Why Does Higher Ed Throw Women Under the Bus?

In a characteristically hysterical article on the post-Roe world in The Chronicle of Higher Education, various executives bemoan the new landscape of university life. In states where women cannot obtain abortions, colleges will need to provide new services, the bureaucrats realize. The National Women’s Law Center’s director of educational equity complained that “we’re going to see a flow of pregnant and parenting students into spaces that are already not doing a great job serving that student population.” The article’s author expounded: “More students will need lactation rooms to express milk for their infants as well as flexible schedules if they have medical complications during pregnancy. They may need access to child care and more financial assistance.”

All of which begs the question: why weren’t colleges already providing such services to women? The Dobbs decision calls these institutions’ bluff. It sets into relief what pro-life women have been pointing out for a while, namely, that when abortion becomes “women’s health” and a choice, it also becomes de facto the only choice. As professional women, myself among them, pointed out in an amicus brief for Dobbs, abortion has actually made things worse for women, by normalizing uncommitted sexual relationships and by providing universities and corporations with an excuse not to support mothers.

If a pregnant woman does not choose the (only) choice of abortion, then she is on her own. The availability of abortion, and the contraception that abortion backstops, means that institutions can wash their hands of any further accommodations for mothers. You had your chance to avoid motherhood, and you did not take it, the logic implies. So you are freely choosing to figure this out on your own. After all, paying for an abortion via employer- or college-provided health insurance is a lot cheaper than paying for labor and delivery, plus the new human being who is born.

The implicitly male-centered way of thinking does exactly what Simone de Beauvoir influentially condemned in the Second Sex, namely, assuming that the default human being is the (fallen) unencumbered male who can walk away from the products of his sexual activity. Of course, Beauvoir bought into the scapegoating of female fertility and ended up proposing something not too different than contemporary partisans of Roe. But consistency would have demanded a rethinking of this entire assumption. Do we have to privilege the (fallen) male model as normative, or can we create institutions that make space for both men and women?

What would it mean for institutions to make space for both sexes? The list given in the Chronicle above is not a bad start. But let us think through more deeply what women need, especially from higher-ed institutions. I will start with some reflections from my own position—a mother and a full-time professor in the humanities (theology). Then I will turn to more specific problems and solutions across the academic lifespan for colleges to consider.

The Case for Time

One of the greatest gifts that colleges can give to women is time. How so? The answer is rooted in the nature of the female body. The inexorable reality is that female fertility peaks around the mid- to late-twenties. This age is optimal for child-bearing both because of natural fertility and also the energy and health needed to be a parent. This time period is also the optimal time for building a career. How can you do both?

The answers are as varied as the individuals who ask the question, and no one answer works for everyone. To generalize, however: you can have it all, but probably not all at once. It is very difficult to be both at home and present with young children (maybe breastfeeding) and simultaneously 100% available to an employer. Many women attempted this during COVID, and many dropped out of the workforce as a result. While nothing should be mandated, it is simply easier for women if they are allowed to prioritize child-care while young and fertile and then prioritize careers when their kids are getting older. This does not mean not working at all when the kids are young, although many women prefer that. But it does mean being able to prioritize.

I have experienced this personally. While raising my six children, I did not do much academic writing after finishing my dissertation in my early thirties until my early forties, when my kids were older. I was, however, employed full-time, doing administrative work and teaching, and my institution (a seminary) was supportive of my family obligations.

What I was not able to get to was research and writing. In my field, academic research necessitates time and space for quiet consideration, for the imaginative space for ideas to meet, mix, and intertwine. That sort of contemplative space cannot be replaced by a better word-processing program or another technological fix. Such space is also precisely what easily goes out the window when one is a mother. I recall a conversation with my mother in which I could not remember a salient fact, and she replied, “Well, you probably could tell me the shoe size of each of the kids.” Indeed, I could, and also when they needed their annual checkup, whose carpool was on which day of the week, who needed new underwear, and which challenges each of the kids were experiencing at that particular moment. That kind of intensive concentration on the everyday is necessary for parenting, but it can tend to crowd out time-consuming deep thinking.

No doubt I could have done a better job balancing all that with my spouse, and healthy spousal relationships are key to finding a mix that works for women. Here, however, I want to focus on the institutional side of things.

Why should an institution bother with helping early-career women find more time for family priorities? For two reasons, one is a matter of justice and the other is more utilitarian. First, it is simply just to recognize the asymmetry that women experience with child-bearing and rearing (more on that soon). Second, the utilitarian: colleges will miss out on the wisdom and different experiences that mothers bring when the institutions otherwise are constrained by purely male models.

Furthermore, women who are given the time to dedicate to both family and scholarship are going to be happier and ultimately more productive members of the faculty, less likely to experience burn-out and quit or to relocate. Lastly, female students are hungry for examples of how to negotiate children and a career, and most universities have nothing to offer them beyond tired second-wave feminist careerism. Supporting women from the very beginning of their training to pursue both priorities is an innovative and pro-woman vision that students will appreciate.

