key concepts of GWS and why they might make the academy angry

Earlier this week the National Women's Studies Association published a document addressing some problems and new guidelines for evaluating tenure and scholarship in the field of Gender and Women's Studies (for simplicity, we'll just go with that name, even though I understand that it is contested). This document contains lots of interesting and important information about how faculty in GWS can contribute to the profession and to academia in general and about how traditional tools of evaluation in other disciplines are sometimes not fitting or appropriate within the context of GWS departments and career tracks. In the section entitled, "What is Women's and Gender Studies: An Overview of the Field?," on page 6, the document states:

"Approaches to knowledge production and transformation in women's and gender studies are highly divergent. Thus in providing an overview of the field, our aim is to offer context and background for assessment, rather than a directive or mandate for the field. We outline below four key concepts central to women's and gender studies scholarship, teaching, and service."

In naming these 4 key concepts it seems that the document (and the working group who authored it) is doing two things. First, they are identifying/explaining elements that are important throughout and common within the diversity that is GWS. Second, they are attempting to show that because GWS contains these key concepts, the academy misunderstands, is perhaps threatened by, and does not fairly and adequately evaluate the importance of GWS scholarship and teaching.

So, pages 7 & 8 describe the four key concepts and how they are misunderstood by the academy are:

1) The Politics of Knowledge Production- Since GWS is concerned with the examination/interrogation of the production of knowledge, GWS can be seen as "disloyal or transgressive to institutional norms."

2) Social Justice- Since GWS values participation in collaborative activist projects, GWS may be seen as less academically rigorous than other types of scholarship that are traditionally valued by the academy.

3) Intersectionality- GWS encourages scholars to deal with multiple and interacting systems of inequality (racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, etc.) and that maybe hasn't been valued in other fields. (I was a bit unclear on why the academy might have a problem with this aspect of GWS.)

4) Transnational Analysis- Since GWS works to de-center western thought and to understand the way that "the center is always multiply constituted in and through it's relationship to 'the periphery,'" GWS may be seen as a threat to the primacy/power/centeredness of the academy. (This wasn't explicitly stated, but that is my read of this section of the document.)

I find these key concepts and the ways that they might be misunderstood by traditional tools of academic evaluation to be really helpful in two ways: first, because it helps me feel that the diversity of GWS is at least provisionally unified about the value of these four key concepts and second, because it helps me more clearly see the ways in which I want to resist and interrupt the pressures of the academy.

I'm not sure if this document will really change the ways that institutions evaluate the work of GWS scholars, but I think it does change (or at least start to change) the way that I envision myself as part of the academy. Perhaps more importantly, this document helps me understand (and be able to more helpfully address) why the academy might be nervous or angry at me....and it helps me not take that anger so personally.

"invisible" oppressions (part 1)

So, when I say "invisible," I don't mean oppression that is totally unobservable; instead, what I mean to highlight here is forms of oppression that people perpetuate inadvertently. I believe this happens it two main ways: 1) we may individually perpetuate a form of oppression because, as a result of our culture, we are blind to the harm that the practices cause & 2) we may be complicit in forms of oppression that are structural. And, as we will see, these two ways are not really that separate. For this post I will stick to describing the first type of invisible oppression (blindness due to culture), then I will post next week about the second type (structural).

In particular contexts around the world, girls often undergo a procedure that alters their genitalia. This procedure may be called Female Circumcision, Female Genital Mutilation, or Female Genital Cutting, depending on the perspective of the person speaking. Whatever you decide to call it, this procedure is generally performed on these girls by or at the request of their mothers. These mothers are convinced--by the form of religion they have been taught, by social pressure, or by the traditions they were raised with, etc.--that this procedure is necessary for their daughters to be successful and respected women in their society. It would therefore be a dramatic misunderstanding to assert that the mothers who have these procedures preformed on their daughters are purposefully harming/oppressing them. These mothers are simply doing what they believe is required for their daughters' success and happiness. Whatever harm these procedures cause their daughters, they believe that it is worth it. Furthermore, the identities and self-respect of the mothers themselves has been formed within this context. The mothers themselves probably underwent the procedure and understand themselves to be respectable in society because of that. In this way, the culture "forces" (I use quotes to suggest that this term requires negotiation) the women to have their daughters undergo the procedure at the same time that the women-forcing-their-daughters-to-undergo-the-procedure produce the culture which "forces" them to have their daughters undergo the procedures; it is a simultaneously co-productive cycle. (That sentence is purposeful, so it is seems confusing, please re-read it.) Standing at a distance from that practice, we might quickly say that this is oppression. It is fairly easy, and I think reasonable, for us to assert that no amount of improvement in social standing merits the intense pain and lifetime of medical complications that these procedures cause. The UN has even established a "International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation" which is to be observed on February 6 each year. So, while the term oppression itself remains in constant negotiation, I think we can agree that "forcing" girls to undergo this procedure is a type of oppression. But the mothers of these girls do not see the procedures in this way at all; if they did, I believe that they stop the practice. The way in which these procedures might be oppression is made invisible to them by their social/cultural context.

