My favorite professor, Reo Christenson, walked by me while I was holding a strike sign. Because he was the most outspoken critic of the Vietnam War on campus, I expected him to understand why I was striking, but instead he expressed disapproval. Although his opinion meant a lot to me, I did not attend his political science class until we had an exam. After the exam he called me into his office to apologize and to voice respect for my perspective, with which he continued to disagree. I went on to become his research assistant my senior year.
Although I entered college as a math major, by my senior year I had switched my major to history. Like many students during that era, I was interested in changing the world, and at the time math didn't seem like the vehicle to do that. Perhaps the decision to switch my major reflected a failure of imagination on my part, but that was my perspective back then.
Nevertheless, I still loved math, and after graduation I became a junior high school math teacher. Teaching was what I always thought I would do. As it turned out, the administration and I didn't see eye to eye and I didn't feel challenged intellectually, so I decided to go to graduate school. In part because of the influence of Professor Christenson, I viewed political science--naively, in retrospect--as the field where I could best pursue my interests in social and political change. He put together a list of places for me to apply and referred me to some other professors for additional advice.
If Professor Christenson had known what his colleagues had told me, he would have been appalled. One professor explained that as an attractive young woman, I would have to worry about advances from graduate school professors. Another urged me not to consider graduate programs that would prepare me for a position at a major research university, but rather programs that might lead to teaching at a community college. A third professor emphasized that I would not be able to handle the statistics I would encounter in a graduate program. (Although I had many insecurities, I never doubted my mathematical ability!) At the time these discussions struck me as strange; only later did I realize that these professors' reactions to me were based on my gender. Fortunately, I listened not to these professors, but rather to the confidence my mentor expressed in my abilities, and became a graduate student in political science at Indiana University.
My dissertation focused on women political candidates. Almost no one was studying women in politics at that time, and I later discovered that my fellow graduate students believed I was sabotaging my career by doing so. In my own eyes I was simply pursuing the subject matter that interested me most. Perhaps because I was the first in my family to go to college, I didn't know what I had to lose and so may have been more willing than others to take risks. In addition, my dissertation advisor was extremely supportive of my topic even though he had no expertise in studying gender.
My first job as a professor was at George Washington University. I was happy there but moved to Rutgers because of the unique opportunity to work at the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), which was the first, and for a long time the only, university-based center dedicated to the study of women and American politics. In my time at Rutgers we also developed the first Ph.D. program in political science offering a major field of study in women and politics. As a result the political science department at Rutgers has attracted fabulous graduate students strongly motivated to do gender-related work.
Despite our accomplishments at Rutgers, the discipline of political science nationally has been resistant to incorporating gender-related scholarship into its mainstream. Even though the position of women in contemporary politics has changed over time, as evidenced by the 2008 US presidential campaign, far too many political scientists still view women and politics as a "cottage industry" which they feel they can ignore.
Although political science has been slow to recognize the significance of the research done by gender scholars, I have gained great satisfaction from being involved from the earliest days, and watching women and politics grow as a field. My graduate students have developed into amazing scholars who do incredibly imaginative research, and watching them contribute to the expansion of "Women and Politics" as a field of study is extremely rewarding. In their hands I have no doubt that research on women and politics has a bright future.