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Professing Feminism, by Patai and Koertge

What follows are messages about Daphne Patai and Noretta Koertge's book
STUDIES (New York: Basic Books, 1994).  The messages appeared on WMST-L 
over a period of months in late 1994 and 1995.  For additional WMST-L files 
now available on the Web, see the WMST-L File List.

PAGE 1 OF 3 
Date: Tue, 29 Nov 1994 15:40:14 -0600 (CST)
From: "Diana M.A. Relke" <relke @ DUKE.USASK.CA>
Subject: Patai and Koertge, PROFESSING FEMINISM
I realize that this book has just been releast and perhaps not yet widely
read.  However, I would like to initiate a discussion of it, if anyone's
interested.  I'm quite sure there will be considerable fallout here, as we
are a new (and still suspect) department.  I can argue that the book is
"Americocentric" in content, American in style, and that it generalizes from
a handful of examples to "over 600 Women's Studies programs in existence
throughout the United States" (jacket notes).  Another possible argument
might be that the book is highly personal: it has that carpet-bombing
quality characteristic of personal outrage.  None of these arguments is
going to save me, however.
Rather than dismiss the book on any of those scores (books do not just "go
away" because one chooses to trash them), I prefer to read it in its
"cautionary tale" spirit.  What I would like to know is this: Are there ways
for WMST programs to avoid falling into the traps which this book describes?
 Or, if it's too late for some programs, are there ways of cleaning up the
At the risk of being longwinded, I would like to respond to three problems
addresst by the book, and I would appreciate hearing if anyone can relate to
my responses or can advise me.
What I find most distressing is that this book finds it necessary to
recommend that WMST abandon its role as the "academic arm of the women's
movement" and be "a forum in which critique and exploration" of feminism can
take place.  This has an exceedingly binary ring to it, as if one could
somehow choose between the two activities.  There is a burgeoning literature
on the relationship between academic and activist feminism and the sometimes
uneasy relationship between them, but perhaps Patai and Koertge are not
familiar with it.  I am puzzled by this binary, as the university is one
among many important sites of political struggle, our particular struggle
being to establish WMST as a forum for critique and exploration of feminism.
 And I am certainly struggling!  However, not in the manner described in
this book.
This (false) binary has been argued in such publications as CHALLENGING
Flaherty, eds.), which addresses it as "academic vs. activist feminism."
Contrary to the situation as described in PROFESSING FEMINISM, which
represents WMST as a puppet of movement politics, some articles in
CHALLENGING TIMES complain bitterly about the movement's "abandonment" by
academic feminists.  Moreover, bell hooks has gone on record as
especially critical of academic feminist theory as remote from the
day-to-day struggles of women.  Indeed, I myself see this trend in theory,
which sometimes seems rather too abstract and makes me wonder if it's
motivated exclusively by academic entrepreneurism.  But is it not our role
as instructors to help students translate theory into practical
applications?  Isn't the classroom a transitional space between theory and
praxis?  Students are both members of the student body and members of the
wider community; many of them are the interface between academic and
activist feminism.
Frankly, I get irritated with those non-academic feminists who think that
all the power resides in the "elitist" academy, that community-based
feminism has no power by comparison, and that support should therefore flow
in one direction only--while in fact it's the academy that's currently under
seige by business and government, and if community feminists want education
equity for their daughters, then they might consider supporting WMST instead
of whining about its alleged elitism.  Where I see the problem is not in
ESTABLISHING, but rather, in MAINTAINING the measure of critical distance
WMST already has from movement politics and convincing the wider feminist
movement that this critical distance is crucial to the continuity of the
movement.  If anyone has any suggestions on how this might be achieved, I'd
be grateful to hear them.
As a new program, we have not (yet?) experienced much of what these authors
describe as endemic to WMST, although I do see a potential for some
unhelpful identity politics here.  In my contemporary theory course, for
example, I take a critical stance vis-a-vis the theorists who insists upon
the "difference is all there is" model of diversity.  I have also had to be
firm with students who think they're being postmodernist and trendy when
they ahistorically trash all feminisms that predate 1980 as ipso facto
racist, classist, and otherwise unambiguously oppressive.  I have had a
student or two who have found it convenient to construct feminsm as a piece
of real estate owned and operated exclusively by white middle-class clones,
and then complain because their own construction locks them out.  I am
reminded of a baby chucking her toys out of the playpen and then howling
because she's been cruelly deprived of them.
