Eight days ago, I wrote a post about what I saw as one right way for men to work in feminist communities. In that post,I quoted from this piece by Amelia at Feministe, and I responded in particular to this comment by Factcheckme.
Factcheckme wrote a response to my response to her: On Credibility. By her own description a radical feminist (a term she uses to distinguish herself from what she calls “fun fems”), FCM rejects the case I made for responsible male participation in feminist groups. Her post is short, and she and her commenters develop the thesis at greater length in the thread that follows below it.
There’s a lot to unpack about Factcheckme’s views. She’s particularly concerned (some might say obsessed) with the problem of heterosexual intercourse (which she, like so many these days, abbreviates PIV for penis-in-vagina.) She cites Dworkin’s Intercourse a lot, though FCM’s conclusions seem more radical than the late great writer and theorist. (I’d like to address the PIV intercourse issue in another post.) What I wanted to deal with here is this comment she makes in the thread:
it bothers me very much that so-called “feminist men” are teaching womens studies. there is something so fundamentally wrong with that, its creepy, disgusting, its a violation and they fucking well know it. it also takes work away from women, who are going to be infinitely more qualified to teach it. and thats fucking inexcusable, it really is.
That’s a criticism I’ve heard many times over the years, and it’s a serious one that deserves a serious response. There are three parts to FCM’s critique of men teaching women’s studies, and it may be helpful to answer them in turn:
1. It’s a violation of feminist principles
2. It takes work away from women
3. Women are infinitely more qualified to teach women’s studies than are men
The answer to the first charge is, obviously, that it all depends on whose feminism we’re talking about. Feminism is a patchwork quilt, not a seamless garment; we speak rightly of feminisms. As FCM makes clear, the gulf between radical feminism and what she calls “fun fems” (what others might call classically liberal feminists) is a vast one; the gulf is equally vast at times between both groups and the womanist tradition with which so many non-white activists identify. For some feminists, encouraging men to live out feminist principles (not just in lip service, but in action) is an essential part of transforming society along egalitarian lines.
I’ve written before that the number of men in my women’s studies classes continues to rise. The number of men who claim the name of feminist (or pro-feminist, or feminist ally) has gone up as well. I was very isolated when I started taking women’s studies courses a quarter century ago; the young men in my courses today are not nearly so alone. This isn’t just because I’m a male professor; my female colleagues who teach their own sections of the same courses report a similar rise in male interest over the past decade or so. FCM will have her own conclusions as to why this rise is occurring (she might say that academic feminism has lost its bite, and “sold out”); my feeling is that we’re raising a generation of young people more committed than ever to the principle that biology is not identity. To at least one large bloc of feminists, the success of the movement lies in the adoption of uncompromising egalitarian principles by the broadest possible section of society. That “big tent” feminism can mean, of course, the cynical manipulation of feminist rhetoric by the decidedly anti-feminist likes of Sarah Palin. But it can also mean an increasing acceptance of feminist ideals. And one unimportant sign among many more significant ones of the success of those ideals is the willingness to hire men to teach women’s studies courses.
As for taking away work from women, that’s a very real issue to consider. When I was hired full-time in 1994, after a year of teaching as an adjunct, I was hired to teach a variety of different subjects. Community colleges need generalists, and I made it clear when I was hired that I was ready and eager to teach courses in Western Civilization, British History, the History of Religion, and Women’s Studies. I was not hired solely to teach women’s history, but to teach virtually anything and everything. When I did start teaching women’s history, my appointment divided my four more senior female colleagues who also taught women’s studies courses. All four were self-described feminists, but two were pleased that I’d be tackling the task, and two offered versions of the same criticisms FCM offers. Though women had composed a majority of my hiring committee, two of my colleagues thought my job should have gone to a woman, and were incensed that a man was hired to do this work. I heard the “you took this job away from a better-qualified woman” remark more than once.
I don’t know who the other applicants were for my post; I don’t know anything about the other finalists, save that two were indeed women. And it’s absolutely true that if I hadn’t been hired, a woman might very well have been hired, and based upon the job posting, that woman might well have had a degree in women’s studies. So did I take a job (or did the hiring committee take a job) that ought to have been a woman’s away from her to give it to a man? Perhaps. If they did, was that a fundamental betrayal of feminist principles? After all, men still make up the majority of faculty on college campuses — until genuine parity is achieved, shouldn’t women get a hiring preference for any position, much less one teaching women’s studies?
Frankly, I think the answer to that question may be “yes.” But that’s a question for hiring committees to consider, not applicants. I realize that may sound like a cowardly dodge, but it isn’t. I showed up to the interview and did my best, knowing that the outcome was not really in my hands. Male privilege is powerful, but I knew it wouldn’t be powerful enough to sway a hiring committee made up largely of women looking to hire a professor whose duties would include but not be limited to teaching feminist-themed courses. I believed I could do the job and do it well, but had no idea whether I was the “best” candidate for the job; I had no idea who my competition was. I trusted the committee to sort that out, knowing only that I could do my best. And they chose me.
How nice for you, folks say. But besides abdicating responsibility to the hiring committee, isn’t there still a very real sense that I’ve appropriated something that wasn’t mine to take? The honest answer is that I struggle with that, and have for years. I know I bring something valuable to the classroom. I know that it’s important to have diversity of voices within the feminist movement, and that that diversity doesn’t just include race or class or religion or perceived gender, it also includes sex. Men do have a role to play, as I wrote in the post that started this little debate, by stepping up and stepping back. But how is teaching a course and taking a very public role as a feminist “stepping back”, particularly when my job could be filled by a woman instead?
I think I have a special responsibility as a male professor teaching women’s studies to seek out guidance and counsel from feminist colleagues. That doesn’t mean asking them to do my work for me. That means being particularly willing to hear their critiques. My male acculturation can be both an asset and an impediment, and where it is the latter, I need to be very aware that others (including those who are junior to me in years and experience) may have much to suggest. That willingness to hear and to implement is part and parcel of my work.
There are a number of men who have taught women’s studies across the country; the departments at the University of Washington and USC are headed by male scholars (David Allen and Michael Messner respectively). Though I’ve never seen a census done of men who teach women’s studies at the post-secondary level, anecdotally I know of at least two dozen. Each of us could be said to have taken a job from a qualified woman; each of us could just as easily be said to be doing important work in living out the universality of feminist scholarship and feminist practice.
I wrote a post back in 2005 in response to similar criticism, and I’ll finish by quoting from it:
I know that I have male privilege in the classroom. Because I am a man, few of my students assume that my course will be a “man-bashing” course. (Some of my men’s rights advocate critics are convinced it is, but none of them, to my knowledge, have sat through a single lecture.) Where my female colleagues are assumed by students to be “pushing an agenda”, I, as a supposedly objective man, am considered more “fair.” I’ve heard these comments over and over again, and I am saddened by them. But what should I do with this privilege? I can acknowledge it and withdraw from the classroom, leaving women’s studies to female professors. But how, exactly, does that help things? How would my quitting further the legitimization of gender work? I think it’s better to stay in the classroom, while openly calling attention to that unmerited assumption of objectivity that so many students have about male professors.
I’m convinced that feminists and pro-feminists can, in good conscience, continue to disagree about the role of men in the women’s movement. But after a decade of instructing dozens of sections of women’s history at PCC, I do believe that neither my biology nor my acculturation are bars to effective teaching of historical and contemporary feminist issues. But as always, I welcome alternative views.