What is 'Feminist Theory'?
The following discussion about the nature of "feminist theory" took place
on WMST-L in October 1997. For additional WMST-L files on the Web, see the
WMST-L File Collection.
Date: Tue, 07 Oct 1997 08:48:57 -0500
From: Ruth P Ginzberg <ginzberg @ BELOIT.EDU>
Subject: Vocabulary Words
I've been thinking about the recent exchange re. 'Women In Development' and
it occurred to me that we have a similar problem with the notion of
'Feminist Theory', which is a term that is also tossed around quite a bit.
In fact, the recent exchange re. 'Women in Development' really helped to
illuminate (for me) some very perplexing things that happened in my
professional life (and classroom) in the past year-and-a-half.
I changed jobs in the summer of '96. I've been "in" Women's Studies for at
least 15 years now, as an Academic, and for a good 10 years before that as a
non-academic activist, so none of this should be brand new to me ... but I
guess I must be a slow learner or something. I (trained as a philosopher)
was hired in my present position, among other things, to teach 'Feminist
Theory'. I thought I could do that.
Last Spring I did indeed teach a course in 'Feminist Theory' which was a
course for upper level majors and minors in our Women's Studies Program, to
which many students had been looking forward for a number of years.
Unfortunately, it was a total disaster. It was really a horrible experience
for all of us (students and me alike) and many students expressed their
vivid disappointment and frustration over it. (I was equally disappointed
and frustrated -- and we had a mid-semester heart-to-heart chat about that,
but it only barely prevented a major revolt on the part of the students, and
didn't really solve anything.) What went wrong?
I think part of the problem is the cross-disciplinary understandings and
misunderstandings that occurred over the notion of 'Feminist Theory'.
What was interesting was that 2 members of the search committee that hired
me (students serve on search committees here) took the class, and both were
appalled. I was puzzled; SURELY they (more than any of the other students)
knew "who they had hired" and thought I was qualified for the position, yet
they were among the most vividly disappointed and angry about what I think
they saw as my total incompetence in 'Feminist Theory'. One wrote that the
class had been the most disappointing of all her experiences in college, and
many students were angry and bitter. A number of students wrote on their
teaching evaluations that they were certain that my hire was the worst
mistake the Women's Studies Program had ever made, and that they were
worried about its future. (Yes, of course this hurt.)
I *THINK* that (among other possible explanations, for which I am not
totally guiltless) PART of the problem was in terminology and
cross-disciplinary mis-communication. The students were eagerly
anticipating a course in Feminist LITERARY Theory (I *think* -- at least
that is what I gleaned when I asked them mid-semester what they thought we
SHOULD be reading, instead of the "boring, useless, outdated and irrelevant"
readings were doing ... at least given the authors and titles they
suggested, that is what I surmised). I had said on the first day of class
that it was NOT going to be a course in "postmodern literary criticism"
because I am not qualified to teach that, and indeed there are others here
on campus who are MUCH more qualified and knowledgeable to teach such a
course than I. They all nodded.
But in the middle of the term, one of the things that came to light was that
they did not know what "postmodern literary criticism" WAS ... but it turned
out that what I had been calling "postmodern literary criticism" (don't even
know if that is the right terminology) was EXACTLY what they had been
expecting in the course, and they thought that WAS what 'Feminist Theory'
was all about. So of COURSE they were angry and frustrated that we were not
doing that in the class.
In thinking more about what 'Feminist Theory' might actually BE, it occurred
to me that there really is NO agreement WHATSOEVER across disciplines, and
across various perspectives on feminsm (liberal, radical, marxist, etc.)
within those disciplines, what 'Feminist Theory' IS. There are even quite a
few written works, many from women of color, criticising the notion of
'Feminist Theory' at ALL, or pointing to it as a source of continuing racism
and elitism within white middle-class academic feminism. (We did read a
number of those in class.)
I don't know what to make of all this .. except that I saw shades of the
same problems in the recent exchange over 'Women In Development'. I guess
at very least what it means is that I need to take "Feminist Theory" OFF my
c.v. as an alleged area of teaching competence. How can I possibly claim
competence or expertise in something that I cannot even define?
