Gender trouble in the academy


Painting of a Woman. Source: Alami

When lunching in London a few weeks ago with an American colleague over here on a research trip, I found myself without a good answer when she asked me, “What has happened to all the women’s studies programmes in this country?” It is true that there are few remaining named programmes of this kind, yet gender, sexuality and feminist studies are still widely taught under the auspices of more traditional degree programmes throughout UK higher education. But I have been wondering ever since that conversation about the effects of the erosion of their distinct academic identity on students and researchers in these areas.

Widespread in US academia since the 1970s, numerous women’s studies programmes were later established in UK universities, the first named programme being the MA in Women’s Studies, established in 1980 at the University of Kent at Canterbury. In the 1990s, the concept of “women’s studies” was criticized by some post-structuralist academics as being too narrowly concerned with female identity, and therefore ignoring broader issues that impact on, and intersect with, sexism (such as cultural expectations of masculinity and the stigmatization of non‑heterosexual, non-monogamous, disabled and trans* people).

The discipline then underwent the partial transition to “gender studies”, aided by the widespread influence of the work of US-based feminists such as Judith Butler and trans studies scholars such as Susan Stryker. In a parallel way, the academic study of sexuality moved from a focus on “lesbian and gay studies” towards “queer” (the branch of theory that, after French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault’s work on the history of sexuality, views identity categories as socially constructed fictions). Within both the academic fields of sexuality/gender studies, and the activist communities concerned with similar issues, rigorous debate has centred on the ways in which identity politics might be balanced with analysis of how different types of oppression intersect with each other. As a result, the lines between women’s studies, gender studies and sexuality studies are far from clear-cut, and all three encompass many methodological and theoretical differences.

Today, variations of all of these branches of study are taught within UK universities. But, as my lunch companion’s query suggested, very few institutions offer undergraduate degrees in them, or have departments with an undergraduate population named after them. And, at postgraduate level, the struggle to ensure the survival of such programmes can be intense, stressful, and seemingly never-ending for those who convene them. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to learn from a colleague the other day that the University of Hull has a named BA programme in gender studies. Yet the “find your course” application on Hull’s website made no mention of it; I only found it later within the department of sociology’s pages. The common practice of incorporating taught elements of women’s, gender or sexuality studies within a traditional discipline means that the flavour of the subject will differ vastly from university to university, depending on the (humanities or social sciences) department within which it is housed. Thus, it is not easy to define quite what women’s, gender, and sexuality studies in the UK context currently is or are (or indeed to determine whether one should properly use a plural or a singular verb).

And this identity crisis exists too for those of us who research and teach in these areas. My degrees were in modern languages and continental philosophy and, throughout my academic career, I have always had a modern languages department code on my payslip. But when people ask what my academic specialism is, I usually answer “sexuality and gender studies”. And when I was promoted to a readership within the French department at Queen Mary, University of London in 2005, I chose the wording “Reader in French Discourses of Sexuality” to describe my specialism (a “brand” I have carried with me to my subsequent chairs at the universities of Exeter and Birmingham). My academic title, then, reflects the very hybrid identity many sexuality and gender studies scholars have, by necessity, to adopt. I feel I need the “French” in there to show where I come from and where I “belong” in disciplinary terms, but the part of the title I care about is the second half. Indeed, beyond being methodologically influenced in my research by the work of Foucault, much of my published work has nothing to do with French per se.

So, is this dual or multiple identity that many scholars of women’s, gender and sexuality studies feel forced to adopt an advantage or a burden in the academic marketplace and workplace? Jason Hartford, a doctoral graduate from the University of Oxford, who also works on queer theory from a modern languages perspective and who is currently seeking his first permanent post, opines that: “there being no structural recognition of the subject to speak of among university departments, it remains very difficult to market yourself as an emerging sexuality studies scholar unless you have another specialism (or two or three) that does have a department named after it.”

