What Makes Women’s Studies?

Ed. note: This post was originally published on the Community site.

Women’s Studies, Gender Studies, Queer Studies, there are a host of names for the academic field built by a range of academics from Judith Butler to Eve Sedgwick. As a feminist writer, you would think that I would spend a lot of time parsing over the works of these scholars. But while I read lots of feminist writers, I almost entirely avoid those within academia. I did not always do so, but rather learned from experience that the overarching focus of Women’s Studies is not on women’s liberation but on taxonomical classification and compulsive deconstruction. Their papers and research are not presenting programs to create democratic workplaces that empower women, analysis, and strategies to push back against the anti-abortion movement, or means of prevention and self-defense from sexual violence. Instead, they are digging through Lady Gaga to try to find feminism, deconstructing yesterday’s think piece as problematic in a never-ending simulacrum that produces no new knowledge, and still broadly ignoring the movements to combat police violence against Black women and girls. A Foucault-obsessed post-structuralist dogma, the idea that naming systems of power is in itself a radical act even without any resistance to those systems, is gospel to Women’s Studies and consequently many college-educated feminists. I think it is well overdue for a little heresy.

Anne Fausto-Sterling, a professor of Biology and Gender Studies at Brown University, recently tweeted her support for an op-ed published by the New York Times in which Caitlyn Jenner is portrayed as some sort of trans woman Anti-Christ come to tear down everything that the feminist movement has accomplished in the past fifty years. Particularly, Fausto-Sterling quoted a passage from the op-ed: “People who haven’t lived their whole lives as women…shouldn’t get to define us.” Ironically Fausto-Sterling, like many modern academics in her field, does not apply that principal to her own work, particularly in relation to Michel Foucault. In her book Sexing the Body, Fausto-Sterling uses many constructions that Foucault created. “Foucault divided this power over living bodies (bio-power) into two forms. The first centered on the individual body … Understanding how race and gender work—together and independently—helps us learn more about how the social becomes embodied.” Apparently Fausto-Sterling’s reluctance to letting a trans woman define her gender is not replicated towards Foucault despite the fact that he too has not “lived his whole life as a woman.” 

13277030245_bcdd11f4fe_oWhy does Fausto-Sterling make this distinction? Simply because Caitlyn Jenner does indeed embody many heteronormative ideas of womanhood and Fausto-Sterling is dealing with this reality in the only way her and her colleagues know how: to criticize and deconstruct it. Having created permanent homes for themselves at the top of the ivory tower, these academics are so disconnected from the reality of women in the twenty first century that they can sincerely believe that Jenner is not only some outlier, but occupies that position due to being a trans woman. One look at the We Don’t Need Feminism Tumblr should be enough to show that many women hold ideas of womanhood that run contrary to what Fausto-Sterling and her sisters proudly claim as part of a shared lived experience. I am certainly not the first to point out this distance between academics and those who they claim to study and write about. In fact, the greatest feminist essay I read during my tenure at college was the first piece I read that thoroughly debunked the intellectual or moral superiority of these academics:

Poststructuralism’s focus on discourse and aesthetics instead of social action encourages the egocentricity and individualism that undermine collective action. The atomization of the intellectual community and the isolation in intellectual work allow, at best, the emergence of “stars” but produce, at worst, a dysfunctional and ineffective family that is not fully equipped to meet the challenges of societal transformation… the endemic feminist politics and theorizing that inaugurate social irrelevance and forestall true engagement—from feminist social and epistemological exclusions to feminist scholarship’s disconnection from social utility. -”Nego-Feminism” by Obioma Nnaemeka 

The sad irony of this conflict is not only its cannibalism of the feminist movement, but the derailing of an important moment for feminist struggle. Because I actually do agree, agree vehemently, that Caitlyn Jenner’s brand of “women’s empowerment” is not only vapid but incredibly dangerous in its focus on attaining white heteronormative beauty standards, obscene wealth, and perversely celebrating one of the most privileged women in the world as some hero of the oppressed. Jenner’s Vainity Fair photo shoot is far less dangerous to these cis academics with comfy vocations, like Fausto-Sterling’s Nancy Duke Lewis Professorship at Brown, than it is to a trans woman who stays in the closet because she’s afraid she’ll never look that pretty. It is far more dangerous to the Black trans woman who cis people will compare to Jenner and say, “Why can’t she be more patient about pronouns like Caitlyn was? Why can’t she try to look more like a woman like Caitlyn?” It is far more dangerous to the vast majority of trans women living in some level of poverty, stereotyped as self-absorbed and materialistic and hedonistic not because of their behavior but because of what people see in the media. It is far more dangerous because of every man who sees people like Fausto-Sterling set us apart from womanhood and give them the justification to objectify and sexualize us.

If the academics of Women’s Studies really wish to confront all the patriarchal trappings that are present in Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover or Kim Kardashian’s Paper cover (or hell we could always get around to stopping that never-ending tidal wave of anti-abortion case law and legislation that never seems to get touched upon by Women’s Studies), then they would do well to heed the call of Nnaemeka to develop academic theory that engages with all sorts of women, and not just the ones fluent in their particular Foucault-ish. What if Anne Fausto-Sterling actually reached out to a trans woman to try to understand what was going on with Caitlyn Jenner? In fact, I’ll put the offer on the table to show how much I believe in the utility of engagement. I know we’ve been talking on Twitter, but Twitter is hardly the medium for constructive dialogue, so I want to offer you, Professor Fausto-Sterling, an opportunity to engage with me, a trans woman feminist, about Caitlyn Jenner and who gets to define feminism and womanhood. Name the day, the time, and the venue, and I’ll be there and we can collectively, as feminists, determine the answers that are far more complicated than “lived experience.”

Picture by Timothy Vollmer.


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