MotherJones ND93: Backtalk

Karen Lehrman's "Off Course" in the September/October issue ignited heated exchanges in the women's studies community, the press, and on radio talk shows around the country. It has been discussed in the Washington Post, Boston Globe, San Francisco Examiner, the conservative Washington Times, and many other papers. The article also marked Mother Jones's first venture onto the electronic superhighway, Internet. Because we received many more responses than we can print here, we will continue the discussion in future Backtalks. Feel free to write in.

FALUDI LASHES BACK

Maybe it should have been a tip-off that we were about to enter an Orwellian doublespeak universe when the bio under writer Karen Lehrman's name advised us that she is "writing a book on postideological feminism." What next? A call for postpolitical government? A new era of posteconomic capitalism? Reality check time: feminism is an ideology; always has been, always will be. That's the whole point. Imagining that a politics-free feminism will advance women's cause is about as realistic as trying to rouse the masses with six-packs of caffeine-free Coke.

In her critique of academic feminist studies programs ("Off course," Sept/Oct), Lehrman seems to want to indict women's studies for the mortal sin of harboring a political perspective. Women's studies courses are downright "infected," as she puts it, by ideology. Like other academic disciplines are devoid of political content? Like the many professorial gentlemen who have been relentlessly promoting a womanless history-and-literature curriculum all these years have no ideological point of view? And when did political consciousness become an "infection" that must be stamped out, anyway? The capacity to analyze the world in political terms is not a disease; it's a healthy and fundamental prerequisite for moral engagement in the world. It should probably be a requirement for college graduation.

Lehrman complains that she saw too much "consciousness-raising" in feminist studies class and not enough hard-nosed, rational scholarship. She says: "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." Maybe, just maybe, having one's intuition respected is a bit more crucial to the average young woman's educational growth than mastery of a dead language. Feminism in the academy is about more than women getting the right to absorb the male-defined curriculum; it's about challenging the foundations of that curriculum. What Lehrman dismisses as "therapeutic pedagogy," others may characterize as the basis of learning. Paulo Freire, the pioneering Brazilian philosopher and educator of the poor, writes in his classic work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, of the paralysis and passivity bred by the traditional "'banking' concept of education," in which students are treated like deposit boxes to be crammed with facts and figures. "Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention," he writes, "through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other." This restless and impatient process may look "emotional" or irrational to an onlooker, especially an onlooker who fears the questioning of authority, but it is the essential starting point of a genuine education.

Susan Faludi

Palo Alto, California

I would give Karen Lehrman's "Off course" a B for an undergraduate paper, and I'm an easy grader. I would not pass it in a graduate course.

In the spring semester of 1969, I taught the first women's studies course at U.C. Berkeley, Sociology 191T, "Women in Society and Literature." There were almost no appropriate books available except for de Beauvoir. A decade later, when I browsed through a Brookline, Massachusetts, bookstore, not only was there a special section for books on women, but books by and about women were in almost every other section. I cried and told my friend, "We did it!"

I have serious criticisms of women's studies, not because of any of the reasons given, but because the original, charismatic leaders have been pushed out of such programs (as I have been at the University of Illinois, Chicago) or have left in sorrow, and the bureaucratic leaders who can have lunch with deans and chancellors without having indigestion have taken over. The radical cutting-edge work that was being done when women's studies was the academic arm of the women's movement has been blunted. We used to ask if we should allow men into women's studies classes; a major concern now is how men can be made comfortable (by not talking about acquaintance rape, sexual harassment, and woman abuse, and letting them attempt to dominate the women in our classes, that's how).

The author criticizes working in a battered women's shelter or a rape crisis center as an academic assignment, since it is not part of a liberal education. But it is part of a radical education, because there is no better way to observe the failure of the institutions of the society than in such places. In battered women's shelters you learn that, for the most part, the law doesn't work, the family doesn't work, the criminal-justice system doesn't work, the health- care system fails, the religious institutions are sometimes complicitous with the abuser. I lecture well, but they can learn more sociology working in a shelter and writing up their experiences in a theoretical framework than by sitting in my classes and taking notes. I had a liberal education and, apart from the English literature which I'm still happy to have learned, all it got me was twelve years as a trapped housewife.

