On Women's Studies

There are many intelligent critiques to be made of Women’s Studies, and perhaps of Ethnic Studies as well. Unfortunately, there are many shallow and thoughtless critiques as well, and maybe these get made more often. Which brings me to this post on Finnegan’s Wake.

Finnegan, who is (I think) a philosophy major, has a good point; if bullying of queer kids in school has become much less common, then that’s a very significant and positive development. Unfortunately, he concluded his post with an attack on a certain group of majors:

Last, the comment that’s going to get me into trouble. LGBTQ studies, gender studies, ______ ethnic group studies, African Amerian studies, Judaic studies, etc: I just don’t understand concentrating one’s academic life on questions of group identification. There is more to an individual than his/her skin color or sexuality, and there’s a lot more to the world than one’s own existence and insecurities. I don’t doubt that there are interesting classes to take on all these subjects, and interesting papers to be written, but as majors they suggest a fantastic intellectual paucity. If you want to spend four years doing nothing but self-reflection, well, there are analysts for that. Meanwhile, the universe contains a great many phenomena and syntheses that you don’t know about, and you will never have a chance after your undergraduate years (graduate studies being obsessively single-minded even within a given field) to do something about that ignorance.

I responded in Finnegan’s comments, but I thought I might as well cross-post my (slightly edited) response here, as well. Sometimes I wish I were Amanda; this sort of thing is better responded to with withering sarcasm, but I’m not good at that. (Of course, Amanda does brilliant analysis as well.) (Gee, why does Amanda say I suck up to her flatter her shamelessly? I can’t imagine. She must be delusional. Poor deluded chick.)

In his comments, Finnegan wrote:

One phenomenon that seems apparent to me is that students in programs like Women’s and Gender Studies or AfAm Studies, etc., have a tendency to hermetically seal themselves off from other disciplines and from challenges to their orthodoxies.

I was a WS major (well, sort of a design-your-own major, based on economics and WS). Far from being “hermetically sealed,” WS had a huge number of courses cross-listed with different disciplines – much more so than any of the more standard majors.

There is more to an individual than his/her skin color or sexuality, and there’s a lot more to the world than one’s own existence and insecurities.

Your sneering description of what you imagine WS is like is so unrelated to the reality I experienced that it’s not even insulting; it’s just bewildering. It’s as if someone said “I could never be a philosophy major, they don’t learn anything; they just sit around contemplating how many angels could dance in their navel.” The statement speaks to the speaker’s bias and ignorance, but doesn’t actually say anything about the subject matter.

If you want to spend four years doing nothing but self-reflection, well, there are analysts for that.

Witty (well, not especially) put-downs are not a replacement for actual analysis or knowledge.

Meanwhile, the universe contains a great many phenomena and syntheses that you don’t know about…

All majors share this “flaw”; there is no major that will cover more than a tiny portion of the universe’s phenomena. I’ve known physicists and economists who have gone through college without ever reading a novel after freshman year, for example. I was initially interested in being a computer science major, but recoiled after realizing the required courses list would leave little chance to take other sorts of classes. Business majors typically have next-to-no interaction with the rest of the campus.

In fact, ethnic and women’s studies tend to be less cloistered than most other majors; at many universities, these courses are taught by professors from a variety of disciplines, hence all the cross-listing.

“…you will never have a chance after your undergraduate years (graduate studies being obsessively single-minded even within a given field) to do something about that ignorance.”

Colleges provide a structured environment for study; but it’s far from true, as this statement seems to suggest, that intellectual life ends when college ends.

You seem to think college should be a sort of intellectual broadness marathon, in which people choose majors based on trying to learn as many different phenomina as possible.

I think you’re mistaken. People should study what they’re passionately driven to study. There is intellectual richness to be found in almost any field, if you have a open mind; the silly “my major is better than yours” attitude of your post doesn’t reflect that reality.

Of course, to study just one field exclusively – whether women’s studies or philosophy or, I don’t know, French – would be kind of sad. But I think few if any students actually do this; most take classes outside their majors. Most of the WS majors I knew took minors (or a second major) in other disciplines; the same thing may even be true of philosophy majors, for all I know.

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54 Responses to On Women's Studies

  1. 1
    Josh Jasper says:

    What I find amazing is how broad women’s, GLBT and ethnic studies majors are. They include theories of literature, history, psychology, sociology and anthropology. The idea that they’re narrow, or just about group identification is misinformed.

  2. 2
    Fitz says:

    I was a philosophy majors, and I rarely took course outside my major?
    Of coarse I supplemented with a wide variety of outside reading.
    I must say, I sympathize with the authors comments. The fractured nature of the academy has led to a destruction of the idea of the humanities ““ (that which we all share).
    This is especially vivid in women studies were young women themselves are ghettoized into a one dimensional leftist worldview.

  3. 3
    Brad says:

    I would say, from the outside, it is quite common to share Finnegan’s views. However, from the outside ( as I am ), can one really comment intelligently. My first thought would be that WS is narrow, but I have no evidence of this, I would hold my tongue until I had more information.

  4. 4
    Sally says:

    Actually, if I have an issue with the “studies” majors, it’s that they’re so broad that students don’t get sufficiently grounded in the methodology of any discipline. In some respects that’s great, but I worry that they’re getting a really watered-down version of a lot of different approaches. And I think there’s something to be said for really immersing yourself in and interrogating a single approach.

    I have a hard time taking seriously the idea that “women” is a narrow, limited category. And somehow no one raised this objection when I majored in British history as an undergrad. Funnily enough, “British people” is a vastly more limited category than “women.”

  5. 5
    Lauren says:

    Right on. All of the comments posted have been what i was thinking. The idea of saying any program designed to study teh facets of a group of people IS bewildering. Any group do people (women, African-Americans, people who wear baseballs hats on saturdays) are going to rich, diverse, and complicated leaving enourmous room for engagement with other departments. Preach on, sista.

  6. 6
    Jenn says:

    Aside from being a sciences major, I made the effort to concentrate in Asian American studies. Bravo for bringing our attention to the post you quoted — my gripe is that ethnic studies and gender studies majors, far from being useless, are actually crucial to advancing the political movements of a given community. Without proper reflection and dialogue surrounding a given racial, gender, or sexuality movement, you can’t properly organize your community or understand yourself enough to fight for your rights.

    I think ethnic studies in America is in a sad state of affairs precisely because attitudes like the one you cite are so prevalent. Ignorance of a community’s issues breeds acceptance of the oppressive status quo; you have no idea how many APIA activists I saw being born in my Intro to Asian American Studies course — these were Asian kids who had never even heard of the ‘model minority myth’ or hate crimes against people who looked like them.

    At my university, most ethnic studies programs don’t even warrant a major or minor status for students — upon completion, the best title you can get is ‘concentration’. Rather than being ‘hermetically sealed’ in a particular academic field, students of most ethnic studies programs are forced to find a major elsewhere in order to pursue their concentration and still graduate. That forces the programs to remain smaller because of lack of funding, promotes lack of interest in most students, and overall, the ignorance of minority communities to their own history and culture remains dishearteningly high.

    If we want to see greater progress in minority communites of race, gender, and sexuality, we actually need greater acceptance of concentrated studies programs. If the person you cite wants broader academic discussion, then we need to improve the scope of ethnic/gender studies programs and give them more legitimacy — to give them room to be more varied in approach.

