I arrived at the University of Chicago in the fall of 1973, having been appointed as an instructor of French and Italian in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures. My doctoral dissertation on the Italian Nobel Prize–winning poet Eugenio Montale was almost complete, and I began my academic career with all the trepidation of a 26-year-old graduate student who had had no formal guidance in how to make the transition from student to professor. I had always loved learning languages and my family and childhood mentors—especially my piano and voice teacher, who strongly encouraged my interest in Italian, the “language of music”—had been behind me all the way as I set out on the path to a career in education. Yet they had most likely envisioned me returning to our small western Pennsylvania steel town to take up a position in the local schools, perhaps someday advancing to the highly respected job of high-school principal. 

Nobody in my childhood environment had a PhD, and even the most supportive people didn’t have any clear idea of what pursuing such a degree entailed. Moreover, in those days graduate students did not benefit from “professionalization” and we were simply thrown into the ocean and expected to swim, or sink, as the case might be. Especially daunting was the fact that we young women had few if any female role models; our professors at Yale had been exclusively male, with the exception of one woman who came as a visiting professor for a short stint. At the University of Chicago, female faculty members were equally rare and generally we were all young and inexperienced. In my own department, there were two women: one senior colleague in Spanish and one junior colleague in Italian, my own area of specialization.

 This was still the era when it was common for chairs and deans to ask women frequently if they intended to marry and have children, which implied that career was not the priority.

That colleague, Elissa Weaver, and I became fast friends and professional allies and we ended up enjoying over three decades of closely shared work life until Elissa retired in 2008. Indeed, we two young women Italianists were often called by one another’s name; after all, “Weaver” and “West” sound pretty much alike! I was used to such interchangeability since in graduate school my fellow student of Italian, Rachel, and I were also often mistakenly called by each other’s names. We accepted our misnaming with humor and even invented a joint name—Rebachel—that we smilingly suggested could be used for both of us. In spite of the good spirits with which I accepted those misnomers from our professors and later from colleagues, a feeling hovered, not too far from my consciousness, that there was something demeaning about the ease with which young women could be so unthinkingly mistaken for one another. 

Within a year or two of my arrival, Chicago hired several more young women scholars in English, Slavics, Art History, Comparative Literature, and my own department. Still, we all felt our minority status, surrounded as we were by male colleagues and aware that the vast majority of tenured faculty were men. Those men were, for the most part, supportive and collegial to us young women. In my own case my senior colleague in Italian, Paolo Cherchi, had championed my appointment and Elissa Weaver’s the year before; he remained a generous, fair colleague throughout the years that the three of us built the Italian program together. Yet this was still the era when it was common for chairs and deans to ask women frequently if they intended to marry and have children, which implied that career was not the priority; it was also the era when we few women were put on innumerable committees in what we felt to be a “token woman” status. Male colleagues politely listened when we spoke up, but we sensed that our voices were not heard with as much attention as were those of the male majority. Nonetheless, what strikes me now as I look back over almost four decades is how many of those then-young women ended up getting tenure and staying on, as I have, to make lifelong careers at the University of Chicago. This speaks very well of the intellectual and professional environment that is fostered by our University. Academic and pedagogical achievement is not seen through the prism of gender; truly, commitment, hard work, and genuinely important contributions to scholarship, teaching, and the life of the University, be they by men or women, are the key to success. 

All was not rosy, however. I cannot forget witnessing occurrences of real discrimination against women that were the result of deeply entrenched prejudices on the part of some individual male colleagues, as well as of an “old-boy” mentality that had reigned undisturbed for decades both here and in other institutions of higher learning. Women in language and literature departments were often seen as good language instructors, for example, but not as budding literary scholars—in spite of the excellence of their literary critical scholarship which, in some cases and in at least one extremely evident case here, would later bring international fame to the woman in question. In a sense, women were expected to conform to the male-authored models, to be “neuter” rather than visibly and vocally female in our approaches, concerns, and goals. Feminism in whatever guise was fairly unwelcome; it took a very long time for feminist and gender studies to win an institutional stamp of approval in the quite late founding of the Center for Gender Studies in 1996.

 Male colleagues politely listened when we spoke up, but we sensed that our voices were not heard with as much attention as were those of the male majority.Attention to the particular needs of women faculty and students in terms of health care, counseling, child care, and professionalization were also a long time coming. Like so many other young women academics, I was struggling to balance my private and professional lives, and those who had children (I did not) struggled all the harder. I do think that it is a very different world here now than when I first arrived, yet I also think that women still perceive the need for more recognition of their perspectives and goals as women. We live now in an era of many openly recognized “differences,” and identity politics focuses not only on gender but also on race, ethnicity, sexual preference, and many other aspects of difference from the heteronormative model. Women do not form a monolithic identity by any means, and it is difficult to talk convincingly of “women’s perspectives” as if they could be brought into one coherent and cohesive whole. Nonetheless, I do think that women know when we share certain concerns and goals, and when those concerns and goals are trivialized, ignored, or willfully erased because they originate with women. And this does still happen, even in 2010, even here. 

On the unqualifiedly positive side: I have had the pleasure of working for decades in an environment that constantly generates intellectual excitement; that has students who are extraordinarily smart, inventive, energetic, and genuinely fun to teach; and that succeeds in creating a sense of common aspirations that, if worthwhile, receive enormous support and encouragement. Having been a visiting professor at several other institutions, I can say without hesitation that I have not known any other place that crosses disciplinary boundaries and fosters collaboration as much as the University of Chicago. My interests in feminist studies and in cinema studies, which intensified after arriving at Chicago, gained room to flourish in new courses I devised, in collaborative initiatives with colleagues, and eventually in my assumption as a full faculty member in the Department of Cinema and Media Studies and as the director of the Center for Gender Studies from 2002 to 2005. I have also served as the dean of students in the Division of the Humanities and the chair of Romance Languages and Literatures.

In all of these administrative positions I have grown in directions I could never have imagined when I first set foot on campus as a nervous, inexperienced, and very young person. My achievements as a scholar and a teacher have been recognized by the University, and the sense of being appreciated for the work I do is constantly with me. The friendships that I have formed over the last decades with many colleagues are another lasting benefit of my time here. All in all, it has been an amazing voyage, one marked by rough terrain at times but also one that gave me the possibility of advancing, venturing into new and exciting areas of research and teaching, and carving out my life’s work from my deepest loves and my strongest convictions. I consider myself a very lucky and very privileged woman, for I have been able to live out a professional life that has been, in the truest sense, a labor of love. 

Rebecca West (pictured above) is the William R. Kenan, Jr. distinguished service professor in the departments of Romance Languages and Literatures and Cinema and Media Studies.


I came to University of Chicago largely because of your presence there and that of Elissa's. To have generous women mentors and models for a life in academe was rare at the time and incredibly important to my development and, really, survival in this profession. I am very grateful to you and to Elissa for providing an example of scholarly excellence and humanity.

I began studying on a Master's Degree in Italian Language and Literature at age 59, after working for 20 years in a large steel company. Professor West's encouragement, patience and example were superb. As I struggled to study and work her empathy was unforgettable. Thank you, Rebecca.