I also think that it means that as Women's Studies matures as a discipline
in its own right, we need to pay some careful attention to some of these
"internal" difficulties that we are having with Words ... before some of the
folks who'd just as soon kill Women's Studies Programs altogether start
using our students' expressed frustration and outrage (when things like this
happen) as "proof positive" that Women's Studies is a useless and
disorganized and only "pseudo"-academic field ... with particular attention
to majors and minors in our programs filing charges of "incompetence" and
disorganization and stuff which they may well describe as "WS faculty not
knowing our a**es from holes in the ground."
Indeed, in part as a result of this experience, and just from being weary of
having these sorts of difficulties be a permanant part of my life, I have
resigned from my current position as of the end of this term, and will be
leaving Academia, probably permantly.
I truly hope that those who remain manage to do a better job with the tangle
that we currently have...
ginzberg @ beloit.edu
Date: Tue, 07 Oct 1997 10:48:47 -0400 (EDT)
From: Rosa Maria Pegueros <PEGUEROS @ URIACC.URI.EDU>
Subject: Vocabulary Words
Wow! Ruth, I am so sorry that this sort of thing has forced you to take such
While I teach Latin American history and have taught one course in women's
studies (since I have a law degree, I chose to teach women and the law),
the theory stuff has dissuaded me from attempting to teach a feminist theory
course. I understand the postmodern/deconstruction stuff somewhat but it is
is still new to Latin American historians and I am not convinced that it is
worth it to learn it well. I don't say this to start a firestorm--I believe
that it is fine for literary studies and has its own value: I am not attacking
its intrinsic value but I don't really see the value for my own discipline.
Furthermore, when I was teaching women and the law, I found it was very
slow going because it employs its own vocabulary which was unfamiliar to
my students. At least, however, there was a law dictionary (which I required
them to purchase) to help them make sense of things. With the vocabulary
of postmodernism, one can look up the words and then try to figure out what
definition the writer has conjured up from the penumbra of the standard
definition. Unless one is formally trained in it, learning it is very
difficult because it can only be learned by reading particularly works of
It is true that every discipline has its own baggage, but I find this
area to be particularly difficult to understand.
As for the problem of literary theory sliding into feminist theory,
I think it can be a real problem for women's studies. Instead of continuing
a tradition of being interdisciplinary, it is being homogenized by one
accepted theoretical mode of expression. It bothers me greatly that
we are coming to be expected to understand postmodernism/deconstructionism
even if it is not part of our own disciplines. I don't think I am saying this
well: What I'm trying to say is that is becoming the "default setting"
of feminist studies and I don't like it one bit.
I wouldn't expect my colleagues in other fields to understand my historical or
legal theories; I can't understand why this is becoming the currency of
Again, I repeat, I am NOT TRASHING postmodernism or deconstructionism. I AM
QUESTIONING its encroaching hegemony over all of women's studies.
Rosa Maria Pegueros pegueros @ uriacc.uri.edu
University of Rhode Island
Department of History phone: (401) 874-4092
80 Upper College Road, Suite 3 fax: (401) 874-2595
Kingston, RI 02881
"Qui me amat, amat et canem meum."
Date: Tue, 07 Oct 1997 11:55:48 -0400
From: DAPHNE PATAI <daphne.patai @ SPANPORT.UMASS.EDU>
Subject: feminist theory
I was quite surprised at Ruth's description of her experience teaching
"feminist theory"--in which it turned out her students wanted to study
feminist *literary* theory, postmodernism, etc. I cannot imagine how
feminist literary theory can be anything other than a subset of some broader
feminist theory (in fact, a standard criticism is that it's too much
feminism and too little literary theory).
When I used to teach feminist theory-- which I haven't done in some
years and don't expect to ever do again -- I used Allison
Jaggar's book as a basic text, and supplemented it with lots of other
articles and a handful of other books. I often also included articles
about feminist approaches to
one or another discipline. But I always felt I was INsufficiently
qualified to teach feminist theory above all because I was NOT trained
as a philosopher. Ruth surely has precisely the qualifications to
teach "feminist theory" competently. I wonder if the situation she
describes is a local one; it certainly sounds like a peculiar one.
