MotherJones SO93: Off course

Women's studies has empowered women to speak up in class. The problem is what they're often talking about.

It's eight o'clock on a balmy Wednesday morning at the University of California at Berkeley, and Women's Studies 39, "Literature and the Question of Pornography," is about to begin. The atmosphere of the small class is relaxed. The students call the youngish professor by her first name; the banter focuses on finding a man for her to date. She puts on the board: "Write 'grade' or 'no grade' on your paper before turning it in." Students--nine women and one man--amble in sporadically for the first twenty minutes.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Today's discussion involves a previous guest speaker, feminist- socialist porn star Nina Hartley. The professor asks what insights the students gained from Hartley's talk. They respond: "She's free with her sexuality. . . . I liked when she said, 'I like to fuck my friends.' . . . No body-image problems. . . . She's dependent in that relationship. . . ." The professor tries to move the discussion onto a more serious question: have traditional feminists, in their antiporn stance, defined women out of their sexuality? After a few minutes, though, the discussion fixes on orgasms--how they're not the be-all and end-all of sexual activity, how easy it is to fake one. The lone male stares intently at a spot on the floor; occasionally he squirms.

I never took a porn class when I went to college ten years ago. In fact, I never took a women's studies class and don't even know if the universities I attended offered any. Women's studies was about a decade old at the time, but it hadn't yet become institutionalized (there are now more than six hundred programs), nor gained notoriety through debates over the canon and multiculturalism. But even if I had been aware of a program, I'm certain I would have stayed far away from it. It's not that I wasn't a feminist: I fully supported equal rights and equal opportunities for women. But I was feminist like I was Jewish--it was a part of my identity that didn't depend on external affirmation.

Perhaps more important, as a first-generation careerwoman, I felt a constant need to prove my equality. I took as many "male" courses-- economics, political science, intellectual history--as I could; I wanted to be seen as a good student who happened to be a woman. There were a couple of problems, though: I didn't learn much about women or the history of feminism, and like most of my female peers, I rarely spoke in class.

Last spring I toured the world of women's studies, visiting Berkeley, the University of Iowa, Smith College, and Dartmouth College. I sat in on about twenty classes, talked to students and professors at these and other schools, amassed syllabi, and waded through the more popular reading materials. I admit to having begun with a nagging skepticism. But I was also intrigued: rumor had it that in these classes, women talked.

And they do. The problem, as I see it, is what they're often talking about. In many classes discussions alternate between the personal and the political, with mere pit stops at the aca-demic. Sometimes they are filled with unintelligible post-structuralist jargon; sometimes they consist of consciousness-raising psychobabble, with the students' feelings and experiences valued as much as anything the professor or texts have to offer. Regardless, the guiding principle of most of the classes is oppression, and problems are almost inevitably reduced to relationships of power. "Diversity" is the mantra of both students and professors, but it doesn't apply to political opinions.

Not every women's studies course suffers from these flaws. In fact, the rigor and perspective of individual programs and classes vary widely, and feminist academics have debated nearly every aspect of the field. But it seems that the vast majority of women's studies professors rely, to a greater or lesser extent, on a common set of feminist theories. Put into practice, these theories have the potential to undermine the goals not only of a liberal education, but of feminism itself.

This doesn't mean, as some critics have suggested, that these programs should simply be abolished. Women's studies has played a valuable role in forcing universities to include in the curriculum women other than "witches or Ethel Rosenberg," as Iowa's Linda K. Kerber puts it. The field has generated a considerable amount of first-rate scholarship on women, breaking the age-old practice of viewing male subjects and experience as the norm and the ideal. And it has produced interdisciplinary courses that creatively tie together research from several fields.

Whether all this could have been accomplished without the creation of women's studies programs separate from the traditional departments is a moot question, especially since these programs have become so well entrenched in the academy. The present challenge is to make women's studies as good as it can be. Although the problems are significant, they're not insurmountable. And perhaps more than anything else, women's studies prides itself on its capacity for self-examination and renewal.

Berkeley was the only stop on the tour with an actual women's studies department. It is one of the largest, most established and respected programs in the country. Overall, it impressed me the least. At the other extreme was Smith, where the classes tended to be more rigorous and substantive and there was a greater awareness of the pitfalls of the field. (The students were also far more articulate, though that may have little to do with women's studies.) I found the most thoughtful professors in Iowa's program, which doesn't even offer a major. The program at Dartmouth, perhaps compensating for the school's macho image, seemed the most prone to succumbing to the latest ideological fads.

