In Defense of the Minima My Professors Fought for

At Western Illinois University, what values do we hold dear?  What is worth fighting for?  What do we take risks for?  I think about my WIU professors, and I know I would support a strike for a fair contract that includes a defense of the minima, the policy that closed the wage gap at WIU.  As WIU administration attempts to compromise the minima–render it toothless–I will speak out.

I learned about the minima when I took Dr. Polly Radosh’s Women and Crime class at WIU 30 years ago.  Some of us walked to class with Discmans playing the Joshua Tree CD.  We met in one of those cave-like lecture halls in Morgan.  We sat in arched rows of seats with fold-away writing tablets.  The chairs were welded into the floor.

After 30 years, I’m remembering her classroom dialogue the best I can.

“Poverty drives women’s petty crimes,” said Dr. Radosh. “And women are poorer because of the wage gap.”  Polly really did use the phrase “petty crimes.”  It’s funny the things I remember decades later.

Polly attracted politically engaged students who cared about the world.

“Wage gap?”  said one of my classmates, “Aren’t women paid less because they work less? Or their work is less valuable?”  A student usually poses some form of this question.

“Consider WIU.  Even here, women with the same rank and seniority, in the same department, doing the same work, earn less than their male colleagues.” Polly said something like that.

“You mean this is practically the 1990s, and they pay men more for the same work?” Maybe I posed this question, but  I was probably too shocked to speak.  I still believed the United States was a fair place for women.  It would not have occurred to me sex discrimination was still blatant and would hit so close to home.

“Yes, WIU does, in fact, pay men more for the same work, but a group of us in the faculty union is working to close the pay gap,” Polly said.

Something was terribly wrong:  Polly Radosh was getting paid less than her male colleagues at the same rank. I’ve never seen any faculty member or administrator who worked as intensely, for long hours, as Polly Radosh.  She was not chummy.  She did not schmooze.  You would never, NEVER, find her with social media or Ebay or on her computer screen.  Or a chess game or personal check book on her desk.  As focused as she was, she always dropped what she was doing if I needed her help, even if she was working on a deadline. I was so lucky.

Dr. Polly Radosh and her colleagues instituted the minima and it closed the wage gap. Polly and other professors, like Dr. Karen Mann, were making a better world for women like me.  Or that’s what we believed.  That’s what we wanted, what we still want—to level the playing field for our students and our daughters.  To win for every woman, all women, a fair start, an equal opportunity.  And when we defend women’s rights and freedoms, men and children benefit.

Polly and Karen taught me how to be a feminist activist academic.  They have retired.  I have picked up their torch.  So has the UPI leadership.

My WIU professors formed the professional union and created the Western Organization for Women. I’ve admired them for their political commitment:  they fought for and achieved fair wages and good working conditions.  The stakes are high.

But gains won for fairness–for women, for people of color, for state employees– are easily lost.

Will we be the generation of faculty that sits by as the hard-won gains our predecessors fought for are attacked and destroyed?

UPDATE:  WIU’s professional union, the UPI, overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike. So no. No we will not be the generation the sits by.