Within the American context, these types of invisible forms of oppression may be harder to identify because we are already ingrained in the culture that perpetuates the practices. However, one example might be the way that our society forces women to meet certain expectations of beauty. Our culture teaches us that women must be thin, wear high heels (In Sexism & God-Talk, Rosemary Ruether says you can tell the status of women in a society by their footwear.) and makeup, and dress and behave in feminine ways in order to be attractive, well liked, and successful. We learn these lessons from society in a thousand different ways. We learn those lessons when the media discusses what Hilary Clinton or Michelle Obama are wearing instead of what they are saying. We learn those lessons from Carl's Jr. commercials, America's Next Top Model, and fashion magazines. But we also learn those lessons from each other. When we tell a little girl that her dress is pretty instead of asking her about her favorite book, we perpetuate the oppression. When we compliment a woman (or man) for losing weight by saying that they "look thin" (instead of focusing on health), we perpetuate the oppression that continually defines women (and increasingly men) by their ability to conform to expectations of appearance. While these small actions don't feel like oppression when we do them (they may even feel like we are being nice), I contend that they are oppression, or at least that they might be oppression and therefore deserve further reflection. We individually perpetuate these harms on each other because the harms that these "compliments" cause is made invisible to us by our society/cultural context.

To give further examples:

  • In a context where women have never had leadership roles in government, the women may say that they are not oppressed because their fathers & husbands speak for them in politics, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't encourage those women to question those practices.
  • In a context where a certain group of people has never been taught to read, they may not articulate that as oppression because they may not know that they have the ability to read and are being denied access to the resources necessary to allow them to gain that skill. But, after being taught to read, these people would likely look back at their illiteracy and understand it as oppression.
  • In the context of extreme poverty, employing children in sweatshops may be experienced by the families as an opportunity, not oppression. But I am still against the practice.
  • In the context of a religious group that convinces LGBT individuals that they can, through therapy, become straight, these individuals may see this therapy as hope and freedom. But I would want to ask these people to consider finding hope and freedom through less painful alternatives (re: acceptance, etc.).

What these examples demonstrate is that oppression may exist even when people (both those in power & those without it) do not recognize it as such. Oppression can even exist when the oppressed people themselves do not articulate their experiences as oppression. We have to be suspicious of the way that people articulate their own experiences, because their experiences are experienced through their own cultural location. [See Ann Stoler's Race & the Education of Desire for more on this.] However, this also does NOT mean that we can go around telling anyone who doesn't live like an elite American that they are oppressed. That would be a whole other type of oppression. Instead, my point here is that oppression is a term that must be constantly negotiated. Oppression looks different in different contexts and to different people. It is slippery-- constantly changing, hard to grasp, and often nearly invisible. Therefore, we must be constantly questioning the ways that our own actions may be inadvertently oppressing others, and we must be alert for ways that others' actions may be subtly oppressing us. It is only by keeping the term oppression in flux that we have any hope of being able to address it.

Can you think of other examples of contexts where a group of people may not articulate their own experiences as oppression even though you believe they may be oppressed? How would you go about addressing that situation?

Do you participate in any behaviors that may deserve further interrogation regarding potentially being a form of invisible oppression?

What do you think about the possibility that all oppressions are at least partially "invisible"? If a form of oppression weren't at least partially invisible would people still perpetuate it?

How do you feel about leaving the definition of oppression in constant flux/negotiation?

why do feminists care about racism, class-ism, and heterosexism?