  7. 7
    Brad says:

    I look at “narrow” or “limited” in this discussion meaning….it is the impression ( right or wrong) that someone in WS may study , for instance, theology, but only get how it impacts women. Then they may study literature, but only get how it impacts women, etc… Whereas, there is so much more in literature, theology etc…than how it impacts women.

  8. 8
    Sally says:

    In my British history classes, I studied theology, but only as it affected British history. There’s a lot more to theology than 17th century debates about Calvinism, too, but nobody raised that objection. All majors are narrow, because it’s impossible to study everything. That only comes up, though, when the “narrow” thing you’re studying isn’t thought to be very important.

  9. 9
    silverside says:

    I was also something of a philsophy major [Actually, it was in something called "Critical Theory" (Marx, Marcuse, Habermas, et al) which was an interdisciplinary major, but most of my classes were in philosophy].

    At that time, I was a very theoretically oriented person, so I got a little impatient with classes or majors that were more or less basic delivery of empirical-based knowledge. That’s easy enough to get out of book. Philosophy stretches you in teaching you how to think. I still think this is true to a degree, although I am not as rigid about it now.

    That said, I think this guy is an idiot. What philosophy is he studying? A strict diet of Logical Positivism? If he ever studied phenomenology, existentialism, Kant, Hegel, Marx, or any number of schools or thinkers, he’s have some vague awareness that the subjectivity of the thinker is an unavoidable aspect of consciousness. Does he think that reality is some kind of feed pouring directly into a brain? Consciousness does not exist in a vacuum. It is not “pure.” The idea that consciousness exists in some state that is independent of the situation of the perceiver is a myth. Consciousness is always mediated by language and culture, as well as by the structural limitations and possibilities of the brain itself. Gender, skin color, and class also necessarily play into this, since these are factors that tend to situate the perceiver/thinker in particular situation and worldview. Is the consciousness reducible to gender or skin color? Obviously, no. But neither does consciousness or awareness exist in some airy fairy world totally independent of the factors that shape subjectivity.

  10. 10
    Fitz says:

    My objection to the “narrow” (in WS) would not be that it simply confines itself to women (although that too) but that it confines itself to the leftist, Marxist, post-modern current Kulturekamph.

  11. 11
    Trish Wilson says:

    Don’t colleges have a core curriculum any more? I was the last class to not have that. College students who came in after I did were required to take introductory courses in many disciplines in their freshman year before they chose a major. I ended up doing that anyway because I couldn’t decide what I wanted to major in.

  12. 12
    Brad says:

    I certainly hope I am not the idiot that Silverside is referring to. If so, you have missed my entire point.

  13. 13
    silverside says:

    No Brad. I was thinking of this Finnegan character. The guy who is apparently oblivious to the fact that the contingencies of his “existence” has anything to do with his experience and interpretation of the great world out there.

  14. 14
    Decnavda says:

    I agree with Sally. I have always thought “Women’s Studies” sounded far too broad to be a legitimate major. If a class on reproductive anatomy, a class on mystery writers, a class on the status of women in ancient Incan society, and a class on women’s contributions to the study of theoretical physics all count for the same major, what is the major actually making you an expert in? As for people who beleive that “Women’s Studies” is too narrow, what the hell are you thinking? Suding half the population of the planet is “too narrow”?

    Actually my wife went to Berkeley, took an introductory women’s studies course, and dediced it was too narrow for her – she says that for accuracy, they should have named it “White Women’s Studies”.

    As for specific ethnic studies, each involves a different, longstanding culture, and I do see what is being studied. And I agree with changing “women’s studies” to “gender studies” – even though you may be “braoding” it to include LGBT issues and even men’s issues, there is now a specific overall topic being addressed: The way culture defines and assigns roles to various genders. THAT is a worthy area of expertise.

  15. 15
    Julian Elson says:

    I do take issue with your description of gender studies/ethnic studies/Judaica/African American studies as the only studies of “things other than white men.” I don’t think someone who majors in biology, or mathematics, or history (with a specialization in Han-Dynasty China), or the Khmer language, is really studying something characteristically white male (Larry Summers’ “girls can’t do science!” stuff aside).

    One might say that these are characteristically the studies of people other than [straight] white men, but I think that saying that they’re the only studies about something other than straight white men is silly.

    Nor, for that matter, should such specialist ethnic/gender type studies be limited to the non-white, non-male, or non-het. I was under the impression that critical whiteness studies/ masculinity studies and those sorts of fields were expanding pretty rapidly (which makes sense: you can’t understand the racism which creates some features of African American life without understanding white people, you can’t understand sexual violence without understanding men, etc).

    Other than that, I think you’re right overall in your response to Finnegan.

    Trish Wilson, I don’t know that much about the rest of collegiate life, but the University of Chicago (where I go) still has a pretty large core curriculum.

  16. 16
    Ampersand says:

    Julien -

    Yeah, you’re right. My bad.

    UPDATE - I’ve corrected the text in response to Julien’s critique.

  17. 17
    piny says:

    Hm. How about the only fields of study that explicitly focus on the perspectives of people not white and male? Or the fact that these fields of study are the result of a movement whose goal was to gain greater attention for non-white, non-male perspectives in all disciplines?

  18. 18
    Brad says:

    I would love to see that quote where Summers said girls can’t do science !

  19. 19
    Ted says:

    As an educator in higher education, I really don’t think you can ever say that a given major is too broad, or narrow. Moreover, I find it hard to believe that anyone is ever “hermetically sealed” into a field of study. The nature of the world we live in is multi-disciplinarian, nothing can overcome that, and it seems to me that all students are acutely aware of that fact.

    The goal of a university education is to teach a person to think, and do so critically and openmindedly (which may not happen as much as we’d all like). So long as that goal is achieved, the university has done its job, or more appropriately the student has done their job.

    Giving students an opportunity to spend four years studying something they are passionate about is one of the great strengths of the American University System. I, for one, don’t think it has much bearing on what they do afterwards (that is what their major was). In fact, the best minds are often those that switch completely away from their undergrad field as they move into professional or graduate life.

    I say bravo to all of those creating new fields of understanding of our culture, world and universe. These are the things that make life interesting and enriching.

  20. 20
    piny says:

    I would love to see that quote where Summers said girls can’t do science !

    From the transcript of the notorious speech:

    There are three broad hypotheses about the sources of the very substantial disparities that this conference’s papers document and have been documented before with respect to the presence of women in high-end scientific professions. One is what I would call the–I’ll explain each of these in a few moments and comment on how important I think they are–the first is what I call the high-powered job hypothesis. The second is what I would call different availability of aptitude at the high end, and the third is what I would call different socialization and patterns of discrimination in a search. And in my own view, their importance probably ranks in exactly the order that I just described.

    He didn’t say that “girls can’t do science.” He did say that a lack of ability ability–ability apart from the effects of “socialization”–was a contributing factor to underrepresentation, and that that it was a more important factor than discrimination.

    So he did say that girls are less talented at science. I’m sure he wouldn’t begrudge li’l Marie her chemistry set, but he doesn’t think that women as a class are as capable of making high-level contributions to the field.