Classroom therapy

"Women's studies" is something of a misnomer. Most of the courses are designed not merely to study women, but also to improve the lives of women, both the individual students (the vast majority of whom are female) and women in general. Since professors believe that women have been effectively silenced throughout history, they often consider a pedagogy that "nurtures voice" just as, if not more, important than the curriculum.

Women's studies professors tend to be overtly warm, encouraging, maternal. You want to tell these women your problems--and many students do. To foster a "safe environment" where women feel comfortable talking, many teachers try to divest the classroom of power relations. They abandon their role as experts, lecturing very little and sometimes allowing decisions to be made by the group and papers to be graded by other students. An overriding value is placed on student participation and collaboration: students make joint presentations, cowrite papers, and use group journals for "exploring ideas they can't say in class" and "fostering a sense of community." Because chairs are usually arranged in a circle, in a couple of classes taught by graduate students I couldn't figure out who the teacher was until the end.

To give women voice, many professors encourage all discourse--no matter how personal or trivial. Indeed, since it is widely believed that knowledge is constructed and most texts have been influenced by "the patriarchy," many in women's studies consider personal experience the only real source of truth. Some professors and texts even claim that women have a way of thinking that is different from the abstract rationality of men, one based on context, emotion, and intuition. Fully "validating" women, therefore, means celebrating subjectivity over objectivity, feelings over facts, instinct over logic.

The day I sat in on Berkeley's "Contemporary Global Issues for Women" (all women except for one "occasional" male), we watched a film about women organizing in Ahmadabad, India. The film was tedious, but it seemed like grist for a good political/economic/sociological discussion about the problems of women in underdeveloped countries. After the film ended, though, the professor promptly asked the class: "How do you feel about the film? Do you find it more sad or courageous?" Students responded to her question until the end of class, at which point she suggested, "You might think about the film in terms of your own life and the life of your mother. Women are not totally free in this culture. It just might come in more subtle ways."

A previous discussion was apparently not much better. "We had to read an enormous amount of interesting material on reproductive rights, which I was very excited to discuss," Pam Wilson, a women's studies sophomore, told me. "But all she did in class was ask each of us, 'What forms of birth control have you used, and what problems have you had?' We never got to the assigned readings."

Self-revelation is not uncommon to women's studies classes. Students discover that they're lesbian or bisexual, for example, and then share it with the class. In a group journal (titled "The Fleshgoddesses") from last year's porn class, B. wrote: "There is still something about a [man] eating a [woman] out . . . that freaks me out! I guess I'm such a dyke that it seems abnormal." G. recalled that her father used to kiss her on the mouth "real hard" when she was eight or nine.

Of course, self-discovery and female bonding are important for young women, and so, one might argue, are group therapy and consciousness- raising. Indeed, I wish I had had some when I was that age; it might have given me the courage to talk in class and to deal with abusive bosses later in life. But does it belong in a university classroom?

Many of the professors I talked with (including the chair of Berkeley's women's studies department) viewed the more touchy-feely classes as just as problematic as I did. I saw a couple of teachers who were able to use personal experience, either of historical figures or students, to buttress the discussion, not as an end in itself. But even these classes were always on the verge of slipping into confession mode.

This pedagogy does get women talking. But they could do much of this type of talking in support groups at their schools' women's centers. Young women have many needs, and the college classroom can effectively address only one of them: building their intellects. As Ruth Rosen, who helped start the women's studies program at the University of California at Davis, puts it, "Students go to college to be academically challenged, not cared for."

But the problem with a therapeutic pedagogy is more than just allowing students to discuss their periods or sex lives in class. Using the emotional and subjective to "validate" women risks validating precisely the stereotypes that feminism was supposed to eviscerate: women are irrational, women must ground all knowledge in their own experiences, etc. A hundred years ago, women were fighting for the right to learn math, science, Latin--to be educated like men; today, many women are content to get their feelings heard, their personal problems aired, their instincts and intuition respected.

Politics, as usual

"Don't worry. We've done nothing here since she forgot her notes a couple of weeks ago," Michael Williams reassures another male student. "We'll probably talk about Anita Hill again." We're waiting for Berkeley's "Gender Politics: Theory and Comparative Study" to begin. When the professor finally arrives and indicates that, yes, we'll be talking about Anita Hill again, the second male student packs up and bolts. Williams tells me that during the first week or two, whenever a male student would comment on something, the professor would say, "What you really mean is . . ." Most men stopped speaking and then dropped out. "Other classes I walk out with eight pages of notes," says Williams. "Here, everybody just says the same thing in a different way." (He stays, though, for the "easy credits.")