Where do students learn this behaviour?  From establisht and respected
feminist scholars, that's where.  Take, for example, a SIGNS (Autumn 94)
review of Nancie Caraway's SEGREGATED SISTERS by Patricia Collins Hill.  I
cannot say for sure if Hill has accurately represented the book, and if not
I apologize in advance to Caraway, but Hill's review convinces me that this
is not a book I want to waste my time on.  Hill claims that Caraway "argues
convincingly that if feminist theory and practice refuse to consider
diversity, the current feminist movement, like that of the last century, is
doomed to failure."  First, what did Hill find so "convincing" about this
stupifyingly simplistic construction of feminism?  Second, what planet has
Caraway been living on for the last decade--a decade almost exclusively
dominated by feminist theories of difference and diversity?  Third, where
does she get off reconstructing feminism's past as an unmitigated failure
and its future as inevitable demise--especially given that her own status as
a highly educated woman from the working class, a woman who can actually get
a book on women publisht and reviewed, is the direct result of the successes
of feminism?  If establisht feminist scholars can get away with sloppy
generalizations about their own history and enjoy uncritical endorsement of
them--especially in a journal as distinguisht as SIGNS--can we expect WMST
students and junior instructors to behave any better?
The above problem, it seems to me, is a function of our not taking seriously
our responsibility to interdisciplinarity--which means, for example,
consulting specialists in history before we make sweeping generalizations
about the past, feminist or otherwise.  Rather than a return to the good old
days of outmoded monodisciplinary hegemony which this book comes too close
to recommending, are there strategies for developing more feminist
interdisciplinary competence?
It is my feeling that Patai and Koertge have permitted themselves to be
trappt into binary solutions with respect to WMST curriculum.  I have always
been puzzled by the "shall we mainstream, or shall we departmentalize?"
argument--again, as if we had to choose one or the other.  At the heart of
interdisciplinarity is the concept of integration--and I'm not talking about
wishy-washy compromise or multi-disciplinary dilletantism, but rather,
setting traditional disciplinary specialization in the context of feminist
interdisciplinarity.  To my mind, this is the only way to get across to
students that WMST both critiques AND enhances the traditional disciplines
and specializations--which is far from the situation as described by Patai
and Koertge.  Is the philistine-ism they describe characteristic of many
WMST programs, or are there programs out there that see their mandate as one
of continuity AND innovation with respect to curricula?  Moreover, are there
other WMST programs that have made curricular connexions across other
interdisciplinary programs with similar kinds of political origins, programs
such as Ecostudies, Afro-American Studies, Native (Canadian/American)
Studies, etc?  In short, how much of the problem described in this book is a
result of WMST having caved into the monodisciplinary turf-war model that
has dominated universities for the whole of the 20th century?
Despite the more worthy of the questions they raise, I really wish Patai and
Koertge had consulted with women from successful programs, and not just the
disgruntled, before they went to press.  For it seems to me that they have
misst the bigger picture.  Slowly, if sometimes painfully, feminism is
making it possible for ever more women to be heard, and that includes the
ill-informed who severely test the patience of those feminist academics who
really are trying to make the university a beter place for all women and
men.  To use an analogy, Camille Paglia may behave like a precocious
organ-grinder's monkey, gleefully jigging to a tune crankt out by a thwarted
Harold Bloom, but feminsim has obliged the wider culture to accede to her
demand for a public space in which to show off her jigging.  Growing pains
have to be expected, and cutting off one's nose to spite one's face is
hardly a remedy for pain.  I'm sure it took courage to write the book, and
it's clear that it was written in some sorrow, but it's going to cause them
more sorrow and take more courage to face the irate criticisms--especially
the well-deserved ones.  In the meantime, fragile programs like mine and
undoubtedly many others will just have to add damage control vis-a-vis this
book to our already overburdened struggle.  I hope we can write THAT effort
off as merely growing pains too.
Diana M.A. Relke
Women's and Gender Studies
University of Saskatchewan
Saskatoon, SK, S7N OWO
relke  @  herald.usask.ca
Date: Wed, 30 Nov 1994 19:42:23 -0500
From: Miriam Pollock <mpollock @ FREENET.COLUMBUS.OH.US>
Subject: Patai and Koertge, PROFESSING FEMINISM
Having recently read PROFESSING FEMINISM, I feel like I need a reality
check.  As I read the book, I found myself wondering how I missed so many
of the negative aspects of academic feminism during my 5 year involvement
as an undergraduate at the Ohio State University.  At first I chalked it
up to my limited awareness of the politics of academia.  The criticism of
bad scholarship leveled at Women's Studies departments confused me.  At
Ohio State, I believed that the majority of all WS instructors (with the
exception of WS grad students) were part of other departments.  Therefore,
did not their scholarship (good or bad) and their teaching (to be able
scholars or indoctrinated knee-jerk feminists) carry over and affect their
non WS students who take classes within their departments?
