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CAUT Bulletin Archives

September 2005

Essays Create Unanticipated Distortions

Wendy Robbins

Troubling Women’s Studies: Pasts, Presents and Possibilities

Ann Braithwaite, Susan Heald, Susanne Luhmann & Sharon Rosenberg. Toronto: Sumach Press, 2004; 264 pp; ISBN: 1-894549-36-8, paper $28.95 ca.
Three decades after its inauguration, women’s studies as a field of academic study and research appears deeply troubled." (p. 149) This is the main theme of a collection of essays by four professors who have held full-time positions in women’s studies in Canadian universities — PEI, Laurentian, Manitoba and Alberta. They report, not just an ideological split in the field, which is now thirty-something, but an identity crisis involving "anxiety of authenticity."

Postmodernism has rendered the category "women" unstable. Academic/activist fissures have cracked the foundations and a new generation of scholars with degrees in women’s studies — for whom feminism is "not just a politic but also a career option" (p. 159) — is hiving itself off from the "founding mothers." The latter are depicted as disapproving and defensive, clinging to a failed social transformation agenda — make that "redemption narrative."

What’s wrong with this picture? First, it smacks of discredited Freudian theories such as the Electra complex and female masochism, along with a discourse of women’s rivalries, wounds and lack. Second, women’s studies professors cannot be so simply divided into two warring factions, either mothers or daughters with all traces of "sisterhood," mutual respect and affection banished. And, finally, this family feud is documented almost exclusively by reference to American authorities, excellent though their credentials may be, who typically know little about Canada. These are serious distortions.

The authors claim there has been "a recent spate of memoirs, histories and reflections" on women’s studies. One — Florence Howe’s The Politics of Women’s Studies: Testimony from 30 Founding Mothers — was reviewed in the October 2001 CAUT Bulletin. Numerous books about women’s studies in the United States have been published since the 1980s, but the reality for Canada is different. Ann Braithwaite’s literature review names only two Canadian articles — a report on the Canadian Women’s Studies Project published in Atlantis in 1991 and a "Chronology of the History of Women’s Studies in Canada," posted a decade later on the PAR-L listserv.

A third, discussed by Sharon Rosenberg, is a short autobiographical entry in the Howe anthology written by American feminist literary critic Annette Kolodny. This is legitimate since, in the displacements of the Vietnam War era, a young Kolodny became one of the founders of the pioneering women’s studies program at the University of British Columbia, which she identifies as Canada’s first.

Three articles, one decade, no books. By my count, this makes a dearth, not a spate. At Congress 2000, in fact, then president of the Canadian Women’s Studies Association, Marianne Ainley, outlined the need for "a large-scale interdisciplinary research project."

So why am I not saluting Troubling Women’s Studies as a long overdue and ground-breaking work? Because it reads like a missed opportunity. The collection is a paean to postmodern theorist Judith Butler and to Robyn Wiegman, who offers a "second opinion" after Susan Gubar’s harsh diagnosis of what "ails" feminist criticism. Butler’s Gender Trouble echoes from cover to cover, drowning out other voices, even though the authors insist that "the fixing of singular narratives and truths is a project which needs to be troubled." (p. 28)

Ironically, the possibility that the authors of this Canadian collection themselves may be contributing to a largely made-in-the-USA "grand narrative" about metaphorical matricide and "unmourned attachment to progress" (p. 185) does not seem to "trouble" them.

The Rosenberg essay does not substantially mitigate this charge, although it concerns a Canadian tragedy: the massacre of women in engineering at École Polytechnique in Montreal in 1989 as it has been "emblematized." Her analysis is unconvincing, yet, with Susan Heald’s opening essay, it bookends the collection. Heald’s essay, for quite different reasons, is disappointing. She justifies an already well established practice in feminist pedagogy — using autobiographical readings and first-person journal assignments — without going further to discuss such things as grades, student evaluations and other "institutional considerations" (p. 82) which allegedly are "overtaking" women’s studies.

An overview of the scattered institutional reports that exist for Canadian women’s studies programs; a discussion about whether women’s studies is better conceptualized as a cross-disciplinary endeavour or a "new discipline"; an exploration of the connections or disconnects among women’s studies, gender studies, sexual diversity studies and cultural studies; a contribution by any of the marginalized faculty who do not feel "at home" in women’s studies; or candid personal essays — the kind we often ask of our students — about the experience of being some of the first PhD graduates in women’s studies in Canada (as two of the four authors apparently are) or some of the first full-time women’s studies professors (as all of them are) could have been highly instructive and deeply compelling.

That said, the book’s two central essays, by Braithwaite and by Susanne Luhmann, raise significant questions about the roles of "origin stories" in the construction of any field. They contain wise, cautionary words about any one person’s or one group’s trying to pass off their story as the "official version." The authors rightly ask: "Whose Women’s Studies is being called upon or passed on and where?" (p. 30) And they raise the core issue of whether women’s studies is the site of the academic investigation of feminism and/or still the academic arm of the women’s movement.

All four authors situate themselves with one broad stroke as "white women in the academy." (p. 32) They acknowledge the need to understand how women’s studies is intertwined with related issues of "race, class, sexuality, ability, nation, region." (p. 29) Yet, curiously, they seem unaware of important work by Canadian academic women from minority groups who explore these very intersections and are oblivious to the evolution of études féministes in Québec. If there is a current mainstream narrative of women’s studies that is focused on loss, which is debatable, then certainly the lack of minority voices in this collection provides no relief. They remind us of "multi-faceted relations of inequality among women," (p. 164) but they replicate, rather than challenge, these inequalities through their silences and omissions.

Despite these major, unintended troubles, Troubling Women’s Studies is worth ordering for your women’s centre or library. Luhmann’s epistemological essay is luminous. And courageous, big-picture analyses of women’s studies in Canada, retrospective as well as "state of the art," are in short supply. So I am not passing on this book, but I am feeling nostalgic for those days — and they aren’t over yet — when women’s studies was, not just an "intellectual project," but an embodied dream. Let the theorists theorize, and let the revolution continue. Are my "attachments" showing? Where is my knitting? And the demonstration?

Wendy Robbins, chair of CAUT’s Wo- men’s Committee, is a "founding mother" of women’s studies at the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, and of the listserv PAR-L. She is also one of eight female professors who have laid a human rights complaint against Industry Canada over lack of attention to equity issues in the billion-dollar Canada Research Chairs program.