“The Commission on the Status of Women – A Brief History”

Rosalind Rosenberg

March 10, 2003


The Columbia Commission on the Status of Women, which hosts our forum today, was created in 1971 by the University Senate, but its origin dates back to the years following the Civil War.  A woman’s movement, begun in upstate New York in the 1840s and emboldened by the egalitarian rhetoric of the era of the Civil War, gravitated to New York City in the 1860s and made coeducation one its chief demands in the 1870s.  As the city’s leading institution of higher learning, Columbia College came under intense pressure to admit women.  Columbia President F.A.P. Barnard welcomed the idea, but his faculty and trustees steadfastly opposed the innovation.  Political Scientist John W. Burgess, founder of Columbia’s graduate faculties, spoke for many when he argued that admitting women risked infecting Columbia with radical ideas inconsistent with the university’s mission: the training of the country’s professional elite.

Burgess was not entirely mistaken in his fears. By the middle of the nineteenth century New York City had become the country’s principal haven for rebellious, heterodox, intellectually engaged and politically active women.   The West may have been men’s frontier, but the city, and especially New York, was the frontier that beckoned women.  Here is where the suffrage movement came to be centered, where feminism was founded, where the idea of the outside agitator was born.

New York was also a city of immigrants.  Indeed, it was the country’s chief mecca for the Jews and Catholics of Europe then seeking economic opportunity and political refuge.  Burgess bore a particular antipathy to the radical Russian Jewish women he had encountered as a graduate student in Germany.  He did not want to see them at Columbia. 

Ironically, Burgess’s steadfast opposition to admitting women to Columbia --  combined with the political, commercial, and cultural ferment of New York -- produced conditions that were uniquely conducive to the fostering of female talent.  Had Burgess relented on the subject of coeducation, female ambition might more easily have been contained.  Instead, he forced women to the periphery of the university, where, with the help of sympathetic men, they founded Barnard College in 1889.  Working from this beachhead, they made their way into Columbia’s graduate faculties and professional schools in such numbers that between 1920 and 1974, a period in which Columbia ranked sixth in the nation in the production of doctorates, it ranked first in the production of female Ph.D.s.  Harvard ranked a distant second; Berkeley, Michigan, and Illinois followed.

The 1960s, especially, were bonanza years.  With funding from the National Defense Education Act and the Ford Foundation, women at Columbia advanced from winning eleven percent of all Ph.D.s to winning twenty four, at a time when the average for the country was only fourteen.  Columbia not only ranked first in the production of female doctorates, it ranked first in the hiring of female faculty.  By the end of the sixties, the percentage of the Columbia faculty (i.e., assistant professor or above) who were women was eighteen percent, compared to Berkeley, where they were eleven.  Chicago claimed seven, Harvard followed with six.  Then, at the end of the 1960s, the golden years of academic expansion that had blessed universities across the country came to an abrupt halt. 

The end came with particular suddenness to Columbia, because it was more dependent on federal and foundation funding than comparable institutions and thus was particularly hard hit when that funding was redirected to the war in Vietnam and to burned out urban neighborhoods.  By 1970 Columbia was running a 16.5 million dollar deficit on a budget of 170 million.  Firings and tenure freezes quickly followed. 

One of those who lost her job – as it happens from Barnard College – was a Columbia graduate student, Kate Millett, whose anger led to two notable achievements: her thesis and run-away best-seller, Sexual Politics (1970), and the founding of a group called Columbia Women’s Liberation (CWL), the immediate precursor to the more genteel Commission on the Status of Women, whose history we honor today.

Columbia Women’s Liberation met for the first time in March 1969, when 100 female students and junior faculty gathered in Fayerweather Hall to discuss common grievances.  At its first meeting graduate students testified that even in the midst of the largesse of governmental and foundation funding of graduate fellowships, they had been denied fellowships by professors who told them that the likelihood they would marry made them bad investments.  Those who had not been able to secure outside funding were working as secretaries in the university and thereby delaying their progress.  Junior faculty noted discrimination in promotion and salaries.  Administrative staff complained of having to train men for promotions that they were denied.

One of the Columbia Women Liberation’s first projects was to conduct a study of hiring at the university.  In January 1970, CWL produced its report.  Progress for women in the lower ranks did not look too bad.  In the five years between 1962 and 1967, the percentage of female assistant professors almost quadrupled, rising from four to fifteen percent.  But while women were getting hired, they were still not being promoted to tenure or advanced to the rank of full professor in significant numbers. The percentage of female full professors for the university as a whole was under five percent, in a country in which women had earned more than ten percent of the doctorates for over twenty years.

In some departments the statistics were really bad.  Columbia employed not a single woman in a full-time faculty position in either French, Psychology, Anthropology, or Philosophy.  And yet, between 1966 and 1968, the percentage of female doctorates produced in these departments was significant:  44 percent in French, 36 percent in psychology; 44 percent in anthropology, and 17 percent in philosophy.  As of 1968, the English department, which awarded 27 percent of its doctorates to women, had one tenured female; two assistant professors taught in General Studies. The history department, which awarded 17 percent of its doctorates to women, could claim only one assistant professor in African History and one half-time professorial appointment in Middle Eastern History; it had none in either European or American history, the fields that produced the largest number of Ph.D.’s. The best department by far was Art History, which had both the largest proportion of women graduate students (54 percent) and the largest proportion of female tenured faculty (26 percent).  It is also worth noting, however, that some of the most vigorous protests were coming out of Art History - a fact that reinforced the point, long acknowledged in sociology, that discontent was most likely to be voiced where female graduate students and faculty had established a significant presence and were willing to talk about what they regarded as a hostile climate toward women.

