop for the next year in New Orleans. I offered to put together something on sexism and language, the topic of my dissertation that I had just defended at the University of Iowa on my way from Arizona to Philadelphia.
The next year when it was time to go to New Orleans, my husband was nervous about staying home with the children for a whole week. He had reason to be since our youngest child was (and is) a brittle diabetic, and her care is a serious responsibility. I almost cancelled out on my NCTE commitment, but we finally decided to drive our station wagon and take the family. I turned in my airplane ticket for a refund and rewrote my part of the workshop to "Ms. and Mr. Nilsen Debate Sexism" (later published in Elementary English, May 1975). This decision to drive 3,000 miles rather than to send my regrets was a milestone in the way both I and my family would view my career. Even though I had finished my Ph.D., I was not yet in a job where service at the national level was either encouraged or appreciated, and so I had qualms as to whether I was being selfish to insist that the mother of the family was going and if the family didn't like it they could just come along. Fortunately, the children were thrilled to get out of school; and having lived for two years in Afghanistan, they were accustomed to making adjustments of various kinds.
I never confessed to the hotel, where I had reserved a single room, that I now had four others staying with me. We parked on a side street, and my fourteen-year-old son and I took empty suitcases down, filled them up with clothing, sleeping bags, and food, and tried to appear nonchalant as we came back up to what in my memory seems like the world's smallest room.
In the two-day workshop on sexism and language, there were sixty participants, including some men. Our goal was to develop guidelines or at least a statement about sexist language. Knowing that this was our goal, I had put our old portable typewriter in the station wagon. In the middle of the night, my husband and children trying to sleep, I sat on the cold floor of the bathroom -- it was made from those little black and white octagon tiles -- typing out the first draft of what was to become "A Preliminary Version" of "Guidelines for Combatting Sexism in Language."
The Women's Committee brought a resolution to the Board of Directors asking for the preparation of guidelines for nonsexist language in NCTE publications. The resolution was approved, but this was just the first step toward getting a policy. At the 1975 meeting, the Board adopted a formal policy stating that "The National Council of Teachers of English should encourage the use of nonsexist language, particularly through its publications and periodicals." Everyone assumed this meant we would have guidelines, but the guidelines themselves were never voted on, which was politically smart because it's always easier to get large numbers of people to agree in principle to a worthy-sounding goal than to get them to agree to make specific changes in their own usage patterns. (For a fuller discussion, see "Guidelines Against Sexist Language," in Women & Literature in Transition, ed. by Joyce Penfield, State University of New York Press, 1~3~7, pp. 37-52).
The preliminary version that we worked on at the New Orleans conference was worded as questions, for example:
-- Do you expect or promote a different kind of written and oral expression from boys than from girls?
-- Do you refer to teachers as she while principals, professors, and department heads are he? Are doctors and lawyers automatically he, while nurses and secretaries are always she?
-- Do you personify bad practices in English teaching as always female (i.e., Miss Fidditch or Mrs. Grundy)?
-- Do you give the impression that female writers are some how apart from the mainstream with the titles poetess and authoress?
-- Do you mentally exclude women from the business world and teach your students to do the same by heading letters to unknown people with either Gentlemen or Dear Sirs?
Considering the guidelines that were later developed with considerable help from the professional editors at NCTE, along with the 1985 revised version, our preliminary draft looks very conservative. I'm surprised at how timid we were. We even suggested teaching students about the imperfect correlation in modern English between grammatical gender and the sex of the referent and about generic uses of the term man.
Over the next several years, working with the Women's Committee was my window to the world. It helped me develop a broader perspective; as one of my friends put it "to come out of the kitchen." Besides giving me a window to the world, the Women's Committee provided me with intellectual stimulation and excitement. I now chair the University Tenure and Promotion Committee at Arizona State University, and I see people searching for topics and forcing themselves to do research and writing not in hopes of changing the world, but simply to earn tenure and promotion. Those of us who were so enthusiastic in the early days of the Women's Committee may have been fooling our selves about our power to change the world; nonetheless, these illusions kept our work from being drudgery. In my position as director of academic personnel at my university, I also hear people make the assertion that they do not get appropriate academic credit for feminist scholarship. This was not my experience, but it may be true for others in different times and different settings.
Throughout my twenty years of working closely with NCTE, I never felt that the top leadership had sexist attitudes, but I often observed that the general membership had sexist expectations. The English Education faculty at ASU has always been all male, while the students have been 90% female. I was often amused -- and once in a while irritated -- to observe the interrelationships among professors and their students. I wanted to do a study comparing the psyches of professors with predominantly male students, e.g., those in engineering or math. However, there were more variables than I could cope with, but the idea is still on my list of things to do when I get smarter.
