Women’s Studies: Breaking the Silence, Shaping the Future

PATRIARCHY, a system of social organization well-established for more than 2,500 years, is dying,” declared Dr. Gerda Lerner, on campus in April to deliver the 1999 Judith Berkowitz Endowed Lecture in Women’s Studies. “Whether modern feminism is its gravedigger or merely a response to its death spasms is a matter of opinion. If we are to survive, it will have to be with a social organization better adapted to the 21st century than is patriarchy.”
    Patriarchal ideas, she argued, “are obsolete and powerless; feminist ideas, conversely, are future-oriented and powerful–and we in women’s studies are at the frontier of thought shaping the future.”
    Lerner, the Robinson-Edwards Professor Emerita of Women’s History at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the author, most recently, of Why History Matters, is considered one of the founders of women’s studies and especially of women’s history. (She received an honorary degree at Commencement in May; see page 18.)
    She opened her wide-ranging lecture with the story of Elizabeth Elstob (1683-1756), a scholar fluent in eight languages who compiled the first Anglo-Saxon grammar, descended into near-destitution when her brother’s death cut off her access to academic life and was finally “rescued” by women friends who found a job for her as governess in an aristocratic household. Elstob, “by training and actual achievement one of the foremost scholars in the field of Anglo-Saxon language and literature,” accepted the job with gratitude.
    “Every time I tell this story, I get chills,” Lerner said. “Women’s studies must be seen against the backdrop of two millennia of the systematic educational deprivation of women. Everywhere, women had to fight, step by step: first for the right to literacy, the right to learn; then for the right to teach; and finally, for the right to define.” It was not until well into the middle of the 20th century that women won broad access to graduate-level education, she noted, and even “with all the progress we have made, nuclear physics and gene therapy and other really exclusive fields that lead to the transformation of knowledge are still heavily masculine in access to them.”
    As an academic discipline, women’s studies is now 30 years old, “and is flourishing,” Lerner said. While no courses were offered as recently as 1968, she estimated that there are now 650-700 undergraduate programs, 69 master’s degree programs and six Ph.D. programs in women’s studies, and nearly 75,000 courses are being offered. This despite the fact that the pattern by which women’s studies became “institutionalized” has been “exactly the same pattern as the long struggle for access to education.” The success of women’s studies, Lerner noted, “rests on one thing only– the overwork of enthusiastic younger scholars who did it without compensation.”
    In most cases, an informal group of a few faculty members would develop a program by listing their own courses “and saying, ‘Hey, look at that. We offer a women’s-studies curriculum,’ and then say, ‘Let’s call that women’s studies’ –and then the fight would begin.” Those fights, she said, were over two issues: the amount of faculty employment and office space.
    With a few exceptions, institutions have tried to do women’s studies “as cheaply as possible,” she said–employing junior faculty as teachers and “volunteer” program directors and pitting women’s studies against other “marginal” programs in competition for funds. “It was like the university has two kinds of funds–one fund for everything that’s important and then one fund for the marginal, and they should fight it out. If you get an appointment in women’s studies, then an African American can’t get it,” she said. “I came to the University of New Zealand and guess what? Women’s studies and Maori studies–same situation.”
    Before women’s studies, Lerner said, “Women could be found everywhere in the curriculum–as objects observed, discussed and defined by men.” Now, just in the field of history, “We have at long last broken the silence of centuries and let women’s voices be heard speaking for themselves and in their own words. We are testing most of the traditional generalizations of historians in light of not only the male but the female historical experience.”
    While considerable progress has been made, she added, this work is “hardly far enough advanced that we should pause for what’s been called the ‘larger synthesis,’ or even to consider the abandonment of separate attention for women’s studies” –subjects about which she is regularly asked, she said. Noting that modern history as a discipline is more than 250 years old, and the “patriarchal construction of history” at least 2,000, she continued, “We have had all of 30 years to balance the distorted record” by making women visible. “I won’t demand equal time, because we work much faster and more insightfully because we have a democratic approach to sharing knowledge, but another hundred years would seem a decent [interval] before the grand synthesis would take place.”
    Women’s studies’ “most important accomplishment,” Lerner said, “is to have challenged the traditional male-focused and male-centered paradigm in scholarship. That our challenge has power and that it has been heard is evidenced by the increasingly acrimonious debate, the veritable cultural war now taking place inside and outside of the academy.” Even the “so-called backlash” against feminism, rather than signaling its demise, is actually a sign of its growing influence,” she argued–one expressed by “new attitudes” (toward rape, sexual violence, sexual harassment, family violence and the civil and moral rights of homosexuals), and by “law courts and juries, by new corporate practices and by increasing media attention–although not always favorable attention–to these issues.”

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