What is Women’s Studies?

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Women’s Studies departments began to be set up in US universities in the early seventies. There are now over 700 such departments in the US with many hundreds more in the Western world. Courses are to be found in nearly 90 universities and colleges in the UK.

It needs to be seen in the context of the clamour from a whole variety of groups for separate studies for subpopulations with a history of victimhood; related examples are multicultural studies, ethnic studies of various kinds, colonial studies, described by Australian author Robert Hughes as The Culture of Complaint.

They have taken colossal advantage of a certain recognition that some groups and sections in society were not well treated in the past to claim enormous liberties. A truly remarkable latitude has been accorded to feminist scholars. Women’s Studies like multicultural programmes generally have attained a sacrosanct status, an unprecedented immunity to the scrutiny and scepticism standard for other fields of inquiry; they have become privileged within the academy.

It will be argued that it has produced as a result a large amount of work of very dubious value. This is certainly true of feminist critiques of science of which many well-documented studies exist.

One of the most striking features is the ubiquity of gender in all the writings: the way feminists relate everything to a universal and ineluctable gendering. There is a constant attempt to examine works of history, politics, sociology, economics (the gendered economy), in minute detail for any hint of taint by supposedly masculinist ideas or those interpreted as such. In as much as these have been largely or overwhelmingly a male enterprise, they are assumed to be biased by unacknowledged assumptions derived from the patriarchal values of Western society.

Univerity pf York
School of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies, University of York (Credit: University of York)

No other academic programme has leant so heavily and inventively on social constructionism as has Women’s Studies. The theoretical bedrock of the current wave of feminism is the claim that gender is socially constructed and that the different roles played by men and women in society, and the personality characteristics, attitudes and behaviours ascribed to them derive largely from social arrangements which vary dramatically from culture to culture. Such differences can be neither explained nor justified by reference to innate biological sex differences.

Univerity pf York
Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Program, University of Pittsburg (Credit: University of Pittsburg)

It would be hard to deny that the division of labour between women and men is at least partly socially constructed. But is it legitimate to relate all aspects and expressions of gender to social forces? Women’s Studies is very strongly committed to taking an extreme social constructionist line; it denies that biology has anything to do with gender. Science has refuted such a position throughout some parts of the animal kingdom and specifically in monkeys. Further, there is evidence that biology strongly influences social and political attitudes as well. This can be found in the review of a growing literature carried out by Gary Lewis and Timothy Bates in The Psychologist, 26 (3) March 2013. They point out “research has traditionally focused almost exclusively on environmental determinants of social and political sentiment, but it now seems clear that understanding political divides will require biological as well as social explanations.”

The idea that their own criticisms could be biased gets no similar recognition from Women’s Studies advocates. There is a kind of dogmatism about much of their posturing which of course is often inconsistent with what they say. The assumption is that everything, every discipline is tainted and something called the feminine side is left out. All such disciplines and especially science is so tainted that they cannot be left to the traditionalists; instead they must be presented from an exclusively feminist angle.

As well as gender, another favourite theme is oppression. Women’s Studies courses never tire of fulminating about how women were and still are oppressed; this is assiduously cultivated until victimhood is turned into a cult.

As stated, social constructionism is a favourite theme: gender is socially constructed but so are a great many things such as knowledge, reason. Science is regarded as a social construct, as inevitably contaminated by male tendencies even if only unconscious.

An all too rare example of how the pretensions of gender studies can be exposed, occurred in 2012 when the Nordic Council of Ministers (a regional inter-governmental co-operation consisting of Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Iceland) decided to close down the NIKK Nordic Gender Institute. The NIKK had been the flagship of ‘Gender Theory’, providing the ‘scientific’ basis for social and educational policies that, from the 1970s onward, had transformed the Nordic countries to become the most “gender sensitive” societies in the world.

The decision was made after the Norwegian State Television had broadcasted Hjernevask (Brainwashing), a television documentary in which the hopelessly unscientific character of the NIKK and its research was exposed. The whole enterprise was based on ideology with no basis in evidence. You can watch the series on YouTube with English sub-titles.


