An interview with Margaret Jacob on feminism and the challenges of academia

January 31, 2017

An interview between Naomi Zurevinski and Margaret Jacob, author of “Commerce, Industry and Newtonian Science: Weber Revisited and Revised,” on her career and experiences in academia. Jacob’s article appeared in the Canadian Journal of History/Annales canadiennes in 2000, and is available here to read for free for a limited time.


As someone who has been in academia for many years, Margaret Jacob has an interesting story to share about breaking into the discipline, at a time when there weren’t many female scholars.

“You have to bear in mind that when I went to graduate school in 1964, at Cornell University, there was no woman tenured in any research university in the [United States]; not Cornell, not Yale, not Harvard, not Princeton, not Berkeley –nowhere,” Jacob said. “Needless to say, you were being taught entirely by men, and many of them were wonderful, but they would say openly, ‘This department will never hire a woman – over my dead body.’

Jacob said she was lucky and had two supervising male professors who did not share those same attitudes. By 1972, there was a movement within the historical profession to make all departments advertise every available position. She became very involved in this movement, and led the floor fight at an annual meeting of the American Historical Association, where they demanded that any department that was part of the AHA had to advertise all of their job opportunities. They eventually succeeded in making this a rule, which led to more female scholars having access to, and being able to apply for university positions.

Describing herself as “pugnacious” and “fierce,” Jacob discussed what it was like working in academia at that time.

“You just knew that to get ahead and to do a career in this profession, you had to be as good, if not better, than the men around you,” she said. “You just had to work like you really meant it. And you also had to watch, that things were not being done with a bias. I mean, there were things that were done with a bias, and many of my friends sued, over this or that event. In some ways, I led a slightly charmed life and I didn’t have to take anybody up on charges. But there were plenty of people who did take others up on charges.”

Jacob also mentioned that sexual harassment was a large problem, with a lack of awareness and consequences for it. Although this still happens today, Jacob said that sexual harassment was “everywhere,” and was something that many of her female colleagues faced on a daily basis.

“I still remember… one of my very first jobs in this country when I came back to New York…the chair of the department…was a horrible harasser – he was just impossible. He made the critical mistake of sending a love letter to one of my female colleagues, and she took it and Xeroxed it and sent it to the whole department,” Jacob said, laughing. “It was wonderful! Just a wonderful moment, you know. But that’s the sort of thing that went on.”

As an important topic, Jacob feels that the story of equal rights in academia is one worth sharing, and one that young female scholars today need to hear.

“Many young scholars, who are 30 today, let’s say, have no idea what it was like in the 1960s. They don’t know. Nobody ever told them, and that’s just the way it was. But they really do need to know that because we’re still within living memory, and so we have to be vigilant.

Although there are still issues with equality and harassment today, Jacob’s story is a strong reminder of how much academia has changed over the years, and how far it’s come – sometimes it just takes a little pugnacity.

Jacob’s work, “Commerce, Industry and Newtonian Science: Weber Revisited and Revised” is free to read for a limited time. Click here to read the article on CJH Online –

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