The first half of Elizabeth Fox-Genovese’s article “Whose Women’s Studies?” (September 1990) seems to be a fair and balanced account of the struggle between passionate feminists, scholars in the field of women’s studies, and those of us who question or oppose feminist efforts to “transform the curriculum.” She admits the central role of radical feminists and concedes that their motives, objectives, and tactics are political.
I am sorry she did not take a moment to explain to her readers something about the full effect of this kind of politics on collegiality, curriculum planning, and the integrity of the academy. She touches on this in a general way, but such generalities have little meaning to those outside the profession. Perhaps all is sweetness and light at Emory, but quite the reverse is the case in my institution and others around the country. What about quotas, official or covert, in faculty hiring? What about the application of different standards in promotion and tenure decisions? What about the termination of white, male professors to make room for female professors? What about the “packing” of faculty committees to protect curriculum proposals from serious questions? What about harassment policies that threaten punishment of students and faculty who express themselves openly? What about the effect of “group politics” on reasoned discourse and faculty relationships? And what about the teaching of suspicion and anger in the classroom?
The second half of the article and the bold peroration should be read carefully by anyone who is trying to distinguish women’s studies and radical feminism. Fox-Genovese seems to blame the troubles on those who defend the traditional canon. Using such language as “outraged and bigoted opposition,” “sorcerer’s apprentice,” “bunker mentality,” and “self-proclaimed defenders of inherited culture,” she warns us that “unilateral opposition will only drive it [the women’s studies movement] further down the road of stiffening opposition to Western culture as a whole.” Translated into plain English, this simply means that those who stand in our way have only themselves to blame when we tighten the noose.
I hear these expressions all the time. But, I must insist that it is not the kind of language used by those who seek a middle ground. I am sorry that Professor Fox-Genovese chose to address us in this fashion in an otherwise useful article.
—William C. Burris
After reading Professor Fox-Genovese’s article (September 1990) one wonders why exegetes for “women’s studies” always seem to fall short, into a maze of unchallenged vagueness and self-congratulation. Possibly because feminists resort to what Eric Voegelin, in a treatment of Kari Marx, referred to as “pseudo-logic,” which should not be surprising, since feminism is an avowedly radical, revisionist, socialistic endeavor that has surmounted most intellectual obstacles merely by ignoring them.
Professor Fox-Genovese’s quote from the final paper of an enlightened young woman won over to feminism conveys the usual impression that the students seem unaware of the radical origins of the program and that the course content of “women’s studies” is not quite on the higher level one might reasonably expect from a university—a level that is discussed so remarkably well by most of the other writers in the same Chronicles issue. Women enjoy our enduring respect as an integral part of humanity too completely to allow their self-focused, introspective, solipsistic segmentation as a group, or as just another 20th-century special, separate interest.
This “pseudo-logical” approach states “feminism is justified because we say it is justified.” This is why Professor Fox-Genovese could write volumes of tangled rhetoric trying to justify a university status for a junior-high-level program and still not alter the fact that there is no more intellectual justification for “women’s studies” than for “men’s studies,” etc. The very names convey a fatuous, doctrinaire caricature of higher learning, a sop to a petticoat junction turned revolutionary—the university’s Trojan Horse. Despite such distraction, the challenge for men and women will remain ineluctably the same: to continue to learn how best to live as members of society, as individuals, true to their respective, distinct natures and without a politicized egotistical focus on one gender or the other, leading to hypertrophy of the species.
—W. Edward Chynoweth
Dr. Fox-Genovese Replies:
The responses to my recent piece in Chronicles offer a salutary reminder of why, persisting reservations notwithstanding, I continue to take pride in my association with women’s studies. They also shake my hopes that those of us who insist that women’s studies meet the highest scholarly standards can look for allies on the right. More’s the pity.
Mr. Burris has my deepest sympathy and, in most instances, would probably have my political support as well. The horrors he describes do occur—too frequently to permit any of us to be complacent—and, if I read the signs of the times correctly, they are likely to increase. Indeed, he evokes only the symptoms of the deepest problem, namely the growing tendency to substitute entitlement for achievement as the criteria for academic positions. In the worst case scenario, intellectual standards and academic freedom are becoming the stakes in an escalating war for control of our campuses.
There are no justifications for the excesses of which Mr. Burris writes. But there is, as people like Edward Chynoweth regularly insist, a small problem of human nature. Without defending unacceptable practices of preferential treatment, it is possible to point out that some women and their allies are merely doing unto others what has, for decades, been done to them. Decades, not centuries. The issue is not the ideological cant of men’s “domination” or “suppression” of women throughout history. The issue is the documented reality of the systematic exclusion of professional (female) individuals from the positions for which they are highly qualified.
Having experienced discrimination does not justify discrimination against others. But unless one understands that women have been massively discriminated against in professional employment, including in the academy, one will never understand the deep conviction that informs the various attempts to right previous wrongs. For wrongs there have been.
In the academy, as throughout much of our society, we are confronting a situation in which civil society has failed to reform itself. That failure has led many women to turn to academic administrations and state and federal government to enforce impartial standards and, occasionally, even to redress previous imbalances.
Mr. Burris claims that my remarks about the potentially dangerous consequences of unilateral opposition to women’s studies can be translated into plain English as “those who stand in / our way have only themselves to blame when we tighten the noose.” He has understood part of my meaning. For the rest, he has either misunderstood or attempted a polemical feint. The appropriate pronoun is not “we” but “they.”
Gentlemen, there are women scholars and yes, heaven forfend, feminists who share what I should like to think is the essence of your commitment to standards, due process, free speech, and scholarship. But we are currently in a dangerous and exposed position. And without working alliances with others who share those commitments, however much they differ on other matters, we will go down to defeat. And so, I believe, will you.
As for Mr. Chynoweth, if he believes that our great Western culture has not disproportionately expressed the perceptions, goals, and identities of men (who, until very recently, were more often than not legally entitled to speak and act in the name of women), I do hope he can muster the same complacent acceptance of a postmodernist culture that overwhelmingly articulates the perceptions, goals, and identities of radical feminists.
Yes, the Western tradition belongs to us all, but those who have fashioned it have been disproportionately men. If women are not invited to find their own ways of identifying with it, they may well feel obliged to declare themselves its enemies. And in a dangerous world they will find allies.
Let me try one more time. The women’s studies I advocate and have the honor to preside over at Emory University is precisely that—the study of women in history, society, and culture. It is not “feminist studies” for the good reason that we do not tolerate the imposition of any ideology but rather invite broad substantive and theoretical debate on all cogent issues. Had the history of women not been maliciously ignored for so long, we might not need a special program of this kind, much as we might not need African-American studies. That cannot now be helped. But I do hope that conservatives understand and respond to one of the messages I tried to deliver: some of us who are promoting women’s studies want and badly need the intellectual contributions of scholars with viewpoints other than those now dominant. In this matter I stand with that eminent scholar Jacob Neusner, whose splendid call for opening the canon to African-American and ethnic studies (National Review, June 15, 1984) ought to be required reading.