To read about F's and my London trip, start here and click "newer post" to continue the story.

Monday, March 30, 2009

The Evolution of American Women's Studies

I read this, and I still can't wrap my head around what "women's studies" could be.

Finally, I can speak here from my own experience as one of the first generation of women who had the opportunity to actually major in women’s studies. I was constantly bombarded by questions such as: “What are you going to do with it?” I finally got fed up and published my answer in a prominent spot in Temple University’s alumni magazine: “To ask, What are you going to do with it? implies that education is a passive process. It implies that we learn and then we do. But in many ways the very nature of women’s studies, which grew out of and alongside the women’s liberation movement, is attractive because it is already active. Women’s studies grew out of the political realities of women’s lives…. I learned that theory and practice should go hand in hand. I learned that education should be about change and evolution, and not just about reiterating what is already known. I take that knowledge with me to each job I do, and do with it – whatever I can.”

Get it now? Me neither.

And then

One thing is clear, whatever we call it, women’s studies needs to be feminist in nature, and to make use of feminist pedagogy, or it risks losing what makes it unique. As someone posted on a women’s studies e-mail list: “We need to destabilize gender at the same time we insist that historically and politically a category or class of individuals called women have been systematically oppressed.” This is a tricky position to be in, for sure.

Well, I get that all right. Politically neutral, this field is not.

The "Laura" in the comments is me.

It's not hard to find stories about women who have been discriminated against in the past. Emmy Noether went through some crap before her work in physics and algebra was recognized. Marie Curie ruffled some feathers during her remarkable career, still being the first person ever to win two Nobel prizes: Physics in 1903, and Chemistry in 1911. Here's a blurb from my biography of Lise Meitner, for whom Meitnerium, element 109 on the Periodic Table was named:

The Chemistry Institute [at Friedrich Wilhelm University] was completely off-limits to women: Emil Fischer was afraid they would set fire to their hair, having once had a Russian student with an "exotic" hairstyle. (He must have believed his beard to be flame resistant.) As a compromise, Lise was allowed to work in a basement room formerly a carpenter's shop, where Otto [Hein, her chemist-collaborator] had set up for measuring radiation; she was not to set foot in any other part of the institute, not even the laboratory upstairs where Otto did his chemical experiments. Fischer relented only because the wood shop had a separate outside entrance; to use a toilet Lise walked to a restaurant down the street.

You don't have to embellish this stuff, and it isn't diminished if you acknowledge that times have changed. I have to say that when people point out that men's names are attached to most of the great theories and discoveries I silently roll my eyes. Find out why Beatrix Potter is known for Peter Rabbit rather than mycology.

But I can't get past the political ideology to figure out what women's studies people are really studying and learning. I can't say they don't have something of value there. I can't make heads nor tails of what they do have. In the comments, there's this:

I believe that all knowledge, as all teaching, is political in some way. We just don't like to admit this. It is easier to think that knowledge just "exists" outside of human perception and experience, which in many instances is simply not the case.

Knowledge can't possibly exist outside of human perception and experience. Facts can. Knowledge implies somebody or something knowing a fact. So when she says that all knowledge is political, I don't know what she means. Sloppy language? Eccentric, personal definitions of words that in common use have other definitions?

I guess I won't worry my pretty head about it any more, har har.

1 comment:

class-factotum said...

I guess everything else is "men's studies?"