So-called “women’s studies” programs began cropping up on campuses across the country in the 1970s. Although they started largely in imitation of the militant black studies programs that had swept the country’s colleges and universities in the late Sixties, they soon vastly outstripped black and other minority studies programs in size and influence. Today, there is hardly a college campus that doesn’t sport a women’s studies program or department. At many institutions, it is even possible to major in women’s studies.
The very familiarity of these developments has lulled many people into forgetting how odd they are. For what “women’s studies” describes is not an academic discipline but rather a knot of grievances searching for recognition. Like black studies and—a more recent phenomenon—homosexual (“gay”) studies, women’s studies exists primarily to promote a species of political solidarity. Intellectually, women’s studies has always been a terrible embarrassment. That is one reason its advocates are so truculent: like the Wizard of Oz, they must work overtime to keep up the illusion that their subject even exists. Comparing what goes on in the name of women’s studies to genuine scholarship is like comparing the “space program” said to have been undertaken by a small African country to compete with America’s Apollo missions: there were plenty of rockets, but, being made of wood, they didn’t get very far.
Sensible women know this as clearly as do sensible men. How could it be otherwise? Women’s studies addresses no definable subject matter. It advances no distinct area of knowledge. It masquerades as an academic specialty, but—again like black studies and homosexual studies—women’s studies is ostentatiously inimical to any serious scholarship. It rejects, in principle as well as in practice, the ideal of scholarly disinterestedness; it castigates the goal of objective knowledge as a patriarchal fiction; it seeks to refract all academic activity and institutional practice through the lens of a single guiding obsession: gender.
Women’s studies addresses no definable subject matter.
Most non-academics will snicker, and rightly, when told about the “scholarly” paper called “Toward a Feminist Algebra.” But the contention—as one leading feminist put it—that “gender is a fundamental category of literary analysis” is no less preposterous, and yet one finds that slogan accepted as gospel in women’s studies programs. If someone really wanted to do academic women a favor, he—or she— would instantly abolish all women’s studies programs and courses. That would leave a lot of feminist radicals stranded, but at least it would rescue women from this confining intellectual ghetto.
Several recent events have prompted us to reflect anew on these matters. There were, for example, the much-publicized women’s studies conferences held this winter at the State University of New York at New Paltz, which we reported on in this space in our November and December issues. These events—“Revolting Behavior: The Challenges of Women’s Sexual Freedom” and “Subject to Desire: Refiguring the Body”— belong to a grotesque fringe of women’s studies where antinomian politics blends with sexual desperation. Devoted to subjects like “Sex Toys for Women,” “How to Get What You Want in Bed,” and “SAFE, SANE & CONSENSUAL RS/M: An Alternate Way of Loving,” they underscored the pathetic as well as preposterous aspects of women’s studies.
Why not call a course in basket weaving “nuclear physics”? Or “sex toys for women” “mechanical engineering”?
Of course, advocates of women’s studies and kindred forays into the academic sex jungle would hotly deny our assessment. But here, too, we note a large element of mendacity. n On the one hand, they claim that “sex toys for women” and the rest are part of a proud, emancipatory journey, as fit a subject for academic inquiry as differential calculus. On the other hand, they know that this isn’t so and are quick to dissemble whenever such events come under public scrutiny. The extent of the untruthfulness is breathtaking. On January 2, The Times of London ran a story about the proliferation of sex studies on American campuses. In response to rising public indignation about such institutionally sanctioned displays of perversity, The Times reported, some universities have begun to take “precautions to protect their graduates.” A case in point is Brown University, where, according to The Times, “a course on ‘Queers and Culture’ is described on report cards … as ‘Identities-Communities’ in order not to offend potential employers.” But why stop there? Why not call a course in basket weaving “nuclear physics”? Or “sex toys for women” “mechanical engineering”?
These examples show that there is much that is patently absurd about women’s studies. But the fact that something is absurd does not necessarily mean it is harmless. This was brought home to us by the critic John Leo in his column in U.S. News & World Report for January 19. Titled “No Takeovers, Please,” Mr. Leo’s column reported on “Vision 2000,” a document prepared by the women’s studies programs at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the five other land-grant universities of New England. Under the guise of promoting “diversity” and “gender equity,” “Vision 2000” advocates the transformation of these six universities into radical feminist fiefdoms. Its nine recommendations aim at bringing every aspect of academic existence, from the curriculum and hiring of faculty to student social life, under the control of a feminist diktat.
The first recommendation, for example, ostensibly concerns fostering “accountability for gender equity.” To this end, “Vision 2000” calls for student evaluations of all courses. Such evaluations are to include “measures of gender equity in course content and classroom environment. Heads of departments, schools, and colleges [are to] use these evaluations both to identify and reward superior achievement, and to identify and intervene in undesirable practices.” But think about this for a moment. What would “gender equity” in a course on chemistry be? What would it be for literary history until at least the mid-eighteenth century? What would it be for the entire history of philosophy? For music? For architecture? For mathematics? Gender “equity”—by which the framers of this document mean “equal numbers of men and women in the underrepresented groups”—is impossible without a vast distortion of the historical record.
What would “gender equity” in a course on chemistry be?
But it is not simply in the curriculum that “Vision 2000” wants to intervene. The document also demands that university leaders “utilize institutional research capacity to produce the data necessary to raise consciousness, instigate action, and monitor progress [toward gender equity] on our campuses.” The correct translation of “produce the data necessary to raise consciousness,” of course, is “manufacture the data to support the desired fiction.”
Some of the recommendations contained in “Vision 2000” are little more than silly populist palaver—the demand, for example, that “all employees have library privileges equal to those of the faculty,” or the demand that “all members of the university community have equal access to important communities and conversations.” Yet why should a janitor have library privileges equal to those of a professor? Why should the president include the kitchen help in his deliberations about fundraising?
But many of the recommendations sound an ominous, indeed, a totalitarian, note. “All General Education courses,” we read, are to “integrate scholarship on and by women and use content and pedagogies that are women-friendly.” And if they don’t? “Academic departments that consistently surface with disproportionately high female drop-out rates are penalized.” There have always been far fewer women than men in the hard sciences and mathematics, but this must stop. And teachers who do not aid in stopping it will themselves be stopped: “Faculty whose students identify their courses, teaching styles, and mentoring as failing to be inclusive do not receive teaching prizes, satisfactory teaching evaluations, or merit raises.”
It is tempting to dismiss “Vision 2000” as simply another feminist screed, totally out of touch with reality. The problem, as Mr. Leo points out, is that three of the five university presidents—in Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire—have already signed on to its recommendations “in spirit.” Which means that some or all of its proposals may well be enforced on their campuses. Mr. Leo is quite right that
For the most part, women’s studies programs are, as Mr. Leo puts it, “part therapy group, part training grounds for feminist cadres.” He concludes by observing that “it’s a close question whether these politicized outposts should be academic departments at all.” In our view, however, the question is by no means close. Morally as well as intellectually, women’s studies is a disaster, and one that increasingly threatens the basic integrity of the academic enterprise. Spouting the language of “equality,” “diversity,” and “inclusiveness,” women’s studies is really Orwellianism for the twenty-first century, with Big Sister standing in for Orwell’s outdated male counterpart. No, the question is not close. Women’s studies should not be reformed or modified or rethought. It should be abolished altogether.