This paper is a painful thing to go back into and tidy up, this handful of years after I ceased to work towards the completion of my PhD--painful because there is so much of my own frustration and pain embedded in the paper, painful because to go back into the paper is to go back in time to that semester and how horrible it all felt to be in that fight and all its murkiness and struggle, painful because it hurt to put aside my academic aspirations (and during this time I was starting to realize I wasn't going to waltz off that campus with either of the degrees or certificates I wanted).
But also because I have to wince at the memory of being a male grad student in his 30s in a classroom of women's studies students, interrupting and arguing with the professor to tell her she is teaching women's studies wrong, and continuing to do so after being told rather bluntly that maybe the best way for a male to benefit in this classroom would be to experience his own silence and see what it feels like to be marginalized, and eventually even refusing to complete the assigned readings...
Oh God. Yes.
I hope every one of you eventually finds yourself in a situation where, later, you can look back on how you got yourself into it--and even feel that how you behaved is understandable to you when you look back on how it all developed--but where you end up in a position so totally incompatible with your image of yourself and your stated principles that it reduces you to wincing and wishing you could hide, hoping somehow that no one will ever remember it.
Now I must bring you to that moment, because that is when this paper originated, and although it makes partial sense without knowing that, in order for me to live with it I need for it to exist complete for whatever readers it may have.
Aside from being male, I was not an outsider in that classroom of women's studies students. I mean, I'd been taking women's studies classes for years.
This class was in graduate school. There was a Women's Studies Graduate Certificate Program there, and I was enrolled in that as were most of the other students there. Before graduate school, I had essentially majored in Women's Studies, as an undergraduate. In fact, going back one step further, I chose to re-enter college as a freshman after five years of being out of school precisely as a means of delving into feminism and feminist theory more fully, because the movement fascinated me personally, politically, and intellectually
As a grad student, I was officially majoring in Sociology. I had become
involved in the WS Certificate Program partly because of disenchantment
with the Sociology Department, and missed the Women's Studies courses I
had taken as an undergraduate. It was pretty much common knowledge among
the professors who had me more than once as a student that I saw most of
the world through the lens of feminism and that I was a bit of a fanatic
about it. The long article available here on my home page, "The Radical Feminist Perspective In (and/or On)
the Field of Sociology", is representative of my attempt to bring
feminist thought into an academic area where it was not being used as an
available theoretical world-view.
So the women's studies classroom in which I made such a nuisance of myself was not the first women's studies classroom in which I had found myself. By the time I had seated myself at a desk on the first day of that particular course, I was thinking that perhaps I would try to find professors I could work with through the WS Certificate Program because no one in Sociology wanted to help me pursue a feminist dissertation. I sat down frustrated because graduate school in general had been so dismally insulting--I had come in freshly pumped from my undergrad experiences, where professors had engaged my thoughts when they read my papers, had written long commentaries in the margins of my papers before handing them back to me with appreciative grades, and I had experienced the ability to put thoughts into words and words onto paper as a thrilling sense of power, the power to convey ideas, to learn and teach and even to challenge thinking patterns that I associated with personal pain and therefore wanted to bring to an end. I believed that I could, and the feminists whose works I read believed that they could, and my enthusiastic pursuit of feminist theory was therefore a very integrated and personal thing. It was what I was going to do with my life.
My undergrad professors, even if they did not agree with me at all times,
encouraged me to go on to graduate school and implied that I would make
my way there and carve out my conceptual and intellectual space...oh, I
knew enough to try to dampen my expectations for enjoying it; I knew institutions
for what they are and when the Sociology Department treated us, as new grad
students, as if we knew nothing (as far as they were concerned) until they
had taught us something worth knowing, I was not completely surprised. It
also did not surprise me that Sociology did not seem to embrace feminist
theory. I accepted the challenge and set for myself the task of bringing
it in with me. Sometimes it meant being confrontational, challenging their
authority or their basis for assuming they possessed it; sometimes it meant
listening closely to their viewpoints and perspectives and highlighting
the parallels and the points of departure between conventional sociological
thinking and feminist thinking.
