American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 20
The Humanities in the Schools
The Womens Studies Movement
Catharine R. Stimpson
Rutgers University, New Brunswick
I want to thank the ACLS for asking me to be with you. It is the most beautiful backdrop against which I have ever spoken. I am more accustomed to blackboards and American flags and occasional ratty curtains. So if your eyes wander, and they will, I understand. I am also glad to be here because I can think of few more important projects than the project on which were engaged, which is bringing us together as students, teachers, and humanists.
In July 1992, I was reading the Best Sellers list of The New York Times Book Review, that reliable guide to current relations between culture and a consumer economy. Out of the 15 hardcover fiction listings, three were by black womenTerry McMillan, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison. Here, I thoughtsitting in my Staten Island kitchen on a Sunday morninghere, I thought, is a sign, a tremendous and celebratory sign of cultural change. Today I want to talk about this change: the new strength of women, which does not hurt men, this new strength of women in all their diversity, in our culture in general and in the humanities in particular.
I will focus on the Womens Studies movement, at once heralded and much misunderstood. As we talk together, I will be aware of a paradox, for me and I hope for all of us: the humanities today are a scene of ferment and growth and excitement. We have more ideas than ever before about everything. We have more people talking about these ideas. Womens Studies is but one part of this ferment and growth and excitement. But the basic activities of the humanitiesreading and writing and remembering and thinkingthese basic activities in our democratic culture may be in some danger. We may be choosing to become a culture that prefers not to read, that prefers not to write, that prefers not to remember, and that prefers not to think. In part, because reading and writing and remembering and thinking are just too hard.
I will never forget first reading T.S. Eliots The Four Quartets and that line, Go, Go, Go said the bird: human kind/Cannot bear too much reality. But fortunately, Womens Studies offers us a way to dissolve this paradox. Because simultaneously it asks us to change our culture, to make it a more generous and inclusive and accurate culture, and to deepen our capacity for reading, writing, remembering, and thinking. Womens Studies is at once dynamic and conservative. What then is this movement? I will warn you that as I talk I will be more celebratory than self- critical, but this does not mean there is no criticism to make. And if I come to you in my Pollyanna mode, I also have a capacity for being Cassandra. But on this beautiful day in this setting, wouldnt you rather have Pollyanna than Cassandra?
For a number of reasons, the Womens Studies movement re-emerged in the 1960s. The reasons for this included a push for general education reform and a commitment to social justice and racial equality that generated a renewed commitment to gender equality. The 1960s were also a decade in which there was some worry about the dissipation of the talents of educated women. It was the decade in which women of all classes and races entered the public labor force. It was the decade of new technologies of reproduction, such as birth control, which helped to redefine womens sexuality and the relation of womens bodies to their minds. The 1960s was also the decade of the rebirth of feminisma rebirth inseparable from the social and cultural changes I just mentioned in such truncated form.
Not coincidentally, the Womens Studies movement emerged at exactly the same time as the information society. In 1962, Fritz Machlup published his pioneering The Production and Distribution of Knowledge in the United States. In 1963, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique. In 1972, the Japanese issued a white paperThe Plan For Information Society, A National Goal Toward Year 2000. In that same year, 1972, Ms. magazine went into action. In 1977, the American Library Association took up the question of libraries in an information society. In that same year, 1977, Elaine Showalter published A Literature of Tbeir Own and Barbara K. Smith her influential essay, Toward a Black Feminist Criticism. In 1982, John Naisbitt in MegaTrends told America that the most explosive shift of their lives was that from an industrial to an information society. In 1982, Carol Gilligan presented In a Different Voice, her greatly influential study of women and moral reasoning. So we have simultaneously in the 1960s deep social and cultural changes, the rebirth of feminism, and the birth of, or at least the naming of, the information societyall of which combined to help produce Womens Studies.
In the information society, educationthe active acquisition of theories and concepts and empirical knowledgematters for survival and success. As one commentator writes bluntly: Upward access through the social economic strata of this society is assumed to depend upon advanced education. Supporters of the struggle for Womens Studies want women to be full citizens of the information society. And opponents of the struggle for Womens Studies do not. Though not everyone who cares about womens citizenship in the information society is a feminist, the necessity of educating women, at least narrowly, is a theme on which feminists and many non-feminists agree. Few people today believe that women are best barefoot, pregnant, and illiterate. However, feminists care passionately about Womens Studies and the education of women. Misogynists and the blindest of gender traditionalists have been right to fear the consequences of the education of women. I think, reads a feminist button, therefore I am dangerous. By the way, that button does not footnote Descartesa sloppiness of scholarship that the buttonmaker ought to be sorry about.
Now let me speak for a moment about the relationship of Womens Studies to feminism. Self-consciously and imaginatively, contemporary feminism structured itself as a sweeping educational reform movement with five goals that applied to all the disciplines.