Daphne.Patai @ spanport.umass.edu
Date: Tue, 07 Oct 1997 13:25:03 -0400
From: jeannie ludlow <jludlow @ BGNET.BGSU.EDU>
Subject: feminist theory
I am terribly sorry that Ruth's experience with teaching feminist theory
was so terrible. I agree with Rosa that there has been a tendency to
"privilege" postmodern/poststructuralist theoretical perspectives in
feminist theory of late. I would note, however, that this same tendency
is evident in other fields as well--perhaps not to the same degree, but
still evident. I am thinking of anthropology, popular culture studies,
sociology, even environmental studies, among others. I think this "po'mo"
approach may just be the current theoretical strength. (This is not to
say that it is a "fad"--I do understand and teach poststructuralist
studies; I also understand that these approaches should not subsume
others, in any field.)
I think, Ruth, that the problem of students' expecting something different
than what the course offered is _not_ unusual, especially in interdisc.
fields. It sounds to me like you were, in some senses, "set up" for
disappointment--not by any person or group of people, but by the
exceptionally high expectations that seem to result from anticipation. In
other words, the course was eagerly and long-awaited. In that time and
eagerness, students had opportunity to wonder about what they might learn
in a feminist theory course, and to build up unreasonably high
expectations about the course. There was no way you could win, first time
out. This is _not_ to say that your experience was not horribly hurtful.
It is to say that the forces behind that hurt may have much less to do
with you and your "competencies" to teach feminist theory than with your
(or any of our) inability to be all things to all people. I think this
kind of situation not only provides "fodder" for anti-Women's Studies
forces; I believe very strongly that it is the result of those forces. If
the program/dept. had been able to teach _some_ aspects of the theoretical
approaches your students were expecting (and you note that there are
people on campus who could do so), then your students would have,
possibly, been very happy with the kind of approach you took (which,
although you didn't describe it at length, sounds fine in your post).
Last spring, I taught a grad seminar in Feminist Theory. I covered _lots_
of ground, including historical works, radical theory, etc. In fact, the
outline of that course looked something like the paragraph in Ruth's
original post in which she discusses what feminist theory _is_, and how it
changes from perspective to perspective. So we covered the po'mo stuff,
and body politics, and feminist philosophy, and political feminism, and
even feminism and science. And, because I am an anti-racism scholar, we
wove anti-racist feminist theories throughout all the various approaches.
The two big complaints: too much reading (I always get this one); and too
much theory. One student in particular kept saying: "this is not
feminism. Feminism is for the 'common woman' and theory has no part in
it. If we want to learn real feminist theory, we need to read about
consciousness raising groups." So teaching what "feminist theory" is/can
be/are/should be turned out to be a good approach to take.
Ruth, did you get support from others in the program? was anyone working
on "your side?" Did it occur to anyone to ask whether the students'
"expectations" had been constructed by other courses in Women's Studies
that they had taken? (maybe in another WS class, someone had done a little
"intro" section to "theory" and only taught one kind . . .) Are you going
to be OK? Is anyone trying to talk you out of leaving? Do you want
Maybe, if you don't even want to be asked to teach Feminist Theory again,
but you would like to cover what you are trained in and interested in, you
could market yourself in some other way? I am sorry this happened.
. . . Thus wrote ) Jeannie Ludlow ( "Lord, you know me,
a woman, partly brave / ) jludlow @ bgnet.bgsu.edu ( I'm liable to say
and partly good, ) Women's Studies ( anything; so if
who fought with what / ) Popular Culture ( I've offended
she partly understood ) Bowling Green SU ( anybody, well
hence she was labelled / ) Bowling Green OH 43403 ( . . . tough."
harpy, shrew and whore ) ( --Dolly Parton
--Adrienne Rich ) (
Date: Tue, 07 Oct 1997 14:23:50 -0500 (EST)
From: "Gina Oboler, Anthropology & Sociology, Ursinus College"
I am sad to learn of Ruth's difficulties and decision to leave Academia. I
agree with her that we have grounds here for a highly fruitful discussion.
