Women in Scholarly Publishing

by Regan Colestock

In our 75th year, the AAUP central office has sifted through its archives to rediscover the Association’s founding and evolution since 1937. We explored the founding of AAUP and the Annual Meeting, and the AAUP statistics and surveys.

One of the joys of researching an association like AAUP are the shared memories of an active membership: as we excavate the past, current and retired members speak up with their own recollections of favorite projects and causes.

One such member—retired—is Carol Orr, past press director, board member, and leader of Women in Scholarly Publishing, or WISP. After reading the surveys piece in the Spring Exchange, Orr reminded us that AAUP’s history of data collection also includes the AAUP salary and position surveys—a project originally proposed by WISP.

Digging through the archives, we began to realize just how vital WISP has been to many in scholarly publishing over the last few decades, including its lasting effects today, and how much WISP deserves to be considered as a major part of the Association’s history. And not only because many of its key members—and best examples of women leaders in scholarly publishing—are nearing retirement, leaving behind a legacy from which the next generation of publishers may benefit without knowing why, or how.

The “Women in Scholarly Publishing” group was founded in 1979, a little over thirty years ago, in the midst of second-wave feminism. That year the Annual Meeting was scheduled for Salt Lake City; at the same time, the state of Utah had just refused (overwhelmingly) to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. The coincidence was enough to push a few AAUP members to action, giving female members a chance to discuss—and hopefully elevate—their place in scholarly publishing.

Nancy Essig and Joyce Kachergis made some calls, and recruited Barbara Ankeny, Joanna Hill, and Orr to launch the group that would become WISP. They met and began to organize in Salt Lake, having circulated a letter and questionnaire beforehand to all female staff members. The agenda of the first meeting included the attitude in scholarly publishing toward women, advancement opportunities, networking and other forms of mutual assistance.

Cynthia Miller, now Director at University of Pittsburgh Press, recalls her introduction to WISP: “I was so lucky that the first AAUP meeting I attended as a young editor at South Carolina was the 1979 Salt Lake meeting that included a pre-meeting of women, led by Carol Orr, Dorothy Anthony, Nancy Essig, and others, to suggest founding a women's group that became WISP.” Miller became an active WISP member as she rose through the university-press ranks.

Orr recalls that “university presses weren't exactly in the forefront of most social/economic movements, in addition to which [university press] women were scattered all over the country. Some of us had an acute awareness of the women's movement and its issues, some not so much. There was no internet, no email, etc., just phones with long-distance charges. The years just before the Utah meeting were consciousness-raising, which provided the impetus for the 1979 meeting.”

The goals of WISP quickly became clear: raise consciousness, work on structural changes within AAUP, and enhance career development. As Kate Torrey would later say, “At that time, only press directors sat on the AAUP Board—and because there were very few women press directors, some important issues were not being raised there.” Or, in the words of the WISP newsletter, “[WISP] was started in 1979 to offer women in scholarly publishing clearer access to change in a conservative profession.”

Access did seem to be an issue at the time: a significant majority—65%—of non-clerical university press staff was female, but only 13% of university press leadership (directors, associate directors, assistant directors) were women. Orr noted in her 1980 President’s Report that “We also recognize that not all women want top jobs, but that those who do are not always given the opportunities to gain the experience and the training they need to qualify for advancement. Our interest is in seeing that the opportunities are provided for those who want to advance—to whatever level.”

The earliest and broadest awareness raising and career development efforts of WISP were the meetings themselves: the first was held alongside the Annual Meeting, but soon regional meetings and workshops sprung up across the country. The meetings were instructive for many, providing mentorship and an arena for career discussion. Like the Annual Meeting, they allowed a rare opportunity for staff from small offices to connect with colleagues. Topics ran from specific concerns of women in the workplace—how to strengthen working relationships with men, parenting and publishing, female leadership styles, to name a few—to the general: directorship, mentoring and networking, commercial versus scholarly publishing, new technologies.

These national and regional WISP meetings became very organized over the years, with official membership (in the hundreds), dues collection, a separate board, and their own publications. One of the earliest WISP publications was a Freelancers Directory, published annually, encouraging connections between mostly female freelancers and the university presses who might contract them. Soon WISP was also running a column in the Exchange, “What’s Happening with WISP,” to keep the Association at large aware of WISP projects and meetings. And as mentioned above, WISP led the way in the salary survey, a project later adopted by the central office, to illuminate exactly how gender was influencing pay and position.

Awareness also led, in the late 1980s, to the establishment of a task force on gender-free language to establish new best practices for university presses. A survey of members revealed that the majority did think their presses employed gendered language on some level, but there was clearly confusion about what, exactly, that language was. The task force encouraged press-level policies on bias-free language, creating a resource bibliography to help guide and implement those changes.

WISP also partnered with other women's organizations—for example, with the Women’s National Book Association to celebrate women’s professional achievements through the Book Women Awards, to “honor women in the book world who have made a difference in bringing authors and their readers together.”

And while consciousness-raising was a key driver of WISP’s activities, its career development initiatives were trailblazing for the AAUP. In 1987, as WISP membership grew and was organized into a dues-paying organization, the Career Development Fund was launched. The fund was heavily supported by WISP’s imaginative, now-quaint fundraisers—t-shirt and button sales, raffles, and dances, for example—along with special donations. The fund “enabled women at levels not automatically accorded the privilege to attend AAUP meetings and professional workshops,” such as, in its first few years, the Denver Publishing Institute, writing workshops, and library conferences—but also the Annual Meeting and regional AAUP workshops.

A decade later, the mission of the Career Development Fund was augmented by the Residency Program. At WISP’s 1993 annual meeting, Torrey discussed creating a job-shadowing program; subsequently she and a group of WISP members worked with the AAUP Professional Development Committee to develop the idea. AAUP members still benefit every year from this innovative program.

By the 1996 Annual Meeting, as noted by Torrey in her inaugural speech as AAUP President, the AAUP board had transitioned to half men and half women (and was also represented by a more diverse constituency, made up of half directors and half non-directors)—close to our current ratio. Women led more presses than previous decades, making up about one-third of the directorship (again, about the same as today).

Perhaps because of its success, WISP began to fade by its 25th year. The early 2000s brought on discussion of if and how WISP could survive a crisis in leadership, and if its mission had been completely fulfilled (many agreed while WISP had made great achievements, there was always more to be done). However, its programs have remained strong, with the Annual Meeting grants—by remaining WISP funds and by others—and the Residency Program anchoring the AAUP’s professional development efforts.

Miller observes that, “When I became president of WISP [in 1985], there were five women press directors (there had been five women press directors in the 1950s!); now I've lost count. How wonderful is that! And if you look at the women press directors who have been in the job for several years, most of us were active WISP members. I don't want to overstate WISP's role in this; women who become press directors do so on their own merits—but I think WISP opened some doors, offered crucial support, allowed many of us to envision our careers in different ways.”

The common theme of WISP's activities from its founding on was the idea that sometimes people don’t know that they care about an issue until it is raised and discussed, Surveys showed at the time that one reason women were not as present in the leadership was because they did not necessarily know if they wanted to, or could, lead; they did not fully understand the director’s role and what that leadership would demand of them. The diversity of WISP activities—mentoring, professional development, meetings—helped bridge this gap of knowledge, and encouraged more women to reach for leadership positions. The specific professional development programs and, moreover, the traditions of mentoring and education that WISP did so much to develop in the Association continue to be a bedrock service to our entire membership