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A conference marking the 25th anniversary of Penn’s women’s studies program brought together faculty, students, and leaders in the field to surf the past 3.5 waves of feminism and debate the turbulent currents ahead.

By the Gazette Editors


It began in the fall of 1973 as 12 courses assembled by a pioneering group of students, faculty, and staff who “challenged the curriculum as usual.” In the succeeding 25 years, women’s studies at Penn has grown into a program offering more than 50 courses per year, attended by more than 1,600 students and taught by affiliated faculty from all corners of the University, plus two annual faculty/student seminars, and an annual endowed lectureship that has brought noted women scholars, artists, and public figures to campus.
   That quarter century of progress — in Penn’s program and for women’s studies in general — was celebrated and debated in a two-day conference held on campus in late September. Opening the proceedings, Dr. Demie Kurz, co-director of the women’s studies program and associate professor of sociology, offered “first thanks” to those early pioneers — “part of WEOUP (Women for Equal Opportunity at the University of Pennsylvania), who were the first to systematically challenge sexism on campus and who fought for social change for women in all areas of campus life.” WEOUP members also spearheaded the College Hall sit-in April 1-3, 1973, organized to protest the University’s inadequate response to a series of rapes on campus. The sit-in led directly to the establishment of the Penn Women’s Center (also celebrating its 25th anniversary this year) and “created greater pressure on the University to recognize women’s studies,” Kurz said.
   Kurz, who organized the conference with program director Dr. Drew Faust, the Annenberg Professor of History (who is on sabbatical) and acting director Dr. Ann Matter, the R. Jean Brownlee Term Professor and undergraduate chair of religious studies, also offered thanks “to all those who have supported women’s studies ever since,” including past directors and staff (many of whom attended the conference) and key alumni supporters Judith Berkowitz, CW’64, Constance Abrams, CW’66, and Wendy Stocker, CW’74. (At a reception following the keynote speech, President Judith Rodin, CW’66, announced new alumni support, from Donna Shelley, C’82, and Larry Shelley, W’80, to establish the Shelley Term Chair in Women’s Studies.) Finally, Kurz credited the Penn faculty and graduate students who were participating in the conference’s panel sessions.
   The past 25 years, Kurz said, have seen an explosive growth in scholarship on gender and the related fields that women’s studies scholars explore of race, ethnicity, and sexuality.
   “Women’s studies is a very dynamic area of inquiry,” she added, citing the work of women of color in “showing how gender is inextricably linked to categories of race and ethnicity, as well as social class and sexuality” and of women’s studies scholars from around the globe who have challenged Western feminists to be open to new perspectives. “This is one of the things that keeps women’s studies scholarship so exciting and creative — the constant challenge by diverse groups of scholars to see social life in all its diversity and complexity.”
   That intellectual ferment was amply displayed in the panel sessions that occupied the conference’s second day (of which we offer a sample below). Before that, though, the conference’s keynote speaker provided an eloquent overview of the development of women’s studies, employing two figures from the Bible, one from the Fox TV network, and the metaphor of succeeding “waves” of feminism.

Mary, Martha, or Ally McBeal?: Who and Where is Women’s Studies?
   “Our work has often been imperfect, our work is still unfinished — but yes, we have earned our celebration,” declared Dr. Catharine R. Stimpson, dean of New York University’s Graduate School of Arts and Science, founding editor of the feminist journal Signs, and author of Where the Meanings Are: Feminism and Cultural Spaces. “In only three decades, we have more than begun to reconstruct knowledge and its institutions. We have heard the voices of women of every circumstance,” she said. “Every field of study, from Afrikaner studies to zoology … and every aspect of life, from the conception of a child to a prayer for the dead has been touched.”
   Rather than be a cheerleader, Stimpson said, “my task as I understand it is to tell a story — truncated, to be sure; abbreviated, to be sure — but a story about the histories and origins of women’s studies, especially in the United States.” To illustrate that narrative, she added, she had chosen the three figures in the title of her speech — “Mary, Martha, and Ally McBeal.”
   In the New Testament, Mary and Martha are sisters who are visited in their home by Jesus; Martha does all the cooking and housekeeping, while Mary sits at Jesus’s feet and listens. When Martha asks if this is fair, Stimpson said, “Jesus answers, ‘Martha, Martha, you are fretting and fussing about so many things, but one thing is necessary. The part that Mary has chosen is best, and it shall not be taken from her.'”
   Noting that the scene has been interpreted in many ways, “including an under-appreciation of housework,” she proposed Mary and Martha as “together emblemizing women’s studies: We do the work of daily life, be it in our homes or schools. We bind and weave, scrub, and improvise, and keep things going, but simultaneously we have yearned for thought … We have simultaneously been Marys and Marthas of every race, creed, and nationality, and I see the story of these later Marys and Marthas and, later, Ally McBeal as consisting of three waves — more accurately, as 3.5 waves.”

