The Struggle for Feminist Purity Threatens the Goals of Feminism

by Daphne Patai

The following essay was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, February 5, 1992, on p. B1. It was later made available to WMST-L by the author, Daphne Patai. The WMST-L File List also includes a 1998 essay by Patai, Why Not a Feminist Overhaul of Higher Education?, as well as a WMST-L discussion of Patai and Koertge's 1994 book, Professing Feminism: Cautionary Tales from the Strange World of Women's Studies.

A number of years ago I got the idea of putting together a volume with the title "Ideological Policing in Contemporary Feminism." The episodes leading to this intention are by now a bit vague in my mind, but they included stories told to me by feminist colleagues, for example about being criticized by other feminists for wearing make-up, for being heterosexual, for wanting a door put on an office and thus gaining some unsisterly privacy from the feminist staff members in the adjoining office.

In my own courses in women's studies, I have seen similar examples of intolerance among my students--eyes rolled to ceiling in exaggerated disapproval of a classmate's reference to her "boyfriend"; heated criticisms by young women in sturdy boots and pants of the "conventional" apparel of other women in the class; an urgent need to ferret out examples of latent unfeminist tendencies; a certain aggressiveness in displaying one's ideological credentials. Of course, there was surely just as much intolerance elsewhere in the university--antagonism, say, to lesbian students--but at least in my own women's studies courses, I did not see that kind of hostility emerge. It was obvious that women's studies classrooms provided a safe arena in which interesting reversals of prevailing reality could take place. It didn't surprise me that, among young students at least, this might lead to excessive zeal.

All this, of course, was before the burning intellectual question of the day revolved around "political correctness."

I never wrote that book--and a major reason I didn't was that I couldn't decide how to write a critique of feminism that would not in some way hurt feminism and that would not automatically place me in the enemy camp. Despite opponents' assertions, feminist concerns had not had such resounding success in the world that I wanted to hazard a public critique. And the ease with which the charges of PC have been catching on shows that I was right to be wary of writing something that could be taken to support such charges.

But everything one tolerates that one shouldn't inevitably returns.

So, today, I am once again exercised over ideological policing within feminism. I am still worried about the best way to write about this subject without making my views useful to the opposition--the very real opposition that exists to feminism and to women's studies programs. Indeed, the difficulty in making up my mind about this dilemma is part of what motivates this essay. But its context is provided by the following concatenation of events:

On October 30, 1991, I published a commentary in these pages on "surplus visibility" and the stigma of minority status. In November, as responses to the article came in, I discovered that my argument apparently had led some people to assume that I must be black. Thus, I received a letter requesting that I contribute a brief life story to a book on blacks who had "made it" in academe. At the same time, in my own Women's Studies Program at the University of Massachusetts, I found myself called a racist because, as acting director, I had been unable to come up with extra money for an elective course on indigenous women proposed by two Native American graduate students. Simultaneously, I had used the last bit of money in our budget to finance a required course on the intellectual foundations of feminism, to be taught by a teaching assistant who happened to be white.

The same error was being made in both cases: identity politics--the assumption that a person's racial or ethnic identity and views are one and the same. If people found what I said sympathetic or useful to blacks, I must be black. If minority women were frustrated or disappointed by an administrative decision, I, in my white skin, must be racist.

The consequences of these two cases of mistaken identity were, however, vastly different. In the first case, I merely wrote to explain that I was white and hence not an appropriate candidate for a book on black academics. In the latter case, I tried to explain that "racism" had nothing to do with the events in question. This simple denial brought a storm down upon my head. I was told by a young black colleague that when a woman of color says she has experienced racism, she is the authority on that experience and cannot be challenged. More protests on my part--that this made any kind of discussion impossible--only made the situation worse, as memos and charges came from every direction. Every direction but one: not one of my colleagues who clearly believed that the charges were absurd (and told me so privately) was willing to say so publicly.

I began to realize that we were confronting a new dogma sanctifying a reversal of privilege: instead of the old privileges accompanying the status of "white," truth, righteousness, and automatic justification in the world of women's studies now reside with "women of color." As if in compensation for past oppression, no one now can challenge or gainsay their version of reality. What can be said for such a turnabout, of course, is that it spreads racial misery around, and this may serve some larger plan of justice, sub specie aeternitatis.

But this is hardly adequate for those who believe earthly justice must be pursued case by case, and cannot be won by means that are themselves unjust. In this instance, however, the facts of the case were of no importance: only identity counted. This, let me emphasize, was no misinterpretation on my part, for some memos actually did state that it was absurd for a white, tenured professor to claim she was being unjustly accused. By virtue of having a certain identity (white) and occupying a certain position (tenured), an individual would necessarily be guilty of whatever accusations a woman of color (or an untenured individual) might make against her.

