Women—Deconstructed, but Still Here

 

Women’s Studies for the Future:

Foundations, Interrogations, Politics

Edited by Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Agatha M. Beins

New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005, 347 pp., $24.95

 

Reviewed by Karin Aguilar-San Juan

 

This collection of nineteen essays came out of a conference held at the University of Arizona in 2000. Thirteen of the essays are based on original presentations or workshops at that conference (Chandra Mohanty’s “ ‘Under Western Eyes’ Revisited,” is reprinted from her book Feminism Without Borders—Duke, 2003). Often, anthologies of conference papers are disappointingly scattered, incoherent, and uneven—but not this one. The editors—Elizabeth Kennedy, an established author and senior scholar in women’s studies, and Agatha Beins, a graduate student in the field—introduce the collection with a full-length essay that explains the major issues and problems that drive contemporary scholarship and pedagogy in women’s studies in the United States. They do not, unfortunately, offer framing comments for the individual chapters, nor do they provide a concluding essay to draw everything together. Consequently, I had to trust the references the authors made to debates and discussions I had not encountered before, and figure out why it all matters, on my own. If other readers are like me, getting through this book may pose some tough but worthwhile challenges.

 According to the editors, women’s studies must respond to five major questions, each of which frames a section of the book. The first, “What is the Subject of Women’s Studies?” may seem ridiculous if you are not already aware of the huge quantities of ink academics have spilled deconstructing the category of “woman” and addressing the infinite variety and sometimes contradictory nature of women’s experiences. News Flash: women’s studies is not just for or about white, middle-class women. For many working in women’s studies, gender and sexual categories have long been inseparable from entrenched, complex systems of patriarchy, heterosexism, racism, colonialism, and imperialism. There is no universal “female,” and to talk about “women’s lives” is to bring up a host of deeply intersecting and interacting issues.  

 In 1997, these realizations prompted an apocalyptic essay by Wendy Brown entitled “The Impossibility of Women’s Studies.” Brown’s essay is not included in this volume, but the editors’ introduction and two of the essays in the first section respond to Brown’s contention that the field has no reason for being now that the concept of woman has been deconstructed. Both Bonnie Zimmerman and Robyn Wiegman seek to recuperate a proper subject and justification for women’s studies as a legitimate interdisciplinary endeavor. Zimmerman defends women’s studies vigorously because, as she finally puts it, despite Brown’s discursive dismantling of woman-ness, “women exist.” Where Zimmerman bluntly insists on the material basis for women’s studies as a feminist project now and in the future, Wiegman takes a more nuanced and theoretical road. She examines women’s studies within and against the traditional disciplines and governing structures of the US university, and concludes that we need women’s studies precisely because of the epistemological and political debates that divide and disrupt the field. It is an institutional site and a knowledge project that allow us to “make legible” the very problems that Brown claims signal its death.

 The other three chapters in the first section elaborate upon the history and struggles of black women, third world women, and queers as subjects who both define and challenge women’s studies. They raise additional questions about the subjects of women’s studies. If we reject the “identitarian” assumption that author and subject must be the same, then what do we do about inequities in power and resources among various groups of women, some who have risen to become well-known authors and others who remain anonymous subjects? Put another way, whose actions matter for theorizing in this field, and what will we do with the “agentive force” of women who are not normally seen as central figures of women’s history? The problem for this book—and maybe for women’s studies more generally—is that good theory does not translate easily to good practice, and as a result both theory and practice are still rife with many of the issues that scholars and activists were supposed to have solved many decades ago.

In her interview with Evelynn M. Hammonds, Beverly Guy-Sheftall points out that the women’s studies program at Spelman College is unique among the historically black colleges and universities in the moral and financial support it receives from administrators as well as from the Ford Foundation. As a consequence, Spelman undergraduates are more vocal and informed about feminist issues than their counterparts at other black colleges. In April 2004, women’s studies majors and feminist activists on campus spoke up against the misogyny of the rap star Nelly, drawing the attention of Spelman graduates and the national media alike. Does the notion of a changing subject in women’s studies take seriously the perspectives of these young black women—whose protests occurred in a black-centered institutional setting and whose contributions to feminist thinking and practice should therefore be treated on their own terms, rather than in terms that are equivalent to, or worse, derivative of, white feminism?

The second section asks, “How Does Women’s Studies Negotiate the Politics of Alliance and the Politics of Difference?” Sandra K. Soto responds by analyzing the recent conceptualization of women’s studies as a “transnational” project. In her view, transnationalism can be, and usually is, deployed to erase women of color and issues of race or multiculturalism from the women’s studies agenda. She demands a “critical” study of women of color pursued in the context of a transnational feminist practice that “helps us to understand the varied and unequivalent processes that generate racial difference, that gender subjects, and that encourage self-identification as women of color.” Janet R. Jakobsen tackles the question of alliances versus differences by pointing out that women’s studies should see differences as “simultaneously sites of separation and sites of mutual constitution and interconnection”—although it often fails to achieve this perspective. We have to give up on the idea that one fine day women’s studies will be “perfectly antiracist, anti-heterosexist, and anti-nationalist.” Given her emphasis on big theories about hegemony and contradiction, her recommendation that we “do things differently in the future” by working together across programs and disciplines strikes me as weirdly pragmatic and even anticlimactic. How do we know, after all is said and done, which forms of working together are counterhegemonic and which support the university’s overall goal to control and constrain alliances and differences?

