Using Feminist Critical Policy Analysis in the Realm of Higher Education; the Case of Welfare Reform as Gendered Educational Policy

By Shaw, Kathleen M. | Journal of Higher Education, January-February 2004 | Go to article overview

Using Feminist Critical Policy Analysis in the Realm of Higher Education; the Case of Welfare Reform as Gendered Educational Policy


Shaw, Kathleen M., Journal of Higher Education


Policy analysis is never value-neutral. However, it is often silent on the issue of gender. As a result, traditional policy analysis results in "partial and perverse understandings" of the ways in which women's lives are affected by policy (Harding, 1986). In a recent critique of educational policy research, Catherine Marshall (1999) makes the argument that educational policy analysis systematically "has ignored or marginalized the feminist critique" (p.1). Yet, as Marshall goes on to point out, gender is not an afterthought in the formation of policy itself. In fact, the state has a clear role in gender politics even when it is not overtly discussed in official documents (Apple, 1994).

This critique is also directly applicable to research on higher education policy and practice. Many higher education policies, such as those regarding tuition, degree programs, and transfer policies, would appear to be gender neutral if analyzed within a relatively narrow framework that does not acknowledge broader economic, social, and political factors. Yet large-scale shifts in the global economy, along with major changes in national social policy, can have distinct and far-reaching effects on the practices and policies of colleges and universities, and in turn on the lives of the women who work in them and/or attend them. Recently, several researchers have provided evidence to support the argument that broad economic and political factors do indeed intersect with institutions of higher education and that they have a clear and consistent effect on women (Slaughter, 1999; Glazer, 1999).

A recent and very relevant example of how broad social policy can function as a barrier to higher education for women can be found in the 1996 welfare reform legislation. Welfare reform is not generally perceived as higher education policy. The Department of Education had no formal role in its development, and most of the rhetoric surrounding welfare reform has focused on economic, rather than educational, issues. As a result, welfare reform has received relatively little attention among higher education researchers. However, this piece of policy has drastically reduced access to postsecondary education for welfare recipients (Jacobs & Winslow, 2003). Not incidentally, nearly all of these citizens are women, and most of them are single parents. Yet when viewed through a traditional policy analysis lens, both of these facts are obscured to most of the higher education policy research community.

This article is an attempt to provide a partial corrective to more traditional analyses of higher education policy that most often obscure broader social factors that contribute to unequal power relations and educational outcomes related to social class, gender, and race/ethnicity. In this article I focus specifically on gender issues and employ a feminist critical policy analysis framework. As I explain in more detail below, feminist critical policy analysis challenges the positivist assumptions on which most policy analysis rests and employs methodological tools that provide a more complete understanding of policy from the perspective of both policymakers and those affected by the policy. I have chosen to utilize the 1996 welfare reform legislation as a case study to illustrate the usefulness of this methodological and analytical approach to policy analysis.

The article begins with an overview of feminist critical policy analysis, placing it within the context of more traditional approaches to the study of policy and providing a rationale for its use as an alternative lens through which to examine policy. Second, I illustrate the usefulness of this analytical tool by employing it to uncover the gendered nature of one piece of federal public policy, namely, welfare reform. In particular, I utilize feminist critical policy analysis to examine the discourse that surrounded the development of the policy and that surrounds it now, as early research regarding its implementation and outcomes emerges. …

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