Where programmes and modules in sexuality and gender are not contained within more traditional departments, they are instead often affiliated to staff research networks or centres that (nominally) straddle disciplines, schools and colleges. In such organizational situations, the delivery of provision often relies on the goodwill and personal passion of colleagues whose teaching for the cross-departmental MA or MRes may not be recognized in department-based workload allocation models (especially if they are not from the department – usually that of the centre’s director – that bureaucratically “owns” the programme and centre). Senior managers are often keener on the idea of interdisciplinarity, as the buzzword du jour, than on ensuring that those whose research and teaching is properly interdisciplinary are enabled to pursue it straightforwardly within the institutional infrastructure. Similarly, many colleagues report that, while such networks and centres are encouraged, there is seldom any financial investment from institutions to help them flourish; centres are typically expected to generate their own income – and to make a profit for the university – from the outset.

In some institutions, programmes may not even be harnessed to existing research centres with a hub of staff. One graduate, who asked to remain anonymous, told me: “I did a master’s in women’s studies at [an elite UK institution] in 2009-10, and although the cohort and many of the teachers were inspirational, the university’s support for the programme was dreadful. There were no permanent or full-time members of staff devoted to it: everyone involved managed it by carving out a space from their other jobs.” She also commented that: “the curriculum seemed to only reach up to 1995, when the course had been founded, with no mention at all of anything happening since then […] and was very much white-Western-middle-class focused — little content on the developing world, or intersectionality, or on any kind of activism other than through a historical lens.”

While the organization of some programmes may be less than ideal, the national reality is that many programmes and modules in the field are being withdrawn altogether. And, whereas the graduate cited above complains about the absence of intersectionality (the consideration of how axes of oppression such as sexism, racism, classism, homophobia etc., interact) in the white-women-centric curriculum of the programme she studied, elsewhere it is feminism itself that is perceived to be missing from the study of social institutions and justice. Phil Hubbard, Professor of Urban Studies at the University of Kent, told me that: “Sociology at University of Kent used to be one of the leading centres of women’s studies thanks to Mary Evans, Jan Pahl and others. But we’ve cut our gender and women’s studies PhD programmes, as well as undergraduate modules, so we teach class, race, embodiment and health in our sociology and social sciences undergraduate programmes with little formal teaching provision in gender or sexuality. It’s very sad.”

Despite the problems of institutional organization that can impact upon the student experience of learning women’s, gender, and sexuality studies in the UK, graduates of these subjects are vocal about the significance of the subject matter and the value of their studies. I issued an invitation on Twitter, when preparing this article, for graduates to send me their impressions of their degrees, and many of the responses I received focused on the benefits of the critical-thinking skills taught within such fields both for their own sake and for their application in activist and professional spheres.

Linnea Sandström Lange, an alumna of the London School of Economics’ MSc in Gender, Policy and Inequalities, said her degree equipped her with “a whole different layer of analysis and understanding, without which you cannot work against injustice”. And Laura Theobald, who read a BA in Women’s Studies at the University of Redlands in the US and is currently a student on the MA in Women’s and Gender History at the University of Nottingham, agreed that her training made her “critical of the world”. She finds this critical faculty useful in her role as a postgraduate officer at Nottingham, which partly involves advocating from an equality and diversity perspective on behalf of students. Where comments on these programmes were less favorable, two criticisms were raised numerous times. One was the lack of space given to masculinity studies in the curricula of “gender” (rather than specifically “women’s”) studies programmes. The other was the insufficient attention paid to the fraught relationship between women of colour and Western feminism. The overwhelming consensus from my informal Twitter poll, however, is that current and past students are calling for more comprehensive, up-to-date, relevant, and properly funded provision in areas of study that they perceive to be of great value — and that are instead being underfunded and cut.


