Estelle Freedman is a Stanford University Professor of History, specializing in American and women’s history. She earned her Ph.D. and M.A. degrees in history from Columbia University and her B.A. in history from Barnard College. She has taught at Stanford since 1976 and is a co-founder of the Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program.
A Conversation with Estelle B. Freedman
A distinguished historian and feminist scholar, Estelle B Freedman has paved the way for both women academics and the study of women’s history during her 30 years at Stanford University. In keeping with our theme, academia, I had the pleasure to speak with Dr. Freedman on her personal experiences as a female scholar, the successes of women in academia, and the importance of mentorship.
We began our conversation with a discussion on her initial experiences in academia. As she recalls, during a critical moment in her education at Barnard, her advisor encouraged her to expand her interests into women’s history; Freedman was soon drawn to the emerging feminist discourse and renewal of women’s movements. When she returned to Columbia University to pursue her Ph.D in history, she was entering a time of particular “hostility towards women” in academia. Although she was part of a “large push for women in academia” she spoke about her struggle as a woman in a male dominated field. She was discouraged as both a female scholar and in her pursuit of women’s history. In reflecting on herself as “a historian in the historical context,” she recounts that she benefitted from forging personal relationships with professors who served as mentors and support. It is these relationships that remain critical to empowering women to pursue scholarship.
I asked Dr. Freedman to tell me more about her time at Stanford University. Over the past 30 years, she recounted, “academia has changed tremendously.” When she began, she was “marginalized and felt insecure” because many believed her chosen concentration in women and sexuality studies “wasn’t important enough.” During her pursuit for tenure, she was met with hostility by the history department who believed her “work on women was not considered real history.” Yet, with the help of her mentors, she organized women’s studies groups and eventually helped establish an interdisciplinary studies program. She “found solidarity in other scholars” who were also made to feel like “outsiders.” Through all the difficulties, Freedman recalls, there was “someone at each institution” that helped her push forward. Today, although there are still struggles, there has been “a huge change…elders look over generations after” and treat young scholars with “total respect.”
I asked Dr. Freedman to speak about her actions in creating this change in academia and what more needs to be done. In paving this path for women’s studies, publishing books and “having a successful career at a well respected institution,” Freedman stressed how critical it has been to empower young scholars to pursue academia by continually mentoring undergraduate and graduate students. She has sought to bring “non-traditional scholars, both men and women,” into the academic discourse and “to create a string of students who would lead to another string of students” to open the discipline to a more diverse body of opinions. Yet, as Freedman described, there are still challenges that hinder the success of female scholars in their academic careers; although “fighting for women to get hired” is no longer an issue, graduate students face other obstacles. For example, graduate students are under enormous academic pressure to be your most productive” at the same time that many are, “depending on if they are alone or with a partner, trying to raise child”. Freedman emphasized that these problems are “resolvable for both men and women” and that “we must not feminize the problem.”
As our conversation came to a close, Freedman had a knock on the door from a student seeking her guidance. Her enthusiasm to help this student and to speak with me exemplifies her central point: finding mentors, even those “outside your field,” with a shared experience remains extremely important to the empowerment of women’s leadership in academia.
Interview conducted by Sarah Pierce