College Quarterly
Fall 2008 - Volume 11 Number 4
Reviews Revenge of the Women’s Studies Professor
Bonnie J. Morris
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009

Reviewed by Alexandria Smith-Doughty

The history of modern feminism is commonly broken down into three phases or “waves.” The first is often dated from 1792 when Mary Woolstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Women, and proceeded haltingly until women won the right to vote and achieved legal independence in the form, for instance, of the right to own property in Western democracies. These advances were made mainly in the first third of the twentieth century. The second wave is often dated from the publication of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex in 1949 or, for North Americans, from Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963). Its main focus was to expand women’s equality in politics and economics. It was concerned with de jure issues such as equal pay for work of equal value, shattering the “glass ceiling” and allowing women equal access to positions of leadership in government, business and education. This phase is sometimes thought to have lost its momentum when the Equal Rights Amendment failed to win approval in the United States. Meanwhile, in the late 1980s and 1990s, a so-called “Third Wave” of feminism started to build.

To many of the older women who struggled but never quite succeeded to win full political and economic equality with men, the next generation was a disappointment. They complained that the women of the Third Wave had abandoned more important issues to pursue trivial objectives that had mostly to do with personal relationships and identities, and with questions of literary “representations,” women’s “voices” and symbolic skirmishes over “images” rather than reality. The new feminists, it seemed, were deserting the hard tasks of working women and embracing “theory,” which was almost inevitably delivered in the kind of arcane language that interested only academics and had nothing to do with wages, promotions or practical political influence.

What’s more, it seemed to the older women radicals that the new generation was becoming ghettoized. Holed up in marginalized university departments, teaching off-beat college courses or (worse) writing angst-ridden poetry, their real-world effects were minimal. Women were still under-represented in legislatures and senior management positions in business and industry. Women still earned about two-thirds of what men did in middle-class and working-class jobs. In short, women had not gained real equality, but the new feminists were too busy to notice because they were preoccupied with “identity politics.” They were, it was said, distracted by gender orientation when it was gender itself that they ought to focus on. Like racial minorities who, for example, promoted “Black Studies” or “Native Studies,” and like people from the “Third World” who were developing “Post-Colonial Studies,” the Third Wave feminists were criticized for taking “culture” and “lifestyle” more seriously than power. At the worst, they were called sell-outs who had been bought off with a few opportunities to understand the world better, but not to change it.

In Revenge of the Women’s Studies Professor, Bonnie J. Morris challenges most of these perceptions. Morris is a Women’s Studies professor at George Washington University in the District of Columbia. She is, by accident of birth, part of the Third Wave. It is not her fault that she wasn’t born a century ago when she could have been a Suffragette. It is not even her fault that she’s too young to have contributed an article to the inaugural issue of Ms. magazine. She is what she is, and she is when she is—and she is determined to make the best of it as a Women’s Studies teacher in the first decade of the 21st century. She also knows that criticism from her seniors in the women’s movement is by no means the biggest problem. Just as in past battles to win the vote or to be able to sign legal contracts as persons in their own right, it is patriarchy that is the fundamental obstacle.

Bonnie Morris is well aware of the legacy of previous phases of feminism, and she is not about to betray her heritage. Instead, she intends to build on it. Revenge of the Women’s Studies Professor is based on what seems like the common sense assumption that human history cannot be fully understood when the experiences of only half of our species are taken seriously. History, philosophy, science and psychology as well as politics and economics are experienced by all of the people; however, the dominant stories and the conventional theories are almost exclusively those of men. The lives of women have been ignored in our accounts of what it is to be human. Moreover, it is no solution to write women into our past by digging into earlier societies and mentioning the contributions of rediscovered females who added something of importance—a piece of literature, a scientific discovery or an act of special bravery in politics or war. These gifts are unimportant as long as they are just donations to the treasure-chest of a male-dominated society.

