Disciplining Feminism: From Social Activism to Academic Discourse

Article excerpt

All stripes of feminists need to read this book, which is written lucidly, compellingly, and in a narrative style that accommodates intellectual analysis. Whether readers agree or disagree with her arguments, they will have to acknowledge that Messer-Davidow writes with feminist passion. As a participant-activist in the earliest years of the second wave of feminism and as a graduate student involved in community and campus activism, she took part in the new feminist caucus at the Modern Language Association (MLA) and spent two years as an administrative assistant to her university president as he tried to make institutional change happen. Having taken part in the feminist determination to change the elitist ways of the academy and transform its disciplines, she asks, "[HI ow did it happen that a bold venture launched thirty years ago to transform academic and social institutions was itself transformed by them?" (1).

Messer-Davidow believes that proponents of "feminist studies" (the term she uses throughout) started out to bridge the academy-community divide but ultimately failed because their efforts to secure a place in the academy ultimately subjected them to the rules of exclusivity and inequality that govern universities. Seeing feminist studies as increasingly "formatted as an academic discipline" (13), she concludes that its initial political agenda for social change has been lost. Academic feminists read, teach, do research, and write about social activism, she laments, but they no longer do it.

Part I provides a sharply etched picture of how the disciplines historically edged out women who were not seen to "fit in" to their disciplinary order. It then explores the universities' defense of their traditional exclusionary practices of sex-discrimination.

Part 2 shows that despite the growth of feminist studies, in terms of thousands of courses and hundreds of programs, the wage gap for women faculty persists. They remain clustered in lower prestige disciplines, lower prestige institutions, lower faculty ranks, and part-time positions. Feminist efforts have led to curriculum transformation projects, the establishment of campus-based feminist research centers, a national association of feminist scholars, and women's caucuses in every disciplinary association. Yet increased numbers of women faculty and women students have had no radical effect. Feminist presses and conferences have only made it easier for mainstream disciplinary arenas to resist and ignore feminist scholarship and to keep feminist studies marginal. Maintained on scant budgets and usually restricted to offering only introductory and senior courses, programs have had to rely on discipline-approved crosslisted courses over which they have minimal control. Instead of sponsoring outreach into the community, feminists in the academy at best only teach about such issues. Only feminist theory, which continues to expand, remains truly interdisciplinary. But, in Messer-Davidow's words, feminist theory only generates "streams of knowledge particularized according to their identity, disciplinary, and/or political positions" (212). On top of this, the challenges of poststructuralism have further reduced social change to the "workings of signification" (213).

In Part 3, Messer-Davidow compares feminist social change efforts with those of the new conservative movement that has grown steadily in America. Well-funded, professionally managed, and using all the services of modern information technology, conservative organizations by the 1990s had formed tightly networked lines of communication at the national level, offering summer leadership institutes to train the next generation of young conservatives for future roles in government and media work. The nearest feminist equivalent Messer-Davidow found was a statewide curriculum integration effort, the New Jersey Project, but it focused on the higher education sector within one state. The better-funded conservative organizations have sought to inculcate a fairly homogeneous set of male and female students from all over the country with an appreciation of the "superiority of the American system" (240). …