Is academic feminism an oxymoron?

Is academic feminism an oxymoron?

Womm’s sludiu hr. Forum. Vol. IO, No. 5, pp. 529432. Printed in the USA. 1987. 0 0277.539V87 s3.00+ m 1987 Pcr~amon Journals Ltd. IS ACADEMIC FEMI...

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Womm’s sludiu hr. Forum. Vol. IO, No. 5, pp. 529432. Printed in the USA.



0277.539V87 s3.00+ m 1987 Pcr~amon Journals Ltd.

IS ACADEMIC FEMINISM AN OXYMORON? LOUISE JOHNSON School of Humanities, Deakin University, Victoria 3217, Australia

Synopsis-An oxymoron by definition is a paradox, a universal contradiction. But no words or concepts have such stability. Indeed, any concept subject to a feminist critique is quickly revealed as a social construction whose so-called paradoxical status is but the beginning of redefinition and the foundation for political action. So it is with academic feminism. While apparently a contradiction to ‘teach’ feminism within an exclusive authoritarian academy awash with masculine ways of knowing and doing, my experience in Women’s Studies at Deakin University has revealed the positive as well as the negative sides of this paradox. In particular, by subverting the academy as the sole custodian of ‘higher learning,’ in confronting men’s knowledge with the possibility of feminist knowledge, and in juxtaposing feminist ways of working and organising with pre-existing structures of power and status (even if without success), avenues of redefinition and political action have been exposed which undermine academic feminism as an oxymoron.


Any thinking person will agree that the term lesbian mother is oxymoronic. The oxymoron is a figure of speech in which the adjective modifying a noun contradicts the essence of the noun it modifies; as in, burning snow. Snow, you will agree, ._is cold, and to modify the noun snow with the descriptive quality burning outrages our sense of logic. Do you follow? Now the concept of mother implies cohesiveness in the social tissue. Mothers raise offspring to adapt to their environment and in turn to work for its preservation and refinement. Mothers, true mothers, are gentle, self-sacrificing, living for the good of their families. What is a lesbian? A social deviate. Even, we might say, an unwitting social enemy. By her very existence she defies and discredits the family, inverting the natural order of things, asserting her own ego at the expense of organised society. The term lesbian mofher, then, simply makes no sense. (Taylor, 1982: 6) So argues the super-logical ex-husband of a wonderfully successful lesbian mother in Sheila Ortiz Taylor’s novel Faultline. The quotation exposes a number of things which could be considered in a discussion of whether academic feminism is like lesbian motherhood, and oxymoronic. The comparison, like the quotation (I hope) is amusing, and for an important reason. For not only do we

have lesbian mothers in the.biological sense, but like the heroine of the novel, we also increasingly have feminist lesbian mothers engaged in undermining the (so-called, and by whom?) oxymoronic nature of the label. In their various ways lesbian mothers are defining this term in their own way and in so doing effecting change in directions that they wish. Those involved in the process continually encounter contradictions between what they should be and how they wish to live, but these sharpen the points of conflict and weakness as well as point to new areas for redefinition. As a result the phrase ‘lesbian mother’ is less and less an oxymoron. An oxymoron then is not a logical term but a social one, often defined by dominant groups, and therefore not only open to, but inviting redefinition. Seeing academic feminism as oxymoronic can similarly foreground contradictions and point ways forward to its positive redefinition. First, though, what is needed is some definition of ‘feminism’ and the ‘academy’ before academic feminism can be related to both. This whole discussion could founder on these questions for a week, so for the moment, I will push ahead boldly. Here feminism is regarded as: a self-conscious personal and political movement which works collectively, in a non-hierarchical way to end the oppression of women. The academy I define as: an institutional arm of the State concerned with reproducing 529