Most women's studies professors seem to adhere to the following principles in formulating classes: women were and are oppressed; oppression is endemic to our patriarchal social system; men, capitalism, and Western values are responsible for women's problems. The reading material is similarly bounded in political scope (Andrea Dworkin, Catharine MacKinnon, bell hooks, Adrienne Rich, and Audre Lorde turn up a lot), and opposing viewpoints are usually presented only through a feminist critique of them. Feminist Frontiers III, a book widely used in intro courses, purports to show readers "how gender has shaped your life," and invites them to join in the struggle "to reform the structure and culture of male dominance."

Although most of the classes I attended stopped short of outright advocacy of specific political positions, virtually all carried strong political undercurrents. Jill Harvey, a women's studies senior at Smith, recalls a feminist anthropology course in which she "quickly discovered that the way to get A's was to write papers full of guilt and angst about how I'd bought into society's definition of womanhood and now I'm enlightened and free."

Sometimes the politicization is more subtle. "I'm not into consciousness-raising," says Linda K. Kerber, a history professor at Iowa. "Students can feel I'm grading them on their competence and not on their politics." Yet in the final project of "Gender and Society in the United States," she asked students: "Reconsider a term paper you have written for another class. How would you revise it now to ensure that it offers an analysis sensitive to gender as well as to race and class?"

Politicization is also apparent in the meager amount of time the classes devote to women who have achieved anything of note in the public sphere. Instead, students scrutinize the diaries and letters of unremarkable women who are of interest primarily because the patriarchy victimized them in one way or another.

According to professors and students, studying "women worthies" doesn't teach you much about oppression. Moreover, some added, these women succeeded by male, capitalist standards. It's time for women's traditional roles and forms of expression to be valued.

This may be true, but you don't need to elevate victimized women to the status of heroes to do that. It should also be noted that over the past twenty-five years feminists have been among those who have devalued women's traditional roles most vigorously. I bet not many women's studies majors would encourage a peer's decision to forgo a career in order to stay home and raise children. More important, examples of women who succeeded in the public sphere, possibly even while caring for a family, could be quite inspiring for young women. Instead, the classes implicitly downplay individual merit and focus on the systematic forces that are undermining everything women do.

In general, "core" women's studies courses are more overtly political and less academically rigorous than those cross-listed with a department. The syllabus of Iowa's "Introduction to Women's Studies" course declares: "As we make our collective and individual journeys during this course, we will consider how to integrate our theoretical knowledge with personal and practical action in the world." "Practicums," which typically entail working in a women's organization, are a key part of many courses, often requiring thirty or more hours of a student's time.

Volunteering in a battered-women's shelter or rape crisis center may be deeply significant for both students and society. But should this be part of an undergraduate education? Students have only four years to learn the things a liberal education can offer--and the rest of their lives to put that knowledge to use.

Courses on women don't have to be taught from an orthodox feminist perspective. Smith offers a biology course that's cross-listed with women's studies. It deals with women's bodies and medical issues; feminist theory is not included. Compare that to the course description of Berkeley's "Health and Sex in America": "From sterilization to AIDS; from incest to date rape; from anorexia to breast implants: who controls women's health?" Which course would you trust to be more objective?

Many women's studies professors acknowledge their field's bias, but point out that all disciplines are biased. Still, there's a huge difference between conceding that education has political elements and intentionally politicizing, between, as former Women's Studies Professor Daphne Patai puts it, "recognizing and minimizing deep biases and proclaiming and endorsing them." Patai, whose unorthodox views got her in hot water at the University of Massachusetts, is now coauthoring a book on the contradictions of women's studies. "Do they really want fundamentalist studies, in which teachers are not just studying fundamentalism but supporting it?"

A still larger problem is the degree to which politics has infected women's studies scholarship. "Feminist theory guarantees that researchers will discover male bias and oppression in every civilization and time," says Mary Lefkowitz, a classics professor at Wellesley. "A distinction has to be made between historical interpretation of the past and political reinterpretation." And, I would add, between reading novels with an awareness of racism and sexism, and reducing them entirely to constructs of race and gender.

Apparently there has always been a tug of war within the women's studies community between those who most value scholarship and those who most value ideology. Some professors feel obligated to present the work of all women scholars who call themselves feminists, no matter how questionable their methodology or conclusions.