I also was troubled by the opposition of WS (as political) to most other
departments (apolitical?).  I personally have never been in an apolitical
class.  All my classes were, after all, taught by human beings.
As to the question of the book's generalizing based on the experience of
the disgruntled...  Supposedly, my exposure as a naive, uncritical
undergraduate should have indocrinated me to believe that qualitative
sociological studies were good and quantitative (hard science) studies
were patriarchal and thus biased.   I still find myself questioning
Patai/Koertge's choice to use interview's rather than some other method to
support their assertions.  Was it in the hope that it would not be
rejected as patriarchal because it focused on women's experiences?  I'm
perfectly willing to say that their experiences did not adequately support
the sweeping criticisms and condemnation present in the book.
Just one example of my experience in WS before I go (and I don't believe
it is atypical).  In my senior year, I took Lyla Rupp's History of
Same-Sex Sexuality.  It was cross-listed as History and WS.  We discussed
social construction.  This  concept is criticized in PROFESSING FEMINISM with
the argument that it has "no fixed referent" and is thus used/misused by
many feminists "in the murky end of this spectrum" leading to "extreme or
silly conclusions".  In Lyla's class, we read Scotch-Verdict and as a
class exercise, were called upon to act out/take the part of the different
characters in the book.  To do this well, we had to take the position
they took (despite our own opinion) and debate (with the other characters
and with ourselves).  We were cautioned to avoid ahistoricism.  The class
members came from many different majors and were a mix of undergrad and
grad students.  And, I believe we all learned a lot, not despite the
interdisciplinary nature of the class, but because of it.
Question:  As I plan to one day _be_ one of those interdisciplinary WS
profs, is this book representative of WS?  Both authors are WS profs, yet
they seem to position themselves outside of their scrutiny.  It seems to
be a case of "WS departments are a bad idea because the
academic feminism's conflict of interest produces bad scholarship.  I am a WS
professor but my scholarship is good.  My co-author's scholarship is good.
We must be the exception to the rule."
Comment to the list or to me (except flames--you don't need me to tell you
where to put those ;)
mpollock  @  freenet.columbus.oh.us
Date: Wed, 30 Nov 1994 20:31:31 -0600 (CST)
From: "Pauline B. Bart" <U17334 @ UICVM.BITNET>
Subject: Relke comments
I want to thank Professor Relke for the time it took for her to write
her thoughtful comments and I hope other people will be able to do the
same with books of direct relevance to women's studies.  As one who
taught women's studies since l969 I too dislike the erasure and
distortion of our past, ignoring the struggles we endured (It was even
hard to find appropriate books in l969). On the other hand there were
certain advantages when our courses were not required to fill in liberal
arts or other programs, so that  generally the people in our clas were
there because they wanted to be there.  SInce  We started with the
Women's Movement and the Vietnam War, the distinction between academic
feminists and movement feminists was nonexistent.We taught women's
studies because we were in the women's movement-specifically in women's
liberation , not N.O.W., forthe most part.  We were also the same people
who had participated in the Civil Rights movement, picketing,
demonstrating , and some of us went South for voter registration drives.
I regret that such comingling is less true today.  I am able to
research topics that activists need the answers to, so, as a sociologist
I am fortunate in being able to combine activism with academic work.
Other women may not have the opportunity to do so.
Pauline B. Bart
U17334  @  UICVM.UIC.EDU (University of Illinois at Chicago)
AKA (also known as) Cassandra / Iphigenia
Don't kill the messenger!
Date: Sat, 10 Dec 1994 10:40:00 EDT
From: Joan Korenman <KORENMAN @ UMBC.BITNET>
Subject: Another worthwhile review of PROFESSING FEMINISM
        Though I'm VERY sympathetic to Lynne Alice's request that people
summarize or quote briefly from the NYTimes review of _Professing Feminism_
or other pieces they call to our attention, at the moment I'm SWAMPED with
work.  Thus, I can't heed Lynne Alice's plea or my own seconding of it.