First, feminism would improve child-rearing and socialization practices. Next, feminism would organize small consciousness-raising groups, and in them women would learn from other women about their lives in order to change these lives. Next, feminism would attack the mediathe studios that market lessons and images for a mass culture. Fourth, feminism would create cultural alternatives, a splendidly new art, literature, film, music, journalism, and religion. Finally, feminism would transform, or at least alter, the sites of formal education from child care to research centers. This explicit alliance between contemporary feminism and education which began in the mid-1960s has had its triumphs so many that some now conclude that feminism has given way to post-feminism. One woman has written that feminists are beset by the fear that academe would declare premature victory for women in education, that students may believe that the crisis is past. She fears that feminists may seem like feminine Deadheads, congregating periodically around a few aging leaders so as to hear a tired repetition of a few standard tunes left over from the late 1960s. But I want to assure you I am not going to burst into, I am woman, hear me roar!
The triumphs of the alliance between feminism and education have been genuine. They include the facts that most overt discrimination has disappeared, that there are laws on the books against discrimination, and that we are aware of the differences among women, especially racial differences and other important differences. The triumphs of the explicit alliance between feminism and education also include the fact that more women are entering colleges and universities: between 1980 and 1990, the number of Native American women attending college increased 30 percent; of Asian-American women, 99 percent; of African-American women, 16 percent; of Hispanic women, 73 percent; and of white women, 15 percent.
Another triumph on which I wish to focus is this: women and gender, as subjects, have entered our public consciousness and the curriculum. And quantitatively the growth in research and teaching about women and gender is impressive. If it were a stock it would be booming. If Womens Studies were a capitalist enterprise, you should have bought one share in 1969, because you would be very rich now. In 1969 there were 16 or so courses in the United States devoted to the subject of women and gender. Today there are Womens Studies courses in over two-thirds of our universities, in over one-half of our four-year colleges, and in about one-fourth of our two-year institutions. All together, about 2,000 colleges and universities have some sort of a Womens Studies curriculum.
In 1970 at the American Philosophical Associations convention, none of the 100 papers was on race and gender. In 1990, 21 of 224 papers took up these issues. A 1990 survey of English departments showed that almost all of them still wanted students to learn the intellectual, historical, and biographical background needed to understand the literature of a period. But in addition, 61.7 percent hoped that students would grasp the influence of race, class, and gender on literature and on its interpretation. The three meetings that the United Nations Decade for Women sponsored helped to strengthen the global perception of the importance of Womens Studies. By 1990, there were at least 164 free-standing and university-based research centers that focused on women and gender: 66 in the United States and Canada, 29 in Asia, 25 in Europe and England, 23 in Mexico, Central America, and Latin America, eight in northern and sub-Saharan Africa, five in Australia and New Zealand, four in the Middle East, four in the Caribbean, and one brave research center on women and gender in Russia. And no matter how marginal, no matter how thinly financed, these achievements are in place. Indeed, one thing I hope for from this project is that the study of women and gender will become as important in primary and secondary education as it now is in post-secondary education. And I hope to see the teachers in this room, men and women alike, as prophets who help to bring the generous and serious study of women and gender into the curriculum of elementary and middle and secondary schools.
But what is it that Womens Studies offers? What does it offer the information society? What does it offer education? Let me talk about two things. One is, quite frankly, a moral vision, a moral vision of a just and equitable educational community, a moral vision of educational communities in which we do have freedom of inquiry; in which there is access to learning for rich and middling and poor alike. This moral vision asks for mutual respect among all learners and for policies that serve all learners. If the moral vision of Womens Studies were to be incorporated in all our schools, we would have child care, for men and women alike. We would have freedom from racial and sexual harrassment. We would have democratic self-government, and we would have equitable hiring of all races and both genders.
But there is not simply a moral vision. A second good of Womens Studies is a rich and gusty and cross-disciplinary menu of ideas. Ideas about history, ideas about literature, ideas about society and culture, ideas about sex and genderthe connection between our theories of sex and gender and our theories of human nature ideas about sexuality, about sexual difference, about difference itself. In these ideas of Womens Studies, there has also been the demonstration of how persistently we have mis-measured sexual difference by making the male the norm and the female a variant from the norm.
Do we all know about the famous Goldberg test showing how our notions of sexual difference distort our sense of culture and society? And how we make the male the norm? This is a grueling little test, and I feel slightly guilty bringing it to you on such a pretty day, but here was the test. There are two classrooms, both consisting of boys and girlsClassroom A and Classroom B. Classroom A and Classroom B were given the same essay to read. It was identical in title, it was identical in content, it was even identical in terms of spelling mistakes. There was one difference. Classroom A was told that the essay was by a boy, excuse me, a man. Classroom B was told that the essay was by a woman. You can imagine the result. Classroom A said, Hey, this is good; this is strong; this is logical; this is intelligent. Ive learned a lot from it. And Classroom B, their eyes drifting over the same page, except for the authors name, said, This is illogical, this is silly, this is not worth reading. It is Womens Studies that again has tried to show us how embedded is our sense of sexual difference, how much this has given cultural authority to men and taken cultural authority away from women, and how on a conscious level this has influenced our judgments about the humanities, about culture, and about history.
