Meet our faculty: Elaine Treharne

Elaine Treharne

March is Women's History Month, a month to commemorate and encourage the study, observance, and celebration of the vital role of women in history.

Throughout Women’s History Month, we will be highlighting the trailblazing women who make up the Stanford Global Studies community as part of the Meet Our Faculty series. Our second interview is with Elaine Treharne, the Roberta Bowman Denning Professor of the Humanities, professor of English, and professor, by courtesy, of German studies and of comparative literature. Treharne is an affiliate of The Europe Center. In the interview below, she discusses her career, how she hopes to inspire her female students, and some of the challenges facing women in academia.

What is the proudest moment in your career?

I was promoted to a Full Professorship of Medieval Literature in 2002, at the age of 38. This was a proud moment for me because my goal had been to become a professor at a younger age than my father, which I had then achieved. My dad never knew any of this; he died when I was 24. The proudest moment of my career was then delivering my Inaugural Lecture in early 2003 at the University of Leicester. Friends and family all came to the lecture and reception, including my three-year-old daughter and six-year-old son. It was utterly joyful. 

How do you hope to inspire and empower your female students?

I hope to inspire female students to be bold and frank, and to persist through a professional sphere that is still very much a man’s world. Empowering women to be confident, to talk confidently, and to write with assurance is one of the most important contributions I can make. In addition, it’s critical for senior scholars to speak out against injustice, where they can, and to be seen to be trying. In my field now, we are facing up to years of racism, sexism, predatory male scholars, and inequality. It’s one thing to speak up against this; it’s another to act and put infrastructural change in place. I am hopeful I can inspire female students to feel that they, too, can embody and enact positive change.

If you could change one misconception about how women are perceived in academia, what would it be and why?

As I hit my fifties, it became clear that senior women’s contributions, acquired knowledge, wisdom, and experience somehow seem to diminish in value as they age. I’m quite assertive but have still found my voice drowned out or my ideas over spoken by others. I won’t accept this contemporary misconception of women’s power waning as they grow older.

Who is your female role model?

My role model is my exact contemporary and long-time colleague, Dr. Mary Swan, who sadly died in 2020. She left academia to become a horticulturalist, because she knew that she deserved to pursue the things that made her happy. She understood the value of acknowledging self-worth; she was immensely principled and strove only to do the right thing, even if that occasionally made others uncomfortable. I admired her intellect, her forthrightness, her kindness, and her clarity. Those are attributes that made the world a better place with her in it, but that motivate me even more now that she’s gone.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

Calm down and learn that there is a time when having done enough really will suffice. (Actually, I’m still giving myself this advice every day.)