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Professing Feminism, by Patai and Koertge

Date: Mon, 13 Feb 1995 12:40:52 -0500
From: Marnie Bullock <mbullock @ UWCMAIL.UWC.EDU>
Subject: Professing Feminism
        If I'm remembering right (and I loaned out the book, so I may not be),
the authors of PROFESSING FEMINISM say that their criticisms were not
well-received in Women's Studies, which might explain why they went to a more
commercial press to "get the word out."  They must have known what trouble
the book would cause Women's Studies (in fact, I think they discuss this
issue towards the end of the book); perhaps they felt they would be bringing
external/commercial pressure to bear on a situation that didn't "correct"
itself willingly when they brought it up in a more academic/serious/internal
way. And forewarned is fore-armed, right? Parents who are worried about the
practicality of a Women's Studies major should be vastly more comforted if we
can answer their worries in very specific ways, such as, "Professing Feminism
discusses X; we don't do X--here's an example of how we avoid it."
        Once the criticisms have been brought up, regardless of the forum in
which they were brought up, it seems to me that we need to talk about the
criticisms.  I hope we can do that on the list; if the book hasn't been
widely read yet, it needs to be.
        The part of the book that scared me the most was "Students Who Stomp."
In my limited experience with Women's Studies classes, I have not seen this
type of militant, intolerant student.   Is this frequent (if atypical)?  How
frequent does it have to be to be a real problem?  One class on every campus
every year?  One on every third campus?  One on every tenth campus? I have
seen students abuse their power in other ways, by collaborating on
end-of-the-semester evaluations of the professor, etc. I would guess that
most of the teachers on WMST-L like a classroom with decentralized
authority--what can/should we do when students who have realized their own
authority for their education begin to abuse their authority?
        The part of the book that I can vouch for is a persistent lack of
tolerance in Women's Studies.  I wouldn't generalize to say there's
intolerance everywhere, but I haven't been to a Women's Studies function
yet where there was not someone speaking for the group as though the
group agreed on everything, or someone being criticized for daring to
criticize another....  Even on this list, there have been several times when
views I agreed with were automatically labeled BACKLASH, which has the
tendency to stifle discussion. (And I fully expect to get flamed for daring
to say what I've just said.)  I don't know that this list, or Women's Studies
in general, is any more intolerant than any other academic group, but it
bothers me more when I see intolerance in Women's Studies--if Women's Studies
was created to provide a place for women's voices in academia, then one of
our main goals should be keeping that place truly open, not just mostly open.
        I do have some criticisms of the book:  the 30 interviews are
instructive and interesting, but as I would tell my beginning composition
students, a small number of anonymous sources aren't overly reliable. Why not
interview more? Also, the use of email postings seems unnecessarily sly--why
not announce on WMST-L that the book was being written, what its basic points
were--that way people would know they were being monitored for possible
publication AND some of us could have offered ourselves as a different type
of interviewee.
        Lastly, I have a question--I found their criticisms of the use of
identity politics and of NWSA fairly damning and harder to fault--are these
typical in Women's Studies programs? Is the use of identity politics an
identifying factor? Does the NWSA accurately represent Women's Studies
programs across the nation?
        I know this is a long message, and I apologize to those who for whom
volume is a problem. It's just that I've been waiting weeks and weeks to see
this discussion come up, and I find I have a lot to say and ask.
Marnie Bullock
University of Wisconsin-Richland
mbullock  @  uwcmail.uwc.edu
Date: Mon, 13 Feb 1995 13:41:17 -0500
From: Maria Pramaggiore <maria_p @ UNITY.NCSU.EDU>
Subject: Professing
I too have been troubled by the Patai/Koertge book, for a number of
reasons.  This first is that some of their criticisms deserve to be
examined, but they have chosen to present WS programs in such a
dismissive manner, they imply that the only solution to all of the problems
they raise is to do away with Women's Studies programs rather than to
improve them. This rigid approach answers every concern--many of them
valid--with the same global answer, rather than seeking constructive,
focused solutions.
