An Introduction to the Problems with Women’s Studies

All quoted material is from Sheila Ruth “An Introduction to Women’s
Studies” in “Issues In Feminism, 3rd Edition,” Sheila Ruth,
ed., p. 1-19.

Sheila Ruth leads off her
compilation of feminist and feminist-related essays with a broad overview
of Women’s Studies, including its history, methodology and goals.
No critic of feminism or Women’s Studies could have written a better
indictment of the whole endeavor than Ruth herself provides in this introduction.
After finishing her essay, “An Introduction to Women’s Studies,”
the reader is tempted to simply not explore further — what follows will,
if it follows Ruth’s prescriptions, almost certainly be scholarship
barely worthy of the name.

Of course Ruth believes Women’s
Studies in general, and the essays in this collection in particular, accomplishes
something positive and worthwhile,

In this chapter, you will learn how feminist researchers are discovering
that most of the accepted theories in all the traditional fields —
even their methods of pursuing knowledge — are rife with prejudice
and misunderstandings about women in particular and humanity in general.
Because the task is so complex, feminist thinkers are extremely hesitant
to impose artificial limits on the work of those who seek to uncover
this bias and restore balance in knowledge. We are committed to being
tolerant toward new methodologies and analyses in order to avoid creating
additional rigid principles that would discourage research (Ruth 1-2).

Sounds pretty good. Much of
the ideas in traditional disciplines are biased, probably against women,
and all Women’s Studies seeks to do is correct that bias. In fact,
very few of the works included in Ruth’s book, or Ruth’s own
essays for that matter, attempt to do any balancing of knowledge. What
they do seek is to impose a rigid, orthodox ideology backed up by little
more than factual errors and logical fallacies.

Rather than demythologize
existing branches of human knowledge, what Ruth and her cohorts end up
doing is creating a new equally elaborate mythology which ends up being
far more biased and distorted than the existing theories and knowledge
it seeks to replace.

Help, I’m Being Oppressed

Ruth does recognize that sometimes
feminists make errors, but what concerns here aren’t errors of fact,
the heavy reliance on secondary sources in the essays she presents, or
even the almost endemic selective quoting. No, the errors of feminism’s
past that she worries about are the “isms”:

As in the wider society, feminist scholars, too, have been subject
to bias and misconception, to prejudice, and to narrowness of vision,
which has been reflected in our work. Women’s studies and the women’s’
movement is now engaged in the arduous process of correcting serious
errors. Among the isms with which we have been struggling are racism,
ethnocentrism, heterosexism, classism, and ageism (Ruth 3).

It’s a shame Ruth apparently
doesn’t struggle with her lack-of-primary-source-ism or her factual
inaccuracy-ism as stridently.

Like many areas of study concerned
with “oppression,” the debate within Women’s Studies is
rarely over which sets of facts or which interpretation of those facts
is correct, but instead over which subgroup and occasionally sub-sub-group
is most “oppressed” and thus most privileged within the Women’s
Studies framework. Several of the essays in Ruth’s collection ponder
such weighty issues as whether middle class black lesbians are more privileged
than poor white heterosexuals. This desire to out-victimize each other
is almost endemic to Women’s Studies.

The results of this are seen
a bit later in her essay when Ruth mocks the idea of the Renaissance.
She quotes from Bari Watkins who claims the Renaissance benefited men
but not necessarily women — since it allegedly reinforced the “patriarchy”
(Ruth 10). But why stop there. What effect did the Renaissance have on
women of color? Lesbians and gay men? Gay men of color? Lower class gay
men of color? Older lower class gay men of color? It’s like a line
segment — the whole process can be almost infinitely subdivided.

Harassment in the Classroom

For some reason, however,
feminism in general and Women’s Studies has experienced some resistance
— “derision and intolerance” in Ruth’s words (Ruth 7)–
both in academic and nonacademic settings.

