Women’s Studies emerged out of the Civil Rights Movement in the 60s & 70s. With roots in political activism, social change, and the women’s liberation movement, Women’s Studies exists as an academic discipline that aims to not simply offer a critical perspective on women, but to, perhaps more importantly, connect a gendered analysis to notions of race, class, sexuality, and nation. Women’s Studies is a field defined, or rather is difficult to be defined due to its multiplicity. Academic disciplines are assumed to possess a developed and specific methodology as well as a specialized object of study. Women’s Studies, however, encompasses a vast array of methodological approaches, some of which extend from disciplines such as anthropology, sociology, history, and psychology among others. In addition, Women’s Studies has received a large amount of critique, both within and outside the field, regarding its object of study. What exactly do Women’s Studies scholars study? To what extent is feminist politics connected to academic feminism? Is Women’s Studies still connected to the larger political feminist movement? Within the four decades of its existence in the university, Women’s Studies has experienced numerous successes, many institutional growing pains, and some significant failures. It is the presumed and justifiable failures of Women’s Studies that this post will focus on.
One of the most notorious failures of Women’s Studies concerns its own name: women. Women’s Studies has been critiqued as a predominantly white women’s narrative, where women of color, queer women, Third World women, and trans* folks are pushed to the margins of the field. From its inception, Women’s Studies has been enhanced by a multitude of critiques. Women of color, Black women especially, have responded to this internal hegemony by developing key frameworks such as standpoint theory and intersectionality. Queer women have opted for an ardent critique on heteronormativity and gender performance. Trans scholars have troubled the gender binary. The list of intersecting identities and their subsequent critiques goes on. These crucial appendages to Women’s Studies make the field what it is, a space where complex societal identities are questioned and connected to larger systemic dynamics. This focus on identity raises an important question regarding the politics surrounding fields rooted in identity formations, fields such as Women’s Studies and Ethnic Studies: What exactly is in a name?
The 21st century has seen multiple Women’s Studies departments and programs change their names. To suggest a more encompassing field of study, some have opted for Women’s and Gender Studies; to denote a synergy with sexuality, others have chosen Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies; or, to break away completely from the limits of women and to symbolize an expansive object of study, many prefer Gender Studies. While these names are certainly not representative of the field’s vast amount of labels, they are indicative of the present context in which Women’s Studies scholars are residing. In Object Lessons, Robyn Wiegman traces the failure of women in order to think through the particular progress narrative that gender offers. By discussing the recent name changes within Women’s and Gender Studies, Wiegman explains how gender is used to represent the new directions of the field and thus, overcome the failures and exclusions that women proffered. But just as women failed, Wiegman argues that gender too will fail. Any identity that we choose to represent our scholarship will fail because identity will always reach its endpoint; sooner or later, it will become exclusionary. This failure might not be such a bad thing.
My particular position is a difficult one to set aside as I read on name changes and disciplinarity. I’m a graduate student in a Women’s Studies department, one that recently merged with the LGBT Studies program. While I certainly have opinions on my department’s name-change debate, opinions that change often, this unit’s reading has compounded the significance of locality and specificity. Each department is different. This statement holds true for both identity fields and the traditional disciplines. In order to tackle the naming debate, we must first consider the scale in which we are operating. Locality matters. Each department in Women’s, Gender, Sexuality Studies operates under specific institutional restrictions, limits that each department must abide by in order to exist. Institutional validation is important, but what are the costs of conforming to a neoliberal institution that privileges individuality over collectivity and values knowledge discovery so long as it brings a return on investment?
Nowadays, it is common sense to pick a major that will yield positive monetary benefits. It is common sense to negotiate our worth to our bosses, potential employers, or institutions. It is common sense to assume that our worth is tied to our labor, what we can offer, and how marketable we are. Due to the rise in tuition, students have begun to choose universities and majors depending on the perceived return on educational investment they offer; students, thus, have been transformed from learners to consumers. However, it is not simply students becoming consumers, but more significantly that academic institutions are taking on the role of marketers. In this academic capitalistic climate, new networks and circuits of knowledge are emerging that connect higher education systems to society in general, and this new neoliberal economy in particular. Under academic capitalism, the pursuit of market activities through the use of state resources represents the blurred boundaries between American higher education and the new economy.
Women’s Studies' investments in identities and names are deeply affective and representative of our political hopes and desires. So, rather than rethink the name of the field, why not critically examine the political hopes it is attached to?
Fantasies & Ruptures
Last post I wondered how we might reframe our idea of movements to include the political work that occurs in the classroom. Education and critical pedagogy are central in making visible the connection between power and knowledge. Theory addresses the interaction between the discursive and the embodied, the representational and the everyday. When critiquing intersecting systems of power, theory must focus on the everyday as well as the structural and systemic. Teachers must theorize politics as a point of departure in specific and concrete ways. Rather than reducing politics to a science or a list of objectives, our theories on politics must engage in a radical rethinking where we not only question how social formations come into being, but we actively imagine new forms of political engagement that might lead to better worlds. In this sense, politics is open and willing to change; politics is never sound, but is eager to modify and transform. In other words, our theorization and practice of politics must find willingness to be queered. Self-appraisal is productive and so necessary for politics to flourish. I believe that Women’s Studies is one example of such politics. Women’s Studies as a field, and certainly at the departmental level, must be willing to expand, change, admit shortcomings, grow, uproot, and grow again. The cycle continues, but it all begins somewhere between critical pedagogy and the hope that something better is possible. Oftentimes, we reach these conclusions in moments of failure, when things don’t go quite as planned.
Discomfort and uncertainty can be seen as places of possibility rather than suspension. Change is an essential part of cultural survival. Should Women’s Studies become Gender Studies? Should academic feminism detach from political feminism? Or, should we engage in mainstreaming efforts? It is in these moments of confusion and possible distress where we cultivate coping mechanisms. What I cherish so dearly about imagination, both utopian and dystopian imagination, is the constructive agency that exists within the very act of imagining something different, something new or something wild. I believe that fantasy is a radical device. To question what is considered normal, to think outside the box, to undo common sense is to not simply resist, but to actively envision other worldly possibilities. My fantasies include a Women’s Studies that centers on difference, affect, and solidarity rather than the unstable and dichotomous category of women or even the hot new item gender; I fantasize about a higher education system without frivolous structures departmentalizing the social scientists from the humanists, the hard scientists from the soft scientists; I dream of a classroom that embodies transdisciplinarity while challenging authority and queering up everything else along the way. I visualize my field in a constant state of tension, as a space where the typical is defied, the theoretical is interrogated, and the personal is still political. Women’s Studies always existed as a rupture; regardless of what we call ourselves, let’s keep it that way.