Professing Feminism: Cautionary Tales from the Strange World of Women's Studies

Daphne Patai & Noretta Koertge
New York: Basic Books, 1994
226 pp., $24.00 hc

Henry Gonshak
Montana Tech-UM

Daphne Patai's and Noretta Koertge's Professing Feminism: Cautionary Tales from the Strange World of Women's Studies will, I suspect, be dismissed by many Women's Studies supporters as just another example of the "antifeminist backlash" supposedly rampant in the land--to be lumped with Rush Limbaugh's ravings about "feminazis," bare-breasted models in Calvin Klein ads, and Michael Douglas movies featuring homicidal harpies. Such a response, however, would actually support one of the authors' major complaints: that, all too often, feminist academics stigmatize even their most thoughtful and well-intentioned critics with derisive labels that serve to shut down, rather than open up, meaningful discussion.

In reality, Patai and Koertge aren't Limbaugh "ditto-heads," but rather Women's Studies professors themselves, with long tenures at first-rate universities. Moreover, they strongly support what they consider the main goal of traditional feminism--full equality for women in both the public and the private realms. The avowed aim of their book is not to destroy Women's Studies, but to reform it by returning the field to what they see as its founding principles. Only through such reform, the authors argue, can the discipline effectively defend itself against the increasingly potent demagoguery of true sexists like Limbaugh and his ilk.

While Patai and Koertge draw on a host of sources (their own experiences, other studies, current feminist scholarship, internet discussion groups), the heart of their book is the interviews they've conducted with thirty female students, professors, and administrators--all of whom are, or were, affiliated with Women's Studies. Most of them began, like the authors themselves, with high hopes, only to grow increasingly disillusioned. The academics have tended to respond to their disillusionment in one of two ways: by abandoning Women's Studies for more traditional Humanities departments, or by retreating into "inner exile," keeping their complaints private, while quietly trying to pursue their own scholarly interests.

Nearly everyone Patai and Koertge spoke with asked to remain anonymous. Regretfully honoring their request, the authors note that "the desire for anonymity reflects some of the very problems this book aims to analyze: the tendency of feminism to stifle open debate and create an atmosphere in which disagreement is viewed as betrayal" (xix). However, Patai and Koertge fail to acknowledge fully the extent to which this anonymity, however unavoidable, weakens the authors' case. On a practical level, since the reader isn't provided with the names, academic affiliations, and scholarly credentials of the women surveyed, it's impossible to determine exactly how reputable a group of critics the authors have assembled. After all, there is no academic field, however distinguished, in which you couldn't find a few dozen malcontents eager to vent their spleens. However, the problem posed by anonymity is off-set by the remarkable insight and eloquence of almost all the women interviewed.

What, then, are the book's specific allegations? The most sweeping is Patai and Koertge's contention that Women's Studies programs typically practice indoctrination, not true education. The authors paint a grim (if, at times, black comic) picture of the average Women's Studies classroom. Certain "politically incorrect" views--opposing legal abortion or affirmative action, supporting the validity of a woman wishing to be a stay-at-home mother--are simply deemed beyond the Pale of permissible classroom discourse.

Moreover, the authors contend that in the intensely personal atmosphere prevalent in most classes, what is judged intolerable often goes beyond mere opinions, impinging on basic issues of personal identity. Thus, heterosexual women are often made to feel guilty for their insistence on "sleeping with the enemy." And female students who curl their hair, shave their legs, wear make-up or high .heels, are rebuked for having "internalized patriarchy" by willingly degrading themselves into objects of male lust.

As for those rare men brave enough to enroll in Women's Studies, there is usually little they can do, Patai and Koertge claim, to redeem themselves from the unpardonable sin of belonging to the oppressor class. While one might assume that only a man who's already a feminist would take such courses, male students are often made to feel that they are interlopers, trespassing on "female space." Not surprisingly, many drop out, frequently hurt and confused; those who remain almost always either keep silent in class, or else parrot radical slogans in a desperate attempt to prove their feminist credentials.

