THE ACADEMYnWhose Women’snStudies?nby Elizabeth Fox-GenovesenWomen’s studies has emergednand, in large measure, won itsnplace in the academy as an unabashedlynpolitical undertaking. “Teaching,” accordingnto Florence Howe, a pathnbreaker in women’s studies, “is a politicalnact.” “Education,” Deborah Rosenfeltnadds, “is the kind of political act thatncontrols destinies.” In effect, they insistnthat education as we have known it untilnvery recently has been a political undertakingndesigned to empower men andnconstrain women. For education in thenmasculine voice propounded values tailorednto the measure of man, andnthereby denied women’s identities andnforeclosed women’s aspirations.nInformed by a crusading commitmentnto redress centuries of bigotry andnbias, women’s studies programs andncurricula have proliferated throughoutnthe country, fueled by the mission tonchange the hearts and minds of students—nprimarily those of women students,nbut, to the extent possible, alsonthose of men. For supporters, women’snstudies embodies the responsibility tonhelp young women seize their destiniesnunencumbered by crippling assumptionsnabout their second-class status. Fornopponents, women’s studies embodies andangerous assault on centuries of learning,ncivilization, and perhaps even humannnature. Thus formulated, the debatenover women’s studies is easy tonconfuse with the interlocking debaten50/CHRONICLESnover feminism.nAs an academic project, women’snstudies has contributed to the confusion.nBorn of a sense of oppression andnexclusion, women’s studies has, in general,nretained a defensive sense of themnagainst us. All too frequently, women’snstudies programs are much less wellfundednand staffed than established departments.nOften lacking independentnfaculty lines, much less adequate secretarialnsupport, many programs havenbeen forced to rely on volunteer labor.nThe sense of contributing to an importantncause tends to promote elan andnenthusiasm, followed by discouragementnand burnout. Nothing has comeneasy. All of us who have participated innthe attempts to launch programs remembernthe interminable meetings —ndescribed with disgust by a youngerncolleague of mine as “everybody bring anpiece of cheese”; the exhausting strugglesnsimply to get a course listed and tonpersuade departments to free a facultynmember from normal departmental offeringsnto teach it; the ill-disguised contemptnof colleagues for what they sneeringlyndismissed as a passing ideologicalnfad.nSmall wonder in such a climate thatnso many of those associated withnwomen’s studies continue to view it as anfeminist project. Small wonder that sonmany of those who oppose it continuento dismiss it as nothing more than ann(inappropriate) exercise in feminist consciousness-raising.nThe pity remainsnthat both sides are at once wrong andnright. The participants in the debate arentalking past each other.nStrong and dangerous pressures tonideological conformity notwithstanding,nwomen’s studies remains a vigorous andndiverse undertaking. For every women’snstudies program that openly promotes anspecific political agenda and emphasizesnthe transformation of consciousnessnover accomplishment, there is anothernthat seeks to help young women tonacquire an education and to preparenthem to find a place in a wodd in whichnthey are more likely than not to have tonsupport themselves or to contribute to anfamily income. At LaGrange Collegenin Georgia, middle-aged, middle-classnwomen faculty members quietly worknfor a minimum attention to women’snstudies because they worry about thenfutures of daughters and students whonhave no higher ambitions than to attractnnna husband who (statistically) has a 50npercent likelihood of divorcing themntwenty years later, just when their ownnchildren are ready for college.nNationally, to be sure, the dominantntone of women’s studies is establishednby more militant programs. We hearnhorror stories about introductory women’snstudies courses that deny malenstudents freedom of expression and focusnon a range of personal questions,nfrom sexual preference to aging, andnsome of these stories may well reflect ansubstantial reality. The more ominousntruth is that even at their most alarmingnthese stories capture only a small part ofnthat reality. Feminism in the broadnsense does constitute the mainspring ofnwomen’s studies, and, defensive posturesnnotwithstanding, is today flourishingnon college and university campuses,nnot to mention at conferences andnprofessional meetings. The heated debatenover the canon, now being wagednin books, on campuses, and in thennational press, directly testifies to thenimpact of feminist concerns, accordingnto which women have been fundamentallynalienated from a culture that castsnthem as objects and with which theyncannot idenhfy.nFeminism has, in this respect,nemerged as the cutting edge of thenbroad postmodernist assault on receivednnotions about the status of knowledge,ncertainty, rationality, subjectivity, standardsnof justice, and the self Feminismnin this sense is increasingly challengingnreceived notions about the fundamentalnstructures of human knowledge, andnsome influential feminists are rejectingnall of our assumptions about knowledgenon the grounds that they represent annoppressive and outmoded “binarynthinking” — a way of thinking that restsnon the delineation of difl^erence as thenfoundation of all knowledge and thereforenpromotes hierarchy, notably thenhierarchy that places men over women.nThe most serious problems thatnplague women’s studies result from anpernicious combination of defensivenessnand arrogance. Make no mistake:nmost committed participants innwomen’s studies persist in the (notnentirely unjustified) conviction that theynrepresent an embattled minority. Butnlike the abolitionists of the 19th century,nwith whom they have much in common,nthey believe themselves to be thencustodians of a higher truth againstn