Painting of a Woman. Source: Alami

So is the picture the same in other anglophone countries? Expert in the history of sexuality, Ivan Crozier, a Senior Lecturer in the Science Studies Unit at the University of Edinburgh, and currently seconded to the University of Sydney, Australia, reports that, although provision in sexuality and gender studies is being cut in Edinburgh, his history department at Sydney has an honors course and a graduate seminar on the history of sexuality, while several other undergraduate courses have sexuality and gender-specific lectures. “It’s a very different climate for that kind of study here,” he says.

And Susan Knabe, an Assistant Professor jointly in the Department of Women’s Studies and Feminist Research and the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario, Canada, reports that while gender studies programmes at Guelph and McMaster have recently been closed, her own institution’s programmes continue to recruit well. “The introduction of a gender studies component in high schools this year [in the province of Ontario] will be very helpful in making folks more aware of gender/women’s studies before they arrive at university,” she adds.

Given education secretary Michael Gove’s reputation for conservatism – exemplified by the new history curriculum he has developed with Simon Schama that all but eliminates the study of contributions made by anyone other than titled, white, British men and a handful of noble-born women – it is extremely difficult to imagine such an addition being made to UK school curricula. But it is precisely because we are witness to an increase in social divisiveness in education, as in many social policies, that young people in the UK more urgently than ever need to be taught to think critically about how power works with regard to categories of sex, gender, multiculturalism, race, (dis)ability and socio-economic class.

Evelyn Torton Beck wrote in an article on the role of feminist education in 1990 that “women’s studies is at the centre of a revolution whose aim is nothing less than the transformation of the university”. But, as a scholar who believes that teaching is a form of activism, I would agree with the graduates quoted above and argue that what is taught and written in the academy can lead to social transformation. And this is why the disappearance of so many programmes in women’s, gender and sexuality studies should be a cause of concern to us all.

A slightly shorter version of this piece first appeared in the Times Higher Education on 20 June 2013. (Link here). It is republished here with their kind permission.

“Intersectionality” is not a dirty word; “austerity” is. Reflections on an evening at Conway Hall.

"To Thine Own Self Be True" - Conway Hall, London

“To Thine Own Self Be True” – Conway Hall, London

Yesterday I attended the New Statesman-sponsored panel discussion at Conway Hall, London, titled “What is the most important issue facing feminism today?”. Speakers were: NS deputy editor Helen Lewis; writers Laurie Penny, Bim Adewunmi, Juliet Jacques, and VJD Smith; Vagenda magazine collaborators Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter; and, in the chair, Caroline Crampton, the NS‘s web editor.

More details about the event and participants can be found here.

[Disclaimer: I was taking notes on a brand new iPad, with which I have not completely got to grips. My typing averaged about one word per five minutes and I see today that many of these “words” are actually iOS auto”correct” gobbledegook. This will, therefore, be very far from a full and thorough report of the debate of the live-tweeting kind. Rather, these are my impressions of the event, the issues it raised, and what I took away from it more broadly. Any inaccuracies in the reporting are, it goes without saying, the fault of Apple inc.]

I arrived at the event with some firm reservations about the framing of the debate in terms of the “most important issue”, since I am as over-saturated as the next feminist reader/ writer/ academic with zero-sum premises. I have seen too many discussions in both meat space and the comments sections of blogs degenerate into self-righteous spats over why somebody is worrying about [insert feminist issue du jour X], when [feminist issue du jour Y] is obviously so much more crucial. So the title of the event had caused me a certain amount of eye-rolling. Yet, what was probably most interesting for me about yesterday’s debate was the fact that many of the panel members argued and presented in ways that effectively worked against the divisive “pick one issue” framing and reflected thoughtfully upon this kind of rhetorical gesture.