   The first wave “was for access to educational institutions and the domain of reason,” said Stimpson. “The first wave gathered strength in the West in the 19th century and was inseparable from women’s push for access to political institutions as well — and in many places the first wave is still the only wave.” The second wave, in the middle of the 20th century (“I am an unabashed second-waver,” Stimpson noted), renewed the struggle for access to institutions, and in part, “sought to transform the institutions of teaching and learning.” In the 1980s, wave 2.5 began to challenge the second wave intellectually, with some “brilliant” second-wavers taking part as well. The third wave, which includes today’s students and people in their twenties and early thirties (“The primary targets of the producers of Ally McBeal”), is now “picking up speed in turbulent waters,” she said. “Who will ride this wave most successfully? When and where will it end? The answer to such questions are unknown.”
   Noting that “historians have mapped the first wave,” Stimpson began with the second. “The story of women’s studies is inseparable from the story of women’s education in the second wave,” she said. After subsiding for several decades, in the 1960s the struggle over women’s education “came with renewed vigor even as the information society was being formed,” helped along by the anti-war, civil-rights, and broader women’s-liberation movements.
   Second-wave achievements include the elimination of much overt discrimination, greater awareness of gender issues such as sexual harassment and the need for child-care, increased consciousness among “majority” women of racial and other differences among women, and more women of all ethnic and racial backgrounds entering colleges and universities. About 2,000 colleges and universities offer women’s studies courses, and there are an estimated 725 organized programs, according to the National Women’s Studies Association. (“In my lifetime, I have seen the number of programs grow from zero to 725,” Stimpson said wryly.) Between 1975 and 1995, the United Nations sponsored four international meetings about women that “strengthened the global perception of the importance of women’s studies.” In 1998, the National Council for Research on Women “had 200 international research and resource centers on its formal listing.”
   Much of the energy of early women’s studies scholarship went into documenting “the invidious nature of sexual differences — their often violent hierarchies, their often disabling discrimination.” In the 1970s, a counter-movement developed. “People in women’s studies began to distrust the analysis of sexual difference that stripped women of agency and cast them as little more than men’s victims. They wanted to picture women instead as survivors and creators,” Stimpson said.
   As representative of these two early strands in women’s studies, Stimpson cited a story she found on the Internet about the different ways students in an English class punctuated the sentence: Woman without her man is nothing.
   The men’s version was: Woman, without her man, is nothing.
   
The women punctuated it: Woman! Without her, man is nothing.
   