But I found that even if I made the effort to understand and then demonstrate that I understood their perspective, and wrote about how radical feminism as a school of thought differed in its perspectives (which should have been a sufficiently dry approach to introduce it, or so I thought), they weren't interested in the project, and my obstinate pursuit of it poisoned the well as far as professors working with me on later projects.
The Department of Sociology apparently wanted us to focus on burying
ourselves in the canon of sociology-journal-published authors whose ideas
we were supposed to engage only by comparing them with the ideas of other
authors published in the field. I began saying out loud to other graduate
students that it is not fair that I should have to respond to the ideas
of any person who is not here in the classroom to respond to mine, and our
professors never focus their classes on their own; they hide behind the
works of published authors who are not here, and we are supposed to spend
our time becoming camp followers to whatever the sociology publishing establishment
sees fit to put into their proprietary journals.
But, I said to myself, there is still the Women's Studies Certificate Program. Never mind that they don't offer a PhD here in Feminist Studies; never mind that Women's Studies is not even its own department on this stodgy grey campus. Maybe I can link up with the professors who have signed up to teach for the program and they will be more interested in the material that I want to pursue, the stuff I came to college to do in the first place. And, in due time, I sat down in the fateful desk in the classroom for Feminist Theory.
Now, I need to mention, before I go any farther, that feminist theory applies to itself since early on, in a self-referential, finger-pointing-at-itself sort of way.
Although "theory" has often tended to be male and opaque
and something quite apart from the everyday experience of whatever people
might choose to study it as subject matter (Ruth
1980; Johnson 1987),
feminist theory as I knew it began with the revolutionary idea that ordinary
women--perhaps completely lacking in academic training, perhaps ensconced
in non-ivory-tower social positions such as being housewives watching little
kids in diapers and husbands they were expected to cook for or typing in
the secretarial typing pool, or perhaps being marginal participants in the
would-be revolutionary organizations that proliferated in the late 1960s
in America yet still relegated to cooking and xeroxing while the
men discussed revolutionary policy (Morgan
1982)--might know as much about what makes society "tick"
as anyone else on this planet, and, furthermore, were entitled to their
own voice and to their own judgment as to who spoke most coherently and
made the most sense to them in describing the social and political universe.
What drew me to feminist theory was that the women writing it were saying
things that echoed my own experiences despite the fact that I was
male and younger than most of the women writing. What really drew me to
the point of wanting to engage in feminist theorization myself, though,
was this radical approach to the entire idea of where the authority to theorize
comes from. So...I did not go to school to get a license to theorize because
I knew long before I got there that I did not need one (the most brilliant
feminist theorists I longed to emulate were not academics at all).
So that is the Allan that sat down in the Feminist Theory course offered by the grad school's Women's Studies Certificate Program.
Immediately, there were problems. It became vividly apparent that the only approach to feminist theory that would be presented in this course was the new trendy form called "poststructuralist theory". This was a line of feminist thought that came from outside; it replicated a lot of what radical feminist thinking had been exploring for a decade or so (which was the variety of feminist thought that I considered myself aligned with), but it had a more legitimate pedigree within academia because it presented itself as having derived these ideas from three French male academically-accepted theorists: Jacque Lacan, Jacque Derrida, and Michel Foucault.
In all fairness to poststructuralism, and poststructuralist feminist theory, it has been used for good purposes to pry open the academy to feminist content, and the people who ascribe to it are in large part attracted to it for the same reasons that I was attracted to the less-well-academically-pedigreed radical feminist theory. Indeed, many people who have read my material are surprised to find that I take an oppositional stance against poststructuralist feminism, and certainly many of the people who write from within that framework are starting off from very similar starting points and often saying things very similar to what I have said, or what my favorite authors have said, things that I do agree with.
But where radical feminism was accessible and blunt, poststructuralist feminism was written in the most foggy of confusing languages and phrases, and after grappling with this for a handful of years (I had run across it a couple times prior to enrolling in this course, you see) had come across some things that led me to believe that they were doing it on purpose: that the aim of the theorists was not to make theory accessible to everyone, but to deprive their academic opponents of the ability to argue with them by making it very obscure and inaccessible.
