August 16 2014
The New Republic Waters Down Women’s Studies Criticism
“Women’s Studies Departments Are Failing Feminism” — this is a bold headline. Apparently, it was too bold for The New Republic.
The original, provocative headline has now been watered down to the anodyne, “If We Want Feminism to Have a Real Impact, Then Let’s Stop Teaching So Much Theory.” See the difference here.
The original headline caught my eye Monday, but then I noticed the different headline when I returned to the article later this week. Was criticizing Women’s Studies Departments too politically incorrect?
The author is Elizabeth Segran, who taught “feminist theory” to undergraduates at the University of California, Berkeley. She doesn’t attack Women’s Studies Departments from the Right. She wants Women’s Studies courses to become more effective conduits for feminist activists. This is what might make it all the more frustrating in the eyes of Women’s Studies supporters. One of their own is publicly criticizing Women’s Studies Departments. Segran calls out these courses for being “weighed down by theory and jargon” and longs for their early “consciousness-raising” days:
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.
Segran advocates for a more activist and less academic direction for these programs:
The turn toward abstraction is not unique to Women’s Studies. Across the humanities, there has been a widespread shift to theory and jargon, rendering many fields inaccessible to those outside academia. While many critics have pointed out how problematic this is, it is particularly tragic for departments—like Women’s Studies, African American Studies, Native American Studies, and Latino Studies—that were born out of student activism. In the late 1960s and early ’70s, universities created these departments to respond to student demands for courses that would give them the knowledge and skills to tackle problems in their communities. Without their activist spark, these fields lose their purpose.
I, too, have pointed out some of the problems with Women’s Studies Departments, but I have a different take on the activism component of these programs. Here is a link to my online course, Deconstructing “Women’s Studies.”
Such discussion of the purpose of these programs should be welcomed by academia. The New Republic did itself, and Women’s Studies, no favors by watering down the criticism.