Unfortunately, women's studies students may not be as well equipped to see through shoddy feminist scholarship as they are through patriarchal myths and constructs. One reason may be the interdisciplinary nature of the programs, which offers students minimal grounding in any of the traditional disciplines. According to Mary Lefkowitz, women's studies majors who take her class exhibit an inability to amass factual material or remember details; instead of using evidence to support an argument, they use it as a remedy for their personal problems.

But teaching students how to "think critically" is one of the primary goals of women's studies, and both students and professors say that women's studies courses are more challenging than those in other departments. "Women's studies gives us tools to analyze," says Torrey Shanks, a senior women's studies and political science major at Berkeley. "We learn theories about how to look at women and men; we don't just come away with facts."

Most of the women's studies students I met were quite bright, and many argued certain points very articulately. But they seemed to have learned to think critically through only one lens. When I asked some of the sharpest students about the most basic criticisms of women's studies, they appeared not to have thought about them or gave me some of the stock women's studies rap. It seemed that they couldn't fit these questions into their way of viewing the world.

For instance, when I expressed the view that an at-times explicit anticapitalist and anti-Western bias pervades the field, a couple of majors told me they thought that being anticapitalist was part of being a feminist. When I asked whether, in the final analysis, women weren't still most free in Western capitalist societies, the seemingly programmed responses ran from "I wouldn't feel free under a glass ceiling" to "Pressures on Iranian women to wear the veil are no different from pressures on women in this country to wear heels and miniskirts."

The student party line

Despite the womb-like atmosphere of the classrooms, I didn't see much student questioning of the professors or the texts. Although I rarely saw teachers present or solicit divergent points of view, the students' reluctance to voice alternative opinions seemed to stem more from political intolerance and conformity on the part of fellow students.

In Smith's "Gender and Politics" class, several students spoke against the ban on gays in the military before Erin O'Connor, her voice shaking, ventured: "I think there is something to the argument of keeping gays out of the military because of how people feel about it."

After several students said things like, "The military should reflect society," O'Connor rebounded: "I'm sick and tired of feeling that if I have a moral problem with something, all of a sudden it's: 'You're homophobic, you're wrong, you're behind the times, go home.' There must be someone else in this classroom who believes as I do."

Professor: "No one is saying that support of the ban is homophobic."

"I would make that assertion," offered a student.

Professor: "But you can argue against the ban from a nonhomophobic perspective."

Another student: "It's homophobic."

When class ended, another woman approached O'Connor and said: "You're absolutely right, and I'm sure there are others who felt the same way but just didn't say anything. You went out on a limb."

No one used the word homophobic until O'Connor did. Still, students, especially in this ostensible "safe environment," shouldn't have to overcome a pounding heart to voice a dissident opinion. "Women's studies creates a safe space for p.c. individuals, but doesn't maintain any space for white Christians," says O'Connor, an English and government major and member of the College Republican Club.

In a study by the Association of American Colleges, 30 percent of students taking women's studies courses at Wellesley said they felt uneasy expressing unpopular opinions; only 14 percent of non-women's studies students felt that way.

Smith's Jill Harvey told me about a "Medical Anthropology" class filled with women's studies students. The professor presented an author's view that one difference between men and women when paralyzed is that men are rendered incapable of getting an erection. "The students jumped down his throat, believing he was insinuating that all women have to do is lie back and enjoy sex," says Harvey. "It was absurd, but I didn't feel like I could speak up. I sometimes feel the other students' attitude is: if you don't agree with me, you're too stupid to understand how oppressed you are."

The pressures on professors to toe the correct feminist line can be even stronger. History Professor Elizabeth Fox-Genovese says she stepped down as chair of Emory's women's studies program because of complaints from students and faculty that she wasn't radical enough. Political theorist Jean Bethke Elshtain left the University of Massachusetts after being attacked for including men on her reading list, allowing men in class, and presenting an array of different feminist positions. She now teaches at Vanderbilt. "Most teachers of women's studies presume that if you don't see yourself as a victim, you're in a state of false consciousness, you're 'male-identified.' The professors here [at Vanderbilt] recognize that feminism is in part an argument."