The media-savvy committee decided to deliver its report not only to Columbia President Andrew Cordier, but also to The New York Times,  where an editor decided to assign one of his cub reporters – Linda Greenhouse – who today covers the Supreme Court -- to the story.  The article she published led to the Department of Education’s focusing on the problem of discrimination against women in higher education – especially at Columbia.  Columbia became a target not because it was worse than any other institution, in fact it was better, but because the administration at that time was in such disarray – following the protests and resignations of 1968 -- that people in Low Library were not responding to their mail. 

Finally the Department of Education lost all patience.  On November 3,1971, G. Stanley Pottinger, General Counsel of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Education, took steps to terminate 33 million dollars in federal contracts to Columbia. That got everyone’s attention.  President William McGill, who had succeeded Cordier in 1970, reacted by forming an advisory committee of prominent women faculty -- Frances Hoffman from Chemistry, Nina Garsoian from History, Patricia Graham from the Education Program at Barnard, Carolyn Heilbrun from General Studies in English, and Chien-Shiung Wu from Physics.  For its part, the University Senate (formed after the 1968 protests) created the Commission on the Status of Women. 

Over the course of the next five months, President McGill’s Advisory Committee shaped an affirmative action plan.  In its final form, the plan ran to more than 300 pages and included detailed data on employees sorted by race and gender.  The plan included, as well, directions on how to advertise and conduct a proper search, five-year goals, and strategies for determining possible deficiencies.  The university promised to make “every effort” to add almost 900 women and members of minority groups to its academic and nonacademic staffs by 1977.  Pottinger accepted the plan and restored Columbia’s federal contracts.

Implementing the affirmative action plan proved a daunting task. Dean of the Graduate Faculty George Fraenkel, who had denied that discrimination existed at Columbia the day Pottinger’s letter was made public, found evidence of bias as he implemented the plan, especially in salaries.  Some administrators, even President Martha Peterson at Barnard, routinely favored men with families over women in dual-income families in setting salary scales.  Fraenkel insisted on corrections.  The most important outcome of the government’s initiative, in Fraenkel’s view, was the creation of affirmative action procedures in hiring, promotion, and compensation where none had previously existed.  Recalling the efforts of Advisory Committee members, Fraenkel later recalled, “They really kept us on our toes.”

But progress was slow.  According to English Professor Joan Ferrante, despite clear directives to follow affirmative action procedures, and concerted efforts in some departments to do so, not all faculty took affirmative action seriously.  To make matters worse for women, at the very moment that a new generation stood poised to assume faculty positions in the early 1970s, the fiscal crisis at Columbia made progress especially difficult.  As administrators told federal officials, they could not meet affirmative action goals through an increase or even a  “steady state” in their staff; “financial problems necessitate a reduction in staff.”  Between 1971 and 1973, women’s share of the faculty increased by only three, as the university set about cutting 54 faculty.  For years, progress for women at Columbia, indeed throughout academe, remained frustratingly slow. 

Even as they advised McGill, Frances Hoffman and her colleagues sought to institutionalize their work through the Commission on the Status of Women.  Over the course of the next four years the commission came to comprise eight members, two observers, and six consultants – all but three of them women.  Chien-Shiung Wu represented physics, Nina Garsoian history, and Barbara Low the medical school. Women from English were there in force: Catharine Stimpson came from Barnard, while Elizabeth Dunno, Joan Ferrante, Alice Fredman, and Carolyn Heilbrun came from Columbia.  Frances Hoffman and Marion Jemmott represented women in the administration.  In 1975 they released a report on the status of women on the faculty, calling for further action to bring women into the professoriate, promote them to senior positions, and pay them fairly.  The report led off with an excerpt from a speech that McGill gave at the University of Michigan (which was also under fire from Pottinger) soon after completing Columbia’s affirmative action plan.  In it, he suggested that he had come to endorse what the women were trying to accomplish.  “For too long we have been content with appointment practices at faculty level that have produced relatively few women faculty members . . . Thus we have no quarrel with affirmative action, or with its objectives,” McGill declared.  “Women, blacks, and latins are crying out for their full rights in our society and there is no excuse for pious or sanctimonious explanations of why these rights cannot be granted.” 

Immediately following release of the Commission’s report in 1975, the Commission introduced a proposal from several faculty at the law school, including Michael Sovern, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and Harriet Rabb, which called for the establishment of an ad hoc committee to conduct a department by department salary review.  The Commission’s Committee on Salaries met from 1976-80.  Meeting with department chairs, they compared faculty cv’s, teaching responsibilities, and community service.  They scrutinized the different elements of each salary packages (grant money/straight salary).  Sometimes adjustments were made.  Hoffman, who chaired the salary committee, later recalled, “McGill deserves a great deal of credit. His attitude was constructive.  He did it for all the wrong reasons – not to lose grants – but he established a temporary and then a permanent salary committee” over the strong opposition of other administrators. 

As the seventies gave way to the eighties, much remained to be done – especially in the area of sexual harassment and parental leave, to note two areas of emerging concern -- but thanks to the continuing efforts of the Commission on the Status of Women the university would never again be the same.