the existing social order primarily through the production and circulation of legitimate knowledge. Employed by a hierarchical, authoritative institution dedicated to the status quo, feminists within the academy are truly living a contradiction. But the academy is not a monolith and its many contradictions create many avenues for feminist activity. In this paper I will look at three such avenues and at strategies we have used or considered to resolve contradictions in favour of women. I will consider in turn: (1) The academy as custodian of ‘higher’ learning, (2) Men’s and women’s academic knowledge, and (3) Structures of organisation and power. The academy as custodian of ‘higher’ learning The existence of ‘the academy’ elevated and apart, with particular (and restrictive) means of entry and codes of conduct, limits the entry of most without the resources or appropriate skills. This restricted entry affects many women, especially those of colour or with migrant or working-class backgrounds. Having joined the ten percent of the populace who enter tertiary study women are quickly streamed into lower status, allegedly less demanding and less important areas of study, for example arts or education, while men are groomed for their ‘rightful’ positions in high status, more powerful and renumerative fields such as law, management, and computing. Accepting for the moment the status and separateness of tertiary education itself and the status and gender ordering of subjects, we as academic feminists should be devoting energies to giving all people access to tertiary education while also encouraging and supporting women into higher status fields. The liberal promise for participation and equity is already being used by feminists in schools to broaden the options available to women. We should build on their example. In addition, I would urge that women’s studies, or at least feminist critiques of disciplines and analyses of oppressive class and gender relations, be made compulsory components in all of these courses. What good is it to make women more employable if there is no work? Why encourage women to do science when power rests with economists and computer experts? Why encourage women to move anywhere unless they are exposed to the ideas of feminism? Accompanying these efforts to open the


range of institutional knowledge to politicised women, I would also argue for academic feminists to actively destroy the monopoly the academy has on ‘higher’ learning. By participating in campaign groups, reading, film, or discussion groups, by involvement in editing and publishing, radio, or television, so called academic knowledge can be spread well beyond the institution at the same time as other women are involved with its reformulation. Men’s and women 3 academic knowledge At present, the subject ‘Women’s Studies’ at Deakin is not an oxymoron, and it has been incorporated in ways that allow both positive and negative contradictions to flourish. By creating interdisciplinary courses we have joined many other women who have moved beyond the ‘Women and (history, geography, literature, etc)’ stage of safe incorporation. We too are .part of the process whereby women’s studies is itself becoming a discipline and by our very presence we are institutionalising feminist activity, debate, and writing. Although there are many problems with this, women’s studies does mean that this and the previous, known phases of feminist activity will not disappear. It could well mean that feminism as a body of literature and systematic thinking may not die when we do. By our presence and by the existence of a vast feminist literature, the issue of gender and power is increasingly difficult for our colleagues to ignore. Our tactics at Deakin have been that now we have women’s studies, many of those involved move back, at least partially, into our ‘own disciplines.’ Literature, Australian Studies, and others have to examine anew their existing behaviour and courses and to include, at our insistence, various aspects of the feminist viewpoint. While winning the battle for women’s studies at Deakin did not shake the institution to its foundations, and our initiative (born out of sheer frustration) of inter-varsity collaboration is now paraded by senior men as their own, this is not the whole story. I do not believe that all we have created are a few extra subjects for an Arts degree. We have in the process been part of redefining the oxymoronic nature of academic feminism. One example of incorporating the feminist viewpoint into afl areas of study has already been given. But there are others. For me, the struggle to win women’s studies was

Academic Feminism

a profoundly radicalising experience, one which revealed the details of the maledominated power structure that we confronted, allowed the forging of new links with women across the university and gave to the women involved a collective strength which comes from confronting a determined enemy. In short, we all learnt a great deal about the politics of knowledge and power in our institution and this has been used both to obtain women’s studies and to create a better (even if only more fore-armed) setting for further feminist demands. This process of struggle is an ongoing one. While it would be nice sometimes to stop, to relax, to do more ‘useful’ things like research, and not to have to defend women’s studies daily on committees, in course team meetings, through reviews and against corridor snipes; this very process is an integral part of feminist social change. Changing ourselves, our colleagues and our institution inevitably involves struggle. Having learnt a great deal about the politics of knowledge creation and circulation as a result of our battles, this process has now become part of one of our courses on ‘Feminist Knowledge as Critique and Construct.’ As the title implies this course is also about the prospects for the creation of feminist knowledge-not by critiquing simply the absence of women’s concerns in traditional areas of study, but by considering how the very construction of discourses in philosophy, psychology, religion, or biology, marginalise or construct women in negative ways. Exploring the terms in which patriarchy structures the way we think about ourselves also highlights the ruptures, the places where unities can be disrupted, contradictions exacerbated, and feminist knowing and social change pushed still further. Those involved in devising women’s studies at Deakin are therefore engaged not only in knowledge packaging, but in the politics of institutional operation and change. These concerns necessarily extend beyond the creation of courses - not only to the structures in which those courses have to exist-but to the way the institution operates as a whole to perpetuate the oppression of women. As an academic feminist, therefore, I have been critically involved in creating an equal opportunity and affirmative action policy as well as actively concerned with formulating policies to combat sexual harassment on the campus and sexist advertising in the Geelong