Among my other offenses was an expression of concern at the way some of our students were using the term "Eurocentric" as a new slur: by dismissing an entire culture as "racist," they relieved themselves of the burden of learning anything about it. An administrator at my university told me of a student activist who heatedly said: "Do you know who's teaching Spanish in the Spanish Department? Spaniards!" Nor do I take this merely as a joke; I have often wondered how soon it will be before someone suggests that my "identity" (North American) should cause me to cease teaching classes in one of my areas of research, Brazilian women.

The situation that I describe is, alas, hardly unique. What adds to my distress is that it is not usually discussed. For another dogma of women's studies seems to be that our problems must not be aired. There are some good reasons for this reluctance, of course, given the eagerness with which opponents of women's studies might seize on any disagreements. But the consequences are nonetheless dreadful: a kind of siege mentality, in which demands for loyalty thrive and very little fresh air gets in. What does flourish in this confined atmosphere is a flaunting of correct postures, which everyone rushes to embrace, perhaps in an effort to compensate for sexual, racial, or other identities that have been called into question.

Thus, students in my course on utopian fiction by women wrote papers this past semester displaying attitudes that they apparently had learned were the appropriate ones in their women's studies classes. A young white woman too shy to speak in class wrote repeatedly of having to come to terms with her status as a "white oppressor." A young man wrote that a novel we had read taught him that his relationship with Mother Earth was one of rape and pillage; he now saw his rock collection in a new light. I wondered whether he had intended this as parody--which would have been a more original response.

An extremely articulate student wrote eloquently (and without any apparent irony) about how, as a woman, she was silenced and lacked a language. And a white student who criticized a black writer's metaphorical use of the word "slavery" to describe a casual labor exchange was coldly told by another white student that it was not appropriate for a white person to criticize a black writer's metaphors. It is true, of course, that white society has historically oppressed black people, men have damaged the environment, and women indeed have been silenced, but these facts do not mean that everyone today inherits a simple identity or is personally guilty of everything her or his predecessors did.

Identity politics is a dead end. We are neither right nor wrong because of "who we are," but only, as the feminist scholar Jenny Bourne wrote in an essay several years ago, because of what we do.

But why should identity politics not serve as another weapon for faculty members in a scarce job market and poor economy? Why not use this, too, in the scramble for the goodies of our profession--jobs, tenure, legitimacy? What is distressing is that this tactic is no feminist departure from the bad old ways of "white patriarchal hegemony," but a replication of those ways, pure and simple. Old forms, new contents. What feminism adds to it, however, is its own tone of moral superiority. Part of what makes conflicts within feminist groups so unpleasant is surely the sense of fraud that accompanies familiar old ambitions dressed up in appropriate ideology.

Feminism has played a major role in questioning canonical knowledge and standards. Should we be surprised, then, when, on a women's studies search committee, one group's view that a particular candidate is poorly qualified is met by attacks on the very concepts of "qualifications," "standards," and "knowledge"? Feminism itself has provided the weapons to unleash this sort of self-destructive attack, which can be pursued ad infinitum. While particular criteria have been used in academe in the past to exclude certain groups, you cannot have a university without making judgments about people's expertise. The intellectual and political questions posed by feminism were developed to challenge unfair stereotyping and exclusion of women, not to exempt them from evaluation.

Perhaps "identity" must fill all the gaps left if such attacks prevail, however. For, as I have written previously, feminists today often engage in rhetorical maneuvers that are rapidly acquiring the status of incantations: "As a white working-class heterosexual" or "As a black feminist activist." Such tropes, which do nothing to change the world, carry their own aura of self-righteousness, whether offered as an apology or (as is more often the case) deployed as a badge. In their worst form, they lead to a veritable oppression sweepstakes. And it is not uncommon, in women's studies programs, to hear someone's claim to identity in one category negated by a slur in another-- as when a colleague commented to me disparagingly that a student in our program, although she was Latin American, was "upper class."

Where will it end? My fear is that the search--and demand --for feminist purity (of both attitudes and identity) will eventually result in a massive rejection of the very important things that feminism, broadly speaking, aims to achieve. Today, feminists who have the temerity to criticize negative tendencies within feminism risk being automatically placed in the enemy camp, thus seeming to swell the ranks of opponents of progressive scholarship, a conservative group that may actually represent only a small number of people. Marginalizing friendly critics will not advance the credibility of women's studies or other revisionist scholarship.

Unfortunately, the situation I've described is not the first time that rigid factionalism has splintered leftist politics. The entire history of the left is replete with purges and divisions. What is more banal than that the powerless should turn against one another? Whom else can they effectively trounce?

Feminism is hurting itself with identity politics. Those of us who are feminists but who do not accept this simplistic stereotyping and ideological policing must speak up--in defense of feminism.

Daphne Patai (daphne.patai @ spanport.umass.edu) is a professor of Brazilian literature at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She is co-editor of Women's Words: The Feminist Practice of Oral History (Routledge, 1991) and co-author of Professing Feminism: Cautionary Tales from the Strange World of Women's Studies (Basic Books, 1994).

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