In addition to the study of the differences between women and men, the “third strand” in second-wave women’s studies “so crucially and so significantly,” said Stimpson, was the study of differences among women. This has resulted in “a set of conversations in the women’s studies classroom that has been an historic experiment in designing conditions that will encourage interactions among different peoples and groups,” Stimpson said, “and so the feminist pedagogy has given us a classroom that is a model for education in a multicultural world.”
   When wave-2.5 came crashing in during the mid-1980s, Stimpson said, it presented “three churning challenges to the very premises” of second-wave women’s studies: Queer theory, gender studies, and the rise of postmodernism.
   By offering sexual orientation as an alternative standpoint from which to look at the world, queer theory threatened to “pull queer women away from women’s studies.” Gender studies argued that the real subject of women’s studies was not women — a key tenet of the second wave — but rather gender, “a system that constructed and linked the meaning of women and men.” Such studies “began to supplement and in some cases supplant women’s studies,” said Stimpson, noting that in the mid-1980s “some of the most brilliant and influential historians of women” published important books that used gender in their titles.
   Stimpson called postmodernism perhaps “the most controversial” contribution of wave 2.5. Philosophically, it questioned assumptions about language as a mirror of reality and, “indeed, argued that discourse shapes and sculpts these realities,” Stimpson said. “Psychologically, postmodern theories provided a picture of the self that was fragmented, a turbulent river fed by multiple streams: I am woman, hear my self-divisions roar.”
   Though U.S. women had made many education gains — since 1986 they have earned the majority of bachelor’s and master’s degrees — Stimpson said, “there is much left to do, and to add to the pain, [a] belligerent backlash against women is whipping through higher education.”
   Calling the reaction against women’s studies, “but one element of larger efforts to contain the modern struggle for educational and social equity,” Stimpson charged that since the 1980s some social conservatives and neoconservatives have organized highly visible campaigns that have lambasted women’s studies and have announced that academic feminism “betrays the free market, betrays the free world, betrays free and objective inquiry, betrays the family, and betrays heterosexuality without tears.
   “So the third wave now moves in these crosscurrents: a struggle between conflicting forces of the need for education, of advancements for justice and equity in education, and the backlash,” said Stimpson. Which is where Ally McBeal reenters the story, she added, referring to Time magazine’s “notorious” cover story from last summer titled, “Is Feminism Dead?” which pictured the television character in a line with real-life feminist icons Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan, and Gloria Steinem (“Looking a bit like Betty Friedan,” Stimpson quipped).
   “Not only were women of color erased from this brief visual history of feminism and post-feminism,” Stimpson noted. “A media fiction was granted the same place as real women, and as if to prove postmodern theory, representations of history and media inventions were granted the same status.”
   Stimpson said she found “plausible” one women’s studies scholar’s theory that Ally McBeal is popular because she reflects a contemporary ambivalence about gender roles, because she reflects the desire to have it all, and because of her forthright admission that sometimes she fails. “But my own experience of third-wavers in women’s studies convinces me that Ally is not all there is,” she added.
   The third wave also represents a generational shift, Stimpson noted, with a significant number of students pursuing women’s studies “because their mothers told them to.” For the most part, Stimpson said, her third wavers are believers in diversity, expect to earn their own living, have “complicated attitudes about our sex-saturated culture,” are aware of the “new technologies of birth,” and expect to eventually have a family.
   “And what do they want for women’s studies?” she continued. “I believe they want large, cohering narratives that respect difference and provide an accessible language. They want to learn how the postmodern global economy works and what their place might be in it. They know about marginality, but they find very little glamor in it, and the desire for an economic narrative crosses class, gender, and racial lines.
   “And they want roses as well as bread and keyboards; they want a sense of values,” Stimpson said, expressing the hope that “second-wavers and third-wavers together can reaffirm the narrative of modernity itself,” which, despite its limitations, “should be ours, because it encourages us to believe in pluralism over monism, secularism over fundamentalism, democracy over totalitarianism, inclusiveness and equality over hierarchies, and acceptance of individual differences over conformity. How can we cast this narrative aside?”
   Professing “unwavering faith in our wild and patient dream,” Stimpson concluded, “I will retain my belief that women’s studies is our pioneer in helping to redesign democracy in the mind. It is not a monster mother breeding monstrous children, but the work of women and men who have toiled to do that old-fashioned thing — to make the world different and better.”

Women and Families in the United States Today
   
With the passage of the 1996 welfare-reform legislation, “We are entering the single biggest transformation in public policy directed at women and children since probably 1933, when we implemented the Social Security Act,” said Dr. Rebecca Maynard, the Trustee Professor of Education and Social Policy in the Graduate School of Education, in a panel discussion on women and families in the U.S.
   “For the first time in more than 25 years, we have established very clearly the principle that welfare is not an entitlement. We’ve also said for the first time, out loud, that it is not okay to have children that you can’t support.” The federal legislation also makes it clear, Maynard added, “that fathers are in fact responsible for the welfare of their children.”
   But what is more interesting, she suggested, is what hasn’t happened as recipients are gradually being taken off assistance. “We are not seeing the bottom falling out. We are seeing dramatic drops in the welfare case load in virtually all states.” For example, Wisconsin’s cash-assistance case-load has gone from 85,000 to 10,000 in the past two years; numbers of people at soup kitchens and homelessness rates have also not changed much, she said.
   “Why are the things that we all feared would happen not happening?” she asked. One major reason is that “we have reempowered women, in a way. I think the whole welfare system disenfranchised women big-time. It also eliminated the male quotient in a lot of what goes on.”