Lehrman is correct, in my opinion, in criticizing some of the more arcane feminist theories that are irrelevant to demystifying the world for women, which I consider to be the purpose of women's studies. But as Evelyn Nakano Glenn, head of women's studies at Berkeley, noted, it is contradictory for Lehrman to both criticize women's studies for not being academic enough, and then criticize the academic feminist theories taught in those classes.

My best guess about Lehrman is that she is exploiting the market that provides instant stardom for women criticizing feminist endeavors. Move over Camille Paglia and Katie Roiphe! If her problem is naivete, however, I can recommend some women's studies and sociology of knowledge courses she should take.

Pauline B. Bart

Professor of Sociology

University of Illinois at Chicago

Lehrman showed up one day in my course on the history of U.S. women's political activism, the focus of which contradicts her assertion that women's studies ignores "women who have achieved anything of note." Perhaps that's why she made no mention of it.

Lehrman did not tape our interview and only occasionally took notes. Clearly she knew what she wanted to say before she had even begun reporting this story, and she certainly wasn't going to let facts get in the way of her desire to do a hatchet job on women's studies.

Annelise Orleck

Assistant Professor of History

Dartmouth College

Lehrman falls prey to the same sloppy thinking she accuses others of engaging in. In a generalization of the grossest sort, she states, "two-thirds of college women don't call themselves feminists." She provides no statistics and surveyed four colleges for this article. Where did this "fact" come from? And Lehrman's claim that "over the past twenty-five years feminists have been among those who have devalued women's traditional roles most vigorously" is just wrong. She calls herself a feminist, yet she presents as truth one of the biggest backlash-inspired lies ever concocted by a mainstream media wordmeister.

Lehrman does have some positive things to say. She finds women's studies students "quite bright," and states that "[women's studies] 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." Indeed, Lehrman, it seems, is a closet supporter, compelled by some misguided sense of "fairness" to criticize a thing she obviously admires. Come on over to woman-owned media, Karen, where the air is clear as well as the thinking.

Lynn Wenzel

Editor, New Directions for Women

Englewood, New Jersey

LEHRMAN RESPONDS

I was disappointed in Susan Faludi's response, and especially in its condescending tone. Maybe she feels that, as a newly ordained "feminist leader," she stands above all debate on these issues. Or perhaps she has learned too well one of the orthodoxies of women's studies and the women's movement in general: dismiss all criticism.

This probably explains why she hasn't bothered to grasp the distinction between ideological and nonideological feminism. What Faludi and many in women's studies don't seem to get is that women (and men) can believe in the essential theory of feminism--equal rights and equal opportunities for women--and disagree on how to achieve that. They can also believe in feminism and not agree that they personally are oppressed victims of the patriarchy, that their entire lives are open to political interpretation. Postideological feminism means there's no one telling women what to think or what to value--no feminist leaders. Maybe that's why Faludi has chosen to mock rather than address the concept.

As I wrote in the piece, of course all academic courses are politicized to some degree. But other disciplines (except perhaps for African-American studies or gay and lesbian studies) don't have a political litmus test for all of the professors or the curriculum. It's interesting that Faludi believes that the "capacity to analyze the world in political terms . . . should probably be a requirement for college graduation." Whose "political terms"? Are Rush Limbaugh's OK, too?

The whole idea of a liberal education is to encourage independent and critical thinking--and that's certainly the alleged goal of women's studies. Should we really want universities to replace one set of dogma with another? Does Faludi believe that it doesn't matter if scholarship on women is substandard, so long as it advances the cause of women?

I fully agree with Faludi (and Bart) that women's studies should challenge the male-defined curriculum and pedagogy, and that it has produced a wealth of first-rate scholarship on women. What I don't accept is that a female-defined curriculum needs to be so heavily politicized, and that a female-defined pedagogy should be based on women's feelings, "contextual" thinking, or special sense of intuition. In Backlash, Faludi attacked "relational" feminist theorists as soldiers in the war against women: "'Special' may sound like superior, but it is also a euphemism for handicapped." Has she changed her mind?

