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.

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?