When I saw the Antioch ad the thought of sending in an application crossed
my mind, because Antioch is my adored alma mater. Well, there are a host of
good reasons why I can't really do that. However, the job sounded like they
had devised it for me. Then, like Ruth, I started wondering just what was
meant by "Feminist Theory" in that job description, and whether what I would
teach under that heading (and that I do feel "qualified" to teach) is what
the institution wants. So I would love to see people respond to the
question of just what should be covered in a course on "Feminist Theory."
As to "Women in Development" -- true, "development" can mean many different
things, but the phrase "Women in Development" in academic discourse has, I
think, a single, dominant referent. And I too find it disappointing that
not everyone knows what it is and sees it as central to Women's Studies.
Date: Tue, 07 Oct 1997 14:01:59 -0500
From: susan heald <heald @ CC.UMANITOBA.CA>
Subject: feminist theory
I can't imagine that any course could cover the whole range of feminist
theory, though I have the privilege and luxury of teaching a 26-week
course, every year (it's a requirement for our majors). Students
generally respond well, though the class numbers are very low, suggesting
some, at least, are voting with their feet. Still, I feel that there has
to be a place where students really want to read and think theoretically
can do so. And we do read a lot: I use Tong's Feminist Thought, Weedon's
Feminist Practice and Poststructuralist Theory, Third World Women and the
Politics of Feminism, Unsettling Relations, Spelman's Inessential Woman,
and a LARGE book of readings I've selected. From amongst the many
possible approaches, I've chosen to organize the course according to
issues that feminists are theorizing about, including representation,
reproduction, essentialism, race, sexuality, etc., etc. I suppose many
people would find my course particularly low on literary theory, though
there is some, and no one has complained of this. But what I find
essential is that we spend a considerable about of time talking about
just what theory IS, what feminists are and should be theorizing ABOUT,
and how and when students might understand themselves as DOING THEORY.
To me, that's what's important: not whether they can cite theorists, or
label different kinds of theory as belonging to one category or another,
but that they can see THEORIZING as an active and engaging process with a
strong relationship to what any of us might do, as feminists, in the
world. When the inevitable debate comes up about why we're sitting in
here reading instead of being out there as activists, there are usually
students who respond both that they ARE also "out there" and that doing
theory is also activism--one group called it "interior activism"--in the
sense of actively changing their understandings of the meaning of various
I'm not, of course, suggesting that Ruth or others who have expressed
disappointment with their Theory courses DON'T do all these things, and
possibly more, and possibly better. I do think, though, in response to
Rosa's post, that for some of us our "discipline" IS women's studies, and
as such we should be expected to have a familiarity with a very broad
range of possible approaches. Such approaches are not necessarily locked
into a particular OTHER discipline, and the kind of interdisciplinarity
required means there are other things we can't do. But if we are
offering students a degree in Women's Studies, I do believe we need to
offer them an education in Women's Studies QUA Women's Studies, and not
Women's Studies as seen from the perspective of traditional disciplines.
Just some thoughts,
University of Manitoba
Winnipeg, MB, Canada
Date: Tue, 07 Oct 1997 14:13:35 -0500
From: Diane Crowder <CROWDER @ CORNELL-IOWA.EDU>
Subject: Feminist Theory
I am really saddened, Ruth, to hear about your experience in teaching
feminist theory. I hope you will re-think your notion of getting out
of the profession, since I have always found your thoughts/reflections
on teaching and research to be among the most sensible and helpful on
I teach a sophonmore introduction to feminist theories, and a senior
seminar in which we try to look at very current issues being debated
by feminist thinkers. I have chosen to make the lower-level course
cover basic history of feminist ideas in the U.S. (because our intro
course has no time to cover that and students are ignorant of basic
U.S. history from a feminist perspective), and then look at the basic
types of feminist theories, using Tong, and Jaggar/Rothenberg's
Feminist Frameworks. Th goal of this course is to give students a
basic sense that different feminist theories involve very different
assumptions, which in turn lead to different goals and strategies.
This course invariably leads to frustration/confusion because students
tend to see feminism as a monolith, and because the come to realize
that different perspectives lead to very different concrete choices.