My question to Bart: At this stage in society's adjustment to feminism, when so many of the problems women face are more cultural than political, isn't it more important to study women and women's history in a way that will attract as many nonideological men and women as students who already accept the feminist orthodoxy? This doesn't mean making anyone "comfortable." It means teaching, not indoctrinating.

Further, it is a contradiction of women's studies, not my article, that students can go to one class and discover that abstract theory is "male" and knowledge can be based only on their own experiences and then go to another and be inundated with theory and jargon that has little relationship to anyone's life or experience.

I took three pages of notes during my interview with Orleck. On one of those pages I wrote that Orleck decided to offer more balanced readings after she received some negative course evaluations. "I had been accused of going down the p.c. checklist of what bad things the U.S. government has done," she told me, and I appreciated her honesty.

As for Lynn Wenzel's statistical concerns, a recent poll conducted for Whittle Communications found that more than two-thirds of college women do not call themselves feminists. Its results are supported by a poll conducted for Time/CNN. And thanks for the invitation to "come on over to woman-owned media," but I happen to value "fairness," and am not particularly fond of adversarial separatism.

WOMEN STUDIES II

I finished Karen Lehrman's article, with a sigh of recognition: This is, indeed, the world of women's studies that I have come to know reasonably well during the past decade. And knowing the world, I hate to think of the response the article is sure to provoke. These are not stories that we tell in public. There are still more than enough enemies of women's studies and feminism to do the telling. So the rage of insiders who will dismiss her as a traitor or, worse, an antifeminist is predictable.

That what she described exists, all of us who have had anything to do with women's studies know to be true, although it remains open to discussion whether it is true of all women's studies programs. But we will never know that until the gag rule that currently prevails is lifted. Only recently I met a colleague whom I respect, who softly told me that for several years she and another leader in the field had been talking about holding a private (and secret) conference for former women's studies directors at which we could trade battle stories and help to bind up one another's wounds. Apparently most of us do not even tell these stories to one another.

If women's studies is to thrive as something more than a jealous and exclusive clique, we must begin to have the public discussion that Karen Lehrman has courageously opened. For yes, sisters, she is a feminist as am I, as are countless others who have given what, from the perspective of middle age, is beginning to look like a lot of our best energies and years to what has too frequently turned out to be rather thankless work for others. And we have all done it because we care passionately about the place in our world that the next generation of women will be prepared to claim--and enjoy.

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese

Professor of History, Emory University

It is my opinion that the main reason [Lehrman's] piece was chosen for publication in a national magazine is its support of very traditional ideas about women's scholarship. She does not need to explain why traditional scholarship (read: white male scholarship) is superior, because we are simply taught it is. I can picture the very men who fought to keep women from attending universities saying that this piece proves what they knew all along--women are unsuited to intellectual pursuits.

Congratulations, Mother Jones, for using space to give the same old sexism a "new look." I realize that we all believe in recycling, but this is ridiculous.

Michelle Golden

Aptos, California

The problems which Lehrman describes are just the tip of the iceberg. In preparation for our forthcoming book, Professing Feminism: Cautionary Tales From the Strange World of Women's Studies, Daphne Patai and I talked to dozens of faculty and students who had once been very enthusiastic about women's studies but are now disgruntled and disillusioned. We heard stories of trumped-up charges of racism, attempts to hire activists as teachers while disguising their lack of scholarly credentials, and dubious editorial criteria for academic publications.

Lehrman calls for the reform of women's studies, not its abolition. But reform will only be possible if academic feminism is willing to give up some of its most cherished premises. Feminists must stop automatically dismissing every criticism of what they are doing by attributing it to "backlash." They must give up the arrogant assumption that feminist ways of knowing and of constructing an academic community are superior to all others.

