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.

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