The truths of other ideas of Womens Studies: The initial recipe for the menu of ideas in Womens Studies after World War II was Simone de Beauvoirs The Second Sex, published in France in 1949 and translated into English in 1953. De Beauvoir has a lot to answer for, and The Second Sex is filled with horrendous mistakes. But what great work is not? If we threw out a work because it was in error, we would have nothing to read, not even the Holy Bible. But one of de Beauvoirs lasting contributions was to tell us to distinguish between sex, a biological condition subject to some of the rules of nature, and gender, a social construction subject to the rules of culture. De Beauvoir taught us to realize the humanly-made rules of culture that defined much of what we believe to be naturalour bodies for example.
Joan Scott, one of the crucial figures in Womens History, has said, Gender is the social organization of sexual difference. But this does not mean that gender reflects or implements fixed and natural physical differences between women and men. But rather, gender is knowledge that establishes meanings for bodily differences. Historians in Womens Studies and in the new social history are demonstrating how culture has drawn the particular geography of sexuality and the body. For example, social historians and womens historians are now showing that modern heterosexuality and homosexuality did not spring from the eternal matrix of mother nature. But instead our notions of modern sexuality were made in the foundary of 19th-century culture. Again working with de Beauvoirs insistence that we could separate sex and gender, Womens Studies, particularly historians and anthropologists, began to trace how crucially societies vary from each other. All have biological women and all have biological men, but the meaning of being a woman differs radically from one society to another as the meaning of being a man differs radically from one society to another.
Every society has a gender system, but the meaning of these systems differs as radically from one society to another. Under the pressure of these perceptions, Womens Studies has taught itself not to speak of the universal woman, of an essential femaleness, and not to speak of a universal man (though some people in Womens Studies still speak too loosely of the patriarch). It has taught itself that to speak of a universal woman or a universal man is to commit the intellectual sin of essentialism.
Now, much of the energy of Womens Studies, building on variations on sex and gender systems, building on the need to conceptually divide sex and gender, much of the energy of Womens Studies has been spent in a gloomy fashion. Indeed, if you read much of Womens Studies material you will see a note of anger, of irascibility, even of rage, shall we saya grumpy quality that some find unattractive and others find inevitable. For much of the energy of Womens Studies has been spent showing how often our gender system has been hierarchical and how often our constructions of sexual differences have been synonymous with sexual discrimination. Economists have documented economic inequalities, political theory has documented the denial of citizenship to women, psychologists have documented the reasons why men batter and women submit, media critics have documented the demeaning and silly representations of women. And educationalists have documented the shortchanging of girls in primary and secondary schools, especially in science and mathematics classrooms.
But in the 1970s and 1980s, people in Womens Studies began to distrust the distrust of difference, when difference meant only discrimination. Womens Studies began to prize the female as well as to deplore dangerous differences between men and women. In the humanities scholars began to search not simply for womens absence but for womens presence. They began to search for womens culture, for womens literary and artistic traditions, and a new, free womens writing that would be the poetics of a newly freed body and psyche. In this search for a good difference let me mention two works that I think are crucial to the teaching of Womens Studies in the humanities. One is Annette Kolodnys workher two books, The Lay of the Land and The Land Before Her, that document differences in the writings of men and women as they confronted the American continent.
A second crucial work is, I think, Alice Walkers wonderful essay of 1974, In Search of Our Mothers Gardens, in which she drew on several traditions. She drew on Virginia Woolf s essay, A Room of Ones Own, she drew on Jean Toomers wonderful novel, and she put them together to say black women have not been beasts of burden. They are creative and they have been creative in ways that make us celebrate. She talks about going South, to her mothers house, and seeing a garden that is more beautiful than it had to be to grow vegetables for the family dinner table. And she talked about seeing quilts that were more beautiful than they had to be to keep children warm at night. And she talked about listening to the stories her mother told her that were then translated into her novels and short stories.
Philosophy continues the search for good differences. Sara Ruddick began to elaborate the theory of maternal thinkinga picture of the cognitive and ethical behavior that arises from the practice of mothering. Among the best known figures who arose during this period is a French writer, Helene Cixous, a creator of ecriture feminine or womens writing, and Carol Gilligan herself.
In the 1970s, several other developments also emerged. Among them was Mens Studiesan elaboration, often despairing, even woeful, of the male or mens culture or the constuction of masculinity. Much more than the evocation of Iron John, I think Mens Studies has great intellectual potential. A second development of the 1970s was the creation of Gender Studies that showed how femininity and masculinity fit together like two huge Lego blocks to form a gender structure.
Now superficially, these two developmentsthe study of bad sexual differences and the study of good sexual differencesmight seem contradictory. It might seem contradictory to conceptualize sexual differences as both destructive and constructive. But seen as a whole, womens experiences have been contradictoryfull of conflicting conditions and clashing forces. To note but three: If were teaching the family, we must often teach the family as the home plate of patriarchy. As you know, as both John Stuart Mill and Susan B. Anthony said, many men were willing to accept equality except in front of the fireplace. But the family has also been the place in which men and women have been companions against the hostile world.
A second contradiction: If many societies have devalued women and scorned them as creators and guardians of public organizations and culture, women have nevertheless created public organizations and created public culture. I think, for example, of the West African wall paintings that women create on mud walls or of Greek mourning songs, elegies that women sing.
