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Professing Feminism: Cautionary Tales From Inside The Strange World Of Women's Studies Paperback – September 21, 1995
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From Publishers Weekly
Two academics offer an unsparing account of the problems within women's studies programs.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From Library Journal
Dismayed by what they claim are the dogmatic methods inherent in many women's studies programs, Patai and Koertge, two feminist academics, urgently call for introspection and reform. Recounting the experiences of colleagues who have grown alienated and disenchanted with the movement, the authors convincingly demonstrate that on many campuses feminist scholarship is being subverted by indoctrination, separatism, political agendas, and a militant intolerance for opposing viewpoints. The authors call for a new "humanistic feminism" that promotes the liberal principle of tolerance and inquiry. This study should alert concerned women to the dangers of ideological chauvinism and serve as a guide for the realignment of women's programs. Essential reading for anyone involved in women's studies.
Carol McAllister, Coll. of William & Mary Lib., Williamsburg, Va.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top customer reviews
They wrote in the Prologue of this 1994 book, “This book began eight years ago, with a number of long conversations… As we got to know each other better and spoke more frankly, we began to discuss our concerns about the direction in which Women’s Studies programs and feminism in general appeared to be heading… it became increasingly clear to us that … many of the central tenets and favored practices of feminism within today’s academy are seriously flawed.” (Pg. xiii-xiv)
They continue, “We each identify strongly with the feminist movement. In criticizing certain aspects of feminism, we are therefore not only repudiating some of our own previous beliefs and practices but also jeopardizing friendships with many colleagues and allies… We believe that it is feminists, not their opponents, who must speak out about contemporary feminism’s tendency to turn into a parody of itself. Where did things go wrong? And why?... it matters today that attention be paid to the harm done to contemporary feminism by the ideological policing and intolerance going on within its own ranks.” (Pg. xv)
They add, “We are not claiming that every single Women’s Studies program throughout the country displays the problems described in this book. But far too many do so for these matters to be buried or left unaired any longer… Important allies have already been lost. Too many among the first generation of feminists in the university, those who organized and fought for Women’s Studies programs, are now profoundly alienated from these very programs and endeavors. More are on the verge of becoming disenchanted. Feminism cannot afford such a brain drain. Among women students---the next generation---‘feminist’ has already become a label many prefer to avoid… Clearly, academic feminism must begin to acknowledge and address its considerable problems, or else shrink into an introverted and marginal sect.” (Pg. xvii-xviii)
In the first chapter, they state, “What troubled us most was that many of the aspects of Women’s Studies that distanced, and in some cases drove away, women were the very features in which advocates took particular pride… Where critics objected to emotional coercion in the classroom, advocates talked about the importance of transforming students’ consciousness. Where dissenters saw feminist ideology distorting scholarship, advocates praised the virtues of research guided by political commitments. Where exiles complained about an atmosphere rife with hypocritical avoidance and shunning, advocates claimed to have found a sanctuary from patriarchal strife in groups based on the cultivation of women’s ‘difference.’” (Pg. 4)
They argue, “Women’s Studies, in its early phases, had a choice. It justified critique of much traditional knowledge as biased and limited (if not overtly misogynist), and therefore ultimately erroneous, could have led it to claim the high ground by insisting on broader, more balanced, less biased curricula and research. But this is not the choice many programs and Women’s Studies faculty made. Instead, at every juncture at which feminist bias emerged, it was justified by reference to the prior bias of men---as if emulation of the thing being rejected had, unconsciously, become the feminist agenda. Such inconsistencies are unworthy of a feminism that hopes to have a future. By capitulating to them, Women’s Studies has become the defender of the faith within the academy’s walls.” (Pg. 10)
They state, “The stories in the preceding chapter … [suggest] a portrait of the problems besetting Women’s Studies today: saddening accounts of shunning, personal betrayal, and unkind practices---all perpetuated amidst avowals of sisterhood; but even more evident are the shocking instances of unprofessional behavior and subversion of normal academic standards and procedures---all carried on in the name of feminism. Perhaps most disturbing were the tales of feminist pedagogy that too often looked like indoctrination and harassment in the classroom.” (Pg. 44)
