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whatever happened to feminism?

I am currently studying Honours in English literature and most of my peers in both the English department, and the department of Arts and Social Sciences itself, are women. This has been the case throughout my University career. Seminar rooms and lecture theatres are littered with bright young women who are interested in reading, writing and theorising. Most of my lecturers have been women as well.

I have come now to the year in which I can start and finish my own project. It is a scary and daunting time, made more so by the fact that I have been partnered up with a supervisor that certainly is interested in what I have to say, but is not particularly fluent or understanding to my ideas. I have diverged from the path of looking at white men philosophising and writing, to looking at Aboriginal and women writers who write poems about birds, trees and love.

There is a problem though. When I met my supervisor last week, I was met with fuming red cheeks, hair pulling, stress, and a loud booming voice that rang through to my core. He was angry that I was not connecting or understanding the ideas of the authors and theorists that he had suggested. He blatantly stated that I did not know what I was talking about and that I needed to find a new direction pronto. This new direction is now in the process of formulating, and what it will entail is almost entirely women’s work. My supervisor is happy I have found a direction, but is obviously daunted by the task of talking about only women’s writing. He even stated that, perhaps, I should find a new supervisor. However, I told him that I was capable of figuring out these ideas on my own and that I was sure he would be capable of understanding them too, thus it was not necessary to switch to a new supervisor. He then gave me one more chance, or rather, one more week, to come back to him with a clearly written thesis statement. In less than a day I have formulated one, and this is because I feel so much freer in knowing that I don’t have to look anymore at authors and theorists that do not interest me.

It is really not his fault that he tried to lead me in one direction only for me to pull the opposite way. He gave me material that he thought would help, but in the end, it only made me push farther away. The real problem, though, is that there is no true place at this university, and I am assuming at most universities, for women’s studies and literature. Here, the women’s and gender studies faculty was actually dismantled after a few years of ‘apparent failure,’ and now you can only study it as a minor. Not only that, but English studies has and still is a white-male-dominated field at any school or university that you can find; the authors you study are rarely anything besides white or male. Funnily enough though, women, like I pointed out earlier, dominate the lecturing positions and the classrooms themselves.

In the last seminar for the coursework part of the year, a few weeks back, we were asked the question: why were these main texts chosen for this particular Honours course? We all came up with our own queries, but a few of us women in the class brought up the point that only one minor text in the entire semester’s curriculum was written by a female, and also none were written by someone of an ethnicity besides Caucasian. When posed with these questions, our lecturer (a woman who in fact was part of the starting up of women’s and gender studies at the university, and obviously, was part of its downfall) answered vaguely that there was not enough room in the curriculum to include many women.

And this brings me to my ultimate question: what the heck has happened to feminism? Why is it that still, in this day and age, after decades of feminism upheaval, we still have a SEPARATE course for women’s writing? Isn’t it the main point of feminism that women and men should be considered equal? Well, in such an instance as my English degree, I see no equality at all. Although there is a demand for a broader curriculum that includes women writers (and other ethnic writers) there has been no supply. Men and women are still seen as separate, and so courses are structured around this apparently inherent separation. So not only does feminism need a revival, it needs to be re-spoken in a way that will really nail down the core issues. For instance, we should have every class including women just as they include men: equally. Is it really that hard to ask? Well, according to my lecturer, the curriculum is already too set in stone for such equalities. So what can we do then?

Well, now I am off to start expanding on this thesis, in which I will show my supervisor how poetry and women are actually not scary things. Perhaps in this process we will both learn a bit more about ourselves, and in turn, he will not pull his hair out ever again. Perhaps this is the way to do it: to continue to challenge the curriculum, and to continue to follow one’s own path, instead of the one that lies directly before us.

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4 thoughts on “whatever happened to feminism?

  1. This is true for a lot of disciplines – there might be one course for women in history, one course for women writers, one course for gender and sociology, gender and anthropology, one for feminist philosophy… Gender is a niche for most disciplines, even though gender permeates much of human experience, even though the stories of women run alongside those of men. I’ve heard it been explained as such: the concept of rationality (as defined by men) still is the dominant ideology of a lot of disciplines (especially philosophy) and there is a notion that talking about gender doesn’t fit that somehow. It is possible that feminism doesn’t fit with the dominant ideology of rationality (in the philosophical sense rather than the everyday sense), but that doesn’t make it not worthwhile.

  2. A great question…

    Part of the answer lies in student numbers. The university is now almost entirely market driven. If I run a course with women or gender in the title, I can’t get bottoms on seats. There is such a conception that we are post-feminist, that there is not widespread interest in ideas which are now rendered “boutique”.

    It is more of a mystery why your lecturers can’t sneak in more women and non-whites into the course.

    And as for your supervisor, really, I’d find a new one.

  3. As hurt as I was initially by my supervisor’s comments, the progress that we’ve made from that point on has been brilliant. He is fully understanding now that I am going on my own path. I think he was just worried that at this stage I had not been able to formulate a thesis on the authors that he had suggested I read. His anger helped me to realise that I needed to step away from what he had suggested. It was a slippery slope to ride on, but now I think he’s well on his way to understanding how I feel about the absence of women in the field. He is more supportive now, and I think that’s in part because he’s eager to learn more about these areas too.

    It’s these little encounters that I think can change things. Unfortunately they do not happen often, but when they do they can make a huge difference! The hope is one day to have, for instance, an English class that is called, let’s say, ’20th Century Australian Literature,’ and for it to have equal amounts of female, male and Aboriginal authors, without there being a huge fuss over who can be included.

    Gender will always be talked about as being different from the ‘dominant ideology.’ The goal I guess is to make a new ‘dominant ideology’ that is not dominant at all, that in fact seeks to give up power to all those around it. Thus making it an inclusive philosophy which will, over time, erase the need to point out a woman author solely for her ‘woman-ness.’

  4. I think I am among a few of the lucky ones whose university courses concentrate equally amongst women and men. We have had courses that focus upon feminism, post-colonialism, and Victorian masculinities. Sure, we had a Modernism module where only one female writer featured (Virginia Woolf, obviously) simply because the module required the inclusion of a female writer, but generally my university experience not only showed women as equal to male writers, but helped hone and develop my own feminist ideals. My dissertation was focussed entirely upon feminism and it’s part in pornography with only female theorists and authors used, and I received a really good grade.

    I’d say feminism as a subject needs to be addressed before university in schools and college. It was never even approached in my time in school, and in college the subject was treated so badly that it almost put me off the movement.

    Also, you need to get a new mentor. The only thing that got me through my dissertation was a supportive and understanding mentor.

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