Commentary Magazine


Women's Studies

To the Editor:

We must disagree with Carol Iannone’s article, “What Moderate Feminists?” [June], on two grounds. First of all, she suggests that our book, Professing Feminism: Cautionary Tales from the Strange World of Women’s Studies, assumes that there was a golden age of feminism that then turned to lead. But our book (which focuses strictly on feminism in the academy) makes the opposite argument: that the problems evident in women’s-studies programs are the inevitable result of the effort to use the university as a political staging ground. We say that this commitment, which is in constant tension with the goals of a liberal education, was present from the start, and it is this, and its results, that we criticize.

But we must also take issue with Miss Iannone’s use of Betty Friedan’s admittedly hyperbolic rhetoric to blast all of feminism. Every political movement engages in excesses—but few complex movements are judged entirely by those excesses, as Miss Iannone has chosen to do here. Readers may not know from her representation of our book that we believe feminism has made important contributions in both scholarship and educational reform. We even believe there are good women’s-studies teachers responsibly doing their jobs (despite pressures from women’s studies not to do so). We say as much in our book.

We do not want to do what we criticize some feminists for doing to the “white-male-patriarchal” past: throw out the baby with the bath water. The point of criticizing feminism ought not to be enacting a desire to return to some supposedly pristine pre-feminist past in which women were not uppity, or to a mythical past in which they were always equal. It should be to hold feminism to high standards of thought and action, which alone are capable of leading to both good education and a better future.

Daphne Patai
Noretta Koertge

University of Massachusetts
Amherst, Massachusetts

_____________

 

Carol Iannone writes:

In their book, Daphne Patai and Noretta Koertge mention having been cautioned not to rehearse their quarrel with academic feminism publicly lest they give ammunition to conservative opponents, so my article must have seemed like one of their worst nightmares come true. Still, I must go even further in commending them for what they have done: the courage, honesty, specificity, and precision of their analysis of what the field of women’s studies has for the most part become are truly admirable, especially for two professors who were involved in the enterprise themselves.

Nevertheless, let me respond to their objections to my article. They first say they did not claim that after an original “golden age,” feminism in the academy deteriorated. But here is a sample of the kind of statement they make that would seem to indicate otherwise:

[F]eminism, which began its career as an enormous opening out into the world, an expansion—and in many cases, a correction—of existing knowledge and perspectives, has ended up leading to a narrow, blinkered approach. Much of the original feminist work on gender was excellent, but when social constructionism turns doctrinaire, it ceases to be a useful thinking tool and becomes one more intellectual straitjacket to be cast off.

Moreover, while on the surface they are right that their book locates the source of the trouble in the attempt by feminist professors to make “women’s studies serve a political agenda,” they do seem to accept the idea that there is a “good” way to be political. For example, they declare that “the mere fact that women’s studies has an explicit political aim does not by itself mean that women’s-studies education need take the form it does.” And they suggest that there can be a “healthy balance” between academics and activism, and offer the following example of a “feminist political initiative” that they find “arguably . . . appropriate”:

[A] professor might give her textbook order to the local feminist bookstore, thus offering financial support to a woman-owned business while also ensuring that her students are exposed to the novels, T-shirts, records, buttons, and periodicals of feminist popular culture.

But if they were to imagine an evangelical Christian or an Orthodox Jewish professor doing something analogous, I think they might consider such an initiative not at all appropriate.

To me, all this shows that even the most insightful critics of feminist excesses often cannot detach themselves from the root thinking that led to those excesses.

This leads me to Professors Patai and Koertge’s second point, namely, that I judge the movement only by its excesses. In fact, rhetorical excess is part and parcel of the feminist project and cannot be lightly dismissed. I would also remind them that their work, too, has been criticized for focusing on the extremes and not being fair to women’s studies as a whole.

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