I've received lots of great comments and questions about my feminism post. Several of these included surprise about my claim that feminists are primarily concerned (in addition to sexism) with issues like racism, class-ism, and heterosexism. Given that the term feminism seems to only indicate a concern for women, several people pointed out that if I am primarily concerned with all forms of exploitation/oppression then I may be more of a humanitarian or a proponent of equality in general than a feminist. These are good points, and a discussion of whether retaining the term feminism is more useful or harmful is definitely worth a post (coming soon!). For now, however, I would like to explain why feminists are concerned with these issues. Third wave feminism contributed a great deal to feminist theory. It is the 3rd wavers who showed us that up to that point feminists had been using the experience of white women to stand in for the experience of all women. The 3rd wavers began to hear from Black women and lesbian women and poor women, and as a result they began to understand that women in different places in society experienced oppression in different ways. At first, feminists tried to understand these differences in experience as mathematic equations wherein you could say that a black woman is oppressed twice as much as a white woman because she is both a woman and black. These two forms of oppression were understood as separate and additive. However, this understand of multiple oppressions was really problematic because it still claimed that all women are oppressed (as women) in the same way... and again used the experience of some women to explain the experiences of all women. Unacceptable.

So, feminists started to rethink the concept of multiple oppressions. It was clear that Black women were oppressed in ways that were different from the ways that white women were oppressed. For example, while a white women may have experienced familial responsibilities as oppressive and the workplace as liberating, a Black woman may have experienced the workplace (perhaps a white woman's home) as exploitative and oppressive, but her family life (while she controlled the finances, etc.) as empowering. In this way, it became clear that the Black woman was not oppressed as a woman and as a Black person. No, she was oppressed as a Black woman....and her oppression was unique and her goals for liberation were also unique.

This new perspective was helpful for a few important reasons. First, it acknowledged the real diversity of women's lives and stopped assuming that white women's lives could stand in for all women's lives. Secondly, this approach took seriously the way that each group of women understood and expressed their experiences of oppression. Thirdly, it acknowledged that no person's experiences are defined by one aspect of their personhood. This means that to understand and analyze a person's experiences of oppression we must take into account not merely sex or gender, but also race, class, and sexual orientation (and perhaps other aspects of personhood, like nationality, geographic location, etc.). Broadly, this means that the more specific you can be about understand a person's situation, the more helpfully you can understand their oppression and work for their liberation. Without this type of careful understanding of a person's situation, you may think you are working for her liberation and empowerment but your actions only result in further harming her. Fourthly, this approach to multiple oppressions clearly demonstrated that in order for all women to be liberated and empowered, all forms of oppression must cease. A Black woman cannot be empowered as a woman, while Black people are still oppressed. If Black people are still oppressed, then empowering her "as a woman" doesn't even make sense. Lastly, this approach avoided the trap of comparing oppressions or making them into a hierarchy. It is not at all helpful to say that women are more oppressed than Black people, nor does it make sense to say that women must be empowered before Black people can be. No, all forms of oppression are interlocking and simultaneous. If anyone anywhere is oppressed, then women are oppressed.... and more importantly, if anyone anywhere is oppressed, then none of us lives in equality.

For all these reasons, feminists are (and must be) concerned with opposing all forms of oppression. And we must not be primarily concerned with the oppression of women and secondarily concerned with other forms of oppression. No, feminists must be primarily concerned with all forms of oppression.

I assume that no further explanation is necessary for showing that racism is a form of oppression that must be opposed by feminists. If this needs more explanation, please let me know in the comments.

Class-ism may require a bit explanation. Class-ism is discrimination against the poor (or the rich, so we could discuss that at a later date). I think my post on economic inequality explains the necessity of opposing social structures that perpetuate historic differences in access to resources. Again, if this needs more explanation, let me know in the comments.

Hetero-sexism may also require some more explanation. Hetero-sexism is discrimination against anyone who does not meet society's expectation of establishing heterosexual and monogamous romantic relationships. Heteronormativity is another important term that points to the way that society is built on and structured by this heterosexual expectation. So, feminists acknowledge that these expectations and this structure of society oppresses people, and that they therefore must be opposed. For example, a Black lesbian woman will never be fully liberated until Black people, lesbians, and women (and we might say all humans or even all life forms) are liberated (re: seen as equal in worth, given equal access to resources, treated with dignity, and encouraged to flourish). The topic of hetero-sexism may deserve its own post, so if you would like me to say more about this, again please let me know.

As always, thanks for reading.... and please let me know your thoughts:

Does this help clarify why feminists are concerned about these other forms of oppression? Did you understand the problems with the additive approach to multiple oppressions? Any other thoughts on these topics?