  21. 21
    Ted says:

    Trish Wilson,

    I have yet to come across a University that doesn’t have a core curriculum. Usually its pretty extensive too (and students complain alot about it to boot). I know there are some movements to get rid of it though, largely based on the premise I stated above (that we’ll teach them to think and then they can teach themselves anything). I don’t buy into that idea, largely because it puts too large of a responsibility on the student to find credible information (which is becoming increasingly hard to do). It might be nice to cut it back a bit though, especially at state schools where it tend to be more comprehensive, to give students more of an opportunity to take courses that intrigue their fancy, but aren’t part of their major. For instance, where I went to undergrad, I was a basic science major, but minored in film history and criticism. This was only available to me because my specific discipline of major cut back on the core courses requirement and doubled up on upper class courses (e.g. Neuroscience and Psychopharmacology all roled into one wild and wacky course).

    In many other nations alot of professional degree seakers (MD and DDS, for instance) go straight from high school into their didactic training for their professional degree. They bypass the whole liberal arts educaation thing and many suffer greatly for it if they try to enter academic life here in the U.S.. It is my hope that we never enter into such a system here, but there are movements to try and push for that, especially when you consider our current shortage of medical professionals (which will only get worse with our ageing population).

  22. 22
    Brad says:

    Piny, you were nice enough to give the quote, but then you go on to say that he said that women cannot contribute at a high level, when clearly he did not.
    The number of women in high end scientific jobs is low. There are stats to show that. What he said was that there are basically three theories that try to explain it.
    The only thing that he said that is “offensive” would be that he feels that the aptitude ranks higher than discrimination. I am not saying i agree with that statement, however, trying to rank those two issues is a pretty subjective task. There is not a lot of hard data that you could really compare.

  23. 23
    Ancarett says:

    Come to Canada if you want to see a university without a core curriculum. Most universities here have very “freeform” majors. I’ve been teaching in this system for years and I find it entirely possible for students to construct incoherent programmes of study. That they don’t always is a testament to individual drive and a number of devoted faculty advisors.

    My primary teaching area is history but I also teach some courses that are cross-listed in Women’s Studies. Two of them are classic “European Women’s History” courses — in fact, they are the university’s sophomore level surveys on the subject. But the other courses I teach that are cross-listed treat women’s history within a broader context. And there’s no complaint from the Women’s Studies coordinator about that. They’re more concerned with ensuring that the course is open and accessible to students who aren’t history majors and will give them new perspectives and material that they can link to their core interest.

    I also find it laughable that people assume that every women’s studies program is Marxist, leftist bafflegab. Yes, there’s a strong core of feminist activists firmly on the left, but I’ve met people all over the ideological and political spectrum who are involved in Women’s Studies.

  24. 24
    piny says:

    Piny, you were nice enough to give the quote, but then you go on to say that he said that women cannot contribute at a high level, when clearly he did not.
    The number of women in high end scientific jobs is low. There are stats to show that. What he said was that there are basically three theories that try to explain it.

    No.

    He was talking about two disparities; you’re conflating them. He said that women are underrepresented in the sciences, particularly in the upper echlons. That was the fact he was attempting to explain, and something everyone agrees on. Later, he mentioned another area in which women are scarce, that is, at the upper end of science and math test scores and/or demonstrated science and math ability.

    He put forth three theories of what contributes to women’s underrepresentation in science the career. The first theory he mentioned was that women are less-inclined or less-able to work “high-powered” jobs, that is, jobs with eighty-hour work-weeks.

    The second theory he mentioned was that there is a “different availability of aptitude at the high end,” that is, that women are less likely to display the kind of aptitude that would allow them to occupy high-level positions like, say, tenured professor at Harvard.

    Then he mentioned a third possible cause, or two causes that both fall into the category of sexism: socialization, or nurture; and discrimination in hiring.

    Note that “aptitude,” as he defines it here, is not the same thing as education or training, which would fall under “socialization.” Aptitude means talent.

    None of those theories are mutually exclusive, and all three can exist at once; it’s theoretically possible that women really are quite a bit dumber, but that society treats them as though they’re even dumber than they really are.

    Summers didn’t just mention them. He proceeded to rank these theoretical factors by the extent to which he believes they contribute to underrepresentation. First, women are unable or less-inclined to work eighty-hour weeks. Second, that women are less naturally apt. Their abilities are comparable in the middle ranges, but they fall way behind at the levels that really matters to institutions like Harvard. If you have a uterus, you’re less likely to be a genius. Third and least significant, that women have to deal with sexist discrimination both on the way to Harvard and at the entrance.

    So he did, too, say that he believes that women are less apt–that is, that a natural disparity in talent does exist. And he said that it was a more significant cause than sexism. And re-reading my post, let me rephrase, since I was unclear: he doesn’t believe that women as a class are incapable of contributing. He does believe that women as a class have less to contribute.

    The only thing that he said that is “offensive”? would be that he feels that the aptitude ranks higher than discrimination. I am not saying i agree with that statement, however, trying to rank those two issues is a pretty subjective task. There is not a lot of hard data that you could really compare.

    Precisely. We don’t know. That’s why the President of Harvard University isn’t at all justified in drawing any conclusions about any of them in a public speech. He’s an educated man; he should know better than to decide something in the absence of evidence.

  25. 25
    Amanda says:

    One thing is for certain–women’s studies has dramatically improved the more traditional liberal arts fields, by drawing attention to the appalling way that women were ignored in the past. I was a lit major and the inclusion of previously downplayed or excluded female writers made the entire experience more enjoyable and more educational.

  26. 26
    mythago says:

    Summers also stated that he was trying to ‘provoke,’ so I don’t know why anyone is getting bent out of shape that he succeeded.

    Hermetically sealed–well, that kinda describes the engineering campus at my large university, where the “gearheads” complained that they were forced to take a certain number of Humanities credits, and went ballistic when the subject of making them either take language (or place out due to fluency) was raised every few years.

  27. 27
    Lorenzo says:

    My objection to the “narrow”? (in WS) would not be that it simply confines itself to women (although that too) but that it confines itself to the leftist, Marxist, post-modern current Kulturekamph.

    Ugh. There are so many things wrong with this statement that I’m not sure it is worth the effort to attempt to address all or even most of them, however, a short list:

    1) Marxism and post-modernism are to a very large extent mutually exclusive.

    2) To reduce the entirety of the WS theory to “leftist” “Marxist” “post-modernist” is sexist in the extreme. It quickly invisibles the theoretical approaches that women and feminists have developed and assumes that all WS theory derrives from the outside (i.e. just latching onto classical Marxism etc.). You should perhaps look into — hell, even decry — theoritical approaches actually developed in WS departments or more generally by feminists themselves such as existentialist feminism, radical feminism (both kinds), feminist political economy, liberal feminism, etc. etc.

  28. 28
    Julian Elson says:

    Yeah, heheh… “Well, just being provocative! I don’t see why everyone’s acting so provoked about it, y’know!”

  29. 29
    Sally says:

    I don’t think that what unites the “studies” fields is a commitment to studying people other than white men. I could be wrong, but I think the first “studies” was American Studies, and at first that focused pretty exclusively on white men. I think what defines “studies” fields is that they all have an interdisciplinary approach. That’s their great strength, but it can also be a drawback. Instead of focusing on the methodology of a particular discipline and asking students to take courses on many different topics using the approach of that discipline, they ask students to examine a single topic using the methods of many different disciplines. It’s not really any broader or narrower than a traditional discipline: it just substitutes one kind of breadth (disciplinary) for another (topical.)