But I nonetheless want to call people's attention to another review of
_Professing Feminism_.  The December 1994 issue of _The Women's Review of
Books_ has a front-page review by Carol Sternhell of _Professing Feminism_,
_Who Stole Feminism?_ (Sommers),  and _The Feminist Classroom_ (Maher and
Tetreault).  It's an excellent review, I think (though I can't judge what
it says about _The Feminist Classroom_), one worth trying to get hold of,
perhaps through interlibrary loan.  If you need the exact information, it's
vol. XII, No. 3, pages 1, 3-4, and the title of the review is "The proper
study of womankind."
        Joan Korenman        Internet: korenman  @  umbc2.umbc.edu
                             Bitnet:   korenman  @  umbc
Date: Thu, 09 Feb 1995 12:22:56 -0500
From: Joan Korenman <KORENMAN @ UMBC2.UMBC.EDU>
Subject: PROFESSING FEMINISM (was 'to quiz...)
Recently, Iana Pattatucci wrote:
> Daphne Patai (a member of this list) and Noretta Koertge have some interesting
> comments on this whole topic in their book, PROFESSING FEMINISM.  Their
> conclusion seems to be that many programs have yet to find a happy medium
> between fostering a classroom environment that is true to academic and
> intellectual as well as feminist ideals.  Broadly, they suggest that we
> have critically examined/questioned the ideals of the university educational
> establishment at length, but have not taken a critical look at feminist
> ideals, or at least not adequately done so.
        I am glad that Iana has mentioned PROFESSING FEMINISM.  There has
been surprisingly little discussion of the book on WMST-L; I think both the
book and the issues it raises need much more attention.  I have VERY high
regard for Daphne Patai (I am much less familiar with her co-author,
Noretta Koertge), but I have very serious misgivings and disappointment
about PROFESSING FEMINISM.  Patai and Koertge quote thirty anonymous
sources who conveniently express the views the authors wish to advance;
they then generalize on the basis of these thirty people about the entire
field of Women's Studies!  One could probably find thirty people who
believe just about *anything* and would be happy to say so, especially if
they weren't held accountable for their views by being identified in
        As I say, I was very disappointed when I read PROFESSING FEMINISM,
both because of my great respect for other things Daphne Patai has written
(including criticisms of aspects of feminism) and because I think there ARE
ills within Women's Studies that DO need to be discussed, including some of
the issues tackled in PROFESSING FEMINISM.  But the methodology the authors
have used seems to me exceedingly weak, and ultimately, by branding the
entire field of Women's Studies guilty of the excesses of a decided
minority of programs and faculty, Patai and Koertge have done far more harm
than good.  They have put in jeopardy my program and the many others that
do NOT have the problems they describe.  I and other program administrators
now have to spend far more time than we have defending our programs to
skeptical politicians, journalists, administrators, faculty, students, and
even parents who cite PROFESSING FEMINISM (either directly or via the
grapevine) as "proof" that Women's Studies is the academically unsound
field they always suspected it was.  I for one deeply resent this.
        I don't for a moment doubt the truth of the sometimes eloquent
testimonies included in PROFESSING FEMINISM.  I, too, feel dismay and
regret about, say, intolerance, or an excessive emphasis on identity
politics, or intellectual flabbiness where it occurs.  But I know that
these issues do not plague my program, nor the vast majority of other
programs with which I'm familiar.  By wildly exaggerating the extent of
Women's Studies' problems, PROFESSING FEMINISM has made useful discussion
of these problems more difficult.
        If you're involved with Women's Studies and you haven't read Daphne
STRANGE WORLD OF WOMEN'S STUDIES (New York: Basic Books, 1994 - $24 US;
ISBN 0-465-09821-5), you probably should.  If you HAVE read it and wish to
discuss it in a substantive way, I'd encourage you to send your views to
WMST-L.  Please do not send very brief expressions of approval or
disapproval--such comments merely add to the list's already heavy mail
volume without adding light to the issues.
        Joan Korenman        Internet: korenman  @  umbc2.umbc.edu
                             Bitnet:   korenman  @  umbc
Date: Thu, 09 Feb 1995 10:22:14 -0800
From: Susan Arpad <susan_arpad @ CSUFRESNO.EDU>
Following up on Joan's comments about PROFESSING FEMINISM, I, too,
have had a very ambivalent reaction to the book.  I am still thinking
about most of the issues, so am not ready to discuss them, but one
issue I would like to put forward.
I was particularly disturbed by the use of quotations from Internet
Lists.  I believe I remember that the book identified all of the
messages it quoted as coming from WMST-L.  I remember seeing some of
those messages when they were originally posted.  I have two concerns
about the authors' use of Email messages.  The first is that the
messages were quoted verbatim, but the authors were not cited.  If one
quotes from a traditionally published source, one is expected to cite
the author and source.  Why is that not true for Email?  If the
authors were able to quote verbatim, then they had the header of the
message to enable them to identify the author.
