“Women’s Studies”

Cover of TLR's "Women's Studies" issue

Women’s Studies when I was in college was a fairly straightforward, interdepartmental major that, at my school, emphasized continental literary theory and its blunter-edged cousin, identity politics, as well as (interestingly enough) health care from a social-historical perspective. Other colleges, like the one I briefly wanted to transfer to in sophomore year, folded women’s studies into the cultural theory departments—like film crit and pop culture. Across town in one direction, Mary Daly was teaching feminist theology—a radicalized approach that seemed to rely a great deal on genderizing the Godhead. A couple of miles north, Carol Gilligan was studying psychological development and reconceptionalizing the idea of gender inequality into theories of difference. It was a brilliant moment in academia. Naomi Wolf was thinking about Barbie and the Beauty Myth, Jean Kilbourne’s documentary Killing Us Softly was showing us the shackles in the mascara ads. My stepmother, a musicologist, was giving papers on the sonata as a feminine form. And linguists at Berkeley were running speech pattern analyses to demonstrate that women had submissive behavior built into their syntax—you know, that inability to just assert something without intimating a need for approval, or seconding? Everything women said ended with a real or implied question mark, didn’t it.

It was in so many respects a thrilling time for feminism—brainy, creative, political, well funded, totally engaged. Second-wave was giving way to third-wave and post-structural feminism. People were debating language and action, history and policy. Camille Paglia, the Joan Rivers of feminist theory, filled to capacity our 500-seat theater in Alumnae Hall. And we were feverish with excitement. We cheered her for talking sense about shoulder pads and lipstick and booed when she was glib and dismissive about problematics we had dedicated entire semesters to analyzing. Everyone walked away with a debatable opinion. She might have been half wrong about almost everything, but she said it loudly enough so that everyone heard her. It was ballsy; she made celebrity into a feminist issue. Really, once you allowed that gender dynamics permeated everything, you could argue, interpret, and justifiably study anything. I, for example, incorporated all of my women’s studies into a frame-by-frame analysis of Michelangelo Antonioni’s films—the ones with Monica Vitti.

Over the last few years, feminism has taken another shift—or rather, churned itself forward into new arenas. There is a great deal of community building facilitated by social media, which seems like a low-commitment, high-yield strategy for action, and to some lesser extent, maybe it’s an action itself. There is a new polemic around the word “rape.” There is a sea change in the world of gender identity, lines being blurred and/or politicized in a way that was embryonic only a generation ago—and this momentum is introducing fascinating new variables and nuances into all brands of equality theory. And lastly, there is a formidable new force for clarity and change in the unsexy field of statistics.

Later in her career, the groundbreaking feminist Betty Freidan somewhat controversially turned her attentions toward building institutional support. Her advocacy turned extremely practicable, and she became interested in day care and family flextime. These battles must have seemed so mundane after having won the war against the housewife’s suicidal contagion, “the problem that has no name.” And yet she was prescient. According to the American Association of University Women, the most tangible demonstration of residual gender inequity (in the US) lies in a statistical gender wage gap that grows prominently during the years that women have babies and parent small children. Notably, the Wellesley Centers for Women take pains to include full-time fathers in their research on work-family balance in labor law. When I heard that last point brought up in a presentation last spring, I realized the remarkable capacity that hard data has to introduce nuance into a sledge-hammer issue.

Data was in fact the inspiration behind pulling together a themed issue on women’s studies. For years it hasn’t seemed interesting or pertinent to think about feminism broadly. Everything, to me, has seemed too resolved, too quirky, or too much about personal agency—not a movement—fallow ground. But data forced the subject up through the soil. From spreadsheet surveys of women’s presence in literary magazines to new research on breast cancer prevention: statistics, hard data, gorgeous immutable information. Information that determines ideas, rather than vice versa. What would those ideas be? Anything like what we used to think? I’m no good with numbers, but I did suddenly want to know what women’s studies might be about now that twenty years have passed since its heyday. And that is the theme this issue meditates on. This was an agenda-less issue. The work included here is entirely exploratory, wildly diverse, gleefully inconclusive. Think of it as a straw poll.

Nuance is typically the province of literature. But I’ve come to understand, in thinking about where feminism was and where it is, that numbers are encroaching on the exclusive claim to subtlety.