Admittedly, I read fewer books written by feminists than books written about feminists and feminism. This bias probably stems from my general dislike of bandwagons and echo chambers. Very few people critique their own groups, and those that do usually try to prove their in-groups chops before, during, and after their criticism. It makes for antithetical reading, although it is not as bad as reading texts glorifying a particular ideological perspective.
So I was rather surprised by the purely academic (although sarcastic) tone Daphne Patai and Noretta Koertge used throughout Professing Feminism. The book is a critique on Women Studies departments in the United States. The authors interviewed dozens of women, from staff to professors to students, all quite supportive of feminism, but all still sharing the same criticism of infighting, indoctrination, political correctness and a near total lack of objective discussion.
What I found most interesting was how long these problems existed in Women Studies programs and in the feminist movement at large. My contact with feminists was limited primarily to my experiences with my aunt and her friends and later with women’s groups that undermine efforts to bring services to male sexual abuse victims. As a result, I always assumed that the problems I witnessed – from the political correctness to the androphobia and misandry – was a more recent development resulting from political power gains.
The authors, however, demonstrate that these problems have existed since their ideology’s inception and are particularly common within Women Studies programs. The authors wrote of the isolationist attitude that dominates many of the programs, along with a virulent anti-science, anti-intellectual sentiment driving many of the professors, staff and students.
These sentiments and attitudes have continued and grown in the fifteen years since the book was first published. Strangely, as I read the book, particularly the sections on teachers and professors using the classroom as a space for indoctrination, Hugo Schwyzer kept popping into my thoughts. While he seems like an easy target, most of his blog posts contain the same gender-essentialist pedagogy the authors critiqued in their analysis.
Like Schwyzer, those who run Women Studies programs fail to question the feminist ideology itself. There is no internal critique, no self-reflection or examination. There are a host of theories and ideas that are simply repeated time and again without any objective analysis. Should anyone dare to question those views, they will be silenced, shamed, openly mocked (and if male, threatened and chastised) – often in the classroom with the teacher or professor doing next to nothing to prevent it.
Although Professing Feminism was about Women Studies, I found much of the text applicable to feminism in general. I see the same behavior, the same stunted ideological rhetoric, the same double standard occurring in all the different “brands” of feminism. One need only read some of the prominent feminist blogs or read some of the more prolific feminist writers to see how ironically hierarchical and dogmatic feminists have become. That said, it was enlightening to see how many white feminists involved in Women Studies were annoyed with racial politics.
A few weeks ago a feminist blogger wrote a post about the Pixar film Up. The review was little more than a politically correct checklist, literally numbered and commented on to make sure that the film passed certain criteria so as to be “inoffensive.” What was interesting about this dynamic as portrayed in Professing Feminism was that the same feminists who complained about being falsely labeled racist for not including enough minorities writers on their reading lists or not talking about issues from a “womanist” perspective had no hesitation with applying the same double standard to men and to other women who did not share their views. As I read the complaints from various women, it never seemed to occur to any of them that they engaged in the same actions and attitudes towards men. It showed, if nothing else, how much being on the receiving end of a political tactic still does not alter a person’s willingness to use the same tactic on others.
As I mentioned before, throughout the anecdotal experiences and within the general text no one decided not to be a feminist. Every woman, and the one man interviewed, still considered themselves feminists despite their experiences. That is not surprising given the value those people place on their ideological views. What was surprising was that only a few seemed to want to question those core views at all. For most, the problem was not that the programs had become bastions of bickering, politically correct, indoctrinating, subjective quagmires of rack egotism and separatism, but that they were being shut out. Their desire was not to change the programs to make them more open to all women – or open to men at all – but to make the environments more open to them.
This seems to reflect the feminism and feminists in general, and certainly the discussions and debates that have occurred here. The issue is never about objectively challenging feminism, but making feminism as a whole acceptable to certain types of people. The authors failed to note this in the original text and in the added chapters in the revision, although they do acknowledge that as long as feminists are that self-interested, their actions will always result in separatism, hostility and bias.
The book ends on an less than positive note twice. The first was the original conclusion in which the authors try to mitigate their criticism by stating that their work cannot be used by those who want to “attack” feminism. However, it is difficult for them to dismiss what they spent two hundred pages demonstrating: feminism, not just in the academic setting, but in general, is not really about equality. It is purely about self-interest, which is why there are so many “flavors” of feminism. As the authors continued to note, the problem with Women Studies was not that the programs existed, but that the professors and staff were focused on activism and doctrine instead of education and objective criticism. While the authors never explicitly stated it, their criticism demonstrated that the views being pushed were the general feminist views, and it showed that those views were hardly unbiased.
The second conclusion was not much better. Written eight years after the original, Koertge reports that nothing has changed. Instead, the situation had worsened to include attacks on science as “patriarchal” and the turn to pure identity politics. It was a fairly damning indictment if for no other reason than the fact that since the publication of Professing Feminism no one had taken any of the criticism to heart. The programs still remained skewed and biased, with in-fighting and charges of racism, transphobia and being “patriarchal” still abounding.
That said, it was interesting seeing that the experiences I have had and what others have reported are not just isolated events like so many feminists seem to claim. Here we have two feminists reporting the experiences of dozens of other feminists showing that they too have seen how skewed feminist thought and feminism itself is.