According to the authors, some of the most virulent "ideological policing" comes from students, not professors. Extremist movements of whatever kind have regularly found their most fanatical converts among the young, whose inexperience and yearning for easy answers make them ideal candidates for brainwashing. Patai and Koertge describe Women's Studies students whose strident militancy intimidates even some feminist professors. They recount a memorable anecdote in which students literally began stomping their feet in class to protest a classmate's allegedly sexist remark.

However, in focusing on student fanaticism, the authors by no means absolve faculty of responsibility. On the contrary, Patai and Koertge believe these cadres of student militants are often schooled in their bullying tactics by instructors.

College administrators also aren't spared the authors' censure. University officials, Patai and Koertge maintain, are usually afraid to voice criticism for fear of being branded as phallocentric ogres. Moreover, deans and other administrators, already subjected to affirmative action pressures, often support the hiring of Women's Studies faculty who have few scholarly credentials but are minority members and feminist activists.

In several chapters, Patai and Kozrtge also foray into the wilds of academic feminist theory--a field they find, in general, both arcane and simplistic. Coining acronyms to label various key theories, the authors analyze in detail what they term "IDPOL," short for "identity politics." IDPOL is the belief that an individual is defined primarily (or, in a more radical formulation, entirely) by his or her race, gender, class and sexual orientation. Of course, IDPOL isn't unique to contemporary feminism. On the contrary, the concept is virtually axiomatic among far-left professors. Patai and Koertge echo the general charge leveled against IDPOL by both conservatives and traditional liberals, that the theory foolishly, dangerously denies the validity of individualism, a founding principle of democratic culture. In women's Studies, the authors argue, IDPOL teams with "victimology" to spawn an extremist feminist politics that demands that a woman define herself exclusively by her status as a "victim," rather than by any more uplifting, empowering trait.

Patai and Koertge find BIODENIAL, a theory based on the tenets of social constructionism, equally inane and pernicious. Social constructionism holds that most of what society claims is "natural," "real," "objective," is, in fact, socially constructed. Applying this hypothesis, radical feminists argue that the teachings of science, rather than being attempts to describe the natural world, are, in fact, culturally constructed myths, covertly rooted in the assumptions of our male-dominated, Eurocentric culture. Thus, instead of learning the value of studying biology, physics and chemistry, women's Studies students are taught to "demystify" western science, as a way of dismissing it. while the authors don't totally reject social constructionism, they are appalled by the anti-educational implications of BIODENIAL.

In their conclusion, Patai and Koertge propose some solutions. Unfortunately, their answers are far less incisive then their diagnosis of the problem. They do note, with cautious optimism, the recent emergence of several organizations, such as "The Feminist Anti-Censorship Task Force" and the "Society for Analytic Feminism," dedicated to urging the women's movement in a more tolerant, inclusive, intellectually rigorous direction. But the authors admit to disagreeing over the question of whether it would be best simply to drop Women's Studies entirely and integrate feminist concerns into traditional Humanities departments.

But Patai and Koertge passionately agree that if Women's Studies is ever to reform itself, it must embrace the classical liberal values that have formed the cornerstone of Western education since the Enlightenment: a commitment to academic objectivity, open debate, civility toward one's opponents, and the inalienable rights and irreducible uniqueness of the individual. But the authors are skeptical that such values can ever be nurtured so long as Women's Studies continues to think of itself as "the academic arm of the women's movement." The function of the university, the authors bluntly insist, is not to train revolutionaries. Feminist activists, they argue, should focus their attentions on the courts, the workplace, the halls of government--not the classroom.

In general, I found Professing Feminism quite persuasive. Women's Studies have much to offer, but only when pledged to unfettered intellectual inquiry. I'd also second the view voiced by Duke University instructor David Gutterman in an article on the "men's movement": "Ultimately, the future is not men's studies or women's studies. Gender is a relational concept. You can't deal with either in isolation" (Mark Stuart Gill, "Boning Up," Rolling Stone, 19 March 1992). Gender Studies--now there's a subject that, if taught properly, could enlighten students of both sexes.

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