Gender

Essay on the sexual politics of scholarship

In May, I gave a reading from my contribution to Defiant Daughters: 21 Women on Art, Activism, Animals, and The Sexual Politics of Meat, a book edited by Kara Davis and Wendy Lee.  The text pays homage to Carol J. Adams’s foundational ecofeminist animal studies work The Sexual Politics of Meat, first published in 1990 and in print and much-discussed by scholars ever since.  I read my entry at a local bookstore packed to the rafters with friends and strangers alike, all of whom hung on my every word.  At the end of the reading, people hugged me. They bought the book and asked me to sign it.  In my professional life, I have never given such a reading and, as a result, I have never experienced anything that felt quite as rewarding as what I experienced that evening.

On May 18, Adams posted on Facebook that in reader reviews for a literary criticism article, a scholar was told that her paper "relies too heavily on Carol Adams (a non-academic animal rights writer) for its theorization of animals, women, and oppression." Further, the unnamed writer is instructed to incorporate more scholarly animal studies sources, like the work of Derrida, for example.

I want to talk about what’s going on with the dismissal of Adams’s work in terms of what such dismissal says about women’s invention of new ways of knowing in the academy, and I want to do so because as an academic woman, the omission of Adams’s work from scholarly consideration raises very real and problematic gender-based issues with regard to how we within the academy police and are policed in terms of our scholarly production. I’m using Adams as my example, because she’s the one I know best, and I think that her case offers real historical parallels to the disappearance of women’s writing more broadly.

Adams holds a divinity degree from Yale University and has published dozens of books with both academic and popular presses; she publishes in scholarly journals and in mainstream media, and she speaks regularly on college campuses across the country.  She is prolific, productive, philosophical and, yes, accessible.  She is a public intellectual of the first order, an "independent scholar" of the finest magnitude, and she’s been doing work on animal studies, ecocriticism, women’s studies, and literary analysis (to name a few of her areas of intellectual interest) since the 1970s.

Some scholars in  animal studies and ecocriticism have tried to address the way that the recognized "legitimate" scholarly discourse has essentially written certain foundational female theoreticians right out of existence, as male scholars, one after another, appear to tell us, as if for the first time, what these modes of inquiry mean. For example, in the first edition Ecocriticism: The New Critical Idiom, Greg Garrard failed to include Adams’s concept of the absent referent in his chapter on animals – an oversight he corrected in the book’s second edition in 2011, but only after Adams herself contacted him to ask why he omitted mention of her foundational concept and examined instead "second generation" animal studies literary critics – many of whom have been influenced by Adams’s work.

Greta Gaard takes up the omission of female writers like Adams in a 2010 article in Isle in which she advocates for a more feminist ecocriticism, one that addresses the ecocritical revisionism – by such writers as Garrard and Lawrence Buell – that has rendered a feminist perspective largely absent. She notes that omissions of foundational ecofeminist texts in "ecocritical scholarship are not merely a bibliographic matter of failing to cite feminist scholarship, but signify a more profound conceptual failure to grapple with the issues being raised by that scholarship as feminist, a failure made more egregious when the same ideas are later celebrated when presented via nonfeminist sources."

And in a 2012 essay in Critical Inquiry, Susan Fraiman tracks gender in animal studies, noting that "In 1975, Peter Singer galvanized the modern animal rights movement with Animal Liberation, a work that would be heralded as one of its founding texts. That same year, The Lesbian Reader included an article by Carol Adams entitled “The Sexual Politics of Meat,” inspiration for a book eventually published in 1990. Her scholarship contributed to a growing body of ecofeminist work, emergent in the early 1980s, on women, animals, and the environment."

Unlike Adams, who has written consistently over a period of nearly five decades on the subject of animals, Derrida, on the other hand, had only the slightest interest in animal studies, with a singular sustained commentary “L’Animal que donc je suis (a` suivre),” a lecture given in 1997 and published in 2002 as "The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)” in Critical Inquiry. Fraiman’s work is concerned with the revisionist history that places Derrida at the fore as the father of legitimate animal studies and erases from that discourse the voices of pioneering women – like Adams. What Derrida did was to remove the gendered component from the analysis, to take animal studies away from its at that point established linkages with women’s studies.