    Which brings me to two other quick observations. First of all, although many students of interdisciplinary “studies” disciplines do study groups with which they identify and do see their work as a political project, interdisciplinarity is a scholarly approach and not just an exercise in identity politics. This may come as a shock to Finnegan, but my former roommate did Jewish studies despite not being Jewish. The Jewish studies approach allowed her to integrate the study of religion, culture, and history, and it emphasized language instruction in a way that religion departments usually don’t, at least at the undergrad level. It appealed to her as an innovative and broad scholarly approach, not as an exercise in finding her roots.

    And secondly, there’s really nothing new or sinister about academic identity politics. Without it, we would not study many interesting and important subjects. For instance, in the 19th century American universities didn’t offer instruction in American literature, because it was not thought to be worthy or important. This changed because of identity politics: American intellectuals wanted to define an American culture that would be taken seriously and would not be seen as a poor relation to European cultures. This necessitated an act of reclamation: these scholars had to go back and find the literature out of which they could build an American literary tradition. At the time, that was controversial. Now, it seems like a no-brainer, and very few people would argue that studying American literature is dumbing down the curriculum for the sake of politics.

    I really agree with Ted that the purpose of a liberal arts education should be to learn how to think critically. And in that sense, it’s not all that important to me what students study. It’s more important that they think about the fundamental assumptions of their disciplines, rather than just seeing education as an exercise in memorizing data; that they question and challenge those assumptions; that they learn there is more than one way of approaching a question. And honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if students were more likely to do that in a women’s studies department than in a history department.

  30. 30
    mythago says:

    Yeah, heheh… “Well, just being provocative! I don’t see why everyone’s acting so provoked about it, y’know!”?

    “You people aren’t following the script! You’re supposed to get into a girly huff and wave your arms, and then we call you PC, and then I feel important! What’s with this substantive-criticism shit?”

  31. 31
    Shannon says:

    A random note. When I took intro to AA studies, it was actually taught by tons of professors from many different departments from anthro, to film studies, to sociology… My big problem was that it was more breadth(sp?) than depth…

  32. 32
    piny says:

    >>Summers also stated that he was trying to ‘provoke,’ so I don’t know why anyone is getting bent out of shape that he succeeded.>>

    …I’ve actually noticed this a lot, albeit not so much from university presidents. Someone will make some comment in a public forum–blogs are a good example–and it’ll be pretty offensive. Then people will get offended. Then the person will say something along the lines of, “It was a rant!’ “I was just venting!” “I’m just being honest!” “You all know I’m provocative!” “I was just doing it to provoke!”…etc.

    That Scott Adams serotonin-rush thing that (IIRC) flea et al. blogged about a few months ago is a good example; his excuse was, “I’m doing it on purpose just to piss you off,” as though that makes his comments meaningless. I’ve seen a lot of livejournal flame wars started by some assberet who says something reeeeeallly insulting about, I dunno, genderqueer ftms or gay ftms or straight ftms or butches on T and then is all, “Jeez, guys, I said at the beginning that I was just telling you all how I feel!”

    It’s as though admitting at the front end that you’re about to lay down a lot of insulting, irrational bullshit gets you a free pass. Or as though an opinion can’t be sincere and incredibly fucking stupid at the same time.

  33. 33
    Mr Ripley says:

    Of course these “studies” fields are open to, and attract, people who aren’t members of the group studied, or of the political orientation held by the discipline’s founders. But the objections to them so often boil down to, “It is wrong to study what you are [unless you're an able-bodied white Protestant male]!”

    Johns Hopkins lacks a core curriculum, last I heard. But its graduates aren’t generally thought of as lacking scholarly rigor.

  34. 34
    daffodil says:

    The questions I would ask are:

    - What are the larger goals of Women’s Studies?

    That is, beyond educating the individual, what it the result the professors hope for?

    - How do Women’s Studies grads and professors measure success in their field?

    In other words, if the goal is to reform society into a more female-friendly and egalitarian culture, what are the current specific areas of concern?

    If the goal is to educate individuals on women’s contributions, then what is the expectation implied upon the newly educated individual? How is the individual expected to further what they’ve learned?

    - How diverse are the viewpoints allowed?

    For example, no doubt Gloria Steinem still gets on the reading list. But do countering views, i.e. Phyllis Schafly or Ann Coulter get on the reading list?

  35. 35
    Sally says:

    I think the first two are interesting questions, daffodil, but they’re not specific to women’s studies. You could really ask them of any humanities or soft social science discipline. Why study philosophy, classics, history or English literature, other than to educate the individual? I tend to think that education is a good in its own right, and also that the most important thing many students take away from college is the ability to think critically, rather than specific content. So it’s more important that students study something that interests them and motivates them to think seriously than that they study something that’s socially relevent.

    I would be surprised if Gloria Steinem were on the reading list, since she’s really more of a popular than an academic figure. And it’s important to remember that academic politics don’t exactly mirror the politics of the rest of the society. If you’re going for diverse viewpoints, the left/right distinction may be less important than the distinction between people who think that “woman” is a useful category of analysis and those who don’t.

  36. 36
    Ampersand says:

    Daffodil, most of your questions seem to assume that pursuit of knowlege can’t be a reasonable goal in and of itself, and that there must be some greater result or goal hoped for.

    Why? I was a WS student because I wanted to learn more about that subject. Isn’t that enough?

    Besides, it’s not as if all professors think with a single groupmind. No doubt if you asked your questions of 10 different professors who teach WS, you’d get ten different answers.

    But do countering views, i.e. Phyllis Schafly or Ann Coulter get on the reading list?

    I never read Schafly (although I read admiring accounts of her political skills and innovations) or Coulter for class. I did read people who were anti-feminists or republicans, though; Katie Roiphe was assigned reading, and so was a prominant Republican economist (whose name I’m blanking on right now, sorry) who has made a career out of denying that discrimination exists. In my “men and gender” class, our reading included some anti-feminist men’s righters. Other classes didn’t include anti-feminist views; it depended on the class and the professor.

    And of course, there are tons of “countering” views within feminism, as well. It’s not as if all feminists agree on everything.

    Ths is a standard, by the way, which never seems to be applied to other academic fields. It’s easy for a economics major to get through college without ever being assigned writings by Marxists or critics of free markets in an econ class, for example, and no one raises an eyebrow at that.

  37. 37
    daffodil says:

    Daffodil, most of your questions seem to assume that pursuit of knowlege can’t be a reasonable goal in and of itself, and that there must be some greater result or goal hoped for.

    Why? I was a WS student because I wanted to learn more about that subject. Isn’t that enough?

    That’s not what I’m saying. I’m an artist, so of course, I value the pursuit of knowledge as its own goal.

    What I’m getting at is a bit different, though. Women’s Studies clearly has an ambitious goal beyond, say, the goals of philosophy or civil war studies. The people involved would like to see society respect and embrace their views. The hope is that the more people take women’s studies classes, the more society will embrace feminism and its tenets, and the more feminist or culture and our laws will become.

    But the opposite has happened. For eighteen years, I’ve lived right by one of the largest universities in the USA, and I’ve seen feminism and Women’s Studies go from something that students were quick to embrace on some level, to something the average student was either embarrassed about or scoffed at.

