Our Bodies, Our Scholarship

Unwomen, "happy" marriage, foreign male elements, and women's studies.


Women's studies programs are rife with radical feminist ideology, concludes a recent report by the right-of-center Independent Women's Forum (IWF) .. a revelation about as shocking as the news that rap lyrics contain a lot of raunchy language. Nevertheless, the IWF report, Lying in a Room of One's Own: How Women's Studies Textbooks Miseducate Students, by Christine Stolba, offers an interesting analysis of an academic discipline (or, as some of its critics would call it, a pseudo-academic pseudo-discipline) that has been steadily gaining ground on campuses since its inception some three decades ago.

The report analyzes five of the most popular textbooks used in introductory women's studies courses. It is at its strongest when it focuses on errors of fact. For example, the textbooks report that medical research has ignored and shortchanged women, without acknowledging the challenges to such assertions.

One book, Thinking About Women: Sociological Perspectives on Sex and Gender, by Margaret L. Andersen, advises readers not to get too excited about new medical breakthroughs because "you might well find out that all the subjects in the study were men and that the same insights or procedures that medical researchers are heralding as advancing medical science have not been at all considered for their implications for women's health." In reality, as early as 1979, over 90 percent of all clinical trials funded by the National Institutes of Health included women.

The same book also suggests, without citing any evidence, that more resources have been poured into treatments for male impotence than into research on breast cancer. Meanwhile, it fails to mention the fact that at least since the 1980s, breast cancer has received more research funding than any other type of cancer. Dubious claims about educational bias against women and domestic violence are repeated just as uncritically.

Not surprisingly, women's studies textbooks also treat male-female disparities in the workplace as evidence of discrimination and oppression. They tend to be suspicious of free markets in general. Other patterns identified in the IWF study include a tendency to turn women with the wrong politics, such as Margaret Thatcher, into "unpersons" (or at least "unwomen"); to present only one side of controversies on such issues as the merits of day care; and to treat women who make politically incorrect choices, such as curtailing their employment to raise families, as dupes "apparently unaware that in these decisions they are following traditional gender stereotypes."

Marriage is viewed with such a jaundiced eye that happy marriages are mentioned with the word happy in ironic quotation marks; motherhood is presented largely as a burden, fatherhood as something even worse. According to one book, Women's Realities, Women's Choices: An Introduction to Women's Studies, by the Hunter College Women's Studies Collective, "Daughters often find ourselves in league with our mothers against the foreign male element represented by the father."

Some nuggets cited in the report are downright bizarre. For example, Thinking About Women suggests that homemaking is literally a hazardous occupation, since it "exposes [women] to a wide variety of toxic substances" that are not subjected to the same government regulations as in industrial settings, and darkly states that "the high death rate by cancer among housewives [has not] been widely discussed." No factual substantiation is given for the alarming implication.

Some of the IWF's critique, however, is on very shaky ground. Should we really be incensed because Women's Realities, Women's Choices states that women can be discouraged by the perceived lack of important women artists, quoting literary scholar Helen Vendler's comment that "no woman can fail to hope for the appearance of a woman poet of Shakespearean or Keatsian power"?

This doesn't necessarily assume, as the IWF's Stolba complains, that "women can't or shouldn't draw inspiration from male artists." One can be inspired by Shakespeare or Leonardo da Vinci and still find one's self-confidence somewhat dampened by an all-male pantheon. Occasionally, too, Lying in a Room of One's Own seems to reflect the IWF's own agenda .. suggesting, for instance, that ultraconservative writer F. Carolyn Graglia's paeans to "the joys of domestic life" warrant inclusion in women's studies textbooks.

The principal charge in the IWF study .. that women's studies courses are heavily biased toward feminist viewpoints and against traditional gender roles -- undoubtedly would elicit no more than an amused shrug from most women's studies professors. As University of Massachusetts at Amherst professor Daphne Patai and Indiana University professor Noretta Koertge reported in their 1994 book, Professing Feminism: Cautionary Tales From the Strange World of Women's Studies, the assumption that women's studies constitutes the academic arm of the feminist movement is quite common in women's studies departments. Many programs openly list raising "feminist consciousness," promoting "feminist advocacy," and addressing "the campus-wide problems of sexism, racism, and other injustices" among their goals. The publications of the National Women's Studies Association also assume that women's studies courses must champion feminism.

What's wrong with that? For one thing, such an approach explicitly subordinates scholarship to political goals. Even more problematic is that women's studies courses tend to embrace a very particular, narrowly defined brand of feminism. It not only looks critically at traditional female roles; it labels as anti-feminist the view that women in the United States today have equal opportunity and assumes that American women "still live in a hostile environment."

Academic feminists may argue that the pro-feminist bias in women's studies is necessary to counteract traditional biases that remain pervasive in the rest of the academy and in the culture at large. If this claim had validity in the early 1970s, however, it is certainly specious today, when feminist attitudes are widespread in the culture and especially in the universities.

In the updated edition of Professing Feminism, to be published later this year, Patai and Koertge conclude that the field of women's studies is even more politicized and radicalized today than it was in the early 1990s. One may ask if this really matters. After all, the radical feminist orientation of these courses is an open secret, so we are not talking about innocents lured into women's studies with promises of solid, scholarly, reasonably objective courses on women's history or the sociology of gender. Most young women respond to the politics of women's studies by staying away in droves. They may subscribe to broadly defined feminist goals yet hold women's studies in contempt.

Nevertheless, there are causes for concern. As Patai and Koertge convincingly argue, the negative influence of women's studies often spreads to other departments, contributing to a campus-wide climate of political and sexual correctness. Perhaps no less important, women's studies in its current state does a real disservice to serious scholarship on women and gender. Those who believe that such scholarship is needed should be among the first to call for reform.