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Women's Outreach and Resource Collective | A collaborative community for advocates of gender equity and social justice


Feminist Women as Academics: Learning the Ropes and Trying Not to Strangle Ourselves

By: Savannah Downing

The notion of female academics was once an anomaly. Confined to the private sphere of dirty diapers, cleaning ovens, or less prestigious occupations like housecleaning, clerical work, and other performances of simply doing the “shit work,” access to higher education was limited at best, laughable at worst. To think that women now have not only permeated the borders of higher education but are producing scholarship would paint the illusion that we are onward to a postfeminist society – at least in the academy.

To dampen this illusion, I must demonstrate that we have so much farther to go.

As many spaces into which women have entered, the gender assignments, patriarchal confinements, and general inequality present in academia have simply been reproduced in new forms. Oppression is insidious that way.

I realize that in discussing female academics, I have to account for the privileged socioeconomic statuses that these women hold. And in no way do I wish to negate the pervasive inhumane statuses that other women experience. Yet, in illustrating the problem in the “ivy tower” of academia, I hope to demonstrate that climbing the ladder will never, in itself, dismantle systemic inequality; even here, it is remarkably apparent and serves as a conversation that demonstrates that – as always – we have a lot of work to do.

Of course, I have only briefly alluded to the notion of the female academic. What about the female academic who is also the feminist academic? How do you “do feminism” in an institution that perpetuates the very principles feminism seeks to push forward? Making accessible knowledge, reconfiguring what we mean when we assign the label of meaning-makers to certain people, and citing outside the canon to give credence to silence voices. These are all things feminists have theorized about doing, and we might imagine access from within the walls of the ivy tower might give us power to do a little dismantling. Yet, the disciplining mechanisms built into the structure of the academy are welded, bolted, and far from porous.

Perhaps this is the frustration with feminist activists who find scholars disengaged. They might argue that we should be on the ground working, doing grassroots organizing, and addressing the immediacy of day-to-day oppression. What are you doing as an academic? While I have witnessed scholars embody what praxis can (and does) mean, I agree that oftentimes it feels as though we are stuck with books in buildings, reading and writing about changing the world without actualizing that change. Yet, we need feminists in all the gatekeeping roles of society if we wish to make meaningful changes, and that includes having feminist academics.

So how do feminist academics utilize their privileged positions to disrupt systemic oppression?

Women’s and gender studies departments have been spaces where feminist scholarship is respected, and joint appointments allow feminist academics to do the work of feminism academically in innovative, less constrictive ways. But how much credit do these institutes, departments, minors-only programs really get? How much do people even know about “women’s studies” anyway? I argue in one of my previous blog posts that people know very little. In some instances, this interdisciplinary approach to higher education is shrouded in such mystique that it becomes an easy target as the source of “liberal leaning” professors who aim to infiltrate otherwise healthy, youthful minds. (This is no joke: I did have to answer some incredibly absurd questions throughout my four undergraduate years as a women’s studies major when asked by strangers and mutual friends what I was studying.) So what of scholarship produced for interdisciplinary journals, women’s studies colloquiums, and the like? Certainly, it is meaningful, important, and necessary; but what is the worth of feminist scholarship if it only exists and is respected only in its designated places?

We need to permeate the notion of “the disciplines,” too, in all their patriarchal traditions. In short, feminist academics have a lot of work cut out for them.

In a communication studies essay entitled “Disciplining the Feminine,” Blair, Brown, and Baxter point to the disciplinary mechanisms of academe, and barriers to female academic successes. Citing research by Hickson and others that was conducted to create a “yardstick” for female academic success, Blair, Brown, and Baxter criticize the ways in which “success” is measured within a “male paradigm” of scholarship. They note that this kind of assessment perpetuates the “regulat[ion]” of academic writing that privileges certain “norms.” For example, the number of essays you produce determines how “influential” you are as a scholar, but certain disciplines only consider specific journals: as they ask, what about interdisciplinary publications where incredible feminist scholarship is produced? Without delving too deeply into the text, although it is a fascinating, insightful read about disciplining the feminine in the academy, I use it simply as an example. This essay does critique a controversial study about female scholars, sure; but what I find most important for this article is its introduction.

Including scathing reviews from anonymous reviewers, Blair, Brown, and Baxter illustrate how difficult it was to even get the critique published in the first place. When feminist scholars challenge the system in which they work, there are disciplining mechanisms up in arms ready to make sure they are silenced. And in the case of academe’s anonymous reviewing process, the scholars do not even know who is directly responsible for this silencing. This is not an individual problem, just as they note that this study is not some individual, anomalous case. It is representative of how pervasive systemic oppression really is and how difficult it is to fight back.

Perhaps not in the form of pickets, riots, or demonstrations, there are amazing feminist scholars very much interested and active in trying to dismantle injustice in the academy. Yet as this essay illustrates, it is incredibly difficult to do so. Practicing feminism in a place of privilege is a feat in different ways, but it does not mean that it is impossible. Perhaps more importantly, it does not mean that it is work that should not be done: we need feminists on all frontiers to make change.

Reading this essay struck a nerve with me, as I plan to be a communication studies scholar and wonder how the hell I’m supposed to do any of the feminist work I know must be done. Seeing the resiliency of feminist scholars reminds me that there is hope for radical change in the academy. There are risks, certainly, with doing feminist work and working outside of the “male paradigm,” but signing up for a movement that seeks to dismantle a whole system of oppression was never supposed to be an easy, risk-free feat. Dr. Cindy Griffin talks about being strategic in scholarship: there is a way to “do” feminism, but first you have to learn the ropes of the discipline. Finding out how not to get tangled and strangled can be quite hard, considering all the ways we might be continually disciplined to align within certain systems and norms, but it is work that can and must be done.

[Image: Wikimedia Commons]

AcademiaHigher EducationOppression

worcuga • December 9, 2014

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  1. cat December 10, 2014 - 12:29 pm Reply

    Interesting read. It’s the ivory tower though, not the ivy tower.

  2. Savannah March 4, 2015 - 10:42 pm Reply

    CAT, nice catch!

    Such is life, all that slips through the cracks during edits.

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