Academic feminists pay my mortgage

Much has been said and written about the academic-activist feminist divide. Some of us, such as our very own Samhita, have written about the ways in which academic feminism actually serves as a site of transformation. Others, including myself, have expressed feeling alienated by some of the more esoteric language and theoretical posturing that goes on in academic circles. Both experiences beg questions like: what are the benefits and risks of establishing feminism as an academic discourse? How can academic feminism resist and transform the (often sexist, often racist, often classist) academy itself? Who is the intended audience for feminist theory?

Rather than exploring any of these questions, however, I’d like to point towards some new ones. It occurs to me that there is another interesting and overlooked connection between academic and “popular” feminism. Many feminist activists, myself included, make the majority of our income by speaking (I could write a lot more on what constitutes an “activist,” but I’ll leave that for another time). Most of those speaking opportunities come through academic institutions, women’s and gender studies programs, and women’s centers on college campuses.

So in some ways, academic feminism is making it possible for women like me, and so many others, to do the less lucrative blogging, writing, and activism projects that we do on a regular basis. I am economically dependent, in a sense, on academic feminists to subsidize my work in the public sphere–writing op-eds and books, doing television and radio commentary. Of course, I humbly submit that academic feminists are also dependent on me and my peers to help make feminism relevant and maybe even “hip” to a new generation, to inspire and shake things up on campuses, and to translate feminist theory for larger and more mainstream audiences.

I’d be interested in thinking more about this relationship and ways to make it ever more mutual, inclusive, and just. Some questions that come to mind: who gets these kinds of speaking opportunities and why? What is a sustainable and fair way to monetize these kinds of collaborations? (Much hay was made about Dan Choi’s high speaking fees. Jess responded here.) What constitutes legitimate experience or expertise when it comes to inviting speakers? What are the feminist issues that arise around speakers bureaus and agencies? And finally, how do these collaborations affect both the individual campuses and communities, and the speakers that drop in and out, in the long run? What’s lost? What’s gained?

I don’t have the answers, just thought I would make some of these questions explicit, as they affect my life and contemporary feminism in such big, unexplored ways.

Join the Conversation

  • Melanie

    Thank you for writing about this Courtney and posing these questions. Being in academia myself ( I work in a women’s center), I often use the work of those activist feminists outside of academia as primary and supplementary texts/information/sources of inspiration for my students. I think the relationship can certainly be a mutually beneficial one. I’d love to see more on this, especially incorporating what being an activist means. I often feel I do activist work as an academic feminist both in the classroom and at the programs I organize, but I also have a tremendous amount of guilt for not getting outside of the ivory tower as often as I would like to to do work in my larger feminist communities.

    Additionally, not all academic feminists are created equally or rather seen as equals. This gets into the really complicated question of who’s work is valued at institutions of higher education. The staff (often those of us who work in the Women’s Centers) can sometimes be seen as not doing serious feminist work or as lesser intellectuals by higher up administration and/or the faculty. We are often caught in the middle. We encourage our students to be active in feminist work on campus and in the surrounding communities as well as in the classroom, yet we ourselves are sometimes not seen as part of the academic feminist work happening at our institutions, and we might not be a direct part of the activist work happening in our own non-academic communities. It’s worth noting that it’s not like this everywhere in academics, it has a lot to do with institutional climate, but as we continue to explore the questions you have posed, I think it is an important consideration to take into account.

  • Vee

    Great post, though we should also remember that not all academic feminists are living the glamorous middle class lifestyle – that is, “academic feminists” are in no way a homogeneous group. For those of us without tenure or who are (gulp) working as adjuncts, we’re often not paid a living wage and/or work without health insurance or benefits. The ever-elusive tenure-track position is in no way a guarantee around here, especially when women/gender studies departments are shrinking and increasingly rely on cheap contract work from overqualified individuals to teach the growing undergraduate population.

    As for the antagonism between academia and activism, I think this varies from institution to institution. I know of (and have been a part of) several programs that work to bring activists into the classroom- and that encourage students to do activist work.

    • Jordan A.

      Wow! I’m glad that you got the opportunity to participate in actively encouraged activist groups at your college. As a current student in what is probably the closest to “feminist” program on campus (we do not have a feminist group, tragically, although we are an all-women’s college), I feel like that type of activism is seriously muffled in our institution.

      I think it’s interesting that we can invite academic feminists to speak at campuses and then not take the conversation further with real activism on the streets – it seems to me that the bridge between academia and activism might be found in encouraging people, as Vee said, to do activist work. Rather than taking it as “not so active” to speak at these functions, perhaps it encourages people to turn around and consider their opinions on women’s issues, and that conversation is very important. But it has to be continued afterwards for there to be any real changes, I think.

      How did your groups encourage activism, Vee? I have a few more years left at school, so if you have any suggestions on how to do that, let me know!

  • Michelle Issadore

    Adding my thanks, C. The point I’d like to add is the accountability needed on both sides. I have really appreciated working with speaker-activists who make the effort to learn about my institution’s climate, maintain personal and professional standards regarding staying current and utilizing an intersectional perspective, and continually assess their work to improve. In the academic realm, I have tried to diversify the activists brought to campus (female- and male-identified, multiple races and/or ethnicities, a continuum of sexual orientations, etc) and pay a fair fee. I know some who profit highly give a percentage back to local, national, or global causes.

  • Ileana Jiménez

    Courtney, I really appreciate the questions you posed at the end, especially the one about who gets the speaking opportunities and why. As someone who is not in academia, but uses secondary education as a space for both feminist education and feminist activism, I rely on both the academic feminists and the feminist activists to make feminism relevant to my students. So, in many ways, teachers like me are the ones who make both communities visible to young people.

