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by The Social Justice Group at The Center for Advanced Feminist Studies (editor)
New York University Press, 2000
Review by Gaile Pohlhaus on Jun 23rd 2002

Is Academic Feminism Dead?

            Is academic feminism dead?  How has the university changed since the first women’s studies department was formed in 1970? And if the purpose of women’s studies programs was to give rise to new ways of understanding the world by unsettling tradition, how can such programs continue this task now that they have had time to settle into traditions of their own? The writers in this volume do not answer these questions directly so much as demonstrate possibilities in response to these questions by continuing to open new lines of thought through unsettling the “traditions” of academic feminism.  In this way, these writers critically carry on the spirit of academic feminist thought.

            The book is divided into three parts and contains essays by a diverse group of women.  Most, but not all, work from within the academy.  Their disciplines include history, literature, anthropology, political economics, philosophy, American studies, justice studies, and Native American studies. All three sections offer much for the reader to consider and there is by no means one agreed upon solution offered to the many problems the authors address. 

            The first part, entitled “Theory Binds: The Perils of Retrofit”, explores possibilities for reimagining and transforming ways of thinking through feminist problems.  It both looks to the binds in which feminist theory has been entangled and suggests that there is something about theory that is binding in itself.  Vèvè Clark begins the section by defining her use of the word “retrofit”.  “Retrofit”, as used by Clark, is a metaphor for two processes in American education: the tendency to assimilate new areas of knowledge into the old and the counter tendency to reject inclusion and set up new institutions of one’s own, for example Afrocentric or women-centered study. The dilemma between these two choices has been a traditional “bind” for feminist theorists: should we attempt to access old institutions that have previously excluded many or set up new institutions of our own?  Both strategies have problems and, Clark argues, both strategies are connected by a single logic.  It is this logic that she tries to disrupt and she contends that the current generation of students represents a type of consciousness that is capable of escaping the perils of this bind.  Marilyn Frye’s article challenges the way feminists have explained the historical exclusion of many of women’s voices from mainstream feminist thinking.  She does this in part by taking those voices seriously as individual voices rather than via the generic category of “the excluded”.  What makes her essay particularly remarkable is her ability to demonstrate the method she advocates while making an argument for it.  Alice Adams and Peggy Pascoe take on specific feminist concerns (abortion and gay marriage respectively) and argue that new strategies need to be imagined if we are to move forward with these concerns.  In both cases, the authors argue that it is the traditional language of “rights” that is the culprit that leads many of these debates to a stalemate. Throughout all four essays, it is demonstrated that certain theoretical approaches to our concerns may prevent us from seeing and understanding precisely what we need in order to make progress.

            Part II, “Storytelling: Sites of Empowerment, Sites of Exploitation”, looks at the relationship between identity and the (hi)stories told about those identities.  What is the relationship between the intellectual as storyteller and the communities about whom she tells stories (or theorizes) in the academy?  Do stories empower or disempower those about whom they are told?  And does it matter who tells the stories?  Kath Weston recounts the problems she faced in anthropology in attempting to write about the gay and lesbian community, a community of which she is a part.  Among the assumptions her essay thoughtfully unpacks are those hidden in the notion that one must be a disinterested “outsider” in order to do “real” anthropological work.  Mrinalini Sinha, Kathryn Shanley, and Edén Torres analyze various ways stories have been misused in the academy and suggest a number of remedies for the problems they uncover.  Cheri Register artfully recounts her own story as a meat packinghouse worker’s daughter who sought to escape the fate of women from her town by entering academia.  In grappling with the difficulties of how to tell her story, Register both learns to appreciate the women of her hometown and questions the power of academic theory to make the lives of those women better.

            The final section, “Starting Here, Starting Now: Challenges to Academic Practices”, takes on specific problems for feminists in the academy and suggests possible solutions for dealing with these problems.  Rhonda Williams, who seeks to challenge students’ stereotypes about Black sexuality and African American families, uses her identity as an African American lesbian as a starting point for showing students how heterosexism, racism, and sexism interact.  Mary Romero investigates the effects that depoliticizing study in sociology graduate programs has on women of color who enter these programs precisely in order to theorize about the political.  The last three essays critique the academic environment itself, notorious for its clashes of egos and elitism.  Diana Vélez suggests that such an environment is stifling for those who want to imagine change.  Drawing on her practice of Buddhism, she recommends personal transformation through resisting anger as the first step toward changing that environment.  Joanna Kadi examines the systematic classism that confronted her as a working class student who refused to adopt the social codes of the “academic class”.  She argues that the academic environment is centered upon a disassociation from and ignorance of the lower classes, who are unjustly labeled “stupid”.  Finally, Sharon Doherty examines both positive and negative meanings of individualism to argue that there is a kind of individualism in the academic environment that prevents integration of social justice concerns.  Her essay resists the pessimism of other critiques of individualism in the academy by offering a number of practical strategies for creating a new academic environment conducive to concerns for social justice.

            Is Academic Feminism Dead? is a volume that takes on some of the most pressing issues facing academic feminists today. Because the problems feminists seek to address are quite difficult and complicated, they require long and serious thought. However, if the aim of this long and serious thought is to change society, the results of their thinking must be accessible to the general public. One of the major issues facing academic feminists, then, is how to make their debates accessible to a widened audience.  This question runs through a number of the essays and most of the authors are successful in writing in a clear and engaging manner.  Still, while most of the essays in this volume should prove accessible to and interesting for the general reader, how they all fit together and the contexts that motivate them are not always apparent.  A few of the essays will be unclear to those unfamiliar with the history and debates within which they are embedded and the connections between the essays may sometimes seem tenuous.  At times it may not even be clear what a particular essay (say, on abortion) has to do with the academy at all.  These problems might have been remedied by a general introduction detailing the historical context within which the essays are written and more detailed openings to the three parts of the book tying the concerns of each essay back to that context and the general theme of the book.  However, both the general introduction and the individual introductions to its three parts are extremely brief and only vaguely suggestive. Ironically, the volume may be most suited for academic feminists aware of the contexts within which the essays are written, who are already well aware that academic feminism is far from dead.

 

© 2002 Gaile Pohlhaus

 

Gaile Pohlhaus is a graduate student in philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook.