Academic journal article New Formations

Sexism as a Means of Reproduction: Some Reflections on the Politics of Academic Practice

Academic journal article New Formations

Sexism as a Means of Reproduction: Some Reflections on the Politics of Academic Practice

Article excerpt

A FEMINIST EDUCATION

There was not a lot of feminist literature on the curriculum throughout my high school education in the Boston suburbs in the 1970s. In fact there was none. It wasn't until I became a first year undergraduate in 1978 that I began to experience the radical infusion of feminist thought that would fundamentally change my life. It was exhilarating to discover - in my late teens - the transformative power of feminist writing, feminist activism, feminist groups, feminist professors and feminist theory. And it was nothing short of electrifying to be at the receiving end of the gigantic download of feminist scholarship into the academy that was still accelerating in the late 1970s when I entered university. By the time I graduated in 1982, feminism had permeated my entire being and my main objective was to become a feminist theorist myself.

Undertaking graduate training in feminist theory proved almost impossible, however, since there were no graduate programmes in women's or gender studies available to me - only programmes in traditional disciplines in which a focus on gender would be permitted as a specialist interest. Even by 1982, there were no PhD programmes in Women's, Feminist or Gender studies anywhere in the United States or Canada. It took me a year to find the only postgraduate programme in Women's Studies in all of Europe, Mary Evans' MA course at Kent, where I enrolled in 1983. While I was completing this intensive one year postgraduate course I continued to look in vain for PhD programmes in which I could continue to study feminist theory. But critical feminist scholarship was not yet part of a viable scholarly trajectory, and the reproductive mechanisms of the academy remained staunchly aligned with the traditional disciplines. There were some exceptions, and eventually I completed my doctorate at the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) in 1992. In total I spent nine years in a meandering path through graduate school, the last three of which concurrent with full time employment in my first two academic posts - and I became a professional feminist theorist in the end. But the gap between my early feminist education and what it didn't and couldn't lead to in 1982 taught me my first important lesson in the reproductive mechanisms of the academy: no amount of intellectual force, talent or even scale can overcome a lack of institutional capacity to support the ongoing reproduction of a scholarly community.

As I watched the explosion of women's and gender studies over the course of the late 1980s and early 1990s, I naively thought the reproductive bottleneck I faced in my early twenties had given way to a tumult of new opportunities for younger scholars. And at one level this is undoubtedly true. But having now worked as a full time academic for over twenty-five years, I have learned that the reproductive life cycle of critical feminist thought is rather more complicated: unsurprisingly, it is not a linear progress narrative. Besides the macro-structural politics of degree programmes, research funding, new academic appointments, and the perpetual debate over the need to protect the 'core' disciplines, there is an ongoing quotidian struggle about the place of both feminists and feminism in the academy that has not changed very much at all since I was a graduate student. One of the later lessons I learned about the reproduction of feminism in the academy is how far the talk about 'paying more attention to gender issues' or 'offering better support to junior women colleagues' are from the reality of what goes on even in comparatively progressive departments in the humanities and social sciences - in which all-male committees, all-male reading lists, all-male panels at nearly all-male conferences and tiresome small talk about Man United remain far too common and 'acceptable'. In fact breath-taking incidents of sexism are still so ubiquitous and so ordinary, I keep a special diary in which I write them down. …

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