I suspect that the answer to this question involves my second concern.
That is, in at least one case (and I think I remember that it happened
more than once), the authors of PROFESSING FEMINISM ascribed
emotional and psychological states and motivations to the authors of
the Email messages that they quoted.  My reaction on reading this was,
first, embarrassment and then dismay at both the incivility and the
lack of professionalism of this practice.
Susan_Arpad  @  CSUFresno.edu
Date: Fri, 10 Feb 1995 10:48:55 -0500
From: Iana Pattatucci <luciana%bchem.dnet @ DXI.NIH.GOV>
My understanding from reading the book is that the authors contextually
situated themselves at the beginning, made no claim to have a representative
sample, and were pretty up front all the way about what they were doing.
I agree that they are harsh in places, but I also feel that much of the issues
that they raise need to be examined.  They have forwarded their conclusions.
It is up to us to debate them and move on.  Although it seems that a major
point of contention that people have with the book is their use of 30
anonymous women, perhaps one might also wonder why these women were apparently
unwilling to go on record?  One explanation is that they were afraid of
retribution from colleagues, which of course is exactly one of the points
that Patai and Koertge raise throughout the book.  One of their main
conclusions seems to be that problems within women's studies are largely
silenced by a dominant ideology and power structure, not exerting itself
from the outside, but from within women's studies itself.
It seems to me that there was probably no way to conduct this analysis that
would escape criticism.  Would people have been any more comfortable with
anonymous questionnaires and a statistical analysis?  The fact that many
of those interviewed saw positive aspects to their experiences with women's
studies despite their criticisms would seem to speak highly of women's
I agree that with budget cuts and a conservative ideology in the federal
government, this book will no doubt be used in ways that were unintended
by the authors.  However, analyzing the potential impact on various
sectors of society, of research or other written/spoken communications,
BEFORE we relate them would paralyze most of us.  Finally, for those
using PROFESSING FEMINISM or any other book to support their criticism
of a given program, one might suggest that the individuals put their
education to good use, before drawing snap judgements.  I am not aware
of even one institution of higher learning that supports the use of
single references, particularly when many more are available.
Iana Pattatucci
"Luciana%bchem.dnet  @  dxi.nih.gov"
Date: Fri, 10 Feb 1995 12:52:07 LCL
The thing which bothers me is the number of critiques of women's
studies which have been on the NYT Bestsellers List in the past
several years.  Why are these books on the NYT Bestsellers list? Do I
really imagine that it is because there are so many people "out there"
who are concerned about IMPROVING Women's Studies and making it BETTER
that they send these critiques straight to the tops of the charts?
Hmmm, somehow I don't think so.  I think these books are mega-hits
exactly because they are being used by those who would want to
DISMANTLE Women's Studies ... they are appealing to those who want to
be able to argue "This so-called academic discipline is so riddled
with faults, lets just get rid of the whole thing."  And they are
encouraging those who wish to so argue.
Now, I *do* think criticisms ought to be made, and they ought to be
considered carefully, ESPECIALLY by those who already have a
commitment to ensuring the excellence of Women's Studies rather than
tolerating mediocrety or hoping for its demise.  But I think some
forums are more appropriate than others for reaching that particular
audience.  I don't think the the commercial press and the NYT
Bestsellers list are the proper forums for reaching academics whom one
would like to see becoming convinced to engage in some internal
I think there are better forums.  Academic forums.  It is just like
the question of where scientific discoveries should be announced.  If
they are to be taken seriously by other scientists, they need to
appear in scientific journals, not in splashy commercial publications
headed for the Bestsellers List.
Similarly, if critiques of academic Women's Studies are to be taken
seriously by Women's Studies scholars and teachers, they need to be
presented in academic forums, not as tabloid fodder for antifeminists
and media hype.
It is not THAT these critiques are being made, but WHERE they are
being DIRECTED that bothers me.  I can't help but wonder if there
isn't an active attempt going on here to engage anti-feminist allies
... because I can't think of any other explanation for the way in
which they are being presented.  And I do credit all the recent
authors of such books with enough "smarts" to be able to know exactly
what they are doing.  So it makes me very uncomfortable, in the WRONG
ways, not in the ways that such critiques SHOULD make all of us
uncomfortable (and more inclined toward self-examination).
In my opinion.
----------- Ruth Ginzberg (rginzberg  @  eagle.wesleyan.edu) ------------

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