They suggest, “On the one hand, Women’s Studies teachers are deliberately using their classrooms as sites for the recruiting and training of students to become feminist activists. This aim tends to produce standard proselytizing tactics such as providing comfort and support for neophytes, denouncing the enemy, rejecting opinions that contradict or complicate the party line, and engaging in rituals of confession and celebration to keep the faithful pure and committed. These are all procedures that tend to constrict, rather than open, mental horizons, and straiten, rather than enlarge, argument.” (Pg. 81)
They point out, “The most important goal of any Women’s Studies course, as is widely taken for granted, is to convert students to feminism. Feminists answer the charge that they are indoctrinating students by pointing out that all education attempts to change students… Of course, feminists themselves realize that many students do not respond favorably to their pedagogy, and the phenomenon of ‘student resistance’ is now the focus of organized discussions and scholarly papers.” (Pg. 97-98) Later, they add, “Women’s Studies originally had two legitimate academic objectives: to find and publicize information about the lives and works of women who had been forgotten or overlooked, and to make women’s lives a primary focus of inquiry. But soon the ‘add women and stir’ recipe for doing Women’s Studies was rejected as inadequate.” (Pg. 115)
They contend, “Women’s Studies students are often criticized by faculty in other departments … for their disinclination to think hard and work diligently… Older feminist faculty, the pioneers who started Women’s Studies programs, had the benefits of a traditional education. With all its shortcomings, such an education seems to have given them the intellectual tools they needed to make good on their challenges to that very education. These women were not as inclined as younger students or staff members to reject ‘malestream’ academic disciplines. It is in large part due to the authority of these older scholars that Women’s Studies has come into existence. But, more recently, feminist faculty have not followed their example.” (Pg. 118)
They summarize, “The information we have brought together in this book suggests to us that the feminist persuasions prevailing in the U.S. colleges and universities today often lead to consequences deeply subversive of the best academic traditions. Intolerance, anti-intellectualism, and ideological policing produce work that is shaped---we would say, distorted---by an ideological agenda… Nonetheless, as our investigations have shown, these practices are proudly ‘owned’ by many feminist faculty.” (Pg. 184)
They conclude, “Women’s Studies programs, in their bunker mentality and tendency to cut themselves off from the rest of the university in the name of feminist commitment, do function in some respects like cults and communes… it is not… the mission of a university to lock students into one stage of emotional and intellectual development, or to inculcate attitudes of hostility and condescension to all profeminist knowledge and nonfeminist individuals. To the extent that Women’s Studies programs intentionally cultivate such a mentality … they have no place in the university… such a posture has everything to do with political aims and with the efforts to indoctrinate in accordance with these aims, and very little to do with the goals of a liberal education.” (Pg. 196-197)
This book is obviously controversial. (This reader might wish the authors had done more academically sound SURVEYS, rather than relying on their personal conversations with persons.) Still, for anyone interested in Women’s Studies programs, this is an important critique, and should be read even by individuals who disagree with its conclusions.
The authors are convincing and the various points are illustrated with interesting anecdotes. Particularly funny was the story of a women's studies lesbian professor announcing the heterosexual students that, if the course works as supposed, all students will be lesbians by the end of the term. One student, a married women with children, was persecuted by the professor by being given substantial extra assignments because she was deemed to be 'stubborn' regarding her (hetero)sexuality.
My qualm is a methodological one. The authors start by saying that they will apply "feminist methodology" in their study. Only later in the book it is explained that feminist methodology prefers anecdotes and testimonials ('connected thinking', which is good) to the "patriarchal" statistics ('compartimentalized thinking' which is bad). But the context of their description of this methodolgy is, again, one of scathing, devastating criticism. Feminist methodology is exposed as pseudo-intellectual. So I can't help but wonder why the authors use the very same methodolgy which their book dismisses as unsound. The effect is that, with a lack of statistical figures, it is impossible to say how pervasive are the problems they mention. Some problems, the ideological ones, are universal by definition. But they are not the most striking. The more striking are the ones regarding the practice of feminism, especially the instances where dissent is supressed and dissenters are punished. But the feminist methodology used by the authors gives us no clue how wide-spread this very important problem is.