U.S. Intellectual History Blog

VIDA Blues

A few weeks ago I posted a bibliography of secondary sources for the background chapter I was all but done writing. I don’t usually compose a separate bibliography along with my chapter drafts; the pertinent bibliographic information is in the footnotes. But because I had asked our readership here for book recommendations and had received many helpful and generous responses to that post, I typed this list up so that I could pay forward the favor for someone else who might be working on a similar period or subject.

However, in rearranging my footnoted sources into an alphabetized list, I saw something that I might otherwise have missed: almost all of the secondary works I drew from for this chapter were written by men. Indeed, out of those twenty-three secondary sources, only three were written by women: Leslie Butler’s Critical Americans, Rebecca Lowen’s Creating the Cold War University, and Julie Reuben’s Making of the Modern University.*

That numerical disparity surprised me.

Now, you might be excused for raising an eyebrow here and saying, “How can you be surprised at the sources you used? You’re the one who wrote the chapter!”

Guilty as charged.

To be fair, part of my surprise probably has to do with a different sort of disparity that is not easily discernible in the bibliographic list – the disparity between numerical representation and argumentative weight. Yes, there are only three women authors on that list. However, the three abovementioned authors did not simply provide incidental or ancillary insights for my argument; instead, their works were central, crucial, foundational to my whole chapter. That was not the case for scholars such as Thomas Frank and David Harvey, for example, who make cameo appearances, one right after the other, in the space of two or three sentences. Leslie Butler, on the other hand, is my principal guide for a good four or five pages, and I call upon her outstanding book to set up the theoretical framework for the whole chapter. From that point, connecting the history of liberalism in American intellectual life to the history of Stanford University involves a chapter-long around-the-horn triple play, Butler to Reuben to Lowen. In short, I cannot overstate the importance of those three works in particular – or those three authors — to the argument of my whole chapter.

So the numbers don’t tell the whole story.  The story these numbers tell may be that I just wasn’t paying attention to numbers.

I did not consider any sort of VIDA count for my bibliography as I was writing my chapter. It never would have occurred to me to do so. I had enough to worry about without adding that consideration into the mix. As it was, I had a hell of a time wrangling and reining in a very rambunctious and wide-ranging argument. And I’m not quite sure that I was entirely successful in that endeavor. Nevertheless, my sole criterion for selecting any source, any guide, was simply this: would this author’s insights be useful here? And based on that criterion, I used what worked.

As it happens, “what worked” for this foray into American intellectual history — with a particular focus on links between the shifting contours of liberal thought and the shifting configurations of the undergraduate curriculum – constituted a bibliography populated by a preponderance of male authors.

As it happens.

Now, why did it “happen” this way?

Well, I can blame it in part on sheer carelessness – just plain inattention to what should have been absolutely obvious. Believe me, I have been critiquing this chapter in my head since I turned it in, to the point where I am mentally writing marginal comments to myself: “Why didn’t you look at Dorothy Ross for this part of the argument?” “You should have brought in Rosalind Rosenberg here.” Indeed! Considering the argument I’m making, these historians provide crucial insights that I needed to use, and I just blew it. So I will certainly connect with those authors on revision. But bumping up the number of women authors I cite to 5 out of 25 sources? That’s still barely hitting the Mendoza line.

Or, to swap vantage points, am I just a bad manager? Am I not making the best use of the players available to me? I think that’s probably a huge part of it. I am surely not seeing – because, I fear, I’m not seeking — the full range of sources available to me to inform the argument I am trying to make. There must be countless scholars out there – including a lot of women just like me – who are doing valuable work in the very areas where I need some critical assistance. So maybe I need to be more conscientious as a talent scout, and I need to look for scholars who can bring a more diverse range of perspectives to bear upon the historical issues I’m trying to address.

And maybe some of this numerical disparity has to do with the league I’m playing in. I mean, let’s face it: we U.S. intellectual historians are part of a dude-heavy subdiscipline. That is much less so now than has been the case in the past – of that I have no doubt. Still, unless I’m looking very specifically for women’s history or gender history, it seems to me that I’m probably going to encounter more scholarship by men than by women.   What can I do to bring some balance to that picture? What can we do?