 The last three essays in the section focus on Chicana, Jewish, and American Indian Studies, but none directly addresses the points raised in the previous pages. The essays felt like ships passing in the night. After all that had been said in the book about subjects and diversity, I was sad that Monica Brown and Miroslava Chavez-Garcia concluded their exploration of Chicana studies by writing “We call on Euro-American feminists to listen to the continued critiques and conversations on race.” Then I was confused by Esther Fuchs’ comments on feminism and Jewish studies, which she presents without remarking on the construction of the Middle East as a venue for US imperialism, militarism, and racial formation. Thus, she traces anti-Semitism in the academy—which is quite necessary—but without offering any conceptual handles for the possibility that women’s studies in the United States is an accessory to the proliferation of colonizing and racializing narratives that affect Jews and others around the globe. Similarly, Mary Jo Tippeconnic Fox and Sheilah E. Nicholas shy away from a critique of U.S. expansionism or colonialism, settling instead for a representational dismantling of “Pocahontas, princess, and squaw” as (of course) damaging stereotypes. Are these chapters, despite their authors’ apparent desire to have their issues included on the women’s studies agenda, in fact tributes to the continued and ongoing marginalization of women of color in an increasingly transnational field?

 Filled with puzzlement about authority, identity, alliances, differences, and transnationalism, I was relieved to arrive at the book’s third and fourth sections on interdisciplinarity and activism. Under the heading, “How Can Women’s Studies Fulfill the Promise of Interdisciplinarity?” Miranda Joseph, Priti Ramamurthy, and Alys Eve Weinbaum make a significant, open-ended contribution in their cowritten essay, “Toward a New Feminist Internationalism.” Here, the concerns Soto raises about transnationalism are given additional buttons and levers in the form of a political-economy/Marxist framework. Where Soto sees “American exceptionalism and imperialist chauvinism” as the twin impulses that divide women’s studies from a transnationalist feminist practice, Joseph et al. posit that global capitalism, or neoliberalism, shapes gender and intensifies inequities not only around the globe but within the academy. They caution against a women’s studies agenda that complies, willingly or not, with the international agencies that pave the way for transnational capital expansion. I wished I could go back to Zimmerman and Wiegman to ask for their response to this Marxist-flavored feminist internationalism. Does women’s studies in the United States have an obligation to women in the global South and, if so, is it enough to celebrate the “possibilities” of women’s studies and go on with our Western, Northern, privileged business? Or am I now invoking the useless and “compensatory cycle of guilt and blame” that Brown saw as an ultimate dead-end for the field?

 The fifth and last section of the book contain three fascinating essays on pedagogy amidst changing social conditions. Lise Gotell and Barbara Crow discuss their strategies for dealing with antifeminist attacks mounted by students in the classroom. Their main point is that “free speech” defenses on behalf of either the feminist teacher or the antifeminist student do not do justice to feminist theories and knowledge production. They call for a “power-sensitive conception of academic freedom” that connects antifeminism in the classroom to the larger social and political contexts in which feminism is rejected and belittled. In a very strange essay, Inez Martinez ruminates on women’s studies and diversity with a series of comments about knowing that “occurs in other areas of the body,” validates “gut feelings,” and includes “heart-motivations for making change.” I’m definitely for all of those things, but I was surprised when Martinez subsumed all of it into the realm of the unconscious. Without any prior discussion of the role of psychology, emotions, or even spirituality in women’s studies, this essay threw me for a loop.

 Then, just as I began to recover, the book ended with an essay on distance education, a big thorn in the side for liberal arts college professors like me and probably a lot of other people who prize face-to-face interaction and fear unnecessary technological interventions. But Laura Briggs and Kari Boyd McBride bring innovation, clarity, and vigor to the feminist discussion of the digital divide. They share their experiences in using Internet-based teaching and learning tools to people who are in prison, rural, homebound, or for other reasons prevented from joining the university classroom. By contextualizing their e-practices in a broad, multicultural, multilingual framework, they demonstrate what Jakobsen calls “a clear view of what we can do in the here and now.”

 As with every conversation, academic and otherwise, the flavor and direction of the dialogue depends largely on who shows up. The women who met in Arizona in 2000 explored many idea and issues that subsequently got categorized into five big questions by the editors of this book. I found those questions provocative even if the answers provided were not always in sync with each other. Surely other readers will find that dissonance alone food for thought.

 

Karin Aguilar-San Juan is an associate professor of American studies at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.

 

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