    In the 80′s and early 90′s, most students were quick to identify themselves as feminists, be they male or female. Even those students who didn’t take WS courses already held many pro-WS beliefs, anyway.

    Now, I’ve noticed most students refuse to identify themselves as feminists. They will say things like, “I’m for equal rights, but I’m not a feminist,” or they’ll say that they see no point in feminism, or that it’s antiquated and obsolete. I’ve noticed that people who take WS courses – especially women -treat it like its something they’re embarrassed about. They’ll lie to people and say that they’re studying something different, for fear that people get the “wrong idea” about them.

    Look at demographic studies. The modern student is more conservative than those of generations past. My point is, whether you found WS to be enriching or not, something is going horribly awry. The fact that the average student knows less about what feminism is, and is more likely to reject its tenets just shows that the message is not being communicated effectively. Somehow, WS and its advocates have to change their approach.

  38. 38
    Sally says:

    You seem to assume that if advocates of women’s studies had just done it right, had just assigned the right reading and taken the right approach, that they could have single-handedly arrested America’s move to the right over the past twenty-five years. And I think that’s kind of silly. Academia doesn’t have that kind of power. Tiny, under-funded, institutionally-neglected humanities departments in academia certainly don’t have that kind of power. You seem to think that women’s studies has failed because it hasn’t achieved the impossible. I don’t think that’s a fair criterion on which to judge its success or failure. And for what it’s worth, I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea that college professors should be in the business of indoctrinating their undergrads.

    One measure of the success of women’s studies is the one Amanda raised: women are now vastly better represented across the curriculum. Another way to evaluate women’s studies would be to look at the work that scholars in the field are producing. But to expect the discipline to change the world seems to me to be a bit unrealistic.

    At any rate, you seem to have something in mind, so I’m curious. How do you think Women’s Studies should change it’s approach?

  39. 39
    Ampersand says:

    In the 80′s and early 90′s, most students were quick to identify themselves as feminists, be they male or female. Even those students who didn’t take WS courses already held many pro-WS beliefs, anyway.

    Now, I’ve noticed most students refuse to identify themselves as feminists. They will say things like, “I’m for equal rights, but I’m not a feminist,”? or they’ll say that they see no point in feminism, or that it’s antiquated and obsolete.

    You know, people have ALWAYS been saying this sort of thing. In the 90s, when you say most students were feminists, Christina Hoff Sommers published her book Who Stole Feminism, which explained (in a sort of gloating way) why so few students wanted to call themselves feminists anymore. I remember similar critiques being made in the 80s. And the “I’m not a feminist, but…” problem has been with us for decades.

    I do think that feminism isn’t as strong now, in some ways, as it was pre-Carter-administration. But I don’t see any reason to beleive that feminism is any weaker now than it was in 1980, or 1990.

  40. 40
    Raznor says:

    Speaking of the good of Women’s Studies, I’m reminded of Between Dignity and Despair, which I read for my Third Reich history class last year. (Ok, skimmed, but I’ll get around to giving it a decent reading eventually) The author Marion Kaplan uses the approach of Women’s History in order to understand what daily life for German Jews was pre- and post-November pogrom. (her reasoning for this is laid out quite well in the introduction, unfortunately Amazon makes only the first chapter available, but worth a read, nonetheless).

    Which is to say, daffodil, that the value Women’s Studies may pop up in areas you’re not expecting.

  41. 41
    Elkins says:

    The thing that always strikes me as amusing about this terribly, terribly deep concern one hears every so often about “concentrating one’s academic life on questions of group identification” is that it never seems to be applied to the field of study in which I myself majored in college.

    I was a classics major. You know. Classics? The interdisciplinary study of the peoples of the ancient Mediterranean and Near East?

    Yeah. Both interdisciplinary (“too broad!”) and restricted to a very specific group identity (“too narrow!”) And yet, strangely enough, I can’t off-hand remember ever hearing the same sorts of objections being applied to the classics departments.

    Gee. I wonder why.

  42. 42
    Raznor says:

    Duh, Elkins, the classics involve men, and are therefore superior.

    Although, I do at times get flak for my strong interest in foundational mathematics (most mathematicians seem to hate that stuff) but then I’m also interested enough in stuff like topology and algebra to get by.

  43. 43
    Elkins says:

    Yeah, not only are they men, but they’re dead. Like, WAY dead. And they’ve had a good PR department over the centuries so that even though they weren’t really “white,” people like to pretend that they were.

    Of course, I *did* take my share of flak for going for a “dead white guys” major….

    Not to mention that whole “but what’s it FOR?” question, which always made my skin crawl and which tends to get my back up when it’s applied to Women’s Studies as well. I tend to agree with Ted here. The purpose of higher education is primarily to teach one to think. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the actual subject matter to which this skill is applied is irrelevant, precisely, but I do ascribe far less importance to it than I do to the ways in which students are taught to approach whatever material they select as their primary focus of attention.

  44. 44
    daffodil says:

    You seem to assume that if advocates of women’s studies had just done it right, had just assigned the right reading and taken the right approach, that they could have single-handedly arrested America’s move to the right over the past twenty-five years.

    You’re overstating my point. Of course they couldn’t have “single-handedly arrested” America’s rightward shift. But that shift was not inevitable, nor was it unstoppable.

    But clearly, something is not sinking in. A field of study should expand its reach and impact as time goes on, not fade back to the point where the average person is unaware of its basic tenets.

    As I see it, there are at least four reasons why WS has failed to do this:

    A. WS has failed to sell its value as a field to the world beyond the campus.

    Ask yourself these questions: how has your WS education benefitted those around you? How has your family or your coworkers benefitted from your knowledge in this field?

    The fields which have thrived can easily answer this. A Psych major can say that they understand human relationships better, and that allows them to be a better person, and more sensitive to others’ needs. A journalism major can extoll the value of the ways they are now able to either gather information and present it to the masses, or the aesthetic pleasure people get in reading their writing.

    But I’ve found that WS has trouble anwering this.

    B. WS has failed to define itself in positive terms.

    Here’s something to think about: can you define the issues WS addresses without complaining about the disrespect women get, the oppression they suffer, or the unfair advantage men have?

    I’m not saying that none of the above are untrue. But a field that can only focus on negatives is doomed to have a limited reach. People don’t like feeling bad about themselves, or the world. Even if society is unjust, most people are content to simply have a vague sense that there’s a lot of injustice that they can’t do anything about.

    C. WS needs to take a more upbeat, evangelical approach to society.

    I think WS (and liberalism in general) errs by assuming that facts are all one needs to convince the public and their students of the need for change. Facts aren’t enough – we live in a relativistic society where all facts are open for debate. People buy into vision. WS needs to sell itself as something that can bring about exciting change that will make people happier, and society better.

    I’m not just talking about the political front, btw. I’m talking about all the areas it covers- be it the merits of women fiction writers or whatever. It seems to me as though too often, admirable women are presented with a heavy dose of grumbling , i.e. “here’s a great female inventor or writer who nobody seems to remember.” The trouble with that is that people both inside and outside WS remember the grumbling more than they recall the women that’s supposed to be acknowledged.

