Karla's observations

The Second Science

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Christine de Pizan lecturing to a group of men

Recently an acquaintance told me that I have been brainwashed by academic feminism. I should read outside my field, he suggested. Academic feminism, he informed me, is a field that exists simply to justify its continued existence. Can you feel the shiver run down your spine imagining that great works like The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir, Bodies That Matter by Judith Butler, and This Sex Which is Not One by Luce Irigaray were written just to while away the time? What I want to discuss here, then, is ignorance about feminism.

This acquaintance of mine hasn’t engaged with academic feminism. He’s a graduate student, so he has the resources to do so. Yet he hasn’t educated himself on even the most basic of feminist principles.

Feminist scholars, on the other hand, are expected to read widely, research thoroughly, understand deeply and critique not only the world but also themselves on a fundamental level. Only then are they ready to make assessments of anything, be it feminism, gender, politics, international relations, the environment, the economy etcetera. I think this is a great standard for academia, and it’s one that I hold myself to. But as a feminist, even when I’ve immersed myself in a topic, engaged with all the literature I can find on it and thought about it for months on end, I’m still accused of being biased, of exaggerating, of overstating the importance of gender, of being a radical feminist (you know, those women who fought for my right to actually be writing this blog post?)

Academics obviously need to be able to express opinions, and can comment without doing years of exhaustive research. But I think as scholars we have a responsibility to give educated opinions. And when gaps in our knowledge surrounding those opinions are pointed out to us, I think the onus is on us to acknowledge those gaps and engage in exploration and constructive discussion to fill them.

If I, as a feminist, am held to and abide by the standard of informed, considered critique (and am anyway accused at the end of the day of being hysterical), then why can a male graduate student with next to no knowledge of either feminism or academic feminism tell me the entire field of academic feminism, the entire debate on gender, the entire corpus of academic feminist writings, are entirely irrelevant? We might just dismiss this person as backward, but I believe this is not just an isolated moment of wilful ignorance. I believe there is a broader problem at play here, but I think it’s one that is more subtle than this acquaintance of mine was. I think it’s a more insidious problem, one that normally doesn’t rear its head in such obvious ways, and probably isn’t even consciously perpetuated.

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Photo by Ginny

For example, Agnes Pinteaux and David J. Nightingale studied four male critical social scientists as part of research for an undergraduate thesis. They found that although these men had greater exposure to knowledge of feminism than men in the general population, they used discourses and discursive devices “to delineate feminism as little more than an abstract and essentially academic issue”. Pinteaux and Nightingale found that to achieve this positioning, the men used the following discursive strategies: “strategically deployed contradictions, engaging with discourses on a purely intellectual level, the strict separation of the public and the private, a relativising of experiences, a polite ignorance of feminism … the preference of certain types of theorising over others, and a stated lack of relevance as to white, middle class, feminist, academic theorising”.

I think this dismissal of and ignorance about feminism is a creeping problem. I think it’s a problem that’s there when a feminist academic is passed over for a grant or a scholarship. When she tells a male colleague that her field is gender or women’s studies and is met with a smug “ohhh”. When a women’s or gender studies department becomes subsumed under a sociology one. Antifeminism is unpopular these days, but ignorance about feminism endures. As Pinteaux and Nightingale write, “with the successful segregation and marginalisation of academic feminism, feminism has become a place that men can visit if they so wish, and ignore if they do not”.

To end, I want to briefly address the charge that academic feminism only exists to justify its continued existence, an accusation I’m sure will be levelled at this blog post. Firstly, academic feminism is important, not only in the practical sense of driving forward gender equality and women’s rights, but also on a theoretical level. In The conduct of inquiry in international relations Patrick Thaddeus Jackson explores the philosophical wagers underpinning four different approaches to knowledge production. As Ari of Everyday Critiquepointed out, Jackson argues that feminism is the theory that has contributed the most to the methodology of reflexivity. As Ari put it, “in this sense feminism isn’t only of value to itself but to a whole grouping of approaches”.

Secondly, if it seems that as academic feminists we’re continually trying to justify the existence of our work and our field, maybe that’s because we’re continually being told it’s irrelevant and downright wrong by the uninformed and the unengaged. Why do we have to listen to people like this? Because sadly in academia, as in the rest of life, they’re the ones who continue to hold most of the power.

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What do you think reader?  Have you experienced this ignorance about feminism from a friend or colleague?

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One thought on “The Second Science

  1. It seems that one of the most virile mechanisms perpetuating discrimination in advanced liberal democracies is the cop-out of “polite ignorance”. Much like the blaze attitude which Simmel claimed city dwellers use to simplify existence in the busy metropolis, so too can polite ignorance become a mechanism for ignoring a wave of ethical dilemmas about how to conduct one’s life. By writing off debates around sex equality as some high-strung academic memeplex, individuals are able to disengage and reinterpret their lives according to terms which place them in a position of moral righteousness.

    Admittedly, it can be quite difficult to have a lay public read much of any scholarship. Working in the area of university governance, I’m concerned at how surprised students ask me what they should take away from university and into the workforce. I feel if students were made more explicitly aware of how ideas about feminism and critique of institutions more generally could help them understand their experiences, they might be more inclined to explore. I think the difficulty begins in explaining to someone that they do not know what they think they know, and that if they do not know, perhaps they should take a moment to listen.

    But who knows… maybe you can’t show anything to a person who prefers the darkness of closed eyes.

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