Another problem I have with their critique is that, without acknowledging
it, many of their criticisms of WS teaching
are based on the fact that WS is interdisciplinary.  Who can disagree
that teaching in an interdisciplinary program can be done well and can be
done poorly--there are advantages and problems with loosening up
disciplinary boundaries. There are disagreements regarding what to teach
and how to teach.  WS is no  more susceptible
than any area studies programs (which perhaps draw the same criticisms
from Patai/Koertge, if I recall the book correctly).
Finally, the most disturbing part of the book for me was the suggestion
that feminist politics uniquely disqualify one for scholarship and teaching.
Their pretense of neutrality is not only questionable on feminist terms (which
they address by saying the argument that every position betrays a certain
political stance is hackneyed and unhelpful), but on postmodern and
poststructuralist terms. Here again, they single out feminist theorists
for questioning objectivity, for example, when a great many more
scholars, some not feminists, have had quite a bit to say on that subject.
There are, undeniably, problems that feminist scholars and women's
studies faculty and students must face.  But this book does not help us do
so.  Perhaps someone out there on the WMST-L knows some of the
history behind previous conflicts over what
should/should not be a discipline/departmen and why. I'd be interested in
what arguments have been used in the past, because it seems to me this
isn't only  about women's studies, but about the disruption of a
traditional epistemology.
|                                                               |
| Maria Pramaggiore                       maria_p  @  unity.ncsu.edu|
| Department of English                   (919) 515-4138        |
| North Carolina State University                               |
Date: Fri, 17 Feb 95 10:06:37 PST
From: kjones @ sciences.sdsu.edu (Kathleen B. Jones)
Subject: Professing Feminism
I have read with great interest the comments that have appeared in recent
issues of the discussion list regarding PROFESSING FEMINISM. I, too, have
been concerned with the tenor of this book, the methodology, and the
suggestions at the end that the only solution to the problems that are
cited is to return to a liberalism uncritically reappropriated for the
nineties seems to me to be an overly simplified solution to the problem
of growing intolerance and ideological debates masquerading as
intellectual discussions--debates that the authors themselves see as
complex. It is important to talk about "liberal" values of tolerance,
respect, and openness of discussion, but it is important to emphasize
that critical theorists such as Marcuse explored the ways that the
illusion of tolerance can be achieved without serious discussion of all
options. And these critques preceded feminist criticism of the structure
of learning in the academy.
I do think that we need to be unafraid to discuss the issues taht are
raised by this book. I agree with those who have noticed that there seems
to be a much easier time at getting those who criticize women's studies
much NYT space and general media attention, than those who have more
positive things to say about the discipline. It is time to discuss an
alternative to singing WS praises uncritically, or damning it to death.
In fact, we at SDSU hope to be doing exactly that as we prepare for the
25th anniversary celebration of WS at SDSU--the oldest program in the
country. We urge all of you to join with us in a celebration that looks
to the past, the present and the future of Women's Studies.
We hav already put out a call for papers and panel proposals. I will be
glad to add anyone to the list and send info on the vent to you if you
respond privately. We will relist the original advertisement for the
conference on WMST-L.
Finally, I have been thinking about the possibility of a video to be
produced on the history of the discipline and its relationship to
feminism outside of academia. Anyone interested?
