Jennifer Scanlon: Feminist, Scholar and Dean

Jennifer Scanlon

Jennifer Scanlon

This summer, Jennifer Scanlon became Bowdoin’s interim dean for academic affairs, one of the college’s most important jobs. She’s filling the seat for two years, overseeing all of Bowdoin’s faculty and academic departments.

Academic deans are nearly always drawn from the ranks of tenured professors — from the sciences to the humanities — and so bring their unique scholarly backgrounds to the leadership roles. In Scanlon’s case, she carries with her a deep knowledge of feminism and the history of feminism. Before joining Bowdoin’s administration in 2013 as associate dean of faculty, Scanlon taught in the Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies Program as the College’s William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of the Humanities.

“My interest in gender and women’s place in the world definitely played a role in my considering moving into an administrative position,” Scanlon reflected in a recent interview. She added, however, that in speaking of the ways her study of feminism relates to her current role, she is wary of reinforcing the simplistic notion that women make wholly different leaders than men.

“I’ve done a lot of reading and thinking about the ways people work together, how organizations work, and how individuals work within them. Much of that confronts stereotypes that women are naturally more collaborative,” she said. “But there are ways in which women are socialized that encourage them to be good listeners or to work well together. More importantly, though, women bring different ideas to the table.”

Her new role both challenges her — she says she learns new things every day — and professionally fulfills her. “I have been so fortunate— I’ve experienced the whole range of work that I love,” she said, “which is to teach incredible students, focus on my scholarship, build programs, and work with and for colleagues to make our work lives enjoyable and rewarding.”

A Feminist Consciousness

Scanlon’s feminism first surfaced in her childhood. Born in the Bronx and moving around the metropolitan area as her father’s work assignments changed, she wondered why the contributions of her mother — a vibrant, bright and independent woman who worked and raised six children — were not as valued as the achievements of her father. “It struck me when my father retired that there was a big party for him,” she said. “But when my mother retired, it was different. It seemed more natural for her than for him to ‘retreat’ back into the house.” Scanlon added, “she was a smart woman who lived with the gender and economic restrictions, and the cultural restrictions, of her day.”

Scanlon attended college at SUNY Oneonta, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in English and secondary education. She thought she would become a high school teacher, but a professor convinced her to go to graduate school, where she discovered a whole new world of college teaching. “ I discovered that I wanted to teach in college, but wasn’t sure just how to combine my intellectual and personal interests.” She earned a master’s degree in English, and then traveled around the world, living in Hawaii and visiting Japan, Thailand and India. Along the way, she hiked to the base camp of Mount Everest. She returned to the U.S. to research doctoral programs.

In the end, she decided to pursue a Ph.D. in women’s history at Binghamton University in New York, as she concluded that this field would be the best way for her to merge her professional life with her “feminist consciousness” — her interest in observing women’s lives and thinking about their place in the world.

After Scanlon completed her Ph.D., she accepted a job teaching in the women’s studies program at SUNY Plattsburgh. Her first book looked at the Ladies Home Journal, analyzing the ways in which the magazine reflected and reinforced the interplay between consumer culture and women’s lives. “With a magazine so mainstream, emerging at the turn of the century, I saw rich opportunity to learn about women’s choices and how they lived their lives,” she said.

Scanlon taught at SUNY Plattsburgh for 13 years before accepting a tenured position at Bowdoin to help build the women’s studies program. Over the years, Bowdoin’s women’s studies program has gone through several evolutions, and with each change, it has been renamed. The program became Gender and Women’s Studies a few years back to acknowledge that the department was investigating not just the experiences of women, but also of men. More recently, the program again updated its name to Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies. “The name shift signifies a shift in the paradigm of the field at large, which is to complicate gender by infusing our work with attention to sexuality,” Scanlon explained.

My ideas about women come from a fundamental place of respect, and I don’t mind admitting that what I hope to do with my work is generate that in other people, and to help them recognize the complicated nature of women’s lives.”
—Jennifer Scanlon

In her current administrative job, Scanlon said a couple of her priorities at the moment are to help diversify the faculty and to encourage more pedagogical collaboration among professors. She has been urging faculty to visit and observe one another’s classes to provide each other with feedback. “This is in the spirit that we can learn from each other,” she said. “Everyone brings their own voice to the classroom but maybe we can help each other understand what it means to use that voice most effectively and then better meet the needs of students.”

These days Scanlon’s jam-packed days don’t leave any time for teaching classes, a job she says she misses, particularly her regular interactions with students. “I miss not having these incredible young people in my daily life,” she said. “You commit to teaching because you want to help shape people’s lives, but the students also give you so much.”

Part of her delight in teaching and mentoring students, she continued, is seeing their awareness expand as they encounter new writers and ideas. “The classroom is a space in which young people, through good intellectual work, learn about the world, but also about themselves,” Scanlon said.

Throughout her time in administration, Scanlon has kept up her research pursuits. Her latest book looks at the life of a little known African American civil-rights worker. “Anna Arnold Hedgeman should be a household name, but she’s not,” Scanlon said. “This biography tells her life story and also complicates what we know about the history of civil rights and the history of feminism by placing a black woman centrally in those movements.” Until There is Justice: The Life of Anna Arnold Hedgeman will be out will be available in the next few weeks. It follows Scanlon’s 2009 acclaimed biography, Bad Girls Go Everywhere, about the longtime Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown.

Although the two subjects of these biographies are quite different, Scanlon said both books trace women’s connections to social movements — Brown’s to feminism and Hedgeman’s to feminism and civil rights. “I looked at the ways in which these women’s lives complicated our understanding of social movements,” Scanlon said. “They are also New York stories by and large, and I’m drawn to New York stories.”

In her roles as educator and scholar, Scanlon is frank about how her feminism infuses her work. “My ideas about women come from a fundamental place of respect, and I don’t mind admitting that what I hope to do with my work is generate that in other people, and to help them recognize the complicated nature of women’s lives,” she said.

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