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Professing Feminism

Cautionary Tales from the Strange World of Women's Studies.

by Daphne Patai and Noretta Koertge
Book review Copyright © 1997 by Bert H. Hoff

Daphne Patai and Noretta Koertge, Professing Feminism: Cautionary Tales from the Strange World of Women's Studies. (New York, NY: BasicBooks, 1994). Order on-line

book cover
Professing Feminism:
Cautionary Tales from the Strange World of Women's Studies

Daphne Patai and Noretta Koertge
Order on-line

At a recent Mendocino men's leadership conference Robert Moore, author of KING, WARRIOR, MAGICIAN, LOVER informed us, "You wouldn't believe what's happening in academia today!" He proceeded to tell us how the values most cherished in academia - rigorous scholarship and the freedom to challenge ideas - have come under attack. But we can't say anything about it, because we are part of the patriarchy. Now two professors of Women's Studies have come forth with courage, to challenge ideological indoctrination they see as all too prevalent in Women's Studies programs.

Their thesis is that these programs are closely aligned with women's centers and political activism. As a result, they resemble indoctrinations and therapy sessions. The authors prize highly the values of a liberal education, rigorous scholarship and open inquiry. But programs that share these values are few and far between.

There is a particular irony here. One of the goals of Women's Studies was to challenge traditional ways of thinking, ways that ignored the role of women. Feminist scholarship has had some well-deserved success. (One example, which the authors do not cite in their book, is in the area of biology. Looking at this from a women's point of view has led to new theories and research in sexual selection. It is the woman who controls the species, by her selection of a mate.) But what has resulted has been a chilly climate of repression, where students or professors who do not adhere to the "party line" are afraid to speak out.

And the "party line" gets silly at times. Science, mathematics and logic are rejected in favor of "women's ways of knowing." Because science, mathematics and logic arose out of the patriarchy, rotten to the core, it has nothing to offer women. The ideas, the theories, the knowledge are rejected because of the speakers - men and a few masculinized women. Logic is deemed insane. Ultimately, this position is harmful to women. The argument is that women are not as capable as men in mathematics or logic, because this is contradictory to "women's ways of knowing." But that's OK, because mathematics and logic are poisoned. Logic is deemed to be insane, and the greatest logician of pre-World War II is likened to Hitler. This argument is insulting to those many women in mathematics, science and engineering who are as fully capable as the men with whom they work.

They discuss at length a 1992 National Women's Studies Association assessment of women's studies programs, in collaboration with the Association of American Colleges. The study developed nine criteria for assessing the programs. Not one of these focused on fostering research, or even made women aware of, women's history, women's literature, social science work on women. All stated goals to shape attitudes and foster activism. In doing so, the study perverted the message of the authors of the successful book Women's Ways of Knowing. The study emphasized that only connected knowing is valid. I can learn only from a small group of people that I know, and experiences I can relate to in my own life. (Dead white European males are out, as are all science and mathematics.) In the paradigm of Women's Ways of Knowing, however, "connected knowing" is only one of two forms of the next-to-the last stage of knowing. The other is called separate knowing, which involves separating a critique of ideas from a personal attack on the people proposing them. The goal, the final stage, is "constructed knowing," which integrates all prior stages of knowing. A voice of integration that finds a place for reason and intuition and the expertise of others.

The book was painful for the authors to write, they acknowledge. They identify with the feminist movement. They continue to believe in the fundamental feminist goals for political and social reform. They are not repudiating the study of women's lives or denying the central role of gender in human societies. What they are opposing is the insistence on mixing politics and scholarship, the sacrifice of intellect to emotion, and the tendency to turn the moral claims of feminism into an esoteric dogma that can be understood only by the indoctrinated and accepted only by the initiated. They recognize that they are not only repudiating some of their previous beliefs, fur are jeopardizing friendships with many colleagues and allies. But, ultimately, they believe that it is feminists, not their opponents, who must speak out about contemporary feminism's tendency to turn into a parody of itself. We are glad they had the courage to do so.

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