Adherence to facts, to objectivity, and precise logical reasoning are suspect as somehow being out of step with feminine values of intuition, connectedness, closeness, and aversion to abstraction. The themes noted above: gender, social constructionism, oppression, the biased nature of science and knowledge generally, are part of the basic ideology of Women’s Studies, they are sacrosanct and cannot be questioned. Women’s Studies is deeply ideological and has been compared to other fundamentalisms such as religious fundamentalism.

Is logic itself tainted and language? As we teeter on the edge of the abyss, there is no let up in the dogmatism. All these things have been brought into question by feminist writers.

In Words of Power: a Feminist Reading of the History of Logic, Andrea Nye gives a critique of logic itself. Nye concludes: “logic in its final perfection is insane.”

But at some point argument becomes futile in the face of such absurdities. Whatever about the ideas and beliefs they dismiss, it seems these feminists believe in the efficacy of their own writings.

Their own writings are of course exempt from the general doubt cast upon all else. This is typical of all relativism. They write books and expect recognition on foot of them, academic advancement and funding.

Women’s Studies and Politics

One of the most controversial aspects of Women’s Studies is the way in which politics is inextricably woven into the classroom discussion. Academic departments normally distance themselves from political activism. In doing so they help free the scholar from the need to demonstrate practical relevance and to preserve the precious notion of academic freedom including freedom from political pressure. This distancing is not observed in Women’s Studies. However, Daphne Patai, from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, has criticized this aspect of women’s studies programmes. She argues that they place politics over education, that “the strategies of faculty members in these programs have included policing insensitive language, championing research methods deemed congenial to women (such as qualitative over quantitative methods), and conducting classes as if they were therapy sessions.”

According to Patai, Women’s Studies professors readily admit to the political aims of the education they offer. This accords with the slogan ‘the personal is political’. Students in many programmes can receive academic credit for doing internships or performing community service in feminist agencies.

This view is backed up by another respected female academic. A still larger problem is the degree to which politics has infected women’s studies scholarship. “Feminist theory guarantees that researchers will discover male bias and oppression in every civilisation and time”, says Mary Lefkowitz, a classics professor at Wellesley.

Women’s Ways of Knowing is the title of a widely used text in Women’s Studies. It claims that women “have cultivated and learned ways of knowing which are powerful but have been neglected and denigrated by the dominant intellectual ethos of our time.” A second claim is that educators can help women develop their own authentic voices if they emphasise connection over separation, understanding and acceptance over assessment, and collaboration over debate. Patai comments that like nearly all feminist research in this area, the authors fail to undertake comparative studies to see whether male students fall into similar patterns.

According to Patai, Women’s Ways of Knowing is based on inconclusive research and draws too uncritically on the books of Noddings, Ruddick and Gilligan. Serious flaws in these books have repeatedly been pointed out in mainstream psychology journals but are not acknowledged. She says that the Women’s Studies faculty offers the book “as proof of the superiority of women’s wonderfully different and rewarding ways of knowing.”

In Students at the Centre, another project of Women’s Studies programmes, feminist assessment methods are used. It explains that “feminist assessment methods begins with and enacts values. It does not presume to be objective in the narrow sense of the word, nor does feminist theory believe there is any such thing as a value-free scientific investigation. In feminist assessment, narratives count more heavily than statistics, and evaluation methods “should be compatible with feminist activist beliefs” and with the aims of emancipatory pedagogy.

Karen Lehrman has attended Women’s Studies classes in a number of institutions. Here she is writing in Sept/Oct 1993 issue of Mother Jones:

“Women’s studies was conceived with a political purpose – to be the intellectual arm of the women’s movement – and its sense of purpose has only gotten stronger through the years. The result is that the field’s narrow politics have constricted the audience for non-ideological feminism instead of widening it, and have reinforced the sexist notion that there is a women’s viewpoint.