At this point, the most important thing I can do is to finish this dissertation, and do a good job of it. Success at that task will add one more scholarly resource, one more work authored by a woman, that might be useful to others in their research. At this point, finishing this dissertation entails getting through a complete first draft before embarking on substantial revisions. Going forward in this current draft, I’m probably going to make a more deliberate effort to include some diversity of perspective from my secondary sources – that effort would probably help my argument. But I’m not going to shoulder the burden of trying to correct for the gender imbalance of the whole field in my own bibliography. That’s too big a burden for me to take on as a scholar. That’s too big a burden for any of us alone.

But maybe all of us together can do a better job of scouting and recruiting. There’s plenty of talent out there, and we need to find a way to draw those voices into dialogue in our field — not for “balance,” nor even for “diversity,” but simply for the love of the game.

Who’s with me?


*My own bibliographic practice rendered invisible the two women who co-authored a book on the architectural history of Stanford.  I used “et. al.” instead of writing out their names.  So I’ll correct that here:

Turner, Paul V., Marcia E. Vetrocq, and Karen Weitze. The Founders & the Architects: The Design of Stanford University. Stanford Art Books 16. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Department of Art, 1976.

4 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Trite and truism that it is, but . . . Probably the best thing you can do for women in/and intellectual history here is become yourself a source that will be cited in the future. As you declare towards the end is the remedy you’ll use. Of course you can dig for more sources, but they may not be there, no matter how sedulously you search, for reasons mentioned above. You’re right that you alone can’t balance the scales alone, and that’s not what you’re supposed to be doing, anyway. Finish! That’s your only obligation right now. First and last.

    FYI, I had never heard of this VIDA thing. At least I don’t think I had.

  2. LD,
    I have been thinking over this subject quite a bit myself as I scan the footnotes of my diss. chapters, and I am very glad you are bringing it out into the open here. I think you are absolutely right that we intellectual historians can do a much better job scouting (and I’m enjoying the extended baseball metaphor here!) for the talent already out there.

    Maybe we at S-USIH can do something about that?

  3. I wonder how many of the professors you cite hail from elite graduate programs such as the Ivy League. Surely there are talented individuals who have attended state universities, but it seems as if same few institutions provide the lion’s share of new hires and the majority of studies that are considered canon. I’d be willing to bet the same ratios you found would hold true not only for late 20th century intellectual history, but also for the early national republic etc. I wonder what that says about our meritocratic “community of the competent.”

  4. Thanks for the comments. In reverse order…

    Interesting question, Brian. I did some googling, and have an answer — all but two of the scholars cited in this chapter hail from the Ivies/top tiers (e.g. Stanford, U. Chicago). The two exceptions: Lindenberger (PhD – University of Washington), and Wiebe (PhD – Rochester).

    The processes or structures influencing which book proposals get looked at by editors, then get revised and published, get reviewed in journals, get assigned in classes, etc., may be changing to some degree because of changes in the publishing industry, the growth of extra-institutional scholarly networks via the internet, etc. How gender (and/or race, or class) and institutional prestige intersect in these structural changes (and continuities) is an interesting problem – in many ways, it’s the problem underlying my whole dissertation. So I’ll be giving it more thought. For the moment, though, I am zeroing in on this particular “symptom,” if you will.

    Andy, thanks. It’s always nice to know that what appears an “interesting problem” to me might also be of interest to others. Good to know I’m not out in left field! I would be glad to hear your thoughts on some concrete things we can do as scholars to be better scouts — and better recruiters for our field.


    Yeah, I invoked the VIDA count more as a point of reference than as a model for how I plan to think about sources. A headcount is a good quick, rough diagnostic – though, as I explained above, hardly sufficient in itself to paint the whole picture – but it’s not a good reason for using one source over another. Utility/relevance for the question at hand has to remain my guideline for any source. However, I do need to remember the utility of pluralism – the advantage to be gained from approaching a problem from various vantage points.

    Anyway, I hoped that when people saw the title of this post, this VIDA would come to mind:

    Near Great in 1978

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