Lifting a Ton of Feathers, by Paula Caplan
Review by Catherine Bray
Lifting a Ton of Feather the book or the task, can be completed in two ways: through a series of small efforts or by one long rather wearying exertion. I recommend that Paula Caplan's book be lifted a number of times, briefly.
The book is divided into useful chunks, and acts as a manual for the aspiring, succeeding or successful woman academic. Chapters six and seven, which explain "What you can do" in accessible lists with clear examples, are the most helpful. Caplan's general suggestions include building your own self-esteem in various ways, reviewing potential traps, connecting with supporters, documenting everything, educating and acting. Her more specific suggestions are grouped and directed toward women in graduate school, those looking for jobs, those seeking tenure or promotion, and those already at the top.
The practical ideas range from the mundane ("read the advertisements in regular publications for your discipline") to the practical ("If you are asked to give a lecture [as part of the hiring process] prepare it very carefully but do not read it word for word"), to the somewhat quirky ("Pretend that your dissertation is just an extremely time-consuming, lengthy paper"). As a mid-life academic woman, I found these suggestions to be stimulating reminders which reinforced most of my own strategies and suggested alternatives, even though they were geared toward those working in large relatively well- funded graduate institutions, unlike my own.
Other feathery segments of the book include chapter 3 on unwritten-rules, chapter 4 on myths, and chapter 5 on the catch 22's of the workplace. These three chapters overlap in several areas, and could have been improved with some reorganization, and additional editing. The appendices (which offer data on gender bias, the maleness of the environment and guidelines for hiring, promotion and tenure committees) can be lifted and readily applied in many contexts. The bibliography, although extensive, is difficult to use in association with the footnotes because of its content-related subdivisions.
A further problem which is more associated with the mercurial changes in education, business and politics in the late twentieth century than with the book itself is the relevance of some of the issues. Controversies such as the one over secretarial support of male but not female students have nearly vanished in times when secretaries are often unavailable to faculty members. As well, hiring to tenure track positions has become infrequent, so discussion of how to win tenure is of less common interest. Finally, as the restructuring of the economy severely affects more and more people, it has become clearer to many of us that, as individuals, we are not at fault when we are affected by raging unemployment, the degradation of all labour, and few social supports.
Perhaps the self-esteem issue, which Caplan emphasizes, is not as paramount in the 1990s. Young women, especially the daughters of feminists, may be learning to blame themselves less than earlier generations when they don't attain "success" as described by their elders.
Overall, however, I am satisfied with the book. The author pays close attention to the various forms of discrimination based on race, ability, and sexual orientation as well as gender. The book is accessible, and especially appropriate for graduate students and those considering entering post-graduate programs. The frustrations for academic women are clearly represented, substantiated, and linked carefully to practical solutions. Lifting a ton of feathers, a tedious task no matter what method is employed, is probably analogous with the lives of most academic women. Lifting a Ton of Feathers makes some helpful suggestions about how to lift efficiently and safely.
Catherine Bray is a former CCLOW Board member and is currently on sabbatical from her position as Associate Professor of women's Studies at the University of Athabasca.