The third contradiction is this: painfully, if many societies deprive women of power over themselves, women still have power to exercise. Women, though Other to men, have their Others too. In the United States white women did own black slaves of both sexes, and in Nazi Germany, as Claudia Koonz showed us in her heartbreaking book, Mothers in the Fatherland, Nazi women did brutalize and kill Jews of both sexes. And colonizers both lorded and ladied it over the colonized of both sexes.
In brief, Womens Studies learned that the picture of woman as total victim was as false as the picture of woman as total woman. The study of women in power shows what common sense alone should have shown: the historical and contemporary differences among womenrace, class, sexuality, tribe, nationality, age, religion, and a host of other conditions. And so in the late 1970s, Womens Studies underwent a third intellectual development. If the first was the study of bad differences, and the second the celebration of good differences, the third was the study of differences among women. My last point will be to explore this development and its consequences for us.
Womens Studies fissured into a number of groups, each of which fused the study of sex and gender with at least one other powerful element of biological, social, and cultural identity. Marxist feminist or socialist feminist thought in Womens Studies fused the study of gender with that of class. Lesbian studies fused the study of sexual preference with that of gender. Post-colonial studies, pioneered by Gayatri Spivak, fused the study of gender with that of the experience of colonization. Students of rural or urban women fused the study of gender with that of region. Feminists in religious studies fused very importantly the study of gender with that of religion and spirituality. And Black Womens Studies, Latina and Chicana Studies, Native American Womens Studies, and Asian American Womens Studies fused the study of race and ethnicity with that of gender. Deborah McDowell, the black feminist critic and African-American literature scholar, suggested that what black feminist critics ought to do is to look at the specific language of black womens literature, describe the way in which black women writers have employed literary devices. Each of these groups drew on the whole repertoire of styles and theories available in the contemporary humanities.
What now do we do with these groups studying the differences among women? Obviously, each of these groups has several tasks. Each has to explore its own history, culture, social structure, and gender relations, and these are labyrinthian and demanding and intricate tasks. Cherrié Moraga, for example, talks about the difficulty of exploring and writing about her birthright of Chicana mother and Anglo father. Second, each of these groups must intellectually and morally confront its relations with other groups. We must ask ourselves how deeply relations of domination and dependence affect and infect relations among groups. Each group must excavate the errors it is prone to make about other groups.
But third and finally, it is time for each of these groups to enter into intellectual coalition with others. I think the time in Womens Studies and in the humanities as a whole has come for us to dwell not only with our differences, but with our unity. But we must not table our differences. On the contrary, in Womens Studies and in the humanities in general, we must continue to struggle against our bad differences and to celebrate the good. But it is time to realize that we sit at the same table. Womens Studies, having begun to measure the differences among women honestly, can now begin to put our oils and vinegars together and to dress up our common interests. What I think it is time to do is, despite our suspicions and difficulties, to compose out of the turbulence of our differences big and renewing historical and social and philosophical narratives. Dialogue and principled coalition, writes Patricia Hill Collins, create possibilities for new versions of truth. Together, across and through and beyond our differences, we can reconstruct our classrooms. One source of unity can be the moral vision of education that Womens Studies offers and that I outlined earlier. If Womens Studies can fulfill this task, this living with our good differences and unities at once, it will deepen its experiment with educational democracy.
So what I suggest to you is thisWomens Studies in its exploration of divisive differences, its exploration of good differences, its exploration of differences among women has been our most seasoned and adventurous pioneer in multicultural research, teaching, and governance. I know of no other experiment in contemporary education that has confronted pluralism so openly and so honestly. If we are to survive well into the 21st century, we, this harming species, have much to do. We must educate a literate populace; we must feed, heal, and shelter us all; we must establish human rights; we must respect the ecology of earth and space. Womens Studies speaks to these issues. But I do not have to sit here just a few miles outside of Los Angeles and tell you that we must learn to live equitably in a multicultural, multiracial, multispecies world, and the humanities must construct our conversations for this world. Yes, Womens Studies has affirmed it will respond to this moral and political and intellectual imperative as well.
Thank you for listening to me. Lets have questions.
[Note: Some questions were not recorded.]
Stimpson: I have been asked to comment on feminist bashing, which has been going on ever since theres been a womens movement. Formal feminism began in the United States in Seneca Falls in 1848. And you should read the press-bashing that went on in the 19th century. Its, interestingly, nearly similar to what is going on today. The Herald Tribune, for example, in an editorial written by Horace Greeley talks about, and I am quoting, short-haired women and long-haired men, as if ones coiffure was a sure sign of ones sexual peccadillos.
Why is it intensified today? I think for a couple of reasons. One is that feminism as a political movement and Womens Studies as an educational and intellectual movement have made mistakes. Theres no way out of this. I know of no movement, educational or political, that hasnt made mistakes. Feminism has made mistakes and sometimes sent misleading messages. So thats that. We have to be honest about our errors, but more importantly and more deeply I think, we are a culture that looks for scapegoats, we practice a politics of division and a politics of us/them.