“Most women’s studies professors seem to adhere to the following principles in formulating classes: women were and are oppressed; oppression is endemic to our patriarchal social system; men, capitalism, and Western values are responsible for women’s problems. The reading material is similarly bounded in political scope (Andrea Dworkin, Catharine MacKinnon, bell hooks, Adrienne Rich, and Audre Lorde turn up a lot).”

And here:

“In general, ‘core’ women’s studies courses are more overtly political and less academically rigorous than those cross-listed with a department. The syllabus of Iowa’s ‘Introduction to Women’s Studies’ course declares: ‘As we make our collective and individual journeys during this course, we will consider how to integrate our theoretical knowledge with personal and practical action in the world.’ ‘Practicums’, which typically entail working in a women’s organization, are a key part of many courses, often requiring thirty or more hours of a student’s time.”

The pressures on professors to toe the correct feminist line can be even stronger. History Professor Elizabeth Fox-Genovese says she stepped down as chair of Emory’s women’s studies program because of complaints from students and faculty that she wasn’t radical enough. Lehrman continues on how Women’s Studies has made common cause with certain other exotic studies:

“Perhaps the most troubling influence on women’s studies in the past decade has been the collection of theories known as post- structuralism (akin to postmodernism), which essentially implies that all texts are arbitrary, all knowledge is biased, all standards are illegitimate, all morality is subjective. I talked to numerous women’s studies professors who don’t buy any of this (it’s typically more popular in the humanities than in the social sciences), but nevertheless it has permeated women’s studies to a significant extent, albeit in the most reductive, simplistic way.

“But post-structuralism is applied inconsistently in women’s studies. I’ve yet to come across a feminist tract that “contextualizes” sexism in this country as it does in others, or acknowledges that feminism is itself a product of Western culture based on moral reasoning and the premise that some things are objectively wrong. Do feminist theorists really want the few young men who take these classes to formulate personal rationales for rape? There’s a huge difference between questioning authority, truth, and knowledge and saying none of these exist, a difference between rejecting male standards and rejecting the whole concept of standards.

“Like post-structuralism, the concept of multiculturalism has had a deep influence on women’s studies. Professors seem under a constant burden to prove that they are presenting the requisite number of books or articles by women of color or lesbians. Issues of race came up in nearly every class I sat through. I wasn’t allowed to sit in on a seminar at Dartmouth on ‘Racism and Feminism’ because of a contract made with the students that barred outside visitors.”

Terms like sexism, racism, and homophobia have bloated beyond all recognition, and the more politicised the campus, the more frequently they’re thrown around.

Lehrman states that: “Clearly the first step is for women’s studies to reopen itself to internal and external criticism. The intimidation in the field is so great that I had trouble finding dissident voices willing to talk to me on the record.”

The effect of all this ideology on Women’s Studies students is summed up as follows by Lehrman:

“Unfortunately, women’s studies students may not be as well equipped to see through shoddy feminist scholarship as they are through patriarchal myths and constructs. One reason may be the interdisciplinary nature of the programs, which offers students minimal grounding in any of the traditional disciplines.”

According to Mary Lefkowitz, Women’s Studies majors who take her class exhibit an inability to amass factual material or remember details; instead of using evidence to support an argument, they use it as a remedy for their personal problems. In a book review in the conservative magazine National Review, Mary Lefkowitz writes of Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women by Christina Hoff Sommers, that “[Sommers] provides clear guidelines on how to distinguish indoctrination from education. That alone is a major service to all of us who are struggling to distinguish fact from fiction in today’s troubled academic world.”

The prominent writer and philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers (also author of The War Against Boys) calls most women’s studies classes “unscholarly, intolerant of dissent and full of gimmicks. In other words, they are a waste of time.” She is described as follows in Wikipedia:

“Christina Hoff Sommers thinks of herself as an equity feminist who faults contemporary feminism for ‘its irrational hostility to men, its recklessness with facts and statistics, and its inability to take seriously the possibility that the sexes are equal – but different.'”

