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Feeding Minds Feminism: Women's Studies

by Jeannie Ludlow

In 1974, American feminist Florence Howe called Women's Studies the "educational wing of the women's movement." As a Women's Studies coordinator and faculty member, I work at the intersection of academia and activism, a place of excitement, debate, collaboration, and, sometimes, tension.

After reading Megan Carpentier's article from On The Issues Magazine on her uncomfortable experience with Women's Studies and Carol Hanisch's call for a resurgence of radical feminist consciousness raising, I began to think about how my work is shaped by the tensions between feminist activism (a movement aiming to dismantle the hierarchical power structure that feminist theorist bell hooks calls "white supremacist capitalist patriarchy") and academia (an institution still organized hierarchically to privilege those with the most cultural power).

Although critical of academic feminism, Hanisch's description of consciousness raising resonates with my Women's Studies experiences. From introductory to graduate level, every Women's Studies course I've ever taught or taken has been punctuated by a series of Click! moments (the consciousness raising moment when it becomes clear that the problem being described is part of a larger pattern of sexist oppression, not just an isolated incident).

This can be risky to admit in print. Conservatives who want to discredit Women's Studies, like David Horowitz, claim that the goals of women's studies departments are to "make students into radical feminists" rather than educate them, and my account of the classroom Click! may be seen as evidence of those claims. In part because of these conservative critiques and in part because of the general misapprehension, explained eloquently by Hanisch, that consciousness raising is more group therapy than a tool for change, some of my Women's Studies colleagues, especially those who had to struggle mightily to be taken seriously, have expressed discomfort with public discussion of consciousness raising in Women's Studies classes; this is a common topic of conversation at our professional conferences.

My experience is that the classroom Click! grows almost organically in an environment in which students are given feminist analytical skills and encouraged to apply them to what they know; consciousness raising happens at the intersection of education and activism.

On many campuses "Introduction to Women's Studies" is a general education course, meaning that it's not really designed for students with a strong interest in feminism. General education "Introduction to Women's Studies" courses are intended to sharpen foundational intellectual skills (critical reading, thinking, writing, research, public speaking) while conveying content (information) that has been determined relevant by those within the institution. When I overlay the general education goals of my course with the feminist information that is its content, I get a strange creature, indeed: a course that critiques institutions and their hierarchies, within which students learn skills they will need to succeed in institutions.

There is tension between feminism and academia in my work. When I teach about the wage gap -- the ways that median earnings in the U.S. break down unequally according to gender and race -- I take into class my campus' gender and racial demographics of our faculty, categorized by rank. Allowing students to see how the wage gap manifests itself among their teachers makes the sociological articles they read more relevant. Looking at the information that is not included in the campus' information enhances students' critical thinking skills: Why doesn't the campus tell what percentage of full professors (highest in rank) are people of color? Why are women the majority only among contracted (non-tenure-track) instructors? I assign an essay applying feminist analysis to the campus information.

The assignment has theoretical integrity, social relevance and clear learning goals. Still, even as I type this, I wonder what my colleagues and supervisors will think of this lesson plan: is it biased? too feminist? intellectual enough?

When I was in grad school, one of my professors challenged us to consider seriously our relationship to the institution of higher education. Why would the state subsidize our advanced study of feminist, Marxist, queer and critical race theories, and then pay us to teach these revolutionary ideas to young people? Our professor suggested that perhaps we could be effectively contained and controlled within the ivory tower.

I neither live nor work in an "ivory tower," although I do recognize how privileged I am. It sometimes seems a miracle for this farm kid from Indiana to be paid to read and think and talk about new ideas with students and colleagues. Most of the time, I feel like I have the best job on campus; students tend to come to Women's Studies class excited (or angry) about what they're learning, ready to debate and discuss the ways feminist analysis applies (and doesn't) to their own experiences and their communities.

The complexity of work located at the intersection of feminism and academia creates tension and invites criticism, but it also inspires students to be engaged, critical learners; I'm sorry that Carpentier missed out on that experience in her Women's Studies class.

July 15, 2010

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Jeannie Ludlow grew up in rural Indiana and was a first-generation college student. She earned her Ph.D. while a single mom and worked for sixteen years as a non-tenure-track faculty member. Now, she is Coordinator of the Women's Studies Program and Assistant Professor of English and Women's Studies at Eastern Illinois University. She is also an abortion rights activist/scholar.

Also see "Listening Up: Students Blow the Whistle on Sexual Violence" by Stephanie Gilmore and Sarah Barr in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

See "Equality for Women: Insights from My Grandfather" by Maame-Mensima Horne in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.


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