Noretta Koertge

Professor of History and Philosophy of Science

Adjunct Professor of Women's Studies

Indiana University

We know that we cannot speak in one voice for the entire field, nor can Karen Lehrman grasp its breadth, depth, and diversity by sampling a few courses from four of the nation's more than six hundred women's studies programs. Lehrman appears to have visited primarily introductory women's studies courses, not the more advanced theory and discipline-based courses. What she does not seem to understand is that courses build on each other. Introductory courses lay the groundwork pedagogically and methodologically for later work in women's studies.

Vivien Ng, president

Wendy Kolmar, for the governing council

National Women's Studies Association

College Park, Maryland

I came to Southern Illinois University to pursue my doctorate in sociology and was given a class, cross-listed in women's studies and sociology, to teach as my graduate assistantship duties. I ran into problems from the beginning. I chose books not used in the other courses, one of which was a text on men in the age of feminism. My mentor, the director of women's studies, criticized that choice. I stood my ground and defended using the book by alluding to the course title, "Women and Men in Contemporary Society." My mentor also argued that some of the books I chose would be a challenge to what she termed as "baby feminoids" and might frighten them away from women's studies altogether.

I enjoyed teaching the class and received very favorable evaluations from my students. However, I was never asked to teach the course again. It makes me wonder if presenting both sides of the "gender gap" in more academic than political terms did not fit with the overall ideology of the women's studies program. The more advanced courses in women's studies dealt with Our Bodies, Ourselves, G-spots, the political ramifications of the Dalkon shield, lesbianism, and serious, shrill male-bashing.

I am a feminist, but I am a scholar first and foremost. I hope that those affiliated with women's studies curricula will read this article with an open mind and willingness to correct what is wrong in their programs.

Mary Louise Fuller

Beardstown, Illinois

While visiting more than forty campuses to build NOW's historic April 1992 abortion march, I found women's studies programs to be as diverse as the students and campuses that maintain them. Lehrman seems to find it ironic that the students taking these courses ("overwhelmingly white and upper-middle-class") on these few campuses are the ones least likely to have suffered oppression. Unfortunately, the faces of sexual violence, harassment, and pay inequity are not as easy to recognize as she seems to think.

Lehrman also states that women's studies' scrutiny of these writings is both "overtly political" and overly personal. When studies continue to report the silence of young women in classrooms, it is certainly still appropriate for professors to find ways to give young women a voice. And in an overtly political world, I would argue that feminist political analysis is a valuable tool, for both women and men. When Lehrman labels much of this discourse "unintelligible post- structuralist jargon," she obfuscates what is essentially, to borrow from Susan Faludi, a backlash against women's studies as a whole.

Rosemary Dempsey

Vice President-Action

National Organization for Women

Washington, D.C.

[Karen Lehrman] believes certain things don't belong in a university classroom: self-discovery; pedagogy that encourages student expression; the linking of personal experiences with politics and scholarship. I wonder how she can insist on such a strict dichotomy between self-discovery and scholarship while still calling herself a feminist. Without that "personal touch" --the acknowledgment that all scholarship is filtered through, and applied to, and tangled up with, one's daily life-- women's studies would be dry, insulated, forgettable rote learning.

Feminist education at the University of California, Santa Cruz heightened my self-esteem, exercised and strengthened my mind, and boosted my potential more than any form of learning, before or since. I believe most women's studies students would agree.

Natascha Bruckner

co-editor, Womyn's Press

Eugene, Oregon

I have traveled the country training college students in grassroots organizing, attracting the most politically "progressive" feminists and queer activists. There are precious few of them with the prerequisite working crap-detectors, because the professors they respect have instilled in them the mantras of deconstruction, resulting in philosophical neurasthenia. Prattling regurgitated Lacan, Derrida, and Foucault, the men are, at best, confused, and the women are, by and large, whiny, lily-white weaklings who want to beg authority figures for protection. These elite youths have to be trained to be critically literate strategic thinkers from the ground up.

Luke Adams, Washington, D.C.

As far as I know, I'm the first male graduate of the women's studies program at Berkeley, receiving my degree in pre-department days, in 1983.

