The Feminist Retreat

Before it became ensconced in academia, feminism had a point. By the 1960s, sex roles in the United States were changing; traditional roles had become outmoded and constricting. Laws, habits, and customs needed to be updated—and they were.

Feminism in that era was dynamic and cocky—sometimes outrageously so. The first feminists I ever met didn’t use last names, which they considered remnants of patriarchy; they explained to me that the Age of Chivalry was an Age of Slavery (think chastity belt, they said); and they told me that the only men to trust are gay men, because they do not seek to oppress women.

Kate Millett invented the provocative idea that the “personal is political,” Gloria Steinem reinvented Ladies Home Journal as Ms. Magazine, and Robert Townsend, the Avis CEO, wrote “A Guerilla Guide for Working Women.” Time Magazine started to hire women as reporters (not just researchers). In 1972 the head of a division at McGraw-Hill was shocked to find that all the women were paid less than men, and he gave all the women bigger raises that year.

Feminists also changed our language—eliminating the fustian use of “him” for “him or her” and, I admit, adopting some awful neologisms like calling people furniture (“chairs”).

Despite its sometimes comical self-seriousness, early feminism was lively and varied and addressed real problems. It did so privately and spontaneously; the years-long efforts to pass an Equal Rights amendment to the U.S. Constitution failed, but does it matter?

Today, that lively world is a memory. As discrimination ended (at least in the United States), feminism retreated into academia. The paradigm of assumed oppression and the idea that only political advocacy can fix it are comfortably settled in the Ivory Tower. 

Yet surely the study of women should embrace the progress that has been made in business, politics, and academia (where almost 60 percent of students are female). It should take note of the productive partnerships women form with men. And if there is oppression or discrimination, it should address why it occurs and what forces actually have ended it.

Bemoaning the state of women is like bemoaning the horrors of war in military history—perhaps of value but not the raison d’être for the discipline.

So what is being taught in the classroom?

I have looked carefully at one course offered by North Carolina State University in its Women and Gender Studies program, “Women and Culture: A Global Approach.” This is an online special-topic course that uses as its text Women Across Cultures: A Global Perspective by Shawn Meghan Burn. I reviewed the syllabus (Fall 2013) and text and discussed the course with one of the students.

A word about nomenclature: In academia “women’s studies” is a subset of gender studies. Gender refers to socially constructed differences between men and women, rather than biological differences. In other words, women’s gender puts them into a social setting that is oppressive, but one that is arbitrarily constructed and therefore one that can be changed through political action.

According to Nancy Bishop, the instructor, the goals of “Women and Culture” are 1) to understand the connection between “theoretical concepts and people’s lived experience in relation to oppression of women”; 2) to “recognize the intersection of gender and oppression”; and 3) to “improve critical thinking skills.” The idea of actually understanding women’s lived experience around the world seems reasonable. The rest strikes me as mostly jargon that is hard to probe. “Intersectionality” is a term of art in gender studies.

The goals of Shawn Meghan Burn’s textbook are clearer: 1) to give an overview of women’s oppression around the globe—in some cases a painfully graphic picture despite the author’s use of relativist language like “female cutting,” not “female mutilation”—; 2) to explain why female oppression occurs; and 3) to promote activism to counter it.

The book fails in the second part—its analysis of “why,” which seems to me to be the chief justification for academic women’s studies.

Women’s studies are inevitably interdisciplinary. But rather than bringing the established tenets of academic disciplines to bear, the textbook provides a hodgepodge of ideas from selected disciplines and selected parts of those disciplines. Burn talks about “materialist” and “sociocultural” explanations for women’s problems, cites “Marxist feminist” theories and “feminist economics,” and adopts ad hoc phrases such as a “human rights framework,” “role congruity theory,” and the “lack of fit model.”

But she rarely relies on the core of academic disciplines.

To illustrate: Economics would seem to be an important analytical tool to understand the “gender pay gap,” but it barely surfaces.

For example, Burn spends a lot of time on “job segregation.” Due to cultural history and stereotypes, men and women are channeled into different jobs, with different levels of pay. She doesn’t consider the economic hypothesis that this segregation may reflect a family’s pursuit of its greatest utility (with the husband earning most dollars and the wife taking a job with greater flexibility such as teaching or nursing).

Burn devotes only one paragraph to possible differences in human capital and another to the fact that women often work part-time (both might be considered economic explanations). She doesn’t get into other economic statistics such as the fact that even among full-time workers men on average work more hours than women or compare the earnings of single men and women; in the United States, single women earn more.

Discrimination against women is another explanation for the gap, of course. Burn says there are three sources of discrimination: the devaluation of women’s work generally; the view that women’s work outside the home is unimportant; and the fact that employers simply want to increase their profits. (One has to ask—then why not pay men less, too?)

Disregarding possible complex causes, Burn goes on to say that the government must enact and enforce “pay equity legislation.”

In contrast to the above rather thin analysis, here’s what I think are legitimate sources of analysis for women’s studies:

  • Biology. Surely the physical differences between men and women contributed to oppression historically and may continue to do so in some societies. Considering biological differences between men and women seems forbidden in women’s studies, however. Biology is not in the book’s index.
  • Economics. As indicated above, economics could explain a lot.
  • Political science (especially public choice theory). With a dose of political theory, the author could have avoided her naïve reliance on United Nations and International Labor Organization reports and her surprise at the failure of women in power to be more ethical than men.
  • Sociology and anthropology. Burn talks about “sociocultural” explanations and quotes anthropologist Margaret Mead, but it’s not clear that feminists plumb the depths of even this discipline. For example, the agrarian nature of all countries before the Industrial Revolution created traditions—such as the procreation of many children—that may explain habits now considered oppressive.
  • History. What can we learn from the enormous progress in women’s comfort and power in the industrialized countries? Apparently, not much.
  • English literature. A wealth of information in English literature offers ways of understanding male-female relationships under changing property rights regimes. Think Jane Austen, for a start. In fact, the emergence of female novelists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries offers room for study. But that literary resource does not turn up here, as far as I can see.

One student summed up the course, “It is a typical modern feminist view of the relations between men and women. Everything you’d expect.”

But not what we’d expect in the old days. Or what we should expect today. Reinforcing the shallow perspective presented in “Women and Culture” does not serve women well—including the graduates of such programs. If we’re going to study women, let’s do better than turn relations between the sexes into a political grudge match.

(Editor’s note: In 2005, the Pope Center published a report by Melana Zyler Vickers on women’s studies programs in five University of North Carolina schools.)