I responded very strongly and positively when Clinton said he will not play the race card, and I think what we are seeing simultaneously is the playing of the race card and a playing of the gender card. It is a way of separating nice people with family values from not nice people who just happen to be the majority of us. We see a manipulation; gender is entered into the politics of divisiveness. Why should it do that? Why is it so easily adapted as a scapegoat? I think because the challenge of feminism and the challenge of Womens Studies, which includes feminists and non-feminists within the academy, is so broad. What we are asked to consider is not only our public lifethe allocation of power and resources in our public lifebut we are also asked to consider our personal life.
The way I put it is that feminism affects both the boardroom and the bedroom, and so it is a wide-spread questioning of tradition. And in the same way Womens Studies within the academy questions received knowledge. I happen to read white men, dead white menmy current idol is William Jamesbut I must question how reputations are formed and how gender has played a part in forming education. Womens Studies asks us not only to consider received knowledge, it asks us to learn new things, to read new textbooks, and asks professors to rearrange their lecture notes. And in certain studies Ive seen of people who are trying to mainstream Womens Studies, the resistance is not just to the material, its to the idea of change itself. Womens Studies also asks us for a different kind of classroom, a classroom in whichI imagine nearly everybody here would find this sympathetic in which the instructor is facilitator, rather than czar or czarina.
The challenge is very, very broad. One other reason that feminism has been a scapegoat is because its been for gay and lesbian rights, and there are people who would go along with equal pay for equal work, and go into the corner and throw up at the idea of gay and lesbian rights. And I think that AIDSnot just in America, but AIDS globallyhas made the championing of gay and lesbian rights even more complicated. Interestingly, every public opinion poll shows majority support for feminist goals. So as humanists the question for us is this: What is this gap between the name and what the name represents? People, lots of people, call themselves feminists, but lots of people say, Yes, I believe in equal pay for equal work. Yes, I believe in no sexual harrassment, but would rather call themselves all sorts of names than feminists.
We have a real gap, a real disconnection, between the signifier and signified, with people supporting the signified, but not the signifier. If I may speak like the literary critic I am, weve got a split sign, in which there is that gap between the signified, feminist principles, and the signifier, the word feminist.
Question: What are the factors that would help a society evolve as a matriarchal or a patriarchal society?
Stimpson: As I answer, I want the historians and the anthropologists in the room to tell me if I could be off the wall, so I would like to have the answer to your question be a collective answer.
First, I think the terms matriarchal and patriarchal can no more be used universally than the terms female and male can be. A difficulty in Womens Studies is that it used the term patriarchy too loosely. And what we have to do, I believeand here post-modernism has been enormously helpful for Womens Studies as have the factual contributions of history and anthropologywhat we have to look at are specific societies and how they evolve over time, and at the relations of power within specific societies as they evolve over time. There has never been a matriarchy, although I think there have been societies that have worshipped women; and I am very taken by Elaine Pagelss work in the 1970s that talked about a turn that Christianity took, where it began to worship God the Father and repudiated certain Gnostic sects that were speaking simultaneously about God the Father and God the Mother.
Again, there have been societies where women have had a higher cultural role, a higher religious role, or a higher social roleoften agricultural societies. And there are certainly societies such as our own where men have had much more power than women. But there is no such thing as a simple patriarchy. When we talk about male domination, we not only have to see how it works out in a specific time and in a specific place, but we also have to look at the whole complex of forces that are at work.
The work that historians have done in the United States on slavery has been enormously important. And the conjunction of ethnic studies and Womens Studies has been enormously important, because it shows how questions of race and gender collide. Remember Frederick Douglasss autobiography? That little eight-year-old boy was first taught to read by his white mistress and was owned by a white woman and a white man. And then the white mistress stopped teaching him to read, because her husband told her to do so. She submitted to her husband, but that brilliant little boy had to submit to both of them.
But one book you might want to look at is Womans Role in Economic Development by Ester Boserup. It came out in 1970. It started the study of women in the process of modernization. And she really began to look at what are some of the characteristics of modernizing society that tend to push women out of formal economic and cultural authority, and what you might expect when women do lose their place in productive forces. Now I have never been a Marxist, but I am not going to Marxist-bash; I am not going to submit to the currently fashionable trend of total Marxist-bashing. Marxist thought is very important by teaching us to focus on the place of productive forces as a source of cultural and social authority.
Question: Why are young women increasingly reluctantor why do they seem increasingly reluctantto identify themselves as feminists?
Stimpson: This is the so-called post-feminist phenomenon.
How do I explain it? First let me tell you this story, and then Ill
give you my amateurish pop psychologist explanation. I do not know how
many of you were watching the Today show some years ago, when they were reporting
about a study of students at Brown University, young women at Brown University,
who refused to call themselves feminists. They said that feminism was
passe. Jane Pauley, who was talking to a young woman from Brown, said
to her at some point, What would you like to be? And this
young woman looked at her and she said, Id like your job!
Well, Jane Pauley was very polite, it was 7:40 in the morning, she didnt
want to upset anybody. She said, Oh, and what else would you like
to do? And the young woman said, Well, I think Id like
to have some children. So Jane Pauley said, Thats nice,
its nice to have children. And what else would you like to do?