We are careful to draw out the strengths and weaknesses of each
approach. By the end of the course, students tell me they fell better
able to tease out the hidden assumptions behind an article or
arguement, and better able to ask themselves what the possible
outcomes of a given theory might be. I supplement the texts fairly
heavily, and end with a short unit on postmodernism in feminist
I guess I have always assumed that a course in feminist theory would
not be tied to a specific discipline, since feminist theories did not
generally emerge from a specific one. For instance, people who
explain women's subordination in terms derived from Freudian/Lacanian
psychoanalysis range from literary critics like Julia Kristeva to
social scientists! Postmodernism and theories derived from it are
associated with everything from architecture to anthropology.
Clearly, if your students were expectiing a course in postmodernist
literary theory, they had a seriously limiting notion of feminist
theory (and theory in general).
Anyway, as one who knows well the frustrations and difficulties of
teaching WST at a small liberal arts college, I wanted to say I
sympathize with your hurt and dissappointment, and I wanted to offer
Diane Griffin Crowder
crowder @ cornell-iowa.edu
Cornell College, Mount Vernon, IA 52314 USA
Date: Tue, 07 Oct 1997 13:26:54 -0400
From: "Leah C. Ulansey" <leou @ JHUNIX.HCF.JHU.EDU>
Subject: Vocabulary Words
I've been wanting to ask a related question: how, in practice, do people
define the difference between a "feminist theory" course and an "intro. to
In my case, the boundary is pretty flexible. My school has a WS
minor but no WS department. So feminist theory is often, in effect, an
introductory course, without prerequisites. For many students at my school
(is this unusual?), feminist theory ends up being a first exposure to
feminism and sometimes the only feminist course their schedules and other
requirements will permit.
I remember a discussion a while back about the politics of naming WS
departments (Women's Studies; Women's and Gender Studies, etc.). Perhaps
the term "feminist theory" is somewhat evasive, in that it avoids
raising the issue of advocacy in the classroom. In other words, it
suggests that the instructor is teaching "about feminism" rather than
"teaching feminism(s)" (ie., exploring the soundness of various feminist
frameworks from the engaged standpoint of those whose lives could be
changed by them.)
Would a course entitled "Feminist Theories" have different connotations?
I think it would. To me, "feminist theory" puts the accent on a specific
skill--theory--being taught, while "feminist theories" puts the accent on
the purpose of the theories.
leou @ jhunix.hcf.jhu.edu
Date: Tue, 07 Oct 1997 18:13:30 -0500
From: Ruth Ginzberg <ginzberg @ BELOIT.EDU>
Subject: feminist theory
>While I know that "Me, too" messages are anathema on this list (and
>others), I think it is very important for Ruth to hear how many people
>find her voice and thinking essential additions to the conversations on
>this list -- and I count myself among them.
>Say it ain't so, Ruth!
Please, please, DON'T clog the list with "me too" messages, I BEG you!
I've been trying for the last 2 hours to compose a message to post (deleting
and rewriting much) ... but I *really* want to say that I have already
resigned (mid year, December 31), do not have another academic position
to go to, do not WANT another one, (am NOT "fishing for offers") and am
not looking for one at this time. I need more than a "break" or a
"change." I need *OUT*. This is about ME, and MY sanity, not about
becoming "upset" over a single "bad class."
I am totally overwhelmed by all the e-mail I've received from folks,
most of it sent privately, and I DO want to respond to each of you
individually, though it may take time.
But this is NOT a "snap" decision, or one made in dispair "over a bad set
of teaching evaluations." Trust me, I've been around FAR too long to do
that. I regret having given that impression.
At any rate, I will post more later, when I can collect my thoughts
better to say what I want to say, because there *are* some
professional issues here that I *do* think need some collective
attention from all those still "in" academic Women's Studies.
But for now, PLEASE, I *BEG* you -- do NOT waste this opportunity
to start discussing some substantive ISSUES in Women's Studies that
are actually vastly under-theorized and under-discussed, under-
addressed, and that may well form some major cracks in the very
foundations of academic women's studies as it is practiced now
in U.S. colleges and universities.