One of the ASU English Education professors is Ken Donelson, who graduated ten years before I did from the University of Iowa. We both had G. Robert Carlson as our Ph.D. advisor; so when my husband, Don, took a job in the English Department at ASU and we moved to Arizona from Iowa in 1973, I made friends with Ken because his office happened to be across the hall from Don's. It was easy to keep in contact. In 1980 we applied and were chosen to be co-editors of the English Journal. We exerted ourselves and probably tried the patience of NCTE staffers in being nonsexist (what I prefer to call sex-fair). For example, we alternated whose name was listed first and took turns writing the editorials. Nevertheless, in the beginning there were many people who assumed that Ken was the editor and that I worked for him. The best example of this came through my niece, who was a student in a community college on the east coast. One day her English teacher brought in a copy of EJ to use in class. My niece proudly shared the fact that her aunt edited the magazine, only to have the instructor argue that "No, Ken Donelson is the editor. Maybe your aunt is his assistant or something." As the years went by, such incidents occurred much less frequently.
Another change that I saw take place between the beginning and end of our term as editors (1980-87) was an increase in commitment and skill in relation to the use of sex-fair language. Today, the concept of an editor's right, and even obligation, to edit for sex fairness is pretty much accepted, but early on there was considerable controversy about it. A couple of years after NCTE had approved the policy on the use of non-sexist language, the late Harold Allen, former NCTE president from the University of Minnesota, sponsored a motion which said in effect that if an author wanted to use sexist language, that was his or her right. Before an editor could change it, the person had to give permission.
Three years in a row at NCTE conventions I met Harold Allen in some kind of a formalized discussion or debate on the matter. I had mixed feelings about arguing with this grand old statesman of NCTE because he was the one who recommended Don for his job at ASU -- back in the days before open applications were the norm. His recommendation enabled me to disprove Thomas Wolfe and show that you can go home again. (I grew up in Arizona but hadn't live there since 1959.) My mother was sure that God had brought me back to Arizona so that she could get to know her grandchildren, but I knew it was Harold Allen and I was duly respectful. Yet as EJ editors, there was no way that Ken and I could follow the procedure that Harold Allen recommended. We simply did not have the time or resources to communicate back and forth by letter with every author who work we accepted. We edited with a heavy pencil (one woman wrote and thanks us for printing an "abstract" of her piece) and did not provide proofs to any of our authors. Fairly early in our editorship, I went through all the manuscripts for a couple of issues and checked our editing for changes related to sexist language. I found that in approximately half of the articles there was something that cause us to stop and consider matters related to sexist language, and in about one-third we made actual changes. (for a fuller discussion, see "Winning the Great He/She Battle," College English, February, 1984).
ASU excused each of us from teaching one class (the equivalent of ten hours of work per week) in exchange for editing the Journal, and we had only a half-time secretary. During all seven years of our editorship, we were frantically hanging on by our fingernails. Our solution to the Harold Allen amendment to NCTE's policy was to state in the masthead that we endorsed the use of NCTE's guidelines against sexist language and any contributor who disagreed with these guidelines should let us know at the time the article was submitted. With the 7,000 manuscripts we handled, we had only one contributor's note to the effect that we shouldn't mess with her pronouns.
I have been genuinely surprised at how much progress has been made in changing people's usage patterns, and it makes me feel good to know that the NCTE Women's Committee played a major role in promoting such changes. The majority of business letters are no longer addressed to Gentlemen or Dear Sir; words like authoress and poetess have been dropped out of contemporary usage; when presiding officers are called chair, they no long complain about being a piece of furniture; and most educated speakers have a tiny censor implanted in their brains that keeps them from referring to people in general with masculine pronouns.
I'm also glad that the current Women's Committee has decided to form the Women in Literature and Life Assembly and to publish a journal. It's the written materials that lasts. In gathering my thoughts for this article, I was surprised at how much information about the early years has already been lost. This realization made me doubly grateful that early committee members had taken every opportunity to get our thoughts into print.
The other reason I'm glad the Assembly has been organized is that NCTE conducts much of its business at the annual convention, and people are forced to make severe choices. All of the committee meetings are held basically on the same day. And by no means is our work done. In fact, some of the challenges we face today are greater than those of the early 70's because the easy things have been said. Today's sexism isn't as obvious, but it's still there, and we don't have the advantage of bringing a new and media-grabbing message. Admittedly, the media attention was often a mixed blessing, but it brought the matter to people's attention. Today, many young women assume that sexism is a thing of the past; and when they come face-to-face with it, they are surprised and embittered. We need to keep this from happening; and because of the challenges that our schools are now facing, we need to make special efforts to recruit the best and the brightest of female sand males into education.
Best wishes to this new assembly as it carries on the work for another fruitful twenty years. I hope I'll be around to contribute to its success, and I hope that in the year 2011 Ill be just as please dna surprised at the progress that it makes as I was in Looking back on these past twenty years with the Women's Committee.
AILEEN PACE NILSEN is Professor of English and Assistant Vice-President for Academic Affairs at Arizona State University.
Copyright 1992, The Women in Literature and Life Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #1065-9080). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.
Reference Citation: Nilsen, Aileen Pace. (1992). On the twentieth anniversary of the founding of NCTE's Women's Committee. WILLA, Volume I, 5-8.