Kathy Jones, Chair
Department of Women's Studies
San Diego State University
San DIego, CA
kjones  @  sciences.sdsu.edu
Date: Fri, 03 Mar 1995 17:16:07 -0500 (EST)
From: Kathe Davis <KDAVIS @ KENTVM.KENT.EDU>
Subject: Professing Fem/Ginzberg
I agree with Elaine Leyda that naivete could be our downfall: heedless
commitment to "open critique" simply has us doing the conservative opposition's
dirty work for them.  We need what Blake called "organized innocence":
hopefulness based on a realistic sense of possibility, while taking into
account the unscrupulousness and viciousness of much of the backlash.  Yes,
by all means, critique as strategy.  What did you have in mind?  kathe davis
  @  kentvm.kent.edu
Date: Fri, 17 Mar 1995 16:28:04 -0500
Subject: "us versus them" mentality
The "us versus them" mentality too often fostered by feminism
(including academic feminism) is addressed at some length in my book
(with N. Koertge) Professing Feminism--a book that was rather dismissed by
the few folks on this list who commented on it some time back. It was
quite instructive to see the absence of any serious discussion of the
book on this list. Of course it's easier to dismiss than to analyze
(as we tried to do with the ills of feminism). Daphne
Daphne.Patai  @  spanport.umass.edu
Date: Sat, 18 Mar 1995 01:34:49 +0000
From: Judy Evans <jae2 @ UNIX.YORK.AC.UK>
Subject: "us versus them" mentality
On Fri, 17 Mar 1995, DAPHNE PATAI wrote:
> (with N. Koertge) Professing Feminism--a book that was rather dismissed by
> the few folks on this list who commented on it some time back. It was
> quite instructive to see the absence of any serious discussion of the
> book on this list. Of course it's easier to dismiss than to analyze
I have now got the book and have begun reading it - between doing
various other things, like everyone else - and mean to post when
I have read it properly.
I do - I am not reading it in sequence yet - have one point to
raise right now.  It concerns feminist beliefs on sameness and
difference.  (I know that is not how you put it, and I use the
terms as shorthand here.)
You discuss in close proximity what you term a feminist refusal
to accept that there might be any differences at all between
men and women, and, what you seem to imply is a tendency for
all feminists to believe in "Gilligan" (shorthand too).  These
are sections that are not helpful to an academic, and could
mislead people outside.  They do not provide a nuanced
(I speak as a feminist who rejects the Gilligan etc. line
though she sometimes thinks, ?.  And as someone who thinks
that the data strongly suggest a lack of sex differences
relevant to full participation in politics and society now.)
There was a point at the end of the book I thought really
worthwhile making.  But I could not quite see why it applied
to Women's Studies rather than to various groves of academe -
to steal a good phrase.  That was the one about protecting
students against the shock of the 'real world'.
Quite a lot of what is now seen as 'good teaching' does that.
I shudder.
But I am in two minds on your 'Teach them to take the heat' line.
If you want to change the world, you may want to smash up the
kitchen... .
I hope to get back better instructed soon, but one last thought.
I have been pretty confessional on various lists.  No first
Am. protects me.  I know you didn't name the people whose
posts you cited and I can see why you slid over the issue
of the mailings - that is I can see an honourable reason for
that - but still quoting without permission seems to me to be
wrong.  That people might well have said no is not an excuse... .
Do you have any views, now, on the ethics of that?  And,
have you a preliminary reply on whether you are mistakenly
polarizing and overhomogenizing feminist beliefs?
Judy Evans       +       Politics       +       jae2  @  york.ac.uk
Date: Mon, 20 Mar 1995 11:52:23 -0500
From: "David F. Austin" <David_Austin @ NCSU.EDU>
Subject: query re Professing Feminism
Here's an idea for classroom use of
Daphne Patai and Noretta Koertge, _Professing Feminism:
Cautionary Tales from the Strange World of Women's
Studies_ (New York:  Basic Books, 1994) ISBN 0-465-
09821-5 HQ1181.U5P37 1994 LC 94-18271 $24.00.
Among other things, the book presents the hypothesis that
the greater the degree of administrative and disciplinary
independence of Women's Studies (Wmst), the more likely
Wmst is to exhibit the features that the book identifies as
failings.  Because the authors offer a small (30-55 - I
counted), biased sample, the evidence in the book cannot
sustain the hypothesis.  But this anecdotal evidence does, it
seems to me, help to make the hypothesis worth
investigating.  Part of the hypothesis is that if Wmst
attentuates or breaks connections with more established
disciplines, then Wmst risks abandoning academic standards
that much prior scholarship, feminist and nonfeminist alike,
have tried to maintain (e.g, 'base empirical hypotheses on
representative, relevantly randomized samples').  Some of
the work in Wmst has criticised those very standards, and,
although the authors are clearly aware of this, they do not
present these criticisms in any detail.  At their boldest,
these criticisms raise questions about the standards that
reflect and define the nature of reason and knowledge.