Far from the blind followers of simple-minded dogma, or flaccid, "touchy-feely" drones, the women and men I studied with were genuinely intellectual, independent, individualistic (perhaps to a fault), and forever questioning of anything anyone asserted as "fact."

Galen Rosenberg, English teacher

Los Altos, California

I could never understand why attacking patriarchy per se was so liberating. As this article suggests, such a tactic merely immerses us in the old stereotypes we have been trying to avoid. For example, recently a female high-school classmate of mine and graduate of Yale Law School, told me with a straight face that she hoped that once women penetrated the "glass ceiling" they would endow the male corporate structure with the feminine values of nurture, compassion, and caring. Is this feminism? Funny, I thought the purpose of feminism was to liberate me from those tired old roles and allow me to show the aggressive, achievement-oriented, competitive, raspy side of my nature!

Women with "politically correct" sentiments play right into these men's hands and thus ensure their own oppression. The men do not have to do anything but sit back and watch us sabotage ourselves.

Betsy Shackelford, New York, New York

TO TELL THE TRUTH

Eighty-percent of the newsmagazine producers chose not to respond to the Mother Jones survey ("The truth squads," Sept/Oct). I vote with the majority.

Jane Pauley, Anchor

NBC News, Dateline NBC

As a magazine producer, I read your story with great interest. But you got one thing wrong in your cartoon ("Ya wanna be a 60 MINUTES producer, eh?" Sept/Oct). Quote: "We had the resources ...to do the BIG scandals in the 1980s...but we went soft."

Six months before Eugene Hasenfus's plane crashed in Nicaragua, starting what came to be known as Iran-Contra, "West 57th" producer Leslie Cockburn, correspondent Jane Wallace, and associate-producer Ty West were in Costa Rica questioning a little-known American rancher named John Hull about guns-for-drugs, the planes purported to be landing on his Costa Rica property, and his connections with Rob Owen and Oliver North. TV history perhaps, but history nonetheless.

Christopher Dalrymple

NBC News, NBC NOW

New York, New York

MO' BETTER SCHOOLS

I applaud Mother Jones for contributing to the growing dialogue on the state of American education by taking on some tough issues (Sept/Oct). Rest assured that President Clinton and I have no intention of settling for "mere tinkering" in the American educational system. Beginning with Goals 2000: Educate America Act, which will serve as the framework of our reform efforts, we are deeply committed to a program of comprehensive education reform.

As former governors, President Clinton and I feel very strongly that education is primarily a state and local responsibility. The Goals 2000 legislation provides for the first time in this nation's history voluntary national content and performance standards in seven core academic areas and provides a way to identify critical occupational standards. These standards will serve as a lighthouse to guide local schools and communities in their individual reform efforts. A new generation of performance assessments will also be developed to help judge whether students and schools are meeting these standards. Over time, the tests can and should be used to hold students accountable for their own learning.

It will take new ideas, greater effort, and the commitment of teachers and principals, parents and politicians, school boards and administrators, business and labor to reinvent schools and help many more students meet the exacting standards that a competitive international economy will demand of them.

Richard W. Riley, Secretary of Education

Washington, D.C.

[In "As the world learns," Sept/Oct] Diane Brady engages in two tactics common among critics [of American education]: selective presentation of data and a less-than-critical acceptance of negative information. Brady reports that only 75,243 students scored above 600 on the SAT verbal in 1992, compared to 116,630 in 1972. She fails to note that on the math section the figures are 182,592 for 1972, and 187,397 for 1992 (the two years had nearly identical numbers of test- takers). If schools are slipping, how come it doesn't affect mathematics, generally considered the worst-taught subject? The decline in SAT verbal scores stems from people who don't speak English as a native language, the recruitment by universities of "nontraditional" students as the passing of the baby boom shrank the pool of eighteen year olds, and the development of a multimedia society.

When all of the data are in and properly evaluated, things look much better than the critics contend, as shown in the annual "Bracey Report on the Condition of Public Education," (Phi Delta Kappan, October 1991, 1992, and 1993). A few highlights:

1. Achievement test scores are up. Some to record levels.

2. Graduate Record Examination scores have risen in the last decade in spite of an increasing number of test-takers.

3. The top 20 percent of American eighth graders scored better on an algebra test than did the top 20 percent of Japanese students.