    But teachers who are doing this kind of work are largely invisible, and my vision on my blog Feminist Teacher ( is to close that gap between academia and activism, and to show that there are educators out there doing this work. I think both activists and academics really need to begin thinking about how the real revolution is going to be in our high schools as well as middle and lower (primary/elementary) schools in connection to gender justice. I’d like to see how the collaborations and networks can be extended to secondary education in meaningful ways so that a college classroom isn’t the first place we begin having these conversations. For example, when feminist activists visit a university, they might also consider visiting a local high school as part of their tour (and they may even get a small stipend, depending on the school). They might also consider inviting the teachers who do this work–and we are out there–to collaborate on an article, a radio stint, a book, etc.

    If we want to change the conversation, we also need to change the players, or at least expand the players so that we can transform the landscape of who is getting heard. Great piece, and I’m glad you started this conversation.

  • nazza

    This is clearly a passionate issue with you, Courtney, and I see it reflected in your words.

    The previous two posters speak my mind. There is a middle ground between the two, but it starts with honesty and sincere dialogue based on trust. Poor leadership, both in practice and in ability is what causes many issues along these same lines. Where I went to college, some department were well run and some were not.

    Here in Washington, DC, inevitably government workers I know will sit down and critique the individual bureaus and departments of wherever it is that they work. Inevitably, the subject always turns to a distinction between toxic work environments versus those which run efficiently.

  • Benjamin M

    When I was nine years old, I was asked if I wanted to study an instrument in school. I said yes. I wanted to play the drums. The school told me I was going to study the trumpet. I quit three months later, and didn’t discover my passion for music for another six years. The school wanted me to study music. I never even got to realize that I only wanted to study music because I wanted to PLAY music.

    This post is hands down, the very best thing I’ve read here at Feministing. It speaks to my own experience as a young person interested in exploring social science. To me, it was a means to equip myself to help bring about change. Things didn’t quite work out that way. I was told pretty early on that one didn’t STUDY sociology and also USE it. Academics simply didn’t typically involve themselves in anything but research. There might be a small subset of the discipline, but nothing substantial. This from my mentor.

    The problem, as I see it, is that both academic and non-academic Feminists commit errors, and that these failures can create an intellectual chasm that is difficult to build bridges across. Academics often fail to remember that theory and formalized research methods are tools – reliant on educated, but fundamentally fallible assumptions. Nonacademics will frequently commit errors of selection bias, and assume that their personal experiences reflect that of the whole.

    Lucky me, I’ve been guilty of both.

  • Heather Hewett

    Great questions!! To the ones you raise I would add this one: how does the increasing gap between have and have-not academic institutions complicate these important questions you raise about the relationship of academic and public feminists? (Full disclosure: my small state campus brought Courtney to speak at a women’s studies conference several years ago, and she was awesome!) Yet the state university system I’m in has seen a decrease of 30% in our state funding over the past 3 years. Even before that reduction, more often than not, we did not have the ability to pay speakers what they asked. Identifying and contacting speakers is a fraught and frequently shame-filled process involving asking someone to reduce her/his rates and to wait long months for the check because of endless bureaucracy. With dwindling state funding, it is also an increasingly competitive process, meaning that Women’s Studies programs (many of which are not fully autonomous) must compete with bigger departments for a tiny pot of money. We want to support outside speakers and activists, many of whom send their materials to us daily, and we want to pay awesome women like Courtney what they’re worth—and yet our ability to do the little we have been able to do is plummeting. Given that most students in our country are at schools like mine, and not private colleges, this really raises some difficult questions about the multiple effects of the increasing gap between private and public institutions. Speakers like Courtney model for our students the many possibilities of feminist activism they might not be exposed to otherwise. What if they never got that chance? How can we bring speakers to campus if we have no money? And what does it do to everyone’s self-empowerment if we must continually present ourselves as a charity case to speaker-activists who are also trying to make a living?

  • Marisa

    I often feel the word “academic feminists” is a dirty word. I understand the reasons behind this, yet I think we can do so much better. I have for a long time (and still do) struggled with my future career plans and have seen academia as a possible avenue of activism. The academic v. activist binary is dangerous. I know you are not suggesting this Courtney, but often I think what happens a lot of the time is we don’t acknowledge the essential part academic feminists play. We need feminism in the academy, we really do. Rather than diminishing academic feminists (this is not to say that nonacademic feminists have been looked down upon, they CERTAINLY!!!!!! have) we need to work to bridge the gap more with more collaboration. We also need to encourage more women of various intersectional identities to enter the academy at higher rates. It feels as if the PC thing to do nowadays is to discredit academic feminists, yet we lose a lot that way.

    My feminism has been developed widely in the academy, and as a rape crisis counselor/advocate at my campus women’s center. Could I have received an excellent feminist education outside of the academy? of course.

    The key here is to value all types of knowledge, not just knowledge published by PhDs. Rather than dividing us between academics v. activists, we must recognize the many essential pieces of feminist action.

  • Christine

    I’m an academic feminist (I teach at a state university with a liberal arts emphasis) and I have some of the same frustrations that Courtney has raised. Why does so much feminist theory have to be so esoteric? Is Judith Butler incapable of speaking in a way that is understandable to more than .0001% of the population? Why aren’t more academic feminists engaged in activism? Although speakers are wonderful, we shouldn’t have to rely on outsiders to show students how feminism can be used outside of the academy. Whether I like it or not, I am a role model for feminism for my students (and my colleagues). Aren’t we supposed to practice what we preach?
    Then again, I am not at a research university where my job depends on getting multiple publications, book deals, and big grants. This is a huge factor for any academic, having time and energy outside of the academy.