Nevertheless, I made the effort to muddle my way though some awfully intimidating writing in an attempt to figure out if where they were going with this was somewhere I wanted to follow, and eventually I decided that no, I had some strong differences of opinion, strong enough that I felt that if this stuff were to become ensconced within academia as "feminist theory", it would be a betrayal of the movement and of the rest of feminist theory, and it began to horrify me.
So...here I was, in this course, and it was called feminist theory. And this is what they were teaching.
Now, as the token male in more than one Feminist Studies course, I had been encouraged more than once to consider the multiple implications of my presence in such a place and write about "Question: A Man in Women's Studies?" until I was rather sick of the subject. By this time I felt that if this was the only subject I was allowed to discourse about, then I am not really in feminist studies at all; to be in is to be in as a genuine participant, subject to the same rules and assumptions that feminism as an enterprise would ask of any other participant in the field of women's studies. And my essays and classroom discussions of earlier years concerning my presence in the field had been accepted by the overwhelming majority of women students, some of whom were glad that any guy would care about patriarchal oppression enough to learn the material; some of whom were less easily impressed but acknowledged that if it were true that feminist theorists were theorizing social truth, it made no sense to say that males who perceived the truth of what they were saying should not be allowed to follow. Some separatist feminists always remained convinced that "feminist theory", by that name, had to remain always something that women do, by definition, and that that meant that my proper place was silent if not absent from these classrooms.
I thought about what they said, and agreed with it to an extent, but also felt that feminist studies (by that name or by whatever name) needed to be set up so as to have women-only space but also "coed" space in which to engage in detente and negotiations and otherwise attempt to affect members of my gender, and to make alliances with those of us who are most inclined to share their vision and to support their goals for reasons of our own.
The question of whether or not males should or should not be part of
this movement that affects both men and women has no easy simple answers,
and it is something I care about, and at the moment there exists no forum
in which for me to be a participant except within the general milieu. And
I did choose academia precisely because it is "within the system",
and therefore its component pieces have to be available to me despite my
gender according to law. I came to a part of the feminist movement that
was already designated as open to me, a male, and I came as a committed
and visionary participant, not to disrupt but to be a part of something
larger than myself but which defined myself, and in which I believed.
Well, what happened was, the professor structured the course in such a way that there was no avenue from which the person in the classroom, whoever she or he happened to be, could easily engage the material from the vantage point of their own personal experience. Theory was restored to what I regarded as its patriarchal vantage point: experts create it, and you are expected to learn it and converse in its terms. It was as alienating as sociology under the Sociology Department, and it was calling itself feminism. And it was co-opting the feminism that I knew, in order to obfuscate and obscure it so that students would never know of the existence of the real thing. It was a bad thing, I felt, and it needed to be challenged.
So, as a somewhat confident radical feminist student, I proceeded to confront. And was reminded of the fact that I was male. And responded that it was irrelevant.
And found out that it was not irrelevant. I really can't be a participant in feminist theory per se because I am a male, because it really is important that feminism and feminist theory not be guided by male experts. (and OK I was one person but where do you draw the line?)
At the same time, there needs to be a perspective and a social movement which is "co-ed", which is against patriarchy, which is founded on radical feminist theory, which acknowledges that its participants are male as well as female, which acknowledges a need to understand the male experience in order to dismantle the processes of male identity formulation that tend to set males in opposition to females' authority over their own bodies and their equality within the overall social system, and their input into the process of designing and critiquing the structure and process of that very social system.
On my "About the Author" page I bill myself as a "conceptually problematic participant in the war against patriarchy". We need a word for it--it being the "coed" version of radical feminism--and the word (and concept) must be suggested, or at a minimum, embraced, by feminists...by female feminists, real feminists...but that's a topic for another paper.
So...I made a complete jerk of myself in this classroom, trying to defend
radical feminist theory against the onslaught of poststructuralist feminist
theory and refusing to deal with my maleness when that fact was brought
up. What follows is more or less what I turned in as my term paper for the
course: my attempt to explain what I understood from poststructuralist theory,
and why I think it is, ultimately, a bad idea.
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