The issue of "What, exactly, 'IS' 'Feminist Theory'?" is, in
my view, just the tip of an enormous iceberg; there are many
others. HAVE those conversations! But don't AVOID them by
instead focusing on MY personal career choices. Use my story as
an example if it helps, but if not, then ignore it, but FOCUS
ON THE ISSUES, the largest and most important of which is NOT my
career decision. Honest.
************* Ruth Ginzberg <ginzberg @ beloit.edu> ***************
Date: Tue, 07 Oct 1997 17:37:04 -0700
From: Nikki Senecal <senecal @ SCF.USC.EDU>
Subject: Interdisciplinary work was Re: Vocabulary Words
The following message was composed early this morning, and I wanted a day
of thinking before I posted it. I have read the responses thus far (10/7
5:00 Pacific) In the end, I am sending it as is because I think it raises
some of the "iceberg issues" Ruth alluded to. As background, I have been a
student in Feminist Literary Theory, Feminist Theory (from a Polisci
professor), and Feminst Theory and the Law (team taught: law and philosophy
One of the things that struck me while reading Ruth's post, in fact,
strikes me (and I *mean* the violent image here) quite often when I read
the Women's Studies List is our inability to really deal with
interdisciplinary work. Other departments don't do it like us, so they're
bad (and English is the WORST). Not "just different" but BAD. Sometimes I
am left reeling by the attacks on my field, which I take quite personally.
Our shared fields, both Feminist Theory and Women's Studies (if you want to
make that distinction), are inherently interdisciplinary. But universities
do not reward interdisciplinarity (even USC which thinks
interdisciplinarity is a form of "excellence" doesn't reward it. For
example, our law professor had to fight tooth and nail to get the non-law
students grades that meant something in their fields (A's rather than
number grades that don't correspond)). Tenure seekers everywhere have
difficulty getting "credit" for interdisciplinary work.
In the end, it is in our best interest not to be interdisciplinary. As we
erase lines between programs by having interdisciplinary classes, we give
the powers that be reason to eliminate our departments, the thinking seems
to go. We all know our approaches are distinctive--and our departments are
necessary, and every line we have is of use and we need more! (Note: I am
not willing to buy all of these distinctions.) But it's like we are
siblings bickering over who will get the most attention from dad.
We should spend more time critiquing the institution that has "allowed"
women's studies but on its ("Their") terms, rather than allow ourselves to
be led into fights in which we don't really want to participate (or so we
And let me just say, I'm disappointed in Ruth's literature students; I have
always found that I can learn from her posts, so I assume she'd be able to
teach me a thing or two in the classroom. But I am also disappointed that
Ruth thinks leaving academia is her only alternative. (Which may be a
reflection on me, as I stand on the abyss ready to dive into a miserable
market thinking "is this all there is?")
Department of English
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, CA 90089-0354
Internet: senecal @ scf-fs.usc.edu
Date: Wed, 08 Oct 1997 08:52:40 -0400
From: "Ellen M. Gil-Gomez" <gilgoe @ SAGE.EDU>
Subject: feminist theory
Hello, I've been listening to, with great interest, the discussion on
feminist theory Ihope we can continue to talk about it. My reason for
writing is that some people have mentioned texts by Tong and
Jaggar/Rothenberg. I'm hoping someone can send along the publication
info as these names don't strike anything in my memory. I'm at the
beginning of developing a class on feminist theory and as a literature
person I'm much more heavily focused in the postmodern stuff and the
literary criticism--I'm wanting to bring it into a much more
interdisciplinary focus and discuss what many of you have suggested--what
feminists theorize about...
Could someone send me the publishers so I can check out these texts?
Thanks much in advance. Two books I was considering including just to
keep the discussion going are-- Whelehan's _Modern Feminist Thought: from
the Second Wave to Post Feminism_ and _Front Line Feminism, 1975-1995_
ed. by Kahn. The second text is a collection of essays from
_Sojourner's_ and deals with a range of topics from theoretical to "real"
and issues like--women's health, economics, and sex.