What I gained from being given the gift of more time was a deeper and more thoughtful vision of things, a more penetrating insight into what really matters. This is in no way to deny the achievements of those of my peers (mostly male) who have been able to hit the ground running straight from grad school. I have benefited immeasurably from their scholarship, done on the more traditional academic timeline. And many women will happily follow the same path. But women like me who pursue a more untraditional route have complimentary things to offer. I used to feel abashed when people would assume I was fresh out of grad school (this, when I had been a professor for over a decade), because I was not “doing it right” with publishing. But I have come to believe that I have simply taken an alternate path, one that many other women might profitably pursue.

The College Years

Let us turn to the specific structural problems and possible solutions for women in academia. I will start with the largest population: undergraduate women.

We can all agree that single motherhood is not the ideal condition for either mother or child and, further, that most undergraduate sexual relationships will not and probably should not end in marriage. Thus, colleges act in accord with the common good if they try to deter unmarried childbearing. Their motives, however, are most likely not so altruistic: High-income graduates make the college stats look good. Of more concern is the deeper ideology. As the Chronicle indicates, most colleges—even Christian ones—deter student parenthood by pushing students toward abortion, perhaps by funding contraception and abortion in student health insurance plans or through cooperative arrangements with Planned Parenthood.

What is the message this deterrence sends? It tells a young woman that her healthy fertile body is the obstacle holding her back from achieving her goals. It reinforces an antagonistic relationship with her body, one that she probably already feels. This view is what Abigail Favale calls the Pathology Paradigm, in which preventing reproduction is what is called, ironically, “reproductive health.” As Favale argues, a Catholic vision of reproductive health would recognize that women flourish when their reproductive powers are respected and seen as healthy and normal.

Beyond their negative messaging concerning the female body, most colleges double-down on their errors by fully promoting risky sexual behaviors through extravaganzas like Sex Week, coed dorm rooms and bathrooms, and general tolerance of high consumption of alcohol, which correlates with increased sexual risk-taking. As a result, higher-ed spaces on the one hand promote sexual activity among students and, on the other, provide only abortion as a “solution” to the pregnancies that invariably result.

This situation concerns women in particular, because of the reproductive asymmetry that means that women bear the burdens of pregnancy and child rearing disproportionately. The common assumption seen among pro-Roe partisans is that abortion cancels out this reproductive asymmetry, because now women can act like men and walk away from pregnancy. But this is a deep misunderstanding of what is possible for a woman who has already conceived. Abortion is a violent act that occurs inside her body, by her consent. It often leaves women ravaged by unspeakable guilt that might manifest itself for many years in pro-abortion fury or perhaps in depression and substance abuse. As Patricia Coleman’s important work has shown, post-abortion women have an 81% increased risk of mental health problems.

So, what would be a better approach for colleges? A truly pro-woman approach would recognize the increased risks to women in sexually promiscuous environments, both directly from the psychological fall-out of multiple and uncommitted sexual relations and indirectly from the need to deal with the pregnancies that invariably result. It would respect the fact that college women are generally very fertile and that the sexual act naturally tends toward pregnancy. Thus, in the undergraduate years, colleges should work to discourage sexual relations among students not ready to be parents, as well as the binge-drinking that often fuels the sex.

This would mean promoting a culture of chastity, beginning with how dorm-life is structured. Instead of Sex Week, why not some intensive focus on what makes for good relationships and mental health? Why not convey to female undergrads that the more sexual relationships they have, the more likely they are to be on antidepressants and cry every day? Why not talk about the relationship hazards of cohabitation and the positive benefits (physical, mental, and financial) of marriage? These are not religious convictions but the conclusions of social scientists. This pivot might be an exceedingly remote possibility for secular colleges, but Catholic and Protestant schools could surely get on board.

Colleges should also create supportive structures for women who do get pregnant. It is astonishing that, in a “pro-choice” legal environment, many women who get abortions report that they felt they “had no choice.” These women needed people and institutions to help them see things from a different angle, how seemingly impossible situations could be navigated with support and courage. For example, the MiraVia college residence at Belmont Abbey College provides women of any faith, attending any area college, with room and board, life-skills classes, and emotional and spiritual support. That model could work in many college towns, with Catholic colleges providing the logical campus location for such residences.

Graduate Students and Faculty

Let us move beyond the undergraduate years. If fertility peaks in the decade between 18 and 28, female graduate students are also in their peak fertile years. Furthermore, they are more likely to be in committed relationships and perhaps married. How to negotiate both?

The pro-Roe answer to this problem is to pretend that there is no problem. If women students and faculty can get an abortion and be “just like men,” why should they have any different needs than men do? The kind of conflict this engenders in women makes them more likely to drop out.

The truth is that graduate students and young faculty are in their prime marriageable years, and these relational realities should be supported, not ignored or even thwarted. Both women and men should understand, and colleges should support, the truth that healthy relationships are intrinsic to human flourishing, whether one has academic ambitions or not. A full life is about a lot more than academic success.