One of the manifestations
of this, according to Ruth, is that “the issue of harassment of women,
not just in universities but in the women’s studies classroom
in particular
, is looming large enough to warrant increased attention”
(Ruth 7). Fortunately a couple of women’s studies professors, Marcia
Bedard and Beth Hartung, have looked at the forms this harassment of women
in women’s studies classrooms takes, and Ruth is kind enough to relay
their findings.

  • claiming male victim status or challenging facts with particularistic
    anecdote to undermine the credibility of feminist reading materials
    and instructors.
  • dominating class discussions (talking too much and too long so that
    no one else has a chance to express their views or speaking so loudly
    and aggressively that other students are silenced and the instructor
    is irritated).
  • aggressively pointing out minor flaws in statements of other students
    or the instructor, stating the exception to every generalization,
    and finding something wrong with everything from quizzes to books.
  • changing the topic abruptly in the middle of a class discussion,
    often to claim male victim status or shift discussion to a less threatening
  • formulating a challenge after the first few sentences of an instructor’s
    lecture, not listening to anything from that point on, and leaping
    in to argument at the first pause.
  • taking intransigent and dogmatic stands on even minor positions
    and insisting that the instructor recognize the validity of the rigid
    positions (Ruth 7)

Is it any wonder then, that
as Ruth laments, “rarely do the fruits of feminist research find
their way from women’s studies into the wider curriculum or the classrooms
of other instructors” (Ruth 8)? If, in order to succeed, Women’s
Studies requires the quashing of dissent and in fact considers dissent
and disagreement “harassment,” it is not surprising it is in
large measures an intellectual dead end. In most other areas of study,
“challenging facts with particularistic anecdotes” or “finding
something wrong with everything from quizzes to books” is known as
good scholarship. Serious academic journals take this sort of “harassment”
further — they call it peer review. By seeking to punish dissent, Women’s
Studies advocates end up isolating their endeavors from the most reliable
error detector ever known — the unfettered human mind.

Bias in Academe

The feminist reply is, of
course, that it is the rest of academe which is biased. At the very least
Women’s Studies is no more biased than other disciplines. That there
is bias among people in academe is no secret. There is no shortage of
crackpots and lousy scholars at America’s colleges and universities,
but Women’ Studies is one of the few disciplines in which bias is
consciously built in to the whole discipline and practically celebrated
as a dominant value.

Ruth traces the history of
erroneous thinking. In theology, thinkers learned to avoid anthropocentrism
(thinking God was like man). Social scientists learned to reject ethnocentrism.
Some people committed the fallacy of egocentrism, but few have escaped
the final -ism bugaboo, masculism or androcentrism, defined by Ruth as
“the mistaking of male perspectives, beliefs, attitudes, standards,
values, and perceptions for all human perceptions” (Ruth 8).

Before delving into masculism,
lets consider the fate of anthropocentrism, ethnocentrism and egocentrism.
According to Ruth these -isms are “universally acknowledged to be
fallacious, all such isms are guarded against…” (Ruth 8). Here
Ruth is simply wrong. Whether she agrees or disagrees with any of these
particular ideas none of them are universally considered fallacious; in
fact in the way she uses them they tend to be pretty good ideas — good
enough for many feminists.

Ruth defines egocentrism in
its conceptual form, for example, as “when an individual assumes
that others see reality as he or she does” (Ruth 8). Of course if
that is egocentrism, almost all people are egocentrists by necessity.
Try doing almost anything in the world assuming that other people are
experiencing a completely different reality — you won’t get very
far. In fact the Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid, who made a clear case
for what Ruth calls “egocentrism,” has enjoyed quite a renaissance
of late as his ideas seem to be backed up by new scientific discoveries
about cognition (discoveries of which Ruth is apparently unaware).

Ethnocentrism is also a value
which is mounting a comeback. Many people in the West, for example, believe
that human beings have rights and that it is unproblematic imposing this
view of human rights on foreign cultures. There has been quite a movement
in the United States, for example, opposing the practice of female circumcision
which is still performed in some parts of the world. Maybe Ruth wants
to argue it is simply wrong to impose our abhorrence at female circumcision
on other cultures. If so, she is free to do so, but I doubt she’ll
find many feminists agree with her.