So my defense of Adams is not really new, but what’s troubling is that despite such attention to the importance of Adams’s work, she continues to be dismissed over and over again as "non-academic," and I don’t think that this omission is simply because  she doesn’t work in the academy. It’s more about what she’s saying and the way that she says it; it’s more about her unruly feminism and her position that there are linkages with regard to various oppressions – between animals, women, and colonized peoples. It’s about our tendency to cast feminism in a series of "waves" (first, second, and maybe third), and then decide that if feminist thought occurred during a previous wave, it’s now obsolete. And it’s about her impatience with patriarchy and with patriarchal dictates that determine not only what constitutes oppression but also how and when it is or is not appropriate to discuss both oppression and patriarchy.

                                                                                                                                                                            ***

If this piece feels like it’s about praising Carol Adams, that’s because it is, but it’s also about the stakes more broadly.  Earlier this year, Pat McCrory, governor of North Carolina, the state in which I live and the state in whose university system I work, commented in a radio interview with Bill Bennett about our system’s offering courses that provide "no chances of getting people jobs." He said, "If you want to take gender studies that's fine. Go to a private school, and take it, but I don't want to subsidize that if that's not going to get someone a job."

At my own university, as the result of an extensive program prioritization process, women’s studies has been recommended for discontinuation, marginalized, as it has been, out of relevant existence. I don’t know that this is necessarily a bad thing, as I’d like to see women’s studies incorporated into and given equal footing within the fields that such a moniker indicates: philosophy, anthropology, and English, but I’m also troubled by the fact that women’s voices, as always when they assert themselves in the service of women, fail to be heard, maintained, and championed.

I’m an academic, an English professor who has published a fair number of academic texts, articles in scholarly journals, books with scholarly presses. I’ve played the game as is appropriate, writing about things that I love only to have them read by very few people because I have chosen, again, as is appropriate, to place my writing in venues that would ensure tenure and promotion even as by and large I’ve relegated my words to inconsequence. I have presented papers at academic conferences numerous times over the years, but I have never had an audience as large or as interested as the one that I had in May, and I don’t know that I ever felt truly heard before then.

My work has shifted over the course of my career from a focus on postcolonial literature – particularly South African literature and, even more particularly, the novels of J.M. Coetzee – to postcolonial environmentalism, to animal studies, to cultural studies explorations of veganism in mainstream media.  But in all of my scholarly endeavors as well as in my lived experience as an ethical vegan, Carol Adams’s work has proven foundational.  Without Adams, I assert, there might not have been a real and sustained focus on animal studies with regard to literature; her work has found its way into pretty much everything I’ve ever written, so I was honored to be asked to contribute to Defiant Daughters, in order to speak about my lived academic and activist experience as someone who writes about and practices an animal advocacy informed by both philosophy and lived experience.

Adams sent me an e-mail after learning for the umpteenth time that she’s not scholarly enough and that Derrida invented the field of animal studies. She said "since the point of [The Sexual Politics of Meat] is its interstitial nature (I guess, not sure that is quite the adjective I want), I know it will always receive criticism. On the other hand, about once a day I get an e-mail or twitter post or Facebook message etc. that says 'your book changed my life.' So I prefer the interstitial!"

In terms of my own scholarship, I want to be influential, to hear that perhaps I’ve changed someone’s life or scholarly focus. But if I publish in the wrong place or if I publish about the wrong subject (or if I publish about the right subject but in the wrong way), then I will be locked out, or forgotten, or called not scholarly or serious enough to warrant consideration.  And the more I consider the equation of what is scholarly and what is not, maybe the less such a designation matters and the more I’m inclined to want to publish with a press like Lantern, whose activist nature drives its mission. But regardless of what I do or don’t do, if those of us in the academy continue to perpetuate an elitism that limits or forgets women’s voices, we are doomed to be duped into believing that men’s narratives are the originary myths of our profession, our passion, and our scholarship. And it’s high time we stopped doing that.

Laura Wright is associate professor and department head of English at Western Carolina University.

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Only the Fertile Need Apply

Until recently, the interests of graduate students have largely been ignored by university “family friendly” initiatives designed to meet the needs of women on the tenure track who aspire to be mothers as well as scholars. So it shouldn’t be surprising that Stanford University announced its new Childbirth Policy for women graduate students with fanfare, nor that it was positively received by the national news media. What’s puzzling  is how little attention has been paid to the huge gap between Stanford’s aspiration and its accomplishment.