Science and Women’s Studies

From the very beginning, science was the nemesis of Women’s Studies. Scientific inquiry embodied all the so-called masculine virtues that feminism most wanted to challenge – objectivity versus subjectivity, the power of reason instead of intuition, problem-solving through logical analysis and the weighing of evidence versus conflict resolution through empathy and plumbing the depths of oppression.

The key concept in all of Women’s Studies research was gender. If academic feminists could demonstrate the gendered nature of science it would reveal the sexist underpinnings of knowledge claims in all the disciplines.

The social constructionist view of science is: science is a set of conventions brought forth by one particular culture (our own) in one historical period; thus it is not, as the standard view would have it, a body of knowledge and testable conjecture concerning the ‘real’ world. It is a discourse devised by and for one specialised “interpretive community” under terms created by the complex net of social circumstance, political opinion, economic incentive and ideological climate that constitutes the ineluctable human environment of the scientist.

According to Gross and Levitt (see below) this point of view rigorously applied leaves no ground whatsoever for distinguishing reliable knowledge from superstition.

Some of the most egregiously false comments on Science by feminists as well as by the proponents of multicultural studies, postmodernism, and many other –isms, have been systematically refuted by two scientists, Paul Gross and Norman Levitt. In their book Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science, they give an illuminating account of the growth of fallacious theories in US universities and how these have been allowed to grow, unchallenged.

While the Women’s Studies proponents may cast doubts on all of science (and the associated technology), it is beyond doubt they use its products daily. Do they doubt the usefulness of such things as cars and aircraft which transport them from institution to conference, the computers they use to write up and communicate their speculations?

What about modern medical treatments, drugs and surgical operations? Are they any the less inclined to use these at a time of necessity? At a more basic level do they accept the laws of physics and chemistry and biology? If science is a social construct must art and music be too? And if they reject art and poetry and music what is to replace them?

Below are a few samples of comments on Science by some luminaries in Women’s Studies:

  • Sandra Harding has described Newton’s great work Principia Mathematica as “a rape manual”.
  • Belgian feminist and philosopher Luce Irigaray has issues with Einstein’s theory of relativity: “Is E=mc2 a sexed equation?” Perhaps it is. Let us make the hypothesis that it is insofar as it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us.
  • What seems to me to indicate the possible sexed nature of the equation is not directly its uses by nuclear weapons, rather it is having privileged that which goes faster.
  • English professor Katherine Hayles’s elaboration of Luce Irigaray’s portrayal of the history of hydrodynamics as distorted by males’ fascination with “rigid bodies” and “linear models” and their association of femininity with fluidity, was marred by a serious misunderstanding of hydrodynamics, according to philosopher of science Noretta Koertge.
  • Another gem from Hayles: “The special theory of relativity lost its epistemological clarity when it was combined with quantum mechanics to form quantum field theory. By mid-century all three were played out or had undergone substantial modification.”

This will come as a terrible shock to real physicists.

Issac Newton
What a ‘rape manual’ looks like? (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Harding wonders “whether there should be feminist sciences and epistemologies at all” by virtue of recent discoveries of postmodernism.

Gross and Levitt: “This is of course, the usual problem for relativists, of truth (a problem because they would be out of a job if they allowed not only – as they always do – that there is no necessary truth in what others say, but also in what they say). The postmodernist-feminist way then is to be understood as follows: ‘Feminist claims should be held not as an approximation to truth but as permanently partial instigators of rupture, of rents and unravelings in the dominant schemes of representation’”.

How one is to pursue a career as a permanent partial instigator of rupture is of course a mystery.

Gross and Levitt suggest further that the practices of the social constructionists can be turned against them. “One must scrutinize their practices and their precepts for signs that their theories are “value-laden”… The evidence is there and reveals far more about the nature of the constructionist programme than that programme has ever revealed about the nature of science.”

These quotes illustrate the willingness of feminists who know little or nothing about Science to comment on some of the most abstruse theories.

Noretta Koertge is a philosopher and historian of science, and is editor of A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodernist Myths about Science. This is a collection of essays, many quite dense, written by prominent scientists and philosophers dealing with a very wide range of issues including the work of some of the feminists listed above.