When I was in grad school, I was blessed to be able to bring my first baby into many classes with me. I also was fortunate enough to get a teaching-assistant job with a professor who did not demand much from me. That professor, the saintly Fr. Matthew Lamb, remarked that he thought my eldest had enough credits to get a master’s!

What about when women leave grad school and get into faculty positions? One widespread approach for helping young faculty is the option to stop the tenure clock, usually for a year, for family obligations or events like birth or adoption of a child. This option is very helpful, but it is not the only answer. Stopping the clock tends to lead to lower professional outcomes for women, although that is not necessarily a reason against it. (Ironically, or maybe not, is the fact that men who stop the tenure clock tend to be more productive on the research front, perhaps because they use the time away to do more research, while women use it for child care.)

Many women fear that making use of this option seems to demonstrate less commitment to the institution. In other words, we are back to the core problem: colleges do not normalize child-care responsibilities and therefore view them as competing loyalties. A woman with such obligations is viewed as insufficiently professional. We will not solve the female-happiness problem without normalizing the reality of reproductive asymmetry and working to create structures that respect it.

Thus, in addition to stopping the tenure clock, I would advocate for two things: more time and more off-ramps and on-ramps. First, more time: namely, a longer tenure clock for women. The seven-year pre-tenure period was proposed in 1940, and no doubt there is much institutional wisdom supporting it. But it does not represent what we might call “best practices” for married women, now a much larger population in academia.

A longer tenure clock would simply acknowledge the hard biological reality of female fertility and would privilege assisting women to have both families and careers. While the current option to stop the tenure clock is usually gender-neutral, I would not advocate for a longer clock for men as a rule (although certain exceptions could be made if circumstances warrant it). As the stop-the-clock data shows, it is only women who reliably use the extra time what it is for, namely, care for family—because they are the ones with the reproductive asymmetry.

By my second proposal, off-ramps and on-ramps, I mean the ability to depart from full-time work when child-rearing demands it and to reenter when circumstances change. Off-ramps might look like opportunities to work part-time that include but are not limited to adjuncting positions. On-ramps would involve the normalization of an initial part-time schedule leading to full-time work. A dream for many young academic mothers would be a tenure-track job that is initially part-time for a set period of time, before transitioning to full-time, with an extended tenure clock to match.

I am not aware of this kind of position being offered anywhere, but it would be a long-term investment in female faculty—and its attractiveness might lead women to accept it over more prestigious job offers. This could be a valuable recruiting move by smaller colleges. Other options that do already exist but are rarely used include shared positions, especially valuable for academic spouses in the same field who wish to pursue careers in the same zip code.

From my observation, mothers who drop out completely from academic work to raise a family have a very difficult, if not impossible, task getting back into it. The problem is structural (when it is a problem: many women are very happy to leave academia behind), but not only that. Certainly, a ten-year gap in the CV is unappealing for a college search committee. Even more, however, most people find it very challenging to resume an academic way of thinking after being away for so long. It’s like losing a foreign language from underuse. You cannot just turn on a dime and speak French fluently if you have not spoken it in a decade.

Thus, a more woman-friendly approach would be the de-stigmatization of part-time academic work while mothers are raising young children. Teaching a class or two a year online or doing adjunct work before returning to apply for full-time work should be viewed as a respectable career path for female academics. Further, the mentoring of more established scholars is essential as women return to more intensive work. When I was returning to writing, I found it invaluable to be able to send my drafts to peers who could give me an objective sense of my work, when I had been out of a community of scholars for a while and was unsure of my footing.

Men, Women, and Children Together

It is not only women who benefit from woman-friendly policies. Men also face serious challenges right now in academia. I am not proposing an exclusive focus on women’s problems; in fact, I believe that looking at women more holistically would only benefit men, who should receive the same courtesy. In addition, men married to female scholars right now must carry much of the supporting load; they would be greatly helped by more institutional assistance.

The point is to allow all boats to rise, men, women, and children together. Academic fathers would be better supported in their family caregiving roles by institutions that realize we are all dependent rational animals, needing to give and receive care across our lifespans. Children would be the most obvious beneficiaries of more available and focused parents who can model the selflessness of putting others first. And when children (and college students) see that this self-gift can coexist with academic excellence, it makes both appear more attractive.

While I was writing this essay, I was interrupted many times by children needing care. Some interruptions were alarming—cleaning off the vomit from the eleven-year-old who swallowed pool water—and others charming—taking multiple walks with the nine-year-old to visit the neighborhood corgi. Or maybe it was my writing that interrupted the normal flow of family life. In any case, I am grateful for the institutional and personal supports that enable me to have both, and I would like to see us do better for all women.

Featured Image: Photo by David Dibert on Unsplash.


Angela Franks

Angela Franks is Professor of Theology at St. John's Seminary in Boston and a Church Life Journal Life and Dignity Writing Fellow. Her specialties include the theology of the body, the new evangelization, and the thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar.

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