Women's studies professors take little responsibility for turning female students into Angry Young Women. Yet the effect of these classes, one after another, can be quite intoxicating. (After just a few days, I found myself noticing that the sign on the women's bathroom door in the University of Iowa's library was smaller than the one on the men's room door.) The irony is not only that these students (who, at the schools I visited at least, were overwhelmingly white and upper-middle-class) probably have not come into contact with much oppression, but that they are the first generation of women who have grown up with so many options open to them.

Post-structuralism and multiculturalism

Perhaps the most troubling influence on women's studies in the past decade has been the collection of theories known as post- structuralism, which essentially implies that all texts are arbitrary, all knowledge is biased, all standards are illegitimate, all morality is subjective. I talked to numerous women's studies professors who don't buy any of this (it's typically more popular in the humanities than in the social sciences), but nevertheless it has permeated women's studies to a significant extent, albeit in the most reductive, simplistic way.

According to Delo Mook, a Dartmouth physics professor who is part of a team teaching "Ways of Knowing: Physics, Literature, Feminism," "You can't filter other cultures through our stencil. Nothing is right or wrong."

What about cannibalism? Clitorectomies? "Nope. I can only say, 'I believe it's wrong.'"

But post-structuralism is applied inconsistently in women's studies. I've yet to come across a feminist tract that "contextualizes" sexism in this country as it does in others, or acknowledges that feminism is itself a product of Western culture based on moral reasoning and the premise that some things are objectively wrong. Do feminist theorists really want the few young men who take these classes to formulate personal rationales for rape? There's a huge difference between questioning authority, truth, and knowledge and saying none of these exist, a difference between rejecting male standards and rejecting the whole concept of standards.

Like post-structuralism, the concept of multiculturalism has had a deep influence on women's studies. Professors seem under a constant burden to prove that they are presenting the requisite number of books or articles by women of color or lesbians. Issues of race came up in nearly every class I sat through. I wasn't allowed to sit in on a seminar at Dartmouth on "Racism and Feminism" because of a contract made with the students that barred outside visitors.

Terms like sexism, racism, and homophobia have bloated beyond all recognition, and the more politicized the campus, the more frequently they're thrown around. I heard both professors and students call Berkeley's women's studies department homophobic and racist, despite the fact that courses dealing with homosexuality and multiculturalism fill the catalog and quite a number of women of color and lesbians are affiliated with the department.

Although many professors try to work against it, in the prevailing ethos of women's studies, historical figures, writers, and the students themselves are viewed foremost as women, as lesbians, as white or black or Hispanic, and those with the most "oppressed" identities are the most respected. Feminist theorists now generally admit that they can't speak for all women, but some still presume to speak for all black women or all Jewish women or all lesbians. There's still little acknowledgment not only of the individuality of each woman, but of the universal, gender-blind bond shared by all human beings.

The road not taken

Women's studies programs have clearly succeeded with at least one of their goals: whether because of the mostly female classes, the nurturing professors, or the subject matter, they have gotten women students talking.

But getting women to speak doesn't help much if they're all saying the same thing. Women's studies students may make good polemicists, but do they really learn to think independently and critically?

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese says she had envisioned Emory's women's studies program as a mini-women's college: "I thought it should be a special environment that took women seriously and asked them to be the best that they could be by the standards of a good, liberal arts education." Young women--and men--would be steeped in sound scholarship on women, but they would also be offered a variety of theories and viewpoints, feminist and otherwise.

Unfortunately, this hasn't been the perspective of most women's studies professors. Women's studies was conceived with a political purpose--to be the intellectual arm of the women's movement--and its sense of purpose has only gotten stronger through the years. The result is that the field's narrow politics have constricted the audience for nonideological feminism instead of widening it, and have reinforced the sexist notion that there is a women's viewpoint. There's a legitimate reason why two-thirds of college women don't call themselves feminists. "When I got here I thought I was a feminist," Erin O'Connor from Smith told me. "I don't want to call myself that now."

Clearly the first step is for women's studies to reopen itself to internal and external criticism. The intimidation in the field is so great that I had trouble finding dissident voices willing to talk to me on the record. The women's movement has come a long way in the past twenty-five years--feminists should feel secure enough now to take any and all lumps.

Young women should also no longer feel it necessary to shun classes devoted to women, as my friends and I did. Women today still have to work for their equality, but they don't have to prove it every second. And as the status of women in this country evolves, so should the goals of women's studies. It's for its own sake that women's studies should stop treating women as an ensemble of victimized identities. Only when the mind of each woman is considered on its own unique terms will the minds of all women be respected.

Karen Lehrman is writing a book on postideological feminism.