But what of masculism? Ruth
is certainly right that until very recently all historical societies denied
women access to political and religious power. Women have long been excluded
from politics. But of course for most of human history, so have most men.
If there is an -ism that has been almost universal in human history it
is a variation of elitism — the idea that a very small group of people
should run everything. People forget that only 250 years ago there were
very few places on our planet where all but a handful of people held any
sort of power over their lives at all. To put it succinctly, it took about
6,000 years from the rise of civilization until most men were granted
political rights and freedom in the West. It took little more than 200
years before those rights began to be granted to women as well.

Ruth’s Political Platform

Even without blatantly saying,
“you must believe this” to be in Women’s Studies, the various
claims seen so far would cut off avenues of exploration leading inexorably
to a very narrow range of ideas. Just in case prospective Women’s
Studies students and faculty miss it, though, Ruth makes certain to make
explicit a political program for Women’s Studies.

Ruth writes that not all study
of gender should be considered Women’s Studies. Specifically, the
only way gender study can be considered Women’s Studies is if it
operates from a feminist perspective. As Ruth writes, “women’s
studies is and must be feminist” (Ruth 10).

Ruth even provides the reader
with a list of seven goals which Women’s Studies tries to bring about.
It is interesting that not one of them is concerned with trying to objectively
report facts or achieve a high standard of scholarship. Rather,

Women’s studies seeks:

  • to change women’s sense of ourselves, our self-image, our sense
    of worth and rights, our presence in the world
  • to change women’s aspirations based on an increased sense of
    self-confidence and self-love, to allow women to create for ourselves
    new options in our own personal goals as well as in our commitments
    and/or contributions to society
  • to alter the relations between women and men, to create true friendship
    and respect between the sexes in place of “the war between the
  • to give all people, women and men, a renewed sense of human worth,
    to restore to the center of human endeavors a love for beauty, kindness,
    justice, and quality in living
  • to erase from the world all the representations of unwholesome,
    illegitimate power of one group over another: sexism, racism, heterosexism,
    classism, and so on
  • to end the race toward the destruction of the planet
  • to reaffirm in society the quest for harmony, peace, and humane
    compassion (Ruth 11)

Quite a program! Ruth concedes that “such goals may appear presumptuous
or at least not obviously related to the study of women’s lives”
(Ruth 11), but she never seems to consider even tangentially the idea
that not only are they not related to the scholarly task of investigating
women’s lives, but that in fact they actually corrupt that process
by predetermining the outcome.

By mixing scholarship and
politics together, the results of Women’s Studies are inherently
suspect. In addition this political zeal tends to make people be less
than thorough in their investigations, as many of the contributors to
Ruth’s book and Ruth herself are in many areas.

Cold Hard Facts vs. Consciousness-Raising

Rather than concede there
is something wrong with a political program at the beginning of a textbook,
Ruth attacks the often rather formal efforts at universities to get at
the truth. Apparently the rather mundane tasks of research, writing, arguing
and peer review leave her cold.

Consider the tone of university experience. It is not difficult to
see that human compassion and caring, personal sensitivity, authenticity,
love, and openness are not highly prized in formal education. Even talk
of such things tends to embarrass people, to make them uneasy. Academic
language is distant, cold, rife with jargon … Courses and programs
die and are born and die again, fitting students (however poorly) to
meet the requirements of industry or government but rarely giving them
the tools to live well. Academe is not typically a loving, caring environment.

It is, however, competitive,
sometimes ruthless. Students learn to be “successful” (Ruth

Wouldn’t it be nice if
classes were more like group therapy sessions? The problem with Ruth’s
vision is that her book falsifies its usefulness. If the reader wants
to see what happens when students and faculty give up cold language to
get in touch with their inner child, simply read the essays in Ruth’s
book. The result is a diminution of critical thinking skills and a tendency
to commit logical and factual errors at every turn.