Since the authors often appear simply to assume the
standards criticised, some of their objections are bound to
be question-begging against the critics.  By the same token,
however, the criticisms themselves will, in rejecting parts
of the authors own conception of rationality, beg questions
against the authors' objections.  This kind of apparent
stalemate is, of course, a common feature of the deepest
debates about the nature of reason.
I suggest that, using this book, students be helped to
discover this apparent stalemate, thus motivating classroom
discussion of those femininst critiques of reason.  The
following anthology, supplemented by a coursepak
containing some of the articles it cites, would serve such
discussion very well.
Louise M. Antony and Charlotte Witt, eds., _A Mind of
One's Own:  Feminist Essays on Reason and Objectivity_
(Boulder, CO:  Westview Press, 1993) ISBN 0-8133-7938-
5 HQ1190.M56 1993 LC 92-22828 $?? pbk.
It would be a difficult course, and it would be a good one.
David F. Austin <david_austin  @  ncsu.edu>
Associate Professor of Philosophy and
Assistant Head
Department of Philosophy and Religion
Winston Hall 101A
Box 8103, NCSU
Raleigh, NC  27695-8103
(919) 515-6102  FAX (919) 515-7856
Date: Wed, 22 Mar 1995 20:23:00 -0500
From: Miriam Pollock <mpollock @ FREENET.COLUMBUS.OH.US>
Subject: "us versus them" mentality
Ms. Patai,
I was just curious about your post.  Did you attempt to engage in such a
discussion on this list?  I noticed some of the disagreements with your
book centered around the relative absence of WSlistserv women's opinions.
In the book, mentions of the list's comments (as I remember them) were
cited as anonymous and did not seem to reflect the ongoing debates (many of
which Joan K. stops short) that occur daily on this list.
Perhaps addressing your concerns within the feminist community on the list
would stimulate discussion better than the apparent dismissal of women's
studies as a field of study (I read your book and that seemed to be your
conclusion; I may have misunderstood).
mpollock  @  freenet.columbus.oh.us     @  ..  @  
                                ( >__< )
                                ^^ ~~ ^^

Date: Sat, 25 Mar 1995 16:04:38 -0500
Subject: responding to Qs. about Professing Feminism
Hello folks.I'll briefly respond to several questions  that were asked
on this list (some from a while back) regarding *Professing
Feminism *  1. Judy Evans and Iana Pattatucci both asked about
quoting from the women's studies e-mail list without permission.
Noretta and I have always considered these lists to be bulletin
boards rather than private correspondence.  How private can
correspondence to over 3,000 people be?  (Where we did in fact
engage in private exchanges on e-mail with people we got to know
through the WMST-list, we did ask for permission to quote those
exchanges.) 2. About not using people's names: we were interested
in portraying (and analyzing) some aspects of the ethos in
women's studies programs. We cited  mostly instances of things women's
studies folks celebrated (on the WMST-list), but which we found
disturbing. But we did not want to embarrass anyone; hence we
deleted names and institutions. 3. Miriam Pollock thinks our book
dismisses women's studies as a field of study. I don't believe
that one spends several years writing a book in order to dismiss
its subject.  Dismissal and critique are quite different things,
and women's studies, no more than any other field, should expect
or require that it be exempted from critique.  In fact, given the
claims that are set forth in its name, it should be more open and
responsive to critique than other fields with less far-reaching
aspirations.  It is distressing that this does not appear to be
the case.  4. Questions were also raised about our 30 interviews.
We followed standard methods in oral history, a field in which
I've done much work in the past.  5. Judy Evans criticized our
treatment of essentialism and social constructionism.  Of course
there are many different approaches going on simultaneously in
feminist discourse. However, what struck us was the apparent
opportunism in some of the veering back and forth between
essentialist and soc. const. analyses, depending on which group
is being discussed, whether one wants to praise or damn, etc.