    D. WS needs to reach everybody.

    By setting aside certain segments of the population as unworthy of respect, WS limits its reach. It might seem unlikely that a feminist could “convert” a serial womanizer or a chauvinist from rural Alabama, but cutting those people off as being unworthy of attention or acceptance dooms WS to preach to the converted. People won’t take WS courses unless they’re already leaning towards the arguments WS writers embrace.

    Obviously one could replace “WS” with “feminists” or “liberals” in much of what I’ve said here, and that’s true. Conservatives don’t limit their list of people they want to win over. Feminists and WS do. That set up puts them at a serious disadvantage. If people sense that you don’t like them or respect them, they won’t listen to what you have to say.

    I’m betting that now people are wondering about whether I’ve overlooked the tension between gays and conservative Christians. I don’t think that parallels the tension between feminists and your average Maxim-buying, objectifying white male.

    For one, Christians argue their standpoint from the context of a bigger authority: God. That unto itself is bound to get more gays to listen than if one argues simply from one’s personal opinion.

    For two, even the most bigoted Christians frame their bigotry in positive terms, i.e. they only want to help gays, they offer a better way for them, they love them, etc. Feminists don’t do that with unsympathetic white males (or females).

    And I think that’s kind of silly. Academia doesn’t have that kind of power. Tiny, under-funded, institutionally-neglected humanities departments in academia certainly don’t have that kind of power.

    If you think small, you will never accomplish anything. I know of a lot of small, underfunded Bible Colleges that don’t have many alumni, but those alumni they do have enthusiastically tell their neighbors and coworkers about all they’ve learned, and most of them frame what they’ve learned positively. The underfunded colleges have a big impact.

    And for what it’s worth, I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea that college professors should be in the business of indoctrinating their undergrads.

    You have to ask yourself then why WS exists. If it is not to get more people to read and acknowledge women’s accomplishments and merits, then what are they doing?

    But to expect the discipline to change the world seems to me to be a bit unrealistic.

    Science majors can change the world. Philosophy majors can change the world. Journalism majors can change the world. Why not WS?

  45. 45
    piny says:

    >>For one, Christians argue their standpoint from the context of a bigger authority: God. That unto [sic] itself is bound to get more gays to listen than if one argues simply from one’s personal opinion.

    For two, even the most bigoted Christians frame their bigotry in positive terms, i.e. they only want to help gays, they offer a better way for them, they love them, etc.>>

    Do you know any gay people? Have you spoken with gay people about their feelings about evangelical Christians who attempt to argue them out of homosexuality? Because no, no, no, it doesn’t. It doesn’t work at all. We don’t listen. We utterly reject that rhetoric, and we think that people who talk like that are sanctimonious assholes.

    Invoking a higher authority–of any kind–only works if the listener believes in that higher authority and agrees with the speaker’s conception of it.

    Gay people have had horrible experiences with evangelical fundamentalism, because evangelical fundamentalism is overwhelmingly hostile to homosexuality. Many gay people are atheist, agnostic, or non-Christian, so they do not recognize God as a higher authority. Gay people who are Christian tend to belong to churches that don’t say horrible things about gay people. They have their own strong beliefs about what God thinks, and they don’t tend to jibe with evangelical fundamentalism.

    We also read the papers. We know what Falwell and Robertson think of us, and we know that the fundies are not our friends. Gay people have had a lot of experience with hatred masquerading as faith. We know when a speaker is using religion as an excuse for bigotry, and it only makes the bigotry more repulsive.

    And as far as this, “We loooove you, we only want to heeeelp you….” asshattery: being gay, we know that being gay is not deadly, soul-destroying, or conducive to abuse of hard drugs. We are not impressed by any argument based on the premise that homosexuality is a horrible fate from which we need to be saved. We think that people who believe that are idiots. Sometimes they’re idiots who mean well, but they still aren’t terribly convincing.

    We know better than to accept any argument, no matter how sweetly phrased, that works out to, “You don’t deserve rights, recognition, or protection, and your love is sinful, dangerous, and wrong.” That kind of thinking is not good for us. Those philosophies, and the people who promulgate them, do not help us. They get gay people fired, disowned, and murdered. Sticking, “God says,” in front of antigay screeds, or, “…and I’d feel just awful knowing you were roasting in the fiery pits of hell,” on the end doesn’t make them less anti-gay, and it doesn’t make us more likely to accept them.

  46. 46
    daffodil says:

    Do you know any gay people?

    Yup. Given my areas of interest, I know a lot of them.

    Have you spoken with gay people about their feelings about evangelical Christians who attempt to argue them out of homosexuality?

    I have.

    It doesn’t work at all. We don’t listen. We utterly reject that rhetoric, and we think that people who talk like that are sanctimonious assholes.

    Not all of you do. I’ve met

    a lot

    of gay Christians. I’ve met quite a few gays who’s embraced the very same flavor of Christianity that is most critical of gays. The success rate of Christians trying to convert gays may be low overall, but it’s far higher than the success rate of feminists trying to convert chauvinists.

    Invoking a higher authority”“of any kind”“only works if the listener believes in that higher authority and agrees with the speaker’s conception of it.

    That’s not true. Invoking God is more likely to get people to react to your beliefs, even if they thoroughly reject it. BTW, every day, people cast aside their old beliefs to become born again. Often it happens quite suddenly, after much resistance.

    Gay people have had horrible experiences with evangelical fundamentalism, because evangelical fundamentalism is overwhelmingly hostile to homosexuality.

    For what it’s worth, Christianity isn’t the same as fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is merely a faction of Christianity.

    A good analogy would be that a former chauvinist who converts to Naomi Wolf’s brand of feminism is a “win” for feminism as much as a chauvinist who converts to a more extreme brand of feminism. Either way, feminists gain an advocate. So whether a gay person converts to Catholicism or fundamentalism, Christians are gaining an advocate.

    Many gay people are atheist, agnostic, or non-Christian, so they do not recognize God as a higher authority. Gay people who are Christian tend to belong to churches that don’t say horrible things about gay people. They have their own strong beliefs about what God thinks, and they don’t tend to jibe with evangelical fundamentalism.

    We also read the papers. We know what Falwell and Robertson think of us, and we know that the fundies are not our friends. Gay people have had a lot of experience with hatred masquerading as faith.

    That’s very true. There’s a lot of hate out there, and those two certainly exhibit it. But there’s also the flipside – the Christians who use the positive approach, and yield much better results. You might be surprised to know that most of the anti-gay Christians don’t agree with Falwell’s tactics. This can especially be seen on a one on one basis.

    And as far as this, “We loooove you, we only want to heeeelp you….”? asshattery: being gay, we know that being gay is not deadly, soul-destroying, or conducive to abuse of hard drugs. We are not impressed by any argument based on the premise that homosexuality is a horrible fate from which we need to be saved.

    I agree with you that homosexuality is not a sin on its own. But the some of the environmental issues (i.e. the general religious beliefs you say gays tend to embrace) are. And whether or not homosexuality is itself the problem, every day, gays decide that it is.

    Feminists don’t even try to communicate with those who are most diametrically opposed to their beliefs. They’ve resigned themselves to the section of the populace that is open to considering their ideas. Even if Christians often do awful things to gays, there’s still a faction of them that try to reach them with compassion. And often, they succeed.