The event began with the speakers highlighting one or two issues that, for them, seemed especially pertinent. These ranged across the need for sex education for young people with an increased focus on consent, and the importance of unlearning of the ways children are presented with the idea of what is “gender-appropriate” — points I absolutely endorse. But the issue that came to the fore and provoked the most discussion among the panelists was that of intersectionality — that term that has been so hotly debated in social and news media in recent weeks and months, raised by Juliet Jacques and Bim Adewunmi. Juliet spoke eloquently about her experiences of identifying as transgender and then undergoing sex reassignment surgery, and of the male-dominated, gender-normative medical establishment. But she emphasized that she also benefited from a series of privileges, including white educational privilege. She talked about the importance for feminism of identifying the opportunities we have, as well as the oppressions we face, and of being aware of the massive role played by social class in the lives of women, a point picked up by Laurie Penny, who asked “has feminism failed working class women?”. She insisted that we cannot talk about either feminism or labour relations adequately without acknowledging the gendered division of labour. Citing the statistic that 92% of single parents are women and have sole responsibility for childcare, she underlined her point that class is too often sidelined in discussions of feminism, and that feminism is then blamed for not fixing things for working-class women, creating an unhelpful impasse and alienating from feminism some of the women who need it most.

Bim expanded this discussion of class by talking about the ways in which her experience as a black feminist intersected with her experience as a working-class child growing up between Lagos and East London. She also explained that as a writer who is passionate about film and television she is consistently confronted with the absence of adequate representations of a range of ethnic faces and bodies onscreen, pointing out that the popular series Friends featured only two black guest characters in the course of its long run and that both were introduced with the same storyline. She pointed up that many of us have the luxury of not noticing the default white subject we see in our media and in our midst (only a handful of non-white people raised their hands from the audience when she looked around for “brown faces”). I cheered internally when Bim passionately and convincingly stated that the principle of intersectionality is not an academic luxury or irrelevance, and that one feminism simply cannot fit all.  This led to a productive discussion of the importance of writers, teachers, and academics finding ways to  introduce the (rather straightforward) principle behind the jargonistic term “intersectionality” to a range of readerships and audiences who may be educationally unprepared for this kind of discourse, or simply too tired to read bell hooks or Judith Butler at the end of a long working day.

With Helen Lewis, the discussion turned to the continued naturalization and erasure of sexual assault culture. She used the example of the Julian Assange case to illustrate the way in which rape is downplayed when the offender is a powerful white man by means of the obfuscating rhetoric of “bad sexual etiquette”. She made the striking point that women are often no more than “collateral damage” when men are seen to be doing important (leftist) work.  The crucial question of intersectionality returned to this discussion of rape culture with Bim’s intervention describing how she chose not to take part in Slutwalk despite being broadly in sympathy with its aims, since brown female bodies and black straight female sexuality connote things in culture over which she cannot easily “take control”. Questions of the prevalence of sexual assault and rape are complexified once we take account of class and race. The US statistic that one in four women will be raped increases significantly when we take non-white women as our demographic.

Another pertinent discussion point for me was the question of whether it matters that there is infighting within feminism. While it can be frustrating, I agreed with Bim’s point that we should not be unduly concerned by conflicts, since these issues matter to us and many of us are rightly angry. Feminism is the only political movement in which everyone is expected to get along because we are women. I have long been angered by the idea that we are naturally empathic, pacifistic, care-giving gentlefolk, which strikes me as the worst sort of essentialist stereotyping and a reproach from within the ranks to be “nice girls”. This is nothing more than another form of insidious internalized misogyny.

Many of the speakers talked about the realities of being a woman with a media presence and of being considered too loud and strident simply for having a strong opinion while female — which is intensified if one has a strong opinion while female and black, or female and trans. Laurie talked movingly of the rape and death threats she has received over the years. But all acknowledged the responsibility, despite these odds, that those with a public media platform have to represent the range of issues facing women.

