Women’s Studies without Women
Several years ago, albeit in another century, the Women’s Studies Program at a major urban university debated a change of name. Many programs were adding the word “gender” to their self-identification. Perhaps the Program should follow suit. “Women’s Studies” sounded old-fashioned. The focus on women made it appear that men were being excluded. Why not become the Women’s Studies and Gender Studies Program? Or Studies of Women and Gender? Women’s and Gender Studies? Or just Gender Studies all by itself? Whatever the permutation, most were in favor of adding gender. Gender seemed, well, more modern, and its addition would remove the suspicion that the Program believed in the category of women as some untroubled, referential, social reality. Gender was a construction.
There was a momentary sense of agreement. Yes, it was time for a change. And this would do it. But then someone raised an objection. Gender didn’t really include sexuality—particularly gay and lesbian sexuality. So, the better title would be: Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Some debate followed about whether or not gender and sexuality were distinct areas, with well-established bodies of scholarly literature. Some even felt feminists should stick to gender and leave sexuality to Gay and Lesbian Studies. The distinction prevailed. Another addition. After a short pause, a colleague raised her hand. Actually, Women, Gender, and Sexuality, weren’t enough. If the title were meant to reflect the Program’s true interests, one would have to say, Women, Gender, Sexuality, and Race. Without missing a beat, another colleague added, “Well, in that case, it would have to be, Women, Gender, Sexuality, Race, and Globalization.” At that point, the head of the Program threw up her hands and said that the words wouldn’t fit on the door. And Women’s Studies, tout court, was retained finally for historic reasons. Shirley Yee put the matter succinctly in a special issue of the feminist journal differences: the name “women’s studies should be retained both for its intellectual and for its political value, precisely because it enables explicit engagement with ‘women’ as an admittedly unstable, fragmented term. Without the ‘women’ in women’s studies, we stand to lose the focus of this intellectual and political endeavor” (“The ‘Women’ in Women’s Studies,” 62).
The signifier “women” was meant to throw open the doors of knowledge rather than reseal women into a separate compartment of their own. Women’s Studies began as a critique of the disciplines. It was by definition an interdisciplinary project designed to function as an institutional site that would make room for the kind of research conventionally organized departments and programs ignored or disdained. We insisted (we, the seventies feminists engaged in the struggle at that point), all too often, in vain, as we made our case to the administration and faculty curriculum committees–that history, or literature (teaching women writers was thought to be “radical,”) or science, seen from the perspective of women’s experience, would transform knowledge. Nothing less! By the 90s, it was possible to speak of feminist theories and methodologies that had produced new bodies of scholarship and shifted paradigms (or so we thought at the time).
But in American feminist academic circles, there has been a clear drift away from women—and even gender—as a locus of intellectual curiosity and endeavor. A web page for a Women’s Studies program I came upon not long ago demonstrated the trend. Facing the home page identifying the program was a striking graphic: at the top of a column of words in different colors, shapes, and sizes piled on top of each other like children’s building blocks or a crazy quilt, the word RACE stood out in black, block capital letters against a white background. Beneath it, barely legible in white script against a pink background, I could barely make out the letters of the word gender. Other terms in this visual puzzle were: act-ivism, nation, trans, critique, think, differ (ence is missing). Nowhere did the word “women” or feminism appear.
Now you might argue that Women’s Studies as the program title makes the signifier “women” on the web page superfluous. I don’t think so. I think the tower of words with RACE at the top is precisely the signal this program wishes to give. RACE gets top billing above the totem pole of multiple inflections. The program advertises its focus for the academic year’s calendar of lectures and conferences: “Beyond Biopolitics Project.” What does this mean? The project entails “rethinking ‘race,’ technologies of biopolitical control and political economies of affect. [It also] explores the continuities and discontinuities between colonialism and neocolonialism, slavery and affective labor, settlement and diaspora, subject identities and bodies, and macro and molecular organizations of populations.” Call me a literalist, but I cannot see how this language expresses the mandate of a Women’s Studies Program. What, indeed, does it say? A university eager to save money on faculty and consolidate departments might wonder why they were subsidizing a program supposedly focused on women (and gender, and sexuality, typically thought of as synonyms by administrators) when you’d have to look hard to find the women. Cherchez la femme? Hiding in the pale pink rectangle of gender? Possibly you’d discover the women concealed within “subject identities and bodies”—but there are no signs pointing to their location. Are the women dead, or have they merely left town?
Women’s Studies without women?