And the young woman said, Well Id like to have your job, and
then when I have my children, Id like to take a year off and raise
my childrenmaybe two yearsand then come back. And
Jane Pauley finally lost it and she said, You really think that
NBC is going to hang around waiting for the likes of you?
Now, what is the point of this story? The point is that that young woman from Brownwhich you should know is not a gritty place like some of our community colleges and some of our four year colleges and some of our public universitiesthis is a woman who had neither a sense of the past nor an accurate sense of the future. She did not know or would not learn the immediate past in which her assumption that she might become an anchor woman would have been silly. She did not know the immediate past where she could not have gone to certain law schools or medical schools. But she also did not sufficiently imagine the future in which the conflict between work and family life, between work and love, would be an issue.
I think what we have, at this particular moment of time, is a group of young women who are in a kind of blessed space where they have access, and they havent hit the glass ceiling yet. And I look at them and in my nice mood I say There, there, enjoy it. Take the keys to the car, theres gas in the tank, have a good time, Ill give you a credit cardyoure going to get your own in a few years. And in my lousy, mean, belligerent mood I say to myself, Get into a Womans History class and shape up, kid.
But I think there are other explanations as well. We have had on a federal level, since 1980, 12 consistent years of bashing the feminists, and it really does take a toll. I think if Reagan and Bush had not been in the White House; if we had had as first ladies figures other than Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush; if Nancy Reagan had said, I am a feminist and I am still going to my office or to my pediatric practice, the national climate on that level would have been different. There would have been a different kind of vocabulary for young women and young men to feed into.
And another explanation: what we are seeing is a womans version of the Oedipal Complex, and feminism is seen by some but not by all as their mothers thing. And not only their mothers thing but that mother who is kind of grumpy and bossy, etc., etc., etc. What I would love to do is come back in ten years and find out what youre hearing then.
Question: Where do the humanities play a role?
Stimpson: I speak of the humanities, as we in this room think of it, as a spacious enterprise, an inclusive humanities that does not run away from aesthetic judgment, an inclusive history, an inclusive humanities. What is our responsibility as humanists? What is one of our most formal and most important responsibilities? We are the gatekeepers of the past. History is literally in our hands. We write the history books, we conduct the history classes, we either make the past a dead end or a living present. And I figure, again, we together as humanists, through making history alive, help people to avoid certain historical repetition compulsions.
Now will it work? Not altogether, no, not really. We are a forgetting species. But if we can teach history from pre-kindergarten and make history a life-long occupation, we can help people see that they dont only live in the present. And that there are patterns that we can break and that there are patterns that we can alter. So when I talk about Womens Studies putting together everythinginstead of focusing only on differences among womenand writing a big historical narrative, I would like to see it in a book, I would like to see it in an audio-cassette, I would like to see it in a videotape. I would like to have all of my students think of the past as a companion rather than as a distant stranger.
Question: One of the things I am really interested in is the notion that in the K12 grade levels we dont have the specific Black Studies or Womens Studies programs, those sort of things generally. And I think one of the things you want to do is to infuse in the K12 curriculum some of the multicultural aspects that are emphasized in those collegiate studies programs. But do you think that the move in teaching should be away from the specific studies programs at the college and university level to the mainstreaming sort of thing that is the model in the K12 curriculum?
Stimpson: I was raised with a couple of very helpful slogans. One of them (and I couldnt understand it for years) is dont teach your grandmother how to suck eggs. And I would look at my grandmother making angel food cake by hand, whipping up the egg whites 600 or 700 times, and I would think what does that mean, dont teach my grandmother how to suck eggs? Well, I finally figured it out, and it means dont tell people who know more than you what to do. So I would not begin to prescribe the intellectual organization of pre-K through 12. I would need all of our thinking on that.
But you were also kind enough to ask me about the collegiate level. What do I think is appropriate? Obviously, if only for survival, but it is also intellectually necessary, the various ethnic studies programs and Womens Studies, which have studied the differences among us, have to come into intellectual coalition and pedagogical coalition, both for institutional survival and because it is intellectually correct. People have to start pulling together to give a spacious view of reality. But Womens Studies has developed willy nilly, at least on the post-secondary level or, as they say in Australia and New Zealand and England, on the tertiary level, a very good model of organization.
What it has is what I call four models of presence, four forms of education that work together simultaneously. One is the Womens Studies program, now often called the Gender Studies program, which is a separate interdisciplinary program which
infuses knowledge about women and gender throughout the curriculum as the English Department is supposed to infuse specialized knowledge about writing. These programs are often marginally financed; they are often filled with the most tedious and unappetizing squabbles. But they are also often very good.
The second model of presence is work on women and gender within a discipline. This is probably the most common: Women in History courses, Women Writers courses, a Family course in the Sociology Department.