Consider, for example, that
Ruth thinks it is appropriate to spend time in the class doing what she
calls “consciousness-raising.” Consciousness-raising “raises
the level of consciousness, of awareness one has about the feelings, behaviors,
and experiences surrounding sex roles” (Ruth 14). Consciousness-raising
is little more than an attempt to convince men and women that sex roles
largely determine their feelings and behaviors, and of course once those
are recognized the job of replacing those behaviors and feelings begins.
Ruth is quick to defend consciousness-raising from charges that it,

(1) makes the courses ‘soft’; (2) belongs in the women’s
movement, not in school; (3) is not a legitimate part of formal university
education; (4) is brainwashing; and (5) sometimes causes great anguish
with which some students are unable to cope (Ruth 14).

but does so only halfheartedly.

It’s not brainwashing,
of course, but “brain-opening” (Ruth 14). Sure it causes anguish,
but its worth it because it makes people grow. Ruth doesn’t even
bother to address the objection that it’s not the place of professors
to attempt to remold the personalities and behavior of their students
— in fact some might argue that activity is closer to totalitarian ideals
than the liberation which she promises.

Apparently many of the traditional
ideas about classrooms themselves are the result of sex role conditioning
which are slowly being overcome,

In a feminist classroom, one is apt to find group projects, small-group
discussion, self-directed or student-directed study, credit for social
change activities or for life experience, contracts or self-grading,
diaries and journals, even meditation or ritual. Noticeable in a feminist
classroom are two factors not typical in college classrooms: an acceptance
of, and even emphasis on, the personal-affective element in learning;
and a warm, human relationship among persons in the class, students
and teacher. Feminist teachers are no longer at pains to maintain the
manly aura of distance — from their work or from one another. Recognizing,
too, that hierarchical structures can belie what is common to female
experience, feminist faculty often seek alternatives to the traditional
student-teacher dichotomy (Ruth 15).

Women’s Studies Harms Women

Until a year ago, I hadn’t
read any feminist writings or done any reading of Women’s Studies
textbooks since I took a bland elective course as an undergraduate to
meet a graduation requirement. That changed after attending a seminar
sponsored by a group of campus feminists. Many of the claims I heard both
from students and a professor of Women’s Studies simply didn’t
ring true.

When I did some fact checking
I was appalled — not only were many of the claims false, but they were
trivially false. They were the sort of things that could be falsified
by a 15 minute trip to a decent library.

Yet the people who made these
presentations weren’t semiliterate ignoramuses; they were in fact
highly intelligent women with quick wits and passion for their cause.
How could they be led so far astray?

The answer to that is what
I believe is the biggest problem with Women’s Studies — it intentionally
robs women of critical thinking skills necessary to succeed both in life
and academe. Women who take Women’s Studies courses are being taught
that dissent from feminist positions is patriarchal heresy which must
not be tolerated. They are taught that adherence to rules of formal logic
and elementary tools such as textual criticism are in fact “male”
ways of thinking and are inappropriate methodologies for Women’s

A Women’s Studies student
brought this point home for me in a computer bulletin board discussion
of a claim the student had made. Since the student had made the claim
without providing a citation, my wife requested such a citation and posted
several herself which contradicted the original claim. The Women’s
Studies student’s reply was simple — that sort of inquiry was a
waste of time. “Arguing books” as the student called it, would
accomplish nothing.

The result of teaching this
peculiar anti-epistemology is clear from reading Ruth’s book — Women’s
Studies scholarship tends to be extremely sloppy, poorly thought out and
often factually incorrect. Women’s Studies professors and students
tend to be the types who think that if anyone, anywhere has said something
in a book or journal which they agree with it must be true. Ruth, for
example, makes several factual errors in later essays because she cites
secondary reporting of primary studies rather than seek out the primary
material itself, which apparently would have been too much trouble.

The methodology and framework
of Women’s Studies leads not to truth and liberation, but to falsehood
and further enslavement. Women are not helped by politically and socially
palatable falsehoods, but that is all the bulk of Women’s Studies
to this point can offer. Ruth and her ilk do an enormous disservice to
the young women who rely on them.

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