About a decade ago, the concept of “intersectionality” was developed by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a professor of law. Intersectionality, as she defined it, was meant to
”denote the various ways in which race and gender interact to shape the multiple dimensions of Black women’s employment experiences” (“Intersectionality and Identity Politics: Learning from Violence Against Women of Color,” 179). The implications of this concept for feminist scholarship encouraged interdisciplinary work that would emphasize the points of convergence between gender and race, or class, or geography—or whatever variable seemed salient to the research at hand. To connect what could not be “subsumed within the traditional boundaries of race or gender discrimination” (179). In Crenshaw’s optic, gender was crucial to her understanding of race—and vice versa. To eliminate the specificity of “the experiences of women of color” would run entirely counter to the project. Without gender, or whatever aspect of women’s lives or creativity or experience was at stake, the lines of intersection would have no intrinsic point of contact, value, or meaning, even heuristic. When Joan Scott famously coined the expression, “gender: a useful category of analysis,” it was a category through which to apprehend human experience, not a vanishing point, even if as a post-structuralist, she would have been—and was—among the first to urge a destabilization of the category itself, the better to understand its construction.
My friend, the late Carolyn Heilbrun, used to say sadly that the reason feminism never quite succeeded, the reason that the feminist movement was always starting over, was that women gave up on women. Even without the attacks on feminism from conservative politicians and the media, media determined from the start to declare that feminism was dead, wave after wave of women and feminists have thrown in the towel on women, seduced by what seemed more important causes—like peace, or ecology—or made restless by the requirement to think hard about women’s lives. Sometimes, women, as in the case of Gertrude Stein, never supported the “cause of women” to begin with. “Not, as Gertrude Stein explained to Marion Walker, that she at all minds the cause of women or any other cause but it does not happen to be her business” (The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, 83). Shortly after Beauvoir’s essay on women was translated in the United States, Elizabeth Hardwick reviewed The Second Sex with discomfort, “Are women the ‘equal’ of men?” she wondered. “This is an embarrassing subject” (175). Or as Tania Modleski argued in her “Postmortem on Postfeminism,” worrying about the attraction to poststructuralist theories on the part of many feminists, “It is not altogether clear to me why women, much more so than any other oppressed groups of people, have been so willing to yield the ground on which to make a stand against their oppression” (Feminism without Women, 15).
I don’t mean by this that all feminists have given up on women. Or that feminists should not pursue the intersections between women and race and globalization and geography, or peace or ecology, and whatever else seems relevant to the particular object of study. On the contrary. Some extraordinary work has emerged from the tension produced by insisting on the intimate links between those diverse perspectives. I do mean, however, that by an overemphasis on the other useful categories of analysis, gender itself runs the risk of falling away, and with it, women themselves. It has perplexed me over the years to hear feminist scholars accuse other feminist critics of “privileging gender,” as though it were a crime, when “privileging” gender was a hard-won accomplishment, at a time when women were, as the phrase went, invisible. But making women invisible again does not strike me as a project with much of a future. People used to joke that Cultural Studies was feminism without women for men, and Queer Theory feminism for gay men. Is the joke now on us? Women’s Studies without women?
But who are we? Since “we” has long been a taboo pronoun in American feminism, requiring at the very least scare quotes to remind ourselves that identity is more than a convenient (or inconvenient) fiction, I’ll just speak for myself. The future of Women’s Studies without Women will not be a future that includes me.
I was going to exit there until a younger feminist friend of mine urged me not to end in a tantrum—or nostalgia, which amounts to the same thing. Why can’t things stay the same is the wrong question, she said. What would I like to see that might include me, she wanted to know. A vision for the future, it turns out, is a lot harder to come up with than a lament.
What’s the object of study, another younger feminist friend asked? Since I’m a literary critic and not a political theorist, I searched for a text friendly metaphor. I thought of the experience that Virginia Woolf describes in A Room of One’s Own when she embarks on reading Life’s Adventure, a first novel by an unknown woman writer, a literary experiment that confuses her expectations: “I feel as one feels on a switchback railway when the car, instead of sinking, as one has been led to expect, swerves up again” (85). A Women’s Studies program I might wish to belong to would be something like reading Woolf’s imaginary novel: I don’t expect a smooth ride, but I need to recognize the point of departure.
By all this I mean, quite simply, I wish for a world in which women’s stories, like women’s studies, will still have women in them, no matter what they do for a thrill.
Nancy K. Miller is Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature, The Graduate Center, CUNY. Her most recent book is But Enough About Me: Why We Read Other People’s Lives. She is currently co-editor of WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Intersectionality and Identity Politics: Learning from Violence Against Women of Color.” Feminist Theory: A Reader (second edition), ed. Wendy Kolmar and Frances Bartkowski. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005.
Hardwick, Elizabeth. “The Subjection of Women.” A View of My Own: Essays in Literature and Society. New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1962.
Modleski, Tania. Feminism without Women. Culture and Criticism in a ‘Postfeminist’ Age. New York and London: Routledge, 1991.
Scott, Joan W. Gender and the Politics of History. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999 (revised edition).
Stein, Gertrude. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. 1933. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.
Yee, Shirley J. “The ‘Women’ in Women’s Studies.” Differences 9, 3 (Fall 1997), 46-64.
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. 1928. New York: HBJ, 1957.