Brady comes closer to the truth when she discusses the problems of funding. The conditions in poor city and poor rural schools are awful, and people who could change that don't seem to care. The same study referred to in point number three above found Americans in the lower 50 percent of American classes did very poorly compared to the Japanese students in the lower 50 percent of classes. These problems cry for attention, but to indict "American schools" is wrong. We need a much more focused, better-targeted approach to educational reform.

Gerald Bracey, Alexandria, Virginia

A FRIEND IN CONGRESS

Robert Borosage's "All dollars no sense," (Sept/Oct) correctly concludes that the resources currently devoted to the defense establishment far exceed our needs in countering the "threat environment" in the post-Cold War world. As chair of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), I have been committed to ensuring that the House is an active, aggressive, and visionary force for reconfiguring the armed forces to match the emerging military needs of the United States.

As a result of the end of the Cold War, I agree that we have a unique political and strategic opportunity to reassess and redirect U.S. national security policies and priorities. The HASC held a series of hearings to examine the future role of the military, including what criteria we should use in order to decide where, when, and how to use military force. As part of this process the committee is undertaking an in-depth examination of the Pentagon's bottom-up review.

In addition, the HASC included programs and initiatives in its 1994 defense authorization bill which, if passed by Congress, will aid the effort to shape an appropriately sized defense establishment for the twenty-first century. Two such initiatives included in that bill are proposals for economic conversion and environmental cleanup.

As the debate moves forward into the next budget cycle, we will need the assistance of like-minded persons in the media to report on the efforts within the House Armed Services Committee to reorder our national priorities. Progressives should certainly not lose sight of the fact that a long-standing critic of excessive military spending and unwarranted military action now is part of the leadership that will guide this debate.

Rep. Ron Dellums, D-California

THE REAL ENEMY

Because he was looking in from the outside, Robert Borosage missed the point. Everything he said, no doubt, was correct. However, as an electrician who wired a near-million dollar "tempest" (the navy's code word for top secret) project at the local Coast Guard station, perhaps I can add to the article with a view from the inside. We were doing things with a James Bond mentality. A few examples:

*The "war room" had one outside wall with windows. The windows were removed and replaced with eight inches of steel-reinforced concrete.

*I removed a section of all the metal electrical conduit leaving and entering the "secured area" and inserted a two-foot piece of plastic PVC conduit. Should an enemy agent sneak in the hallway outside the "secured area" with a ladder, stick his head above the dropped ceiling, and put his ear to a pipe, the PVC would prevent him from hearing anything. The plumbers did the same with all the metal water pipes.

*Above the ceiling, all four metal junction boxes were equipped with electronic tamper devices to alert the command if an enemy agent should try to disconnect their power or tap into a line to eavesdrop.

*All air-conditioning ducts going through the ceiling to the roof had electronic trip wires in the event an enemy went on the roof, removed the air-conditioning unit, and then tried to crawl through a ten-inch duct riddled with razor-sharp sheet metal screws. As the sheet metal worker told me, "A squirrel couldn't get through those ducts without getting torn to shreds."

*I installed a 480-volt, 400-amp diesel generator (enough to run a small town) for emergency power. A small Honda generator would have been sufficient.

One day I asked the base commander, "Why are you doing all this? Are you worried about the Commies coming to get you?"

"No," he said. "We're more worried about the locals."

The ultimate purpose of the military is not to protect the American people from outside invasions, but rather to protect the people in power--the status quo--from the people within.

Name and address withheld

WEIGHTED IMAGERY

Fat hatred, one of the last safe prejudices among the Left, is alive and well in Mother Jones' September/October pullout ("It ain't over 'til the fat man thins") "Lean" does not imply "clean," and most fat men and women cannot become thin. Studies show that fat people do not eat more food than thin people; they metabolize food differently. Would the pullout desi