Wednesday, April 8, 2009

On Intellectual Rape

I find it hard to believe that for centuries the contributions of women have been so few and insignificant as to relegate them to the margins of history. Most syllabi today or the people who wrote them obviously disagree. At the risk of seeming petty, a quick tally of the authors represented on my syllabi (10 courses so far) reveals that 12% of the articles or books I was required to read were written by women. Now in my third quarter of a graduate program in International Studies, had I not actively sought out and read women’s work, my “education” would be comprised almost entirely of concepts and theories generated by men. This is an intellectual rape.

What kind of mutiny would occur if men found themselves looking at a reading list comprised entirely of work from women in their discipline? How quickly would we call bullshit if an instructor tried to justify such discrimination by insisting that men had simply been marginal players in their societies and didn’t have much to say anyway? And do we, as women, perpetuate this outrage by acquiescing to the current and woefully inadequate patriarchal model of education?

Just as women in the home have a double work day, women in the academy – if they’re intellectually honest and committed to learning anything – must ingest double the information simply to find themselves among the theories being discussed. To listen to my professors, women haven’t put down the mop or closed their legs long enough to impact international affairs. How dare they list the social, political, and economic discrimination women have endured and leave it at that? How dare they have knowledge of WHY the voices of women were denigrated, excluded, and erased yet still insist men are the world’s “natural” movers and shakers? Until we make a commitment to call them out on their lies and refuse to participate in their delusion, I worry about seeing the kind of feminist transformation that can truly liberate us all.

How we think about ourselves – our history, our desires, our shortcomings – depends on the information we have to work with. My intelligence is insulted when I have to battle the stereotype that women never shut on one hand and the claim that we’ve never said anything worth writing down on the other. As Ani DiFranco said in her poem Grand Canyon, “people, we are standing at ground zero of the feminist revolution . . . it was an inside job, stoic and sly, one we're supposed to forget and downplay and deny.” How much do you really know about Susan B. Anthony or Elizabeth Cady Stanton? How about Ida Husted Harper or Alice Paul? What about bell hooks or Womanism? How the hell can I situate my American identity in a landscape of nothing but swinging (white) dicks?

The bottom line is that women must record and preserve our own history – we can’t rely on the oppressors to do it for us. When we do, we risk the job not getting done and then wonder why women’s writing falls by the historical wayside. This isn’t some conspiracy theory – the empirical evidence is right here. I challenge you to take a look at the authors your education relied on. Or do an informal survey of course syllabi at ANY university – many are online – to see who gets listened to and read.

The architects of the American women’s suffrage movement noted as much. They suspected their work to win political rights for American women (although mostly the white ones) would be lost to future generations if they didn’t document it. Because of their skepticism, we have The History of Woman Suffrage, consisting of six thick volumes. The first three volumes of the set were compiled by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Matilda Joslyn Gage in 1886, volume 4 by Susan B. Anthony and Ida Husted Harper in 1902, and volumes 5 and 6 were compiled by Ida Husted Harper alone and published by The National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1922. But because we have let down our guard, an invaluable source of American political history is nearly inaccessible and has been out of print for years. To my knowledge, the only way to access the material is by purchasing a CD (available, among other places at The Feminist Majority Foundation website). While it’s usefully searchable, I’m ashamed we haven’t ensured the books themselves sit beside other seminal American political documents in our libraries and classrooms.

I don’t know what the solution is. Most days I’m too busy keeping myself from being erased to peel back the layers of history to find my heritage. But Virginia Woolf said “we think back through our mothers if we are women” and I don’t think we’re getting very far as orphans.


claire said...

Kathryn, what percentage of books and articles assigned to Education students are written by men? What about Social Work? Nursing? Speech-Language Pathology? Nutrition? My guess would be fewer than 12% (but I could very well be wrong since I am too lazy to do anything but guess).

Don't get me wrong, I do agree that women must not allow their histories to be written for them.

My point is only that we mustn't overlook where we are strong to point out where we are (as yet) weak.

Brianna J said...

>I could very well be wrong since I am too
>lazy to do anything but guess

You might find it interesting to look it up. 10 minutes of searching seems to indicate that Kathyrn is correct across all fields. This study indicates that only around %25 of higher education articles are written by women, and this one shows that only %30 of music education articles are written by women, despite the fact that %50 of music ed. graduates are women. The latter article also contained a literature review of other fields, with similar results. Not only are there fewer women in most fields, women publish at lower rates.

>What kind of mutiny would occur if men
>found themselves looking at a reading
>list comprised entirely of work from
>women in their discipline?

I would *love* to see this! Just to hear the screams, if nothing else. But it might really open some people's eyes, as well.

Eileen W. said...

I totally agree!! I am a Sociology doctoral student who has pursued a WS certificate just to get women's issues added back to Sociology. I also teach at my university framing every course in a feminist way- half the kids love me, the other half hates me I'm sure!! The syllabi situation is as Kathryn says it is, except for my courses. ;) lol

Aviva DV said...

Very true and well said!

What kind of mutiny would occur if men found themselves looking at a reading list comprised entirely of work from women in their discipline? I agree with Brianna; I would love to see what would happen if someone did would be absolutely hilarious. The problem is, in some disciplines it might be hard to find enough work by women to fill an entire syllabus. Women's scholarship may be often overlooked in the design of courses, but women are also sometimes denied the chance to even put their thoughts into print (less so in recent years, I hope). Along those lines, Linda Nochlin's Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? offers a really interesting take on this particular conundrum of history -- not just the lacking historical representation of women writers/artists/scholars, but the relative dearth of women in these fields in general.

And, by the way, welcome aboard, LybertyKay!

J.R.Shirley said...

I'm certain the fact that many more men than women could read and write might have something to do with the historical relative dearth of writing from women. If you combine this with the closure of some medical occupations to women until fairly recently, it's easy to understand significantly fewer female authors in certain arenas...

Anonymous said...

The thing is, J.R.Shirley, that even when there are writings by women, they aren't chosen to be in the curriculum.

I took a histiography course last semester that didn't ever discuss any women who wrote history before the 1960s - not one. It's as though none of them existed.