Our Bodies, Our Scholarship: Unwomen, "Happy" Marriage, Foreign Male Elements, and Women's Studies. (Columns)

By Young, Cathy | Reason, June 2002 | Go to article overview

Our Bodies, Our Scholarship: Unwomen, "Happy" Marriage, Foreign Male Elements, and Women's Studies. (Columns)


Young, Cathy, Reason


WOMEN'S STUDIES PROGRAMS are rife with radical feminist ideology concludes a recent report by the right-of-center Independent Women's Forum (IWF)--a revelation about as shocking as the news that rap lyrics contain a lot of raunchy language. Nevertheless, the IWF report, Lying in a Room of One's Own: How Women's Studies Textbooks Miseducate Students, by Christine Stolba, offers an interesting analysis of an academic discipline (or, as some of its critics would call it, a pseudo-academic pseudo-discipline) that has been steadily gaining ground on campuses since its inception some three decades ago.

The report analyzes five of the most popular textbooks used in introductory women's studies courses. It is at its strongest when it focuses on errors of fact. For example, the textbooks report that medical research has ignored and shortchanged women, without acknowledging the challenges to such assertions.

One book, Thinking About Women: Sociological Perspectives on Sex and Gender, by Margaret L. Andersen, advises readers not to get too excited about new medical breakthroughs because "you might well find out that all the subjects in the study were men and that the same insights or procedures that medical researchers are heralding as advancing medical science have not been at all considered for their implications for women's health." In reality, as early as 1979, over 90 percent of all clinical trials funded by the National Institutes of Health included women.

The same book also suggests, without citing any evidence, that more resources have been poured into treatments for male impotence than into research on breast cancer. Meanwhile, it fails to mention the fact that at least since the 1980s, breast cancer has received more research funding than any other type of cancer. Dubious claims about educational bias against women and domestic violence are repeated just as uncritically.

Not surprisingly, women's studies textbooks also treat male-female disparities in the workplace as evidence of discrimination and oppression. They tend to be suspicious of free markets in general. Other patterns identified in the IWF study include a tendency to turn women with the wrong politics, such as Margaret Thatcher, into "unpersons" (or at least "unwomen"); to present only one side of controversies on such issues as the merits of day care; and to treat women who make politically incorrect choices, such as curtailing their employment to raise families, as dupes "apparently unaware that in these decisions they are following traditional gender stereotypes."

Marriage is viewed with such a jaundiced eye that happy marriages are mentioned with the word happy in ironic quotation marks; motherhood is presented largely as a burden, fatherhood as something even worse. According to one book, Women's Realities, Women's Choices: An Introduction to Women's Studies, by the Hunter College Women's Studies Collective, "Daughters often find ourselves in league with our mothers against the foreign male element represented by the father."

Some nuggets cited in the report are downright bizarre. For example, Thinking About Women suggests that homemaking is literally a hazardous occupation, since it "exposes [women] to a wide variety of toxic substances" that are not subjected to the same government regulations as in industrial settings, and darkly states that "the high death rate by cancer among housewives [has not] been widely discussed." No factual substantiation is given for the alarming implication.

Some of the IWF's critique, however, is on very shaky ground. Should we really be incensed because Women's Realities, Women's Choices states that women can be discouraged by the perceived lack of important women artists, quoting literary scholar Helen Vendler's comment that "no woman can fail to hope for the appearance of a woman poet of Shakespearean or Keatsian power"? …

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