   Under the old system, “we didn’t really believe that many of these women could work. We thought we had to invest years of education, years of training; you had to give them high-quality childcare.” The new legislation, on the other hand, put a bit more faith in women, saying, “We think you can, and if you can’t, we’re here to help you.” Also, state support from the federal government remains constant despite the — for now — reduced case-load, “so there’s more money spread around for people left on the welfare rolls who need extra support and training.”
   The new legislation also included strong incentives for states to capture money from fathers. One result of men realizing they must “pay for” children, she said, is the reduction of teen-pregnancy rates. “Not as much as we’d like, but they’re going down. The message has gotten through to men: You can no longer impregnate a woman, enjoy the child when you want to enjoy the child, enjoy the woman when you want to enjoy the woman, and go on about your life.”
   While Maynard noted that “There are many things wrong with the [welfare-reform legislation] and many things that have to be watched,” it has “taught us that some of the things we were doing out of the kindness of our hearts were actually enabling a life of dependency when that was not the healthiest thing for the women or their children.” She hopes to see future welfare reforms introduced with a better and kinder balance of expectations and support systems.
   Barbara Woodhouse, professor of law, examined what happens when women’s rights and children’s rights — usually complementary — seem to clash. She gave examples of modern-day custody disputes that pitted the protection of the child against the rights of the mother. “When the conflict is inescapable, we are called upon to apply feminist principles and to reject the concept of ownership of one person by another and to acknowledge the harm of battering and abuse,” she said. In cases where a mother has abused her child, “I have to also think of how this would play out in a context of a woman who had been completely battered and how we would react if we were told it was important for her to meet with and reestablish a relationship with her batterer, and in fact, deep down she loves him.”
   Woodhouse said that her goal in such cases would be to use negotiation and collaboration instead of resorting to an adversarial relationship. “I think there is a great deal of potential for meeting the needs of that child without destroying the hopes of mothering of that mother.”
   Dr. Vivian Gadsden, director of the National Center on Fathers and Families at the Graduate School of Education, discussed the current popular discourse on fathers’ roles in families. “Men are kind of talking about it, you get a lot of support from governors, who are mostly men, and it has really kind of risen in a way that is more impressive than anything else I’ve seen in this country very, very quickly — and partly because of who’s leading it,” she said.
   Gadsden noted, however, that many advocates are talking about it in the absence of research. One of the center’s goals is to deepen the examination of fathers’ roles to include all kinds of families, not just the white middle class, which have been previously studied, and to talk about what they can do in cooperation with mothers. “In the discourse on fathers, one term really bothers me — the reference to mothers as ‘gatekeepers.’ For me that has the image of women at the gate not letting men in to do what they need to do. I do not think there needs to be an adversarial relationship.”

Sexualities
   Dr. Lynn Hunt, the Annenberg Professor of History, who presided over the discussion on “Sexualities,” asked rhetorically: “Since this is a celebration of the founding of women’s studies, how did we get from women’s studies to sexuality as an issue?” And furthermore, she asked: “Is this move from women’s studies to the study of sexuality a specifically Western creation?”
   Women’s studies, said Hunt, “has always been bedeviled by the fact that its subject matter, to a certain extent, is set by the dominant discourse — that something has to be explained about women: Why women are not men; why women are different.” Once that premise is accepted, she noted, “It’s very easy then to move to [the notion that] what needs to be explained about women is sex. That sex is somehow, in this context, the problem of women.”