The rationale for the policy is exemplary: “Stanford University is committed to achieving a diverse graduate student body, and facilitating the participation of under-represented groups in all areas of research and graduate and postdoctoral training. To increase the number of women pursuing … advanced degrees … it is important to acknowledge that a woman’s prime childbearing years are the same years she is likely to be in graduate school, doing postdoctoral training, and establishing herself in a career.”

Unfortunately, the policy itself --  which provides accommodation in the form of paid leave, extension of deadlines and reduced workload to graduate students “anticipating or experiencing a birth” -- sends an entirely different message.

While the phrase “anticipating or experiencing a birth” seems expansive enough to cover “anticipating” the birth of an adoptive child, that is not Stanford’s intention. Associate Dean for Graduate Policy Gail Mahood was brutally frank on this point: “The policy does not apply to women who adopt children.… Women can always put off adopting,” she told a reporter.

Apparently Stanford prefers grad students who create families “the old fashioned way,” leaving others to sink or swim without institutional support. So much for the message of inclusiveness and diversity! In creating this restrictive policy, Stanford seems to have lost sight of its original goal, confused means and ends, and conflated biology (childbirth) with social issues (family formation).    

Ordinarily, women become pregnant as a means to start a family, not to “experience childbirth.” Other ways to accomplish this goal are adoption, surrogacy and becoming a foster parent. Absent some as-yet-undisclosed study linking female fertility to academic talent, it seems odd that Stanford would decide that only fertile women able to carry a fetus to term deserve institutional support for their decision to start a family during graduate school.    

The privileging of birth mothers over adoptive mothers is as illogical as it is offensive to families who have struggled with infertility prior to adopting. Under the literal terms of this policy, whose avowed purpose is “to make sure that we retain in the academic pipeline women graduate students who become pregnant and give birth,” a graduate student who gives her child up for adoption immediately after birth could request accommodation, while the adoptive mother who cares for that newborn could not.   

Equally, if not more disturbing, is the policy’s failure to support graduate student couples who want to share the task of balancing work and family, thereby promoting a traditional heterosexual family structure that has proved detrimental to women’s achievement. Recognizing that “[t]aking care of an infant is time-consuming and sleep-depriving so advisors need to have realistic expectations about rates of progress on research,” the policy denies the same compassionate recognition to other graduate student caregivers who might be equally in need of help -- e.g., biological fathers, gay couples,  adoptive parents or biological mothers who used a surrogate to carry the fetus to term.   

Thus, the only graduate student families who will benefit from the childbirth accommodation policy are those who choose to conform to the traditional gender role model of mom stays home to bond with baby while dad goes to work. This patterning of gender stereotyped roles is unlikely to prove advantageous to the woman’s future career.  

One would have expected Stanford’s policymakers to heed the counsel of the late Chief Justice Rehnquist (a Stanford alumnus) on the importance of gender-neutral family leave benefits, in a 2003 case:

“Stereotypes about women’s domestic roles are reinforced by parallel stereotypes presuming a lack of domestic responsibilities for men. Because employers continued to regard the family as the woman’s domain, they often denied them similar accommodations or discouraged them from taking leave.  These mutually reinforcing stereotypes created a self-fulfilling cycle of discrimination that forced women to continue to assume the role of primary family caregiver, and fostered employers’ stereotypical views about women’s commitment to work and their value as employees.”

Finally, by excluding everyone but the birth mom from accommodation, the policy may even override the woman’s own preference in the matter: Stanford seems not to have envisioned the possibility that the birth parents might both be graduate students, and that a new mother-scientist at a critical research juncture might choose to return to her lab right away, if only the policy were flexible enough to accommodate her partner’s desire to stay home and tend to the newborn.

Stanford deserves some credit for being the second nationally prominent graduate school to attempt any accommodation for grad students who become parents. (MIT was the first.) But the progressive impulse  that spawned this “breakthrough” has been undermined by using “childbirth accommodation” as a proxy for easing the burden on new mothers. If the goal is truly to achieve diversity by increasing the number of women pursuing advanced degrees, surely a Class I research institution can craft a policy more likely to fulfill its intended purpose -- one not limited to the “June Cleavers” in its grad student population, but generous enough to encompass 21st century parenthood in all its diversity. 

Author/s: 
Charlotte Fishman
Author's email: 
editor@insidehighered.com

Charlotte Fishman is a San Francisco lawyer known for her expertise in the areas of academic discrimination and gender stereotyping. She is Executive Director of Pick Up the Pace, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to identify and eliminate barriers to women’s advancement in the workplace.

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