The third model of presence is the so-called mainstreaming project. And I think every institution on every level should be doing mainstream projects. Because I simply dont understand how any intellectually responsible school can go on without teaching about women and gender. This is not a trivial fadwe are talking about 50 percent plus of the population. And all of us, men and women alike, are influenced by gender. So to leave this out is like not teaching quantum mechanics in a physics course. Its like not teaching Plato in a philosophy course. When we teach women and gender, we are teaching a basic social literacy. And not to teach that literacy in all its complexity is simply educationally irresponsible. The resistance to mainstreaming is incredible.
The fourth model of presence is whats going on outside of the academy. Because some of the most important ideas in Womens Studies have not come from academicians. Virginia Woolf never went to university. And ideas come from poets, they come from conversation, they come from the air. But isnt that true of all of us in the humanities? The minute we cut off any single source of information, were hurting ourselves. The minute we cut off any possible insight, any possible flash of beauty, were hurting our selves. The sure and final thing as humanists were trying to do is to keep our nerve ends continually open. And so Womens Studies in the fourth model of presence has tried to keep itself alive by brilliance and insights from outside the academy.
Question: How do young men feel about feminism?
Stimpson: Its complicated and it varies enormously. Ive found no single model. I have, however, found that young men who have known women in the public labor force are all apt to be very sympathetic. Or young men with girlfriendsone of the first men I ever had in a Womens Studies course was there because his girlfriend told him to be. I think young men, who have seen women struggle and felt that they have been, in a loving way, a part of the struggle, try to be sympathetic. Young men who have good male mentors, young men who have had older men in their lives who have been capable of gender equity, are a step ahead. Working mothers is one pattern I see; the presence of strong and passionate male mentors is another pattern that I see. More and more I believe the crucial thing about human rights is human decency and character; that to me really education is about character, education is about teaching people to live generously and strongly and compassionately in the world. And for whatever reason, the nice guys are better on these issuesthe nice guys, who are ethical and have a certain sexual self-confidence. What do I want to be protected from? A guy who is sexually insecure, who has been raised rigidly, often with a religious overlay to that rigidity, thats whom I get scared of.
Question: Why should there be separate Womens Studies departments?
Stimpson: Im an agnostic. It really doesnt matter if you include experiences of men and women in all their diversity under a rubric of American experiences or urban literature or if you focus on women in literature or black literature. It doesnt matter. Youre a mainstreamer and thats fine. We need all the models going at once.
Some peoples weirdness is other peoples normalcy. What I would go back to is my four models of presence and their interdependence. But I think there may be still, no matter how much mainstreaming there is, and I hope there is a lot of mainstreaming, a place for separate courses and separate departments, though how they will evolve is beyond my powers of prediction. Let me go back to the metaphor I used earlier. We want everybody to write, right?
We want everybody to read. We want every department to pay attention to language. We want everybody to speak well and eloquently and carefully. We want those language skills and literacy to be encouraged throughout our schools, right? But that doesnt mean we are going to do away with English Departments. We will still have an English Departmentor so I, in a self-serving way, hopewe will still have an English Department as a specialized focus that can be a source of ideas. What I would like to see in your school is you doing exactly what you say youre doing, teaching a course in urban literature where you include a wide variety of authors, and I would love simultaneously to see someone in your school, male or female, teaching a course in women writers or gender in literatureand you could have terrific conversations.
Question: What do you think of black male academies and their implications for the education of women?
Stimpson: Let me give you my own experience first. Before I do that I want to speak directly and perhaps provocatively to the question of black male academies. I have seen the curricula plans for several of them and they scare me. Often they teach a kind of religious orthodoxy. I think they teach, at least in the curricula plans I saw, a pernicious form of Afrocentrism, and they teach gender stereotypes. So I have to put my cards on the table in terms of the black male academies and the curricula plans that I saw.
I do believe, however, that they are responding to a need. They are a bad response to a real and desperate need, which is the fact that as a culture we seem to be willing to write off the inner city. And if we continue doing thisand I speak as someone who lives in a cityif we continue to do this, there will be yet another reason to write American history as a tragedy.
But my own personal history is this. I went through the public schoolsco-educational kindergarten, primary, junior, senior high schooland I lived with every gendered stereotype in the book. As well as with counter-messages. My schools were coeducational, they were public. And I am passionately devoted to the public schools. Another tragic error we will make as a country is to undercut the public schools. Then I went to a womens college. I went to what was then called one of the Seven Sisters, but which I now refer to as the Seven Hermaphrodites. I was a hick out of Bellingham High School in Bellingham, Washington. Eighty percent of my college class had gone to private schools. And I remember writing my grandfather saying, Granddaddy, Ive been to the library and Ive looked up irony, Ive looked up metaphor, and I just have a lot of polishing to do. And there probably still is. And then I went to England where I went to a womens college at Cambridge University. And then I came back and dropped out for a while and then I went to Columbia University. Then I taught at Barnard College, which was a womens college and a part of Columbia University, and now I teach in a huge co-educational public research university.
What I have come away with from all that is, again, a commitment to diversity in education. I believe that we should have good public and private schools, though I dont believe in vouchers to private schools because I think that will probably encourage white-flight segregationist academies. Let there be three remaining male colleges and let there be 70 or 80 remaining womens colleges. We are a diverse country and a pluralistic country and I dont want my pluralism ever to be wiped out.