Were I to be asked the question that was posed to the panelists: “What, for you, is the most important issue facing feminism today,” I would probably answer (after a long rant about why I don’t think that’s the most helpful question to ask, naturally) that the vitality of feminism is dependent upon our robustly resisting the tendency, so prevalent in the neo-liberal worldview of the 21st century, to reduce every issue to the level of individual choice and to conflate the critique of social institutions with condemnation of people who, for whatever reason, may benefit from them. To wit: the moderator of a certain feminist Facebook group that I intermittently peruse recently noted her concern because the comments of a queer-identified member of the group suspicious of the enthusiastic embracing of the institution of marriage by gay friends had caused a number of married heterosexual women to pronounce themselves “offended” and leave the group in a huff. When (in this case white, middle-class, heterosexual) people become so defensive about the choices they have made in their own lives that they feel sufficiently offended by any criticism of pro-patriarchal and eminently conservative institutions that they leave a discussion, critical politics have given way to knee-jerk defense of lifestyle choice. A feminism that plays down the importance of how power relations operate within and across social structures risks being distressingly toothless as a political praxis. It was heartening that the old saw “every choice a woman makes is a feminist choice” did not raise its all-too familiar head once at the New Statesman event. Perhaps the self-evident impact of current “austerity measures” in the UK will restore class, race, and other structural analysis to a more prominent place on the British feminist agenda than has been visible in recent years. If last night’s discussion is a barometer I am — cautiously — optimistic that this may be the case.

Some thoughts on words and power, prompted by recent debates in print and social media

“Words – so innocent and powerless as they are, […] how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.” ~ Nathaniel Hawthorne

Writing is an inherently ethically charged act. Words are never neutral. Each time we exercise the force of our polemic and employ rhetoric to argue, persuade, or provoke, we have a responsibility to ask ourselves: what are the effects of our words likely to be, and who will be served by them? Of course there can be unintended outcomes. People read and interpret differently. Someone will always be offended. The meaning of words does not reside wholly with their producer. And yet, some effects are wholly predictable, aren’t they?

It is all too easy to use words against the marginalized and vulnerable (even if we occupy the position of the marginalized and vulnerable ourselves). The fact is that we all internalize the prejudices of the world in which we live. Slurs can be unthinkingly repeated by those of us who would rationally challenge the beliefs upon which they rest.* But the effects of slurs, whether intended or not, whether explicitly and maliciously written or carelessly and casually insinuated, can only be to perpetuate the status quo. Unless we are really happy with the system in which we live—a late-capitalistic hetero-patriarchy—we might want to think very carefully about any words we put out into the world that can have the net effect of shoring it up while pitting potential allies in discontent against each other. Context matters too. When a profit-making publication is paying a person to produce words, and when more money will be made out of perceived outrages committed, the onus on the critical writer to act ethically and deliver a message of social commentary without repeating society’s bigotry is all the more urgent. Yet even on our own blogs, on Twitter, in the free media that is the World Wide Web, how much more efficacious activism would be if we applied these ethical considerations to all our words.

Too often, sight of a potential common political goal is lost. Groups, self-defining along the lines of identity politics, engage in the much-discussed “oppression Olympics”, misdirecting righteous anger at each other rather than at the systems that produce and maintain the conditions of their shared oppression. A concerted effort on the part of a marginalized group, motivated by the passion of injustice felt, can be tremendously potent and have effects that are devastating. But what a waste of effort if such resistant, transformative zeal is misdirected, not at the institutions that perpetuate iniquity, but rather at a member of another group also urging change but using unwise words carelessly or angrily.

Writers interested in social justice need to think about strategies for promoting resistance and commonality. We need to avoid further dividing those who share an investment in challenging normativity, but whose approaches issue from (at once entrenched and precarious) exclusionary identitarian positions. A question to ask ourselves, before putting down words on paper or a screen, has to be: am I speaking truth to power or am I attacking those who are already disadvantaged by the system? This is not a matter of “political correctness”. It is, rather, both an expedient political strategy and a commitment to the ethic of avoiding causing harm to others. For, make no mistake, words can do harm.

*In cases where we are unintentional mouthpieces for a bigotry we do not believe in, but that is so prevalent in our culture that we soak in it and unwittingly reproduce it, we can respond responsibly and graciously when criticized. And we can learn from such criticisms in order to become better writers and readers. I try to do this. I will go on trying to do this.