region. AN of, these are related activities and I see them as integral to my activity as an academic feminist. As part of my efforts to redefine the oxymoron, I do not see my job as confined to teaching women’s studies, but as embracing a whole range of feminist changes within an oppressive institution. Structures of organisation and power For me the most difficult and harrowing array of contradictions come from the structures in which we are placed as academic feminists. Trying to operate in a supportive, co-operative way when survival and advancement dictates competition and ambition; building confidence in ourselves and our project amid constant harassment of feminism and women’s studies; allocating equal work loads and responsibilities when there are formal hierarchies of power, security, status and income; democratising -the creation of knowledge when our position is that of expert, producing written study material well in advance of student presence and then to formally assess students; all seem insuperable. Some of these problems are more difficult to resolve than others. I think there are ways to build in cooperation amongst students, to lessen the status of the expert, to open up the study material for critical review and I do not see the need to dismiss assessment of comprehension, or powers of argument and questioning. Similarly, the exposure of students to writings on women’s oppression gives sufficient space, stimulus, and support for the politicisation of those involved. Within a situation where there are vast differentials in security, status, confidence, and income, responsibilities cannot be allocated equally, but they should be allocated fairly in a cooperative way. This is a process at Deakin formalised by the course team, though experience shows that justice and fairness get caught up forever in questions of commitment, rival obligations and power. It is at this point that the contradictions involved in being an academic feminist become most acute. Principles of cooperation and equality sit uneasily with a hierarchical structure clearly marked by different degrees of security, salary, status, and associated power. But the power is conferred’in other ways in the academy-by outside acknowledgement of published and in-person performance, by internal and external ‘contacts,’ by moneys won for personal projects, and so on. These trappings of recognition fall more easily to



those with higher positions on the academic ladder. Such achievements are recognised by those who control ‘standards.’ They do not regard the work of the essay assessor, the keeper of records, or the teacher of students (mainly ‘women’s work’) in the same way. Status and power are therefore conferred in a variety of ways. Entering the race for status and power on the terms already set by an oppressive institution is mandatory, while success comes only to those who compete vigorously and alone. It is an individualised, highly competitive system which tends to exacerbate difference, concentrate power, and highlight tensions. It is also power which is difficult to acquire-those without such recognition cannot just seize it, but must ‘earn it’ in the prescribed ways. The result of such structures of power and organisation for a group of women from different ranks with widely divergent power bases, is explosive. In the short term I see this series of contradictions as unresolvable. For these are differences which cannot be resolved simply by

tolerance. A working solution may be demarcation of territories, but the oxymoron remains as severe as ever. All involved have at least to recognise these contradictions between feminist principles and academic structures and be prepared not just to tolerate difference but to equalize power and recognise the needs of others. At the same time steps must be made continually to challenge and undermine the ways in which such power is allocated in the first place. If not I can see these contradictions as impelling academic feminists to be either completely incorporated within the institution, being burned out by the task of fighting the battle against friends as well as clearly defined foes, or disengaging from the vital task of destroying academic feminism as an oxymoron and redefining it on our own terms. REFERENCE Taylor, Sheila Ortiz. 1982. Faultline. (p. 6) The Women’s Press, London.