However, if we are going to go back and create male academies and female academies at the junior high school level, I would want to be pretty sure that our theory of human nature was right. And Im not sure that we would be erecting those schools on a really accurate enough and deep enough theory of adolescent development. Carol Gilligan not only did write an influential book on moral reasoning, but, as many of you know, she is doing very intriguing studies on the development of adolescent girls. And she has now tapes, which she has made over a five-year period, where you see the girls between the ages of 10 and 15 increasingly denying what they know, and she has on tape these young women more and more using the form I dont know. But Carol Gilligans studies, wonderful and imaginative though they are, are they the base of a theory of adolescence deep enough and complicated enough to provide building blocks? Set up whole schools?
What I would prefer to see is this: let us practice our diversity within a single space, have teacher development programs, so that the teachers, male and female alike, learn not to give different cues to boys and girls and kids of different races. I would love to see us within one institution get a more inclusive curriculum. In other words, do it right together. And so if we have diversity nowbecause its our historical legacyterrific. This is 1992 and we are celebrating and deploring physical exploration. Physical exploration of the globe is largely over. Weve gone over earth, weve settled everyplace. Our job now is psychic and social. Thats the territory we have to conquer. Let us work with our diversity together within the same institution. So thats what I would prefer to have happen.
Question: What are some current issues in Womens Studies?
Stimpson: When I gave you my history of intellectual development of Womens Studies, I may have given you too much as it was, but I obviously left a lot out. For example, the quarrel about androgyny. And the quarrel about androgyny is, of course, the quarrel about human nature. I love Carolyn Heilbruns book called Toward a Recognition of Androgyny. If I could toot my own bibliography I can say this, when I reviewed it I gave it all this praise, but her theory of androgyny still assumes that there is a fixed set of psychological qualities we can call masculine and a fixed set of psychological qualities we can call feminine. I dont believe in fixities of human nature beyond a certain point. The fixities I believe in: we are born, we seek, and we die. I believe there are cultural constructs. There is obviously a cultural construct called masculinity and a cultural construct called femininity and what that means varies from society to society. So when I hear someone say to a man find the feminine within you, I know what that person is saying. And I would like to see males practice gentleness and compassion, and I would like to see women practice strength and boldness. But what I would really like is not to have that particular gender vocabulary, and in that way I am an equal opportunity ethicist. Our vocabulary of human nature has historically been in gender terms and that will continue as long as there are bodily differences. It is inevitable. It was inevitable when my brother and I took baths together that I would have a sense of his otherness. Neither of us were hermaphrodites. Because of our bodies, there is going to be built into every culture a sense of physical otherness. But we dont have to make a big cosmography out of this.
What I would like us to do is to recognize our difference, but have our description of human nature and of our individual temperament be complexes in which you say, Yes, I was born into one sex or another. Yes, I was born into one race or another. Yes, I was born into one class or another. That is not the sum total of my being. In our encounters with the otherand again here is where the humanities matter so muchfor we set the conversations on how to confront the otherbe the other the past, or the other the present, or the other of our imagination, those encounters with the other always deal with a rich vocabulary. Part of the wonderful thing about the study of literature is that it enriches our vocabulary of the other. I would like to see us teach our students that the vocabulary of the other is potentially inexhaustible.
Question: Would you comment on ethnic and gender and racial relations in the urban environment?
Stimpson: I live in New York, what can I tell you? I not only live in New York, I live now in Staten Island, the most conservative borough, which is filled with racism. None of us is going to sit here and be unrealistic about ethnic and gender and racial relations. We know it is a desperate problem that is ours. And when I give my answers that Ive gleaned in Womens Studies and what have you, they may seem like straws in the whirlwind, not straws in the wind, straws in the whirlwind. But they are the answers that I am capable of giving, and it seems to me again as humanists we could show in the classroom and in our dealings with each other, the possibility of another way. We have a tradition to call on. We do have a tradition of principled non-violence, and if in our teaching of history we can show alternate traditions that work, thats terrific. Always in our teaching we can show complexity and a need for multiple interpretations.
There is also art. I remember this summer sitting in a tiny little theaterone of the theaters in Joe Papps Public Theaterwatching an extraordinary performance, Anna Deavere Smiths Crown Heights, where she acted out both Jews and blacks, and in her own body, in the body of the artist, she took on the conflict. And she gave us one of the traditional functions of art, which is representation, complexity, and catharsis. In our crude world, we may underestimate the importance of theater, the importance of the media, the importance of the humanities, in acting out the culprit in such a way that people dont want to do a bad thing themselves. The actor or the writer or the history teacher takes on a burden of serving as witness, acting a human pattern so that we understand it and then with luck remake it. I warned you that you were getting me in my Pollyanna mode. But if we in the humanitiesand Womens Studies does thisif we dont present the possibility of a culture of hope, who is going to? Is that not one of our jobs in the humanities? In Womens Studies and in feminism as a political movement, you do see a culture of hope. Is not the nourishment of a culture of hope our job?
Note: Professor Stimpsons prepared remarks drew from some of her previous work on Womens Studies.