Ellen M. Gil-Gomez
Assistant Professor of English
Russell Sage College
Troy, NY 12180
gilgoe @ sage.edu
Date: Wed, 08 Oct 1997 11:28:09 -0500 (EST)
From: STRETCH OR DROWN/ EVOLVE OR DIE <finkel @ KENYON.EDU>
Subject: theory thread
Well, I was going to keep out of the feminist theory discussion, but I find so
many of the concerns raised speak to issues that I deal with when I teach the
course, that I can't help but add my $.02.
I have taught Feminist Theory for many years (at least 10 or 11) and often when
I'm in the midst of it, like Ruth, I can't quite decide what it is. I should
say that my original training is in English literature but I haven't taught
that for many years and I don't primarily do literary theory when I teach
feminist theory (though I suppose I cannot help it that my perspectives will be
tainted by my training). The last time I taught it the focus was heavily on
sociological theory because I had several sociology majors in my class who had
a great deal of background in sociological theory. But it probably differs
everytime I teach it.
Recently I had a chance to articulate for myself what I thought theory was and
what it was for, when a student asked to interview me for a class assignment
which required them to compare the methodology of another field with the
methodologies of economics. This students chose to do women's studies. One fo
the questions she asked was, "In your discipline, what are the qualities of a
'good' theory? How important are explanatory power and predictive power?" My
answer to this question was twofold, though I told her I was probably answering
only for myself and wasn't sure I could speak for the field. For me a theory
requires 2 things to be persuasive. I guess you could call one explanatory
power, though I'm not sure I mean the same thing an economist would mean. For
me a theory has to explain or articulate something I could explain or
articulate before. It has to open my eyes, make me say "aha, this makes sense."
As heretical as it may be to say this, poststructuralist theory really did this
for me in the 80s in very real ways. As I was struggling, writing my
dissertation and trying to get some fledgling work out there, poststructuralist
theories helped me to formulate some ideas that I was struggling to give birth
to. I don't think I could have said some of those things any other way or
thought them through in any other way. When I read Derrida, Foucault, and
others, it was really like I was seeing things in a new way. The same is true
for much of the feminist theory I was also reading at the time.
[Paragraph so you can rest]
The other thing I think a *feminist* theory must do is to explain how social
change happens. This may be the most important thing and it is something I have
recently tried to put at the center of my feminist theory course. This insight
came to me when I read an essay by Ellen Messer-Davidow called "Know-How." It
was in a collection of essays she edited (sorry I don't have the reference at
hand). She argues that the whole point of feminism is to correct inequalities,
to change a social system that promotes inequality. If our theory courses
don't speak to *how* that happens, then they are worthless. The collaborative
and collective project that is feminist theory must not only show *that* change
has happened, it must theorize about how it has happened. Then can we
begin to understand how our activism can make a difference and perhaps plot a
politics that are likely to succeed. The central project of my course is that
students have to select a moment of historical change and show how at least
three different feminist theories would explain how that moment happened. THis
is a difficult assignment for the students and for me because it's something
they aren't usually asked to do, but I think it's worth struggling through.
The first 3-5 weeks of my course are spent looking closely at good
old-fashioned liberal feminism (I use Zillah Eisenstein's *Radical Future of
Liberal Feminism*) because I think students need to see the ways in which the
assumptions that they think are simply 'the way things are' are themselves
theoretical. This is an historical examination of political theory going back
to John Locke, trying to understand the way economic and social developments of
the 17-18 centuries led to the articulation of liberal theory,individualism,
and capitalism and the ways political theory, economics, and philosophy
informed one another. We read Mary Wollstonecraft, John Stuart Mills and
Harriet Taylor, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others. Since most of my students
don't think of liberalism as a theory, this is often the most radical thinking
they have to do all semester, trying to understand how the common sensical and
natural are far from timeless and universal but historically specific.
This said, I still struggle with many issues in this class. OF course there is
the perennial issue of representation that we have discussed on this list in
the past month (how to introduce students to non white and non
US/European perspectives). I also struggle with (and usually alternative
between) teaching the course through classifications or schools (liberal
feminism, Marxist feminism, psychoanalytic, radical etc.) and working against
that tendency. I'll let you know if I ever find a solution for that one.
