I Am a Leader. I Am Also a Woman.
By Susan Henking, professor of religious studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges
“I am a student of theology. I am also a woman….” When Valerie Saiving published these words in 1960, she inaugurated second-wave feminist work in religion. While her juxtaposition of terms is no longer shocking, it continues to represent Saiving’s ultimate success, and the success of her generation, in navigating a complex set of power dynamics to change the status quo. Saiving transformed religious studies by linking her intellectual work with her identity and experience as a woman. Written during her time as a graduate student, her words offered intellectual leadership to women in the 1960s--and today.
Nearly fifty years later, these sentences might read, “I am a leader. I am also a woman….” Like Saiving’s original words, these signify more than an individual speaker’s role and gender. Linking women and leadership is nothing new: women are presidential candidates and corporate executives, leaders of professional associations and on campuses across the nation and the globe. And yet how we women leaders in higher education connect these two terms requires renewed reflection for the twenty-first century.
Women and Leadership: Parsing the Syntax
“I am a leader. I am also a woman….” The statement calls out for comment in multiple ways. First, the word woman: While Saiving spoke of women as a relatively homogenous group, we now understand and appreciate the variety within the category. We recognize that other aspects of identity “intersect” with gender in defining who we are and in shaping our experiences, and we see the value in inclusive excellence that takes all these aspects of identity into account.
Likewise, we have come to understand what a leader is in more complex terms. Leadership, which we now understand as distinct from management, includes both “positional leadership” (where power is rooted in one’s role and location within an institution) and “leadership from everywhere.” We now see leadership as operating through multiple centers of authority and power, influence and empowerment.
We have thus newly complicated the terms woman and leadership. But the statement contains a third, more subtly transformative word as well. “I am a leader. I am also a woman….” What does also mean in this context? It signifies a movement beyond either/or binaries (where women either are not leaders or are leaders, but are no longer women) to the unity of both/and. “Also” is assertive, and it cuts both ways. It identifies women leaders as already present, and it directs our attention to the woman leader as still marked by her difference, as still surprising. It reminds us that gender still matters, and that we have not yet achieved full equity.
Thus, in an era when women represent a rising percentage of undergraduates while remaining underemployed in higher education, where we continue to aspire toward inclusive excellence while facing new challenges (including the specter of “affirmative action” for men), also is particularly significant. These four letters evoke the myriad ways in which the power dynamics of higher education (with their overt and covert political implications) shape and are shaped by the gendering of leadership. Also calls us to renew our commitments. It reminds us to ask: How do our newly complicated notion(s) of woman intersect with contemporary practices of leadership, and what do these intersections portend for women and for higher education in the twenty-first century? With this question in mind, we must also ask: As women in higher education, how will we lead?
Navigating the Politics of Academic Leadership
The connection between woman and leader in higher education simultaneously evokes hope and reiterates the need for substantial change. By recognizing that the phrase “I am a leader. I am also a woman” is both aspirational and descriptive, we women leaders remember both our success in navigating the politics of academe and our continuing need to challenge the status quo.
We do both in the face of multiple barriers. Ellen Bravo, executive director of 9 to 5, National Association of Working Women, has identified several challenges that women face in the workplace: a culture that minimizes and trivializes our problems, coworkers who patronize or demonize us, critics who say our efforts will lead to catastrophe, and the risk that we will be pitted against one another (something Bravo calls compartmentalization) (2007). In the daily life of higher education, these challenges to authority, power, and equity are so ordinary as to be nearly invisible.
We recognize these challenges in our coworkers’ comments, some seemingly innocuous, some less so: “If we add readings on women, we can’t cover _____” and “What are you three women plotting by having lunch?”; “Can’t she talk about anything other than diversity?” and “That’s a student/staff/faculty issue that belongs to academic affairs/student affairs.” These persistent barriers continue to challenge our efforts to create a future that is better for women (and for us all).
The Power of Alliances
The question remains: As women and leaders, how do we meet these continuing challenges? I believe that the most critical of many solutions involves connecting the I and the we. Saiving devoted her 1960 article in large measure to work that enabled women to focus on developing and valuing the I rather than allowing the self to disappear into relationships. Yet today we know that we women leaders cannot stand alone. The ability to sustain “I am a leader. I am also a woman” requires attention to the unspoken we.
For many academic women, alliance building occurs when we invent (or discover) a reading and writing group on campus, an organization for women of color, or a set of colleagues upon whom we depend for advice and feedback. These groups may focus on developing our skills or on responding to the shared challenges we face. They might be formal or informal, long-term or transient, on our campuses or in our communities. In all of their many forms, they are resources for us as we face the challenges--and joys, lest we forget--of being women leaders.
In my life, Campus Women Lead (CWL) and Higher Education Resource Services (HERS) are two such organizations. Both focus upon building alliances among diverse groups of women who are also leaders, providing opportunities for participants to connect the I to the we. Both CWL and HERS bring women together across a variety of forms of leadership, both positional leadership and leadership from everywhere. By building alliances among diverse women on campuses and across institutions, Campus Women Lead supports change efforts in the lives of women leaders and in the institutional structures within which women lead. By offering institutes to women leaders, HERS, too, builds alliances across campuses to transform higher education.
In my experience as faculty member, presiding officer of the faculty, committee chair, department chair, and acting provost--positions where I’ve been both gadfly and positional leader while also always being a woman--alliance building is essential. Organizations like CWL and HERS, by encouraging women to lead together for change in higher education, help us move from the I to the we, from “I am a leader. I am also a woman…” to “We are leaders. We are also women…” and beyond.
Susan Henking is a member of the Campus Women Lead Project on Inclusive Excellence. Campus Women Lead believes that women can advance inclusive leadership in higher education institutions by building multicultural alliances. If you want to raise questions on your campus about how to increase engaged education using diversity as a key vehicle for expanding intellectual and practical choices, consider bringing a Campus Women Lead workshop to your campus. For more information, visit our Web site or contact Kathryn Campbell at email@example.com. For information about HERS (Higher Education Resource Services), visit the HERS Web site at www.hersnet.org.
Bravo, E. 2007. Taking on the Big Boys: Or, Why Feminism is Good for Families, Business, and the Nation. New York: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York.
Saiving, V. 1979. The human situation: A feminine view. In WomanSpirit Rising, ed. Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow, 25-42. New York: Harper and Row.