  47. 47
    Sally says:

    I think we’re all clear that there are many gay Christians and that not all Christians are hateful fundies. (Unlike you, we get bonus points for realizing that there are non-Christians who believe in God, though.) Piny was responding to your suggestion that “even the most bigoted Christians” reach out to gay people in positive terms. He rightly pointed out that this is bullshit and that the overwhelming majority of gay people recognize it as bullshit.

    I think that our differences on women’s studies come down to two things. You have a brutally instrumental view of the aims of education, in which a subject is only worth studying if it has some very immediate and obvious benefit. Therefore, it makes sense to study accounting or “communications”, since they are clearly pre-professional degrees, but it’s difficult to justify studying history or classics, which have no tangible benefit. Therefore, you can only conceive of women’s studies as a conversion program or a waste of time. I believe that society benefits when we expand knowledge and come up with new ways of thinking about important topics, so I’ve never conceived of women’s studies (or history, my own discipline) as some sort of evangelical outreach program to the misogynistic.

    Secondly, although you claim not to, you blame women’s studies for the (supposed) decline of feminism. You claimed I was overstating the case, but then you proceded to do it again. And as I said, I think that’s incredibly silly.

  48. 48
    daffodil says:

    Piny was responding to your suggestion that “even the most bigoted Christians”? reach out to gay people in positive terms. He rightly pointed out that this is bullshit and that the overwhelming majority of gay people recognize it as bullshit.

    Then what about all the born-again gays who say it’s not bullshit?

    I think that our differences on women’s studies come down to two things. You have a brutally instrumental view of the aims of education, in which a subject is only worth studying if it has some very immediate and obvious benefit.

    I’m an artist, Sally. Of course I don’t believe that.

    Therefore, it makes sense to study accounting or “communications”?, since they are clearly pre-professional degrees, but it’s difficult to justify studying history or classics, which have no tangible benefit.

    I’ve never said that, nor have I implied it.

    My point is, WS has different aspirations than other fields. You can’t deny that a big part of WS is to get students to reconsider how they view society, and hopefully change it for the better. That is what makes WS different than studying history.

    Therefore, you can only conceive of women’s studies as a conversion program or a waste of time.

    To some degree, WS aspires to be a conversion program, even if it’s politically incorrect to say so. But even if it’s not, you still have the problem of figuring out why it is that this generation understands less about feminism than the generation before it. Why did all those who took WS in the last few decades raise kids who don’t understand feminism?

    I believe that society benefits when we expand knowledge and come up with new ways of thinking about important topics

    I agree. But these “new ways of thinking” aren’t being translated off-campus. If they were, then these “new ways of thinking” would have more sway in the average American’s view of women. And you wouldn’t have young people who don’t know what feminists believe.

    Secondly, although you claim not to, you blame women’s studies for the (supposed) decline of feminism.

    WS is just one small part of the equation.

    Earlier, you stated that WS can be measured as successful based on-the ability of its students learn to think critically, women’s greater representation across the curriculum, and its scholars’ work.

    Are people today able to think more critically than past generations? I think the opposite is true.

    Do people read scholar’s work more now, or less? Given that most people today know feminists by name only (if even that), I highly doubt it. (The point is, WS grads aren’t passing on these scholars or their views onto their kids.)

    Btw, your point about women’s representation in the cirriculum proves that WS has at least some political aspirations.

  49. 49
    Q Grrl says:

    What was your point again daffodil? Can you explain why you find it problematic that there are “some” politics in academia? Do you find NIH funding going to chemists or biologists or med students to be politically problematic? If no, why? Which fields of study, in your opinion, are allowed to be inclusive, which exclusive? Is there a legitimacy in creating narrow hard-science fields of study like physics or chemistry, while at the same time denigrating the “softer” social sciences because of either 1) they focus too much or 2) they don’t focus enough. Further, if academia is to be of benefit to all people, why is a cross over into politics a negative? Wouldn’t politics be, in essence, the logical extension of academic studies?

  50. 50
    Q Grrl says:

    Daffodil, you say above:

    “What I’m getting at is a bit different, though. Women’s Studies clearly has an ambitious goal beyond, say, the goals of philosophy or civil war studies. The people involved would like to see society respect and embrace their views. The hope is that the more people take women’s studies classes, the more society will embrace feminism and its tenets, and the more feminist or culture and our laws will become. ”

    But you’re okay with modern medicine doing exactly this, right down to political and legislative control of what we, the common people, consider to be true or legitimate medicine? What about fields of study like land management, water management, forestry. Do you begrudge the very real political influece these fields exert and the very real political influences that shape the course of these fields?

    You don’t think that history, as taught and as socially ingested as “fact”, isn’t political? What say you about the purpose and intentions of theology? One could go on endlessly about politics and academia — if it were so rare as to be confined to Women’s Studies, we wouldn’t have the need for ethics committees.

    We could also look at how schooling in society is not so much about knowledge and much more about socialization, which is of course political.

  51. 51
    Sally says:

    I’m an artist, Sally. Of course I don’t believe that.

    I don’t really care what you are. If you don’t believe it, don’t argue like you do.

    My point is, WS has different aspirations than other fields. You can’t deny that a big part of WS is to get students to reconsider how they view society, and hopefully change it for the better. That is what makes WS different than studying history.

    Look, you can repeat yourself as many times as you want. It’s not going to make you right. I don’t believe that women’s studies does have different aspirations from other fields. You believe that. I believe that the point of a liberal arts undergraduate education is to learn to think seriously about important topics. It’s to challenge your assumptions and learn to view the world critically. That’s political in a sense: thinking critically is a political act. In that sense, teaching history is political, too. But it’s not the same as indoctrinating people into a particular political program.

    To some degree, WS aspires to be a conversion program, even if it’s politically incorrect to say so.

    If you say so. But I’m curious about where you get your vast expertise about this. And I’m not even convinced that WS is as unified an entity as you make it out to be. Surely people who teach and study women’s studies have different motives.

    But even if it’s not, you still have the problem of figuring out why it is that this generation understands less about feminism than the generation before it.

    Actually, you have the problem of proving that this is true in the first place. And as I’ve said now several times, even if it is true, it’s hardly the fault of women’s studies.

    Why did all those who took WS in the last few decades raise kids who don’t understand feminism?

    Do you have any evidence that the people who took WS classes did raise kids who don’t understand feminism? Since a tiny minority of college students ever took a women’s studies class, and since many parents never went to college, the children of people who took WS are a miniscule minority of kids. Maybe they’re the ones who do understand feminism.

    But these “new ways of thinking”? aren’t being translated off-campus.If they were, then these “new ways of thinking”? would have more sway in the average American’s view of women. And you wouldn’t have young people who don’t know what feminists believe.

    First of all, I’m not convinced that it’s the job of WS to translate the ideas off campus. That’s the job of the political feminist movement. But also, I suspect a lot of the new ways of thinking are being translated off campus. The whole point of “I’m not a feminist but…” is that the women who say that agree with many principles of feminism while rejecting the label and the activism that comes with it.

    At any rate, this is a problem with academia in general. The average person on the street has no idea what academic history looks like. I bet the average person on the street couldn’t name a single serious academic historian.

    Earlier, you stated that WS can be measured as successful based on-the ability of its students learn to think critically, women’s greater representation across the curriculum, and its scholars’ work.

    Are people today able to think more critically than past generations? I think the opposite is true.