Instead of looking for a few female examples to flesh out man’s story, Morris directly confronts the backlash against feminism that is so visible in contemporary culture by defending Women’s Studies in the curriculum not as an adjunct or a frill, but as both an intellectual and a political necessity. She does so in book that is an update of her 1993 one-woman play (with the same title). A performance artist in addition to being a writer and an educator, she contradicts critics of Women’s Studies both in style and in substance.

Revenge of the Women’s Studies Professor is divided into ten chapters that document chronologically Bonnie Morris’s personal journey. Each is based on the ten scenes from her play, which begins in her youth and continues through the experience of being among the first students of Third Wave feminists in the early days of formal Women’s Studies programs and on to her life as an adult and an academic. She remembers the way in which her emerging field was ridiculed by traditional scholars who, of course, were the same type of historians and social scientists that mocked social history, trade union history, Black history and other forms of “history from the bottom up.” She also offers advice on how to deal with those critics, who may be a little quieter now, but whose basic attitudes have not changed very much.

Dr. Morris’s advice is offered cheerfully; and that advice is, in essence, to stay cheerful! It is also to make sure that the critics who scoff at Women’s Studies as an ideological dead-end and a retreat for second-rate scholars who are interested only in a culture of complaint and only want to talk (or gossip) with one another while disregarding the challenges of real research, writing and teaching.

Women’s Studies, she insists, is not a forum for male-bashing. It is not a place where malcontents can gather and get an easy “A” or, for that matter, an easy degree in an undisciplined discipline. Dr. Morris, it turns out, is committed to academic rigor, and she has two qualities that are not expected in the dominant stereotype of Women’s Studies professors.

First, she is an astute academic politician. She understands that Women’s Studies is generally considered as second-rate. It is often stuck in “interdisciplinary” studies with few, if any, tenured faculty of its own. It is even worse in colleges, where whole programs are rare and Women’s Studies is most often isolated electives in an undifferentiated roster of “general education” subjects that are mainly taught by English teachers, psychologists or sociologists who have other commitments. She is realistic. She raises and no great but improbable expectations. Working in the field, she knows, will mean years (or decades) of fighting just to make ends meet (personally and professionally). Women’s Studies is not a place for sissies! Yet, through it all, she steadfastly remains in good spirits. Professional diligence and personal restraint (especially when goaded by the misogynistic and unrepentant males) is, she is convinced, necessary for survival.

Second, she is eminently practical. Eager to bring Women’s Studies into the mainstream of education and of society, Dr. Morris not only offers helpful hints about how to cope with insults, anger and maybe jealousy, but she also explains why Women’s Studies not only merits a legitimate place in education, but in the so-called real world as well. These are times in which students appear to be motivated more by the vocational relevance of their studies than by intellectual curiosity or the drive for social justice. “Will this course help me get a job,” they ask; Dr. Morris tells them that Women’s Studies definitely will. Whether or not academics understand it and are “on side,” and despite all the resentment against women that is so obvious in the world today, the work of all those Second Wave feminists and, of course, the foundational work of the First Wave feminists are producing results. Women now make up half or more of all college and university students in North America. Moreover, they are not just enrolled in traditional female fields. Women are training to become doctors and lawyers as well as nurses and legal secretaries. Society and the world of work are changing. So, full programs or single courses in Women’s Studies are of immediate practical value in a large number of fields: diplomacy and international development, psychology and counseling, human resource management and, yes, medicine and law.

Women—both in and out of Women’s Studies programs—can learn a great deal about the legitimacy and importance of the field, the ways in which feminist research methods are altering and improving social studies, the ongoing patterns of discrimination that remain in higher education and the strategies and tactics which women are developing to keep the progress coming. Men, of course, would do themselves no harm by reading this book too.


Alexandria Smith-Doughty is a Research Assistant in the Faculty of Health Studies at the University of Western Ontario in London. She can be reached at asmithdo@uwo.ca.

Reviews

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