   Anjali Arondekar, a graduate student in the Department of English, used the movie Fire, which focuses on two Indian women who become lovers, as a point of departure for discussing the discrepancies between “global queer theory” and more indigenous varieties. She argued that the discussion of Fire and its relationship to sexuality were “symptomatic of the crisis in women’s studies, and its articulation and disarticulation of transnational sexuality. Sexuality in all its polymorphously perverse forms exists in subaltern sites, but only if it is subsumed within discourses of race and class.” Lesbianism, she added, “cannot, must not, should not provide the lexicon, the lingua franca, in which the film is read,” but instead serve as “the backup singer for the strident rhythms of a polymorphously perverse heterosexuality.”
   Dr. Marc Stein, Gr’94, professor of history at York University in Maine, author of the forthcoming book City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves: Making Lesbian and Gay History in Philadelphia, talked about the early days of the lesbian and gay history in the city and at Penn; he suggested that to some degree lesbian and gay studies have overemphasized sex differences and sexuality.
   After reviewing the “many accomplishments of the organized lesbian and gay movements of the 1960s and early 1970s,” he concluded that the “central paradox of lesbian and gay identities” is that “although these movements were transgressive and subversive in many ways, they reproduced the conservative notion that women and men are fundamentally different. Challenging the hegemony of heterosexuality, they strengthened the hegemony of sex.”
   Women’s studies, he said, “provided me with an understanding that sex, gender, and sexuality are constructed; that they are related but not in deterministic ways; that they are relational; and that they have complex relationships to other axes of differences.”
   In a more light-hearted vein, Dr. Jeanne Stanley, lecturer in pediatrics at the Graduate School of Education, pointed out that in recent years, lesbians have moved from being “stealth bombers” of society to occupying a position “front and center” in American culture — suddenly, “Out is in.” That mainstream visibility, “has also led to increased awareness and diversity within the lesbian community itself. The lesbian community may consist of women with similarity in sex orientation, but it may stop there,” she noted. “Awareness of difference in the community has existed in terms of race and ethnicity long before the nineties, but it’s interesting to look at factors such as age that have separated part of our community now. The twentysomething lesbian who’s coming out in 1998 might feel much more connected to a gay male than to, say, a lesbian who came out in the 1970s.”
   Given the association of women’s studies and homosexualities with identity politics, Hunt tossed out some questions: “What makes an identity? Is sexuality the determinant of identity? Is it the determinant of identity just for women or just for gays? Or is it the determinant of identity for everyone?”
   For Dr. Larry Gross, professor of communication, there was no question about the continuing need for a politics of group identity: “My response to the attack on identity politics in part goes back to what Hannah Arendt said years ago about Germany — that when you’re attacked as a Jew, it’s not enough to say ‘I’m a human being.’ You have to respond in terms of the attack. And under the current political attack in this country, with the increased political attack on deviant sexuality — however defined — I think to say that we are going to give up the notion of identity is a dangerous move.”

