The case of the women's movement against Rosalind Rosenberg is a deeply disturbing example of what can happen when ideological orthodoxy is allowed to take priority over scholarly integrity. Rosenberg, a professor of history at Barnard College in New York, is being widely and quite maliciously vilified among feminist scholars for having the effrontery to take a public position that they regard as injurious to women's interests; their attack is proof positive that they have their priorities wildly out of whack.
The controversy grows out of a sex discrimination suit filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against Sears, Roebuck & Co. The suit, nearly a decade in the making, alleged that Sears had not promoted women employes within its sales staff to a degree commensurate with their proportion of its work force. Sears contested the suit, claiming that considerations other than sex discrimination produced the imbalance between promotions of men and women, and brought a number of so-called "expert" witnesses to the stand to endorse its position.
One of these was Rosenberg, who agreed to speak on Sears' behalf after other prominent historians rejected its overtures. She testified that in seeking jobs women have attempted to strike a balance between their need for income and their desire to meet family responsibilities, with the result that many women have been willing to accept lower-paying jobs that permit them to spend time with their families. She also testified that some of the sales jobs at Sears required an expertise on certain items -- she mentioned aluminum siding and furnaces -- with which women often are unfamiliar.
Sears won the case, but in academic-feminist circles, Rosenberg came off the loser. She has been severely criticized in several academic journals, including a couple devoted to feminist revisionism, and a number of her fellow historians have spoken harshly about her. One called her testimony "an immoral act." Another, according to The New York Times, put it this way: "The issue is purely this. You would not lie in your testimony, but you also would not say or write something as a historian solely to hurt a group of people. And the consequences of Rosalind's testimony can be interpreted that way." Still another weighed in as follows:
"This was one of the first times women historians have found their scholarship to be of policy-making significance. And the symbolic step of a self-described feminist getting on the stand to testify against the EEOC and for Sears astonished people. It's not that what she said was wrong. It's that she used it for a purpose many people would quarrel with."
One can only wonder how well these people sleep at night. They are scholars, at least one of them well known outside the history departments, yet what they are saying in these minced words is that the obligation to feminist orthodoxy is higher than the obligation to scholarly integrity. Their counsel to Rosenberg is not to state the historical truth as her researches have led her to understand it, but to keep silent about the truth if it might, in the judgment of the feminist thought-control wardens, do damage to the feminist cause.
Perhaps these women need a refresher course in the words of another feminist. "I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions," Lillian Hellman told the House Un-American Activities Committee 3 1/2 decades ago. She may well have been wallowing in characteristic self-righteousness, but she was also exactly accurate: A person of conscience does not alter his or her views in order to meet the shifting demands of political fashion. Yet that is precisely what the academic feminists are demanding that Rosenberg -- and, by implication, any other scholar claiming to be a feminist -- agree to do. How else is one to interpret the resolution, passed last winter by a committee of female historians, asserting that "as feminist scholars we have a responsibility not to allow our scholarship to be used against the interests of women struggling for equity in our society"?
So much for academic freedom: Shut your mouth and toe the line, because the end justifies the means. They may call it feminism, but it sounds for all the world like totalitarianism. In the little world of the academic feminists, speech is free only so long as it serves the interests of the Cause. If what you believe, or what you interepret history as saying, runs contrary to those interests, then it is your obligation to keep your silence. That this is merely one form of lying seems to bother no one.
Almost no one, that is. Catherine Clinton, an exceptionally promising young scholar, has this to say: "I'm someone who calls myself a feminist and owes my origins to the women's movement. But it would be throwing away my integrity to let politics determine my scholarship, and it would undermine the integrity of women's history." Carl Degler, whose concern with women in history predates the current feminist movement, says: "History is a discipline in which we try to discover the truth as we understand it. It's possible to disagree on interpretation, but that's part of professional activity."
Precisely. In history, as in literature or philosophy or any other discipline in which there is no such thing as absolute truth, disagreement is a given. If anything, disagreement is the yeast by which vigorous debate among historians is fermented, debate that may lead them to a deeper understanding of the past than their individual investigations could yield. Responsible historians, such as C. Vann Woodward, seek out and welcome debate. "Granted that criticism involves differences of opinion," Woodward has written, "so does any worthwhile colleagueship. The adversarial part of the critic's role is certainly present, but it is, or should be, concerned with the discovery of error . . . And presumably both the critic and the criticized share as their common goal the pursuit of truth."
Not, however, in academic-feminist circles. There the search is not for what is true but for what is ideologically correct. The concern of these "scholars" is not with studying the past in hopes of understanding it, but with selectively mining that past in order to trump up what passes for "evidence" of grievances and wrongs against women; if what they find does not suit their purposes, they quietly, and guiltlessly, set it aside. The Cause comes above all: above the evidence, above truth, above -- how can one escape this conclusion? -- integrity.
They call this "history," but it's history of the most self-serving and selective kind. No honorable historian -- female or male, feminist or chauvinist, liberal or conservative -- would dream of practicing it. And no reputable history department would grant either appointments or tenure to "scholars" who so openly and flagrantly advocate the abandonment of scholarly principles.