It's Academic

It was almost 30 years ago when feminists began to speak among ourselves about the absence of women in the top echelons of academic life. We were high-achieving students at colleges and universities--but we surely were not professors. As we shared our educational histories, most of us could not recall ever having had a female professor.We noted that the contributions of women, although there had been many, were noticeably absent from what we read and studied. It was more painful than being discriminated against--it was being invisible.Our solution (we felt not like victims, but like pioneers) was to craft the laws to change this. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 was the solution, we believed. It prohibits sex discrimination in any educational program receiving federal financial assistance. We would get women on the faculty, and enhance the curriculum to include the works of female writers, scholars and artists.Thus, Women's Studies was born. Today, it is an established academic discipline, with courses, programs and majors in hundreds of institutions of higher education throughout the country. It is important that women study where we were, where we are, and where we are going. It is also equally important that men study this, not just as a part of history, but as a part of their daily lives.Sheila Tobias writes about "The New Scholarship" in her new book Faces in Feminism: An Activist's Reflections on the Women's Movement, (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, a division of Harper Collins Publishers, Inc.). "At least as important as feminist theory in the development of women's political consciousness," Tobias writes, "was the blossoming of what came to be called 'the new scholarship of women' and its extension into the classroom as women's studies... But how were they to scope out a subject that was not cataloged in libraries under either 'women' or 'gender' and crossed disciplinary boundaries, where data were incorrect or incomplete and whole chapters were missing?" At Cornell University, Tobias and Joy Osofsky developed one of the first Women's Studies programs in the country to solve this problem.This spring I was invited to a nearby university, to a seminar of students, each giving a senior thesis in Women's Studies. With all the energy and evident intellectual excitement of the presenters, it was gratifying to behold how our "garden" --the new scholarship on women--is growing.A paper on Norplant, the contraceptive approved by the Food and Drug Administration in the early 1990s, pointed out that it has been used on women internationally since 1968. The writer believes there is a conflict between a "women-centered definition of birth control for autonomy versus a policy or professional-centered definition which has elements of population control." When questioned, she said she believes more choices on family planning were good (rather than fewer), but she saw Norplant use as an issue of women's autonomy.Population control was also the topic of a paper on West Africa women. The authors believe the population control policies now being implemented as part of a global economic agenda have detrimentally impacted the lives of West African women. An anecdote to demonstrate the extent of resistance was given: As an incentive for women in Nigeria to come to a health clinic, bouillon cubes were distributed. When the rumor surfaced that the cubes were anti-fertility drugs, women refused to come to the clinic.As a veteran of many international conferences, I know reproductive health and choice is a very hot and controversial issue, laden with religious overtones. One could certainly agree with the speakers that it is "vital to incorporate women into the construction of population policy," but the problem is that all women cannot come to agreement on population policy.A paper on Title IX was presented, with an emphasis on sports: Women's sports have shown the potential for earning revenue, for example, at the University of Connecticut. And, if revenue is the goal of sports at an institution of higher learning, there are many men's sports which do not produce revenue, thus disadvantaging male students who do not go out for football or basketball. The research papers on Title IX, which appear to view court action as a last resort, will be presented to the oversight committee of the NCAA. To me, it seems court action is long overdue. Twenty-five years after the passage of Title IX, only eight colleges in the United States come within the accepted 5 percent range of equality in athletics.Several papers on eating disorders, a major source of distress for women of all ages, emphasized that the disproportionate number of women with anorexia, compared to men, shows that this is not a problem of the individual, but rather a multidimensional cultural issue.The colloquium raised more issues than it solved, but that is what scholarship is all about. In the early days of the feminist movement, many said that "the personal is political." That statement always seemed a bit fuzzy to me (I never knew what it meant), but it has become popular. Whether one looks at the best-seller list or the afternoon talk shows, one miserable victim after another is spilling a story. The personal is very much in vogue.This subjectivity has not escaped the halls of ivy. If the leaders of the Women's Studies movement ask me (they have not), I will urge an emphasis on the economic and social--less personal and more political.Sooner or later, gender issues will be part of general knowledge, part of mainstream education. Then, Women's Studies programs will have achieved the lofty goal of putting themselves out of business.


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