Daphne.Patai  @  spanport.umass.edu
Date: Wed, 29 Mar 1995 14:26:25 -0700
From: Richley Crapo <RCRAPO @ WPO.HASS.USU.EDU>
Subject: Professing Feminism
Having recently finished reading Patai & Koertge's
Professing Feminism, I feel that--as a few others
have suggested--it is deserving of discussion,
since it deals very directly with Women's Studies
and potentially problematic aspects of how we
teach WS.  But it is not an easy book to discuss.
This difficulty stems from two things I perceive
about it.  First, I don't perceive this book to be of
the "Backlash" genre of those books whose
political agenda is transparantly to attack both
feminism and Women's Studies.  If it were, it would
be easy to critique in terms of the distortions such
a bias inevitably creates.  In my judgement though,
Professing Feminism is a serious, scholarly
attempt to investigate and highlight what they
perceive as problems in the fold,  the authors really
are feminists, and their purpose is a constructive
Second, it is a difficult book to assess, because
(A) the problems they report are one's that I think
most of us would agree involve real ethical issues
and behavior we would not like to have associated
with WS, (B) the authors believe that the kind of
problems they have documented are widespread,
even characteristic of WS programs, (C) the
problems are of a kind I have not experienced in
my own work within a WS program.  The last fact,
of course, creates a dilema--is it my experience
that is unusual or is it theirs.  And I have no
objective way to determine the answer to that
If Patai and Koertge are correct when they
generalize from the cases of disillusioned WS
faculty members to WS at large, then their book is
an appropriate and potentially useful first step at
housecleaning.  The authors believe that what they
have found, as reported by their interviewees, are
not just the ordinary disgruntledness of academics
in general, but represent problems that are
distinctively WS problems that have evolved from
structural characteristics of WS
programs--including their political ties to feminism
qua activism and the isolation of WS programs
from the academic mainstream.  On the other
hand, if my own experience of WS is more
characteristic of the national state of affairs, then
they have merely cast out a wide net, inevitably
found a few "horror stories" from within the domain
of WS, and have drawn inappropriate conclusions
about these being supposedly representative of
WS in general.  We all know that anecdotal
evidence can be extremely unreliable as a basis
for drawing general conclusions.
I don't think it will be possible to affirm or deny the
accuracy of Patai and Koertge's charges until a
careful sociological study is undertaken that can
actually reveal how widespread or rare problems
of the kind they have reported.  And must,
therefore, believe that even if they prove to be
correct, they were premature in their wideranging
generalizations.  What they have done is to
demonstrate that a few injustices have occurred,
not really whether they are characteristic of WS's
current structure.
But having said that, I do not think it appropriate to
ignore the question they have raised.  We should
have more empirical data that speaks to the
question of whether there are structural difficulties
that create problems we might be otherwise blind
to.  In the meantime, I must echo the ideas raised
some time ago by another list subscriber that it
would be useful for us in teaching WS courses and
advising our students to discuss some of the basic
issues raised by this book--issues such how
should we best view ourselves and our role as
academic feminists  vis-a-vis feminism as
Date: Thu, 30 Mar 1995 06:31:09 -0500
Subject: Re: Professing Feminism
professing feminism does not describe my experience with wmst. in fact, i
suspect that the examples came from universities with larger problems of
diversity/backlash. Ours is a public university of 6,000 students in
South Ga., a very conservative region. Our program is academically
strong, supportive of other academic progams, and does not reflect the
stereotypes associated in the public mind with wmst. Our faculty is
supportive of one another and most of the grumblings we've heard sprang
from ignorance about the program. It might be useful for someone on this
list to do a survey, using Pati's criteria, to see what we in the
boonies, far removed from the chi chi political correctness controversey,
actually have.
Dr. Jane Elza   jelza  @  grits.valdosta.peachnet.edu
Political Science Dept., Valdosta State University
Valdosta, Ga. 31698

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