Feminist Perspectives From Beyond Our Borders
   
“Who is ‘us,’ and where are our borders?” asked Dr. Rita Barnard, associate professor of English, making the first of several comments by speakers at a panel on “Feminist Perspectives from Beyond Our Borders” concerning the session’s title. Referring to herself as a “migrant intellectual of sorts,” the South Africa-born Barnard said she was “not sure I feel my own borders are the United States” and feared that the title “sets up borders,” as well as being a bit patronizing.
   Barnard’s talk, one of four that ranged widely in subject, was on the South African novelist Nadine Gordimer’s book Burger’s Daughter. Gordimer’s work has “often troubled feminist critics,” Barnard said, noting that the writer has described the novelist’s imagination as androgynous and dismissed feminism as a bourgeois indulgence, secondary in importance to the freeing of the South African black majority. Her treatment of sexuality has been conventional, heterosexual, even “phallic,” Barnard said, describing one depiction of lesbianism in a Gordimer novel as “dutiful.”
   But while Gordimer may not call herself a feminist, Barnard insisted, her work exhibits a “meticulous understanding of power relations,” which inevitably includes analyses of gender relations. Burger’s Daughter, which features a complicated plot and a richly varied cast of characters of both sexes and multiple political views, “describes the invention of an internationalism of a radically new type,” said Barnard, one that includes “a utopian rethinking of relationships between women.”
   Dr. Ann Mayer, associate professor of legal studies, spoke on a “striking parallel” between women in the United States and many Muslim women: Both, she said, are “barred from enjoying universal human rights” because the U.S., like many conservative Muslim nations (among them Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, the Sudan, and Iran) and unlike every Western country except Monaco and San Marino, has refused to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Adopted by the United Nations in 1979, it affirms women’s equality in all areas, forbids all forms of discrimination against women, and “permits no culture-based distinctions,” she said.
   Just as Muslim countries take the position that Islamic law overrides international law, “international law is agreed to by the U.S. only to the extent that it does not conflict with the Constitution,” she said. The U.S. position is that “international human rights come into the U.S. domestically, if at all, via a Constitutional filter.”
   The relevant provision is the 14th Amendment, the “equal protection” standard — which, however, has different standards for racial and sexual discrimination. It is “pretty much impossible to justify discrimination based on race, but perfectly possible to justify discrimination based on sex,” Mayer said. “All you need to do is show that the sex-based discrimination is substantially related to an important government interest. This is not like international law, which declares both equally impermissible.”
   In both the United States and Muslim countries, she concluded, “We see a conviction that, where women’s human rights are concerned, cultural particularism supersedes the universals of international human-rights laws, with the consequent rejection of women’s international human rights.”
   Dr. Peggy R. Sanday, professor of anthropology, interpreted the session’s title in a personal light. “My paper fits very well,” she began, “because the perspective I’m going to present to you is the perspective evolved by me — a feminist — somewhere else, which is beyond our national borders but also outside anything you can think of in the West — which is why I go there.”
   Sanday spoke on her research, conducted from 1981 to 1998, with the Minangkabau of Western Sumatra, the largest matrilineal people in the world with a population of about four million, and how that work has prompted her to “reconfigure” the term matriarchy. “It has never been theorized in its own terms, only in opposition to the term patriarchy,” she said.
   In Sanday’s reconfiguration, “Matriarchy does not reflect female power over subjects or female power to subjugate, but female power to conjugate — to knit and regenerate social ties in the here-and-now and in the hereafter. Because this approach stresses the connection between the archetypal, the cosmological, and the social rather than power and politics, it cannot be interpreted as the female equivalent of patriarchy.”
   Sanday spent nearly 20 years doing fieldwork before she felt she understood enough about the Minangkabau system to write about it, “because it is so different from the way we usually think,” she said. “Being grounded in natural law, customs associated with the matrilineal descent are treated as an inalienable part of the foundation of Minangkabau identity.”
   This does not imply either female dominance or male subjugation, Sanday emphasized. “Although men figure prominently as leaders, their titles are inherited through females, and their political activities are grounded not just in matrilineal principle but in women’s life-cycle ceremonies,” she said. “Because women follow the old ways in their ceremonies, men have a raison d’etre for following these ways also. Together, men and women keep the old order going despite the tremendous pulls of the modern world and the nation state in the other direction.”
   Though her announced topic was “Feminism and Islam,” Dina Siddiqui, who teaches at the New School for Social Research, took a significant portion of her time to offer some sharp criticisms of the session’s premise and the previous day’s keynote address. In relation to Stimpson’s talk, the session title brings up “questions of who owns feminism?” she said. “Whatever the title, by participating in a panel like this, do we end up reinforcing the parochializing and nativizing tendency of mainstream feminism?”
   Noting that “there are serious ideological issues at stake,” Siddiqui said that she was troubled by Stimpson’s recounting of the story of “feminism in the singular … Nowhere do feminisms have a singular history, but in the U.S. in particular the genealogy of feminist theories and practices continues to be deeply conflicted. The idea that some places are still experiencing the first wave” she added, referring to Stimpson’s assertion that in some places the “first wave is the only wave,” “is not only presumptuous but also ignorant.” This view of feminist history, Siddiqui said, “runs the risk of reproducing a Western colonial missionary model of feminism and, not surprisingly, America ends up being the great leader.”


This article is based on reporting by John Prendergast, Samuel Hughes, and Susan Lonkevich. Michi Haza, C ’99, also contributed.

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