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UCI Professor's Life and Studies Converge in Women's Program

October 09, 1985|PENELOPE MOFFET

"My mother brought me up to think, 'You don't need men.' And that's so ironic!" said Juliet Flower MacCannell, a UC Irvine associate professor of English and comparative literature.

It's ironic because most of MacCannell's more traditionally raised friends remained single, or married but later divorced, yet MacCannell has been married to the same man for 20 years.

A tall woman with short, dark hair and a strong chin, MacCannell said that she has always been determined to be "the best" in her chosen research fields. Now she is a UCI professor, although her husband and two sons live in Davis, where Dean MacCannell is head of the UC Davis community studies program.

Usually the MacCannells are a family unit from Friday to Monday, and from Tuesday to Thursday the UCI professor commutes to work from a rented room in Costa Mesa. That schedule, which involves two airplane rides each week, has grown wearying, she said.

She and her husband would "like to get together again, as our bodies get older and more tired," the professor said, laughing. But the alternative to commuting--not working, or being a "faculty wife" who's employed as a UC Davis instructor but not given "the compensations of professorship"--are routes Juliet MacCannell has already tried and found unsatisfactory.

MacCannell is a specialist in 18th- and 19th-Century English and French literature who has a particular interest in semiotics (a discipline that views the world as a system of "signs"--words are one such sign--whose meanings are determined only by their relation to other signs). She is also director of two new UCI programs: women's studies, an interdisciplinary humanities program, and a "gender-focused" research project into how females are perceived in art, literature, history and other disciplines.

Known to her colleagues as a hard-working academic who writes and publishes many articles, MacCannell co-authored (with her husband) a 1982 book on semiotics called "The Time of the Sign, " which she calls "an introduction to the field of semiotics, with an emphasis on its applications to literature, philosophy and the social sciences." (The first edition of that book has sold out, and it's about to be translated into Spanish.) These days MacCannell is often invited to speak at conferences.

But for most of the decade before UCI hired her, she couldn't find a satisfactory job anywhere in the country. She said that this was true partly because her academic focus was on "deconstructive criticism, a kind of criticism that builds upon semiotics . . . so the distinctions we make among things becomes the focus of attention." Deconstructive criticism, which was not then widely used, was found "threatening" by many established professors, MacCannell said.

Some male professors also found her threatening because she was a married woman who wanted to work, MacCannell said. Being rejected so many times on these grounds made her more aware of sex-based inequities, she said.

As a graduate student in the 1960s, MacCannell had been inspired by a conference that featured political theorists Betty Friedan and Kate Millett, but her own political activity centered on anti-Vietnam War, rather than pro-feminist, protest. However, "I felt as I grew more and more aware of the real (employment) barriers to women, that it was up to me to keep the pressure up" and not accept unfair treatment, she said.

'I Didn't Quit'

As she neared completion of her doctoral work, "there was a real sense of 'stop, stop, stop, stop,' I kept getting all the time--not from my close friends, but from the world at large," said MacCannell. One by one she watched her women friends in Cornell University's doctoral program leave their studies to have children, or because they thought they were just not good enough to earn a degree, she said.

"I didn't quit, I didn't stop writing my thesis despite the pressures and counter-pressures," she said.

Just before she finished her doctoral dissertation in 1969, MacCannell landed a job teaching French language and literature at Haverford College, a prestigious Philadelphia school. That position ended after one year. From 1970 to 1977 she was unwillingly unemployed, despite having been an honors student and the protege of the late, internationally known literary critic Paul De Man. In interview after interview she was asked: "What would your husband do if we hired you?"

Positions Given to Men

"I'd say: 'Well, I'm sure he'd follow along and land on his feet somehow,' " MacCannell remembered. (Her husband, she added, has for years been "trying to be unemployed" so he can write full time.) Once, she said, the head of a department responded to this by shaking his finger at her and saying: "The wife follows the husband!"

Usually, according to MacCannell, the positions she sought were given to men. Sometimes these men were less academically qualified than she was. Meanwhile, Dean MacCannell, who's an anthropologist and sociologist, was never without work.

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