I've gone on long enough. I'm sure there are other issues I'm leaving out.
finkel @ kenyon.edu
Date: Wed, 08 Oct 1997 14:00:41 -0500
From: Diane Crowder <CROWDER @ CORNELL-IOWA.EDU>
Subject: Feminist theory
I want to thank Laurie Finke for sharing her thoughts on feminist
theories classes, and expand upon them and my earlier posting.
(First-- pardon all typos--we much have the world's hardest-to-use
I'm currently in the midst of teaching the sophomore theories course I
alluded to earlier this week. I agree wholeheartedly with Laurie that
it is very important to teach students that liberal feminist theory is
a theory--not just the way things are. Ideas like competition,
equality as a goal, individualism, etc. are so ingrained in American
students that they find it difficult to conceive of these as not only
one set of theoretical concepts among many possible ones, but they
also find it difficult to see the inherent limitations of these ideas
and the ways they shape what liberal feminisms can and especially
cannot do. then we read critiques of liberal feminism on grounds that
it's ideal of equality generally means equality with the dominant
class and that it therefore constructs feminism as a white and middle
class one, and students are suddenly and forcefully struck by how such
abstract concepts can lead to very concrete (unintended and/or
undesired) results. We can then turn to other, less "All-American"
notions of feminism with a fresh eye to how they might offer other
answers to problems. I have been teaching variations of this course
for about 7 years now, and my experience is that students really need
a kind of "comparative feminisms 101" because they are extremely
unsophisticated about the relations between theories and results.
One assignment I give them is similar to the assignment of looking at
historical moments through the lenses of various theories. I have
them choose a current issue about which feminists might disagree, and
write a paper on how three different feminist theories would or do
treat that issue. The goal of the paper assignment is to deepen their
understanding of the relationship between the theorie's central
assumptions/concepts and the ways holders of that theory would make
strategy and goal choices in the practical world. Over the years this
assignment has generated a very uneven set of results, but I think it
has been as valuable for teaching students what theories can't/don't
address certain issues as well as the differences between those that
do. Alison Jaggar's Living with Contradictions is a good resource in
that it gathers together articles on different topics of current
interest upon which feminists have strong disagreements.
Finally, I want to agree with Laurie that a feminist theory is one
that gives us tools for action, and that is why I keeps bringing
theories back to concrete examples, to show students how they must
make choices in their theoretical understandings and how those choices
will lead them to act in various ways.
Thanks to all who have participated in this thread, and to Ruth for
Diane Griffin Crowder
crowder @ cornell-iowa.edu
Cornell College, Mount Vernon, IA 52314 USA
Date: Tue, 14 Oct 1997 11:40:50 +0000
From: Dr J Van-Every <j.van-every @ BHAM.AC.UK>
Subject: feminist theory
I concur with others in regretting the action Ruth feels she needs to
take and would like to add my two cents about the problem. I see it
as a symptom of a wider problem about interdisciplinarity. In my
experience those of us teaching women's studies are usually trained
in a discipline and have moved into women's studies (this is
confirmed by some of the discussions on the list about job prospects
for graduates of newish PhD programmes in WS). The disciplinary
background influences the way we see/do women's studies. While we all
talk a lot about interdisciplinarity we don't actually seem to
discuss the difficulties. What exactly is it? And how do we (as
individuals) do truly interdisciplinary work? (this links into
various discussions about introducing material that we are not really
that familiar with...)
Anyway, when I taught a Feminist Theory course a couple of years ago
it was an option in the Sociology dept. That meant that the focus of
the course was on theoretical debates relevant to feminist sociology.
But the organizing principle of the course might be useful for
others. I taught it around 'debates' in feminist theory. I imagine
that in a more interdisciplinary setting debates about 'French
Feminism' (for example) could be used or even debates about
'postmodern feminism'. The advantage of focusing on debates is that
it gets students thinking about theory as a series of ongoing
discussions rather than a fixed body of stuff that everyone agrees
on. It also enables you to demonstrate to the students that there is
no agreement on what a Feminist Theory course should include.
If you're interested in the syllabus for my course (a couple of years
old now), it is in theWMST-l file.
Dr. Jo VanEvery
Dept. of Cultural Studies and Sociology
University of Birmingham
J.Van-Every @ bham.ac.uk
For information about WMST-L
WMST-L File Collection