One cannot leave the subject of Women’s Studies without commenting on three of its most notorious figures: Catherine MacKinnon, Andrea Dworkin and Mary Daly who receive a great deal of coverage. Many of their quotes are well known; they exhibit an irrational hatred of men and an antipathy to heterosexuality which they see as the lynchpin of “male dominance”.

Indeed Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin have long argued that in a patriarchal society all heterosexual intercourse is rape allegedly because women, as a group, are not in a strong enough social position to give meaningful consent.

A sobering reminder of what can transpire when Women’s Studies gains a strong foothold in an institution can be seen from consideration of the Vision 2000 initiative in six universities in Massachusetts in the late nineties. This was a document to accomplish a feminist restructuring of the university in which WS would become the central player. Scare tactics were used such as: “women face sexual violence and sexual harassment in the classroom and the workplace.”

Among the solutions proposed were: training in how to avoid sexual harassment is prescribed for everyone; disciplinary action taken against offending supervisors must satisfy the injured supervisee. The curriculum was to be transformed at every level into one that is ‘women-friendly and culturally diverse’, reflecting perspectives from scholarship on women and other historically oppressed groups. As Daphne Patai who was in a position to witness at close range commented, Vision 2000 aimed at nothing less than a feminist overhaul of the entire academic enterprise. During the discussion stage feminist faculty did not hesitate to recite the usual accusations of gender bias. Worse still, the Senate of Amherst was moved to endorse, if not the particulars of the document, at least its nine general principles.

Women’s Studies in Ireland

Women’s Studies has a formidable presence in Irish Universities. UCD offers undergraduate and postgraduate courses, the classes are politically and socially relevant and claims that UCD Women’s Studies Centre is the hub for UCD’s Feminist and Gender Studies Network, which comprises over 50 faculty.

UCD Women
UCD Women’s Studies Centre (Credit: University College Dublin)

According to a Sunday Times article of 7 Feb. 2010: “NUI Galway and the University of Limerick also carry BA and master’s level qualifications in this field, while women’s studies forms a crucial part of humanities degrees across the entire third-level system.”

NUI Galway
Women’s Studies, NUI Galway (Credit: NUI Galway)

The content of women’s studies courses changes to address issues in society. Modules include sexual and domestic violence, abortion rights and the law, women in politics, women in the workplace, motherhood, sex trafficking and prostitution.

Many graduates of gender and women’s studies go on to teach at master’s and PhD level, while others move on to work in nongovernmental organisations, government agencies, state bodies and community development roles. Some work with the National Women’s Council, and others design and critique policies on gender.

All this underscores the openly political nature of the whole enterprise and the seamless connection with feminist groups. Is there any other area where the political commitment is so openly flaunted and with such immunity to challenge?

In addition to the Global Women’s Studies programme at NUIG, committed to the development of undergraduate and postgraduate education, it has a Global Women’s Studies Research Cluster. The cluster has played a leading role in the establishment of the NUIG/University of Limerick research network Gender ARC (Advanced Research Consortium on Gender, Culture and the Knowledge Society). This is committed to the development of gender–focused research across a range of disciplines.

TCD has a Centre for Gender and Women’s Studies. The redundancy in the title simply underlines the naked bias.
It appears to be confined to postgraduate degrees. This is also true of Women’s Studies at UCC. It goes without saying that the great majority of staff in all these courses are women, another affront to the principle of equality they are so constantly invoking.

In relation to the influence of feminist criticism a final comment is apposite; one NUI English professor has commented that “In our discussion of Paradise Lost the students were very familiar with feminist criticism of it but I take leave to doubt that many of them had read some or even any of Milton’s masterpiece.”

For much of the material above I have relied on the book Professing Feminism: Education and Indoctrination in Women’s Studies by Daphne Patai and Noretta Koertge.

For an extensive compilation of modern French philosophers’ abuses of mathematics and physics, see Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont: Intellectual Impostures. In addition to focusing on many leading lights in postmodernism there are chapters on the prominent feminists Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray.

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