August 11 2014
Feminist Theory Professor: Women's Studies Departments Are Failing Feminism
Elizabeth Segran, who taught “feminist theory” at Berkeley for three years, has an article in the New Republic headlined “Women’s Studies Departments Are Failing Feminism.”
While I might be inclined to say that Women’s Studies departments are failing women by not helping them learn critical thinking or becoming ready for life after college (as in employment), Segran, as you might guess, takes a different view.
Sagran is critical about Women’s Studies departments for—as she sees it—"refusing" to “engage with the personal,” which she believes is “alienating a generation.”
Engaging with the personal, it soon becomes pretty clear, equals talking constantly about rape or other unwanted sexual encounters.
Bear in mind, that we at IWF don’t take any accusation of sexual misconduct lightly. In fact, if you are the victim of such an assault, we want you to go not only to the college authorities but to the police. We want men who rape women behind bars. But is this really an academic subject that should usurp other possible topics in the classroom, as it would do, if Sagran has her way?
Sagran believes that talking constantly about rape would harken back to the halcyon (to her) days of earlier feminism, when feminism reportedly dealt more with matters of life, in contrast with the abstractions that, according to Sagran, are the staple of Women's Studies classes today:
Across the board, the syllabi begin with a history of feminism and theories of gender, then shift to political debates: At Williams, students delve into reproductive justice arguments, while at the University of Pennsylvania they learn about disability rights; University of Florida offers a module on “interlocking systems of oppression,” while at Barnard, they examine “hunger as ideology.” These are all important topics—some more relevant than others—but what is missing is an engagement with the culture that students face immediately outside the classroom. Today, 1 out of 5 college women is a victim of attempted or completed sexual assault, and three-quarters of those victims are incapacitated. At the same time, researchers find that slut-shaming is a regular occurrence on campuses. Surely these are the kinds of issues we should be discussing in the Women’s Studies classroom.
It wasn’t always like this. When the first Women's Studies programs were created in the late sixties, “the personal is political” was the rallying cry. “Consciousness-raising” led to the realization that problems women assumed were personal could, in fact, be the result of systematic patterns of oppression. Today, universities provide some spaces on campus for students to talk openly about sex, including health services, counseling clinics, and women’s centers. But these resources are designed to offer practical advice and help in times of crisis, rather than intellectual engagement with questions of gender and sexuality. By bringing the personal back into Women’s Studies departments, we would be giving students an opportunity to rigorously and seriously engage with issues that directly affect them—like consent, rape culture and contraception—at a crucial point in their intellectual evolution. Through debate and argument, students could sharpen their opinions and learn to respect those of their classmates.
The one-in-five number for college rapes, promoted by the Obama administration, has been widely discredited.
But what is almost as depressing as Sagran’s uncritical acceptance of this statistic is her concept of education: she seems to think that it should be all rape, all the time.
Women should be deeply aware of the sexual dangers on campus (including the hook-up culture!). But Sagran's concept of Women's Studies classes doesn't sound wholesome or conducive to critical thinking, a cornerstone of the liberal education.