    No offense, but how exactly are you in a position to judge that? Because I spend 8 to 10 hours a day reading political debates from the early 20th century, and I see a lot of fuzzy logic and terrible writing. I suspect that the less you actually know about the past, the more likely you are to romanticize it.

    At any rate, you still seem to think that women’s studies has failed if it hasn’t changed the world in spectacularly unrealistic ways. And I can’t help but think that it’s because you *want* women’s studies to have failed.

    Btw, your point about women’s representation in the cirriculum proves that WS has at least some political aspirations.

    Sure. The mere act of deeming something worthy of study is political. But that’s a far cry from saying that the goal of WS is to indoctrinate students. And it’s a far cry from saying that WS has failed because it hasn’t lived up to your self-evidently ridiculous expectations.

  52. 52
    Hsiu says:

    I just wanted to add my two cents. I’m a senior at a liberal college, with a major in Asian Studies and a concentration in Women’s Studies. So if WS is a useless academic pursuit, mine is doubly useless for studying gender, feminism, and ethnicity!

    First, I find the earlier criticism, that people take up WS or AS (or whatever S) to “find themselves” interesting and infuriating. I realize that as a Chinese-American woman, the dual concentrations in WS and AS may seem to some like a soft cop-out. But people who tend to give knowing smiles also tend to grossly misunderstand the nature of multidisciplinary studies. I am not an AS major because I want to learn how to make dumplings or arrange flowers, nor am I here to bitch about the great problem of my ethnic identity. Multidisciplinary studies exist to approach various disciplines – like literature, history, anthropology, sociology, economics, political science, and philosophy – in ways that include a group of people that probably have traditionally been left out of mainstream, Western academia. Rather than being isolated from other sections of learning, multidisciplinary people often engage in a broader range of studies than other majors. I have taken courses in AS, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, economics, WS, literature (including Brit. Lit.), Classics, languages, political science, history, and education, all of which have contributed to my concentration. My thesis paper is on the impact of nationalization on women’s employment and non-employment in Japan. What part of that is soul-searching? It’s actually more like soul-scarring.

    A point brought up by daffodil was that WS has failed to show substantial impact on the broader community. I can see how this is true on some levels – a degree in WS does not necessarily translate into a job that deals directly with women’s/gender issues, or in jobs in which a WS background is readily visible. A degree in Hotel Management, which will probably lead to a job involving hotels, might sound more substantial to the outside ear. But I think that misses one of the biggest aims of WS (and whatever S). WS teaches you to ask questions in a productive manner, and provides resources for thinking about the structures of society in alternative ways. I think that people with multidisciplinary backgrounds bring those resources with them. If they get a fairly standard job, they’ll be aware of the power structures of employment that other people might not be. And I definitely think departments like WS make it easier to get involved in activist work, or seek out alternative employment, or effect other changes in society that do get people thinking about feminism.

  53. 53
    daffodil says:

    For what it’s worth, I find it interesting the degree to which some here assume that my criticism of WS translates into disdain for it, and for feminist values in general.

    Q Grrl asked if I “begrudge” the political ambitions other fields of study have, yet she misses the point that I believe that (to repeat two of my main points earlier) WS needs to take a more upbeat, evangelical approach to society, and it needs to reach everybody. That doesn’t sound like “begrudging” to me.

    And the point QGrrl misses is that all of the fields she cited succeed in their ambitions. Whether they are ethical or not, these fields are yielding measurable results, whereas WS is not.

    But I’m curious about where you get your vast expertise about this.

    As I’ve said elsewhere, for eighteen years, I’ve lived right by one of the largest universities in the USA. In addition to having close associations with both students and WS professors (who bemoan the declining understanding of -and support for- feminism that I spoke of), I’ve seen a distinct rightward shift among the student body.

    Here’s a poll on feminism Time magazine did in 1998:

    -only 32 percent of the population have a favorable image of feminism, as compared to 44 percent in 1989. Overall, 37 percent of all women perceive feminists as man-haters, 44 percent believe feminists don’t respect stay-at-home moms and only 39 percent of all woman feel feminists share their values.

    here’s a study the Guardian did in 2003.

    Now, you might look at these and say that people are wrong about what feminists believe. And you’d be right. But the point is, people still have this negative image of feminism, and feminists should feel compelled to clarify their beliefs.

    First of all, I’m not convinced that it’s the job of WS to translate the ideas off campus. That’s the job of the political feminist movement.

    The campus is frequently a student’s first exposure to feminism. Therefore, how WS communicates with them has a huge impact on feminism’s vitality.

    And btw, the percentage of parents and students who have a college degree has been increasing, not decreasing. So blaming this situation on the “uneducated” doesn’t hold up.

  54. 54
    Sally says:

    I don’t think those numbers tell you what you think they do, daffodil. For one thing, the one showing decline covers the entire population, so it’s not clear that it’s about young women rejecting feminism, rather than about older people changing their minds. And it’s actually significant to me that the majority of Americans don’t think that feminists are man-haters or hate stay-at-home moms, considering that there’s been a concerted effort on the part of people like Rush Limbaugh to present us that way. Finally, the numbers from the Guardian suggest that women’s studies departments are not to blame for this problem. The Guardian is a British newspaper, and British undergrads have much less opportunity than American ones to take electives. In Britain, unless you sign up at the age of 18 to get a degree in women’s studies, you probably will not be able to take a single formal “women’s studies” course. And attitudes towards feminism in Britain are much like those in America. That seems to suggest that other factors are at work.

    I really bristle at the suggestion that WS should be “upbeat” and “evangelical,” because that’s not the language of serious scholarship. Nobody tells me that my dissertation should be more happy. Nobody told me that my class on 19th century American intellectual history should focus on the positive. That’s not how academics talk about subjects that they take seriously. And we’ve fought extremely hard to have women, people of color, and other marginalized groups recognizes as legitimate subjects of study. What you’re arguing is that we should give up that fight and decide that studying women is different from studying men, that women don’t deserve the dignity that comes from being taken seriously, that women’s studies is akin to marketing or some other pre-professional major, rather than akin to an academic major like philosophy or anthro. What you’re saying is that we should admit that women are second-class subjects, worthy of study only for totally instrumental purposes. And that offends me, both as a scholar and as a woman.

    I’ve got to say that I’m not all that impressed that you live near a university. Academic trends are complicated, and they aren’t the kind of thing you pick up by osmosis. (I’m not saying that you have to be in academia to have a handle on them, but you’re not going to pick up on them by listening to chit chat at the campus coffee house.) The biggest threat to women’s studies, I think, has actually been the turn to gender studies and to post-structuralist approaches which call into question the entire idea of a unified category of “women.” And actually, part and parcel of that has been a much more complex theory of power, one that argues that even the seemingly-oppressed have their own sources of power. What’s ironic is that you’re so out of touch that you seem not to realize that there has been a significant turn away from what could be termed theories of victimization (although I wouldn’t characterize them that way.)

    Finally, I’m not blaming anything on the “uneducated.” I’m suggesting that you’re massively over-estimating the reach of women’s studies. You seem to think that most young people today are the children of people who took women’s studies classes. And that’s stupid. There has never been a time when most college students took a women’s studies class. I’d wager that there’s never been a time when 5% of college students took a single women’s studies class.