Daphne Patai & Noretta Koertge’s Professing Feminism

Professing FeminismNoretta Koertge is a professor of history and philosophy at Indiana State University, and Daphne Patai is a professor of “Languages, Literatures and Cultures” at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and sits on the board of F.IR.E. (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a favorite organization of mine). Both have a background in Women’s Studies and both have been vocal critics of feminist pedagogy, particularly in its adoption of post-modernist theories. Together they wrote Professing Feminism in 1994, giving it the subtitle Cautionary Tales From The Strange World Of Women’s Studies. Their goal was to address what they saw as falling scholarship standards, dubious teaching methods and a detrimental emphasis on political posturing rather than objective study. In 2003, their book was reissued with two Afterwords, as well as a new – and decidedly more pessimistic – subtitle: Education And Indoctrination In Women’s Studies.

The title itself gives some hint to the book’s principal critique, which is that feminism – via its academic branch – has become a secular faith, something to be professed, carrying the suggestion – a la Christina Hoff Sommers’ Who Stole Feminism? – that there are those have adopted the mantle without living up to its ideals. The book draws extensively on the reports of students and professors within Women’s Studies, as well as excerpts from textbooks, conferences and email exchanges on the National Women’s Studies messaging boards. Indeed, it does exactly what Women’s Studies claims is desirable: foregrounding women’s experiences. We hear from students who feel uncomfortable to voice their opinions in the classroom, lest they be erroneously labeled “conservative” or dismissed as being inured in “patriarchal values”; we hear from teachers who are criticized and even silenced by their own students for not being political enough, for not being as committed as they ought to be. In one particularly frightening section, Koertge and Patai compare feminist pedagogy, with its emphasis on personal experience and “consciousness raising,” to the indoctrinating methods of cults, which seek to inculcate their members in a shared experience:

Feminism has borrowed pedagogical techniques from a variety of sources: Paulo Freire’s practice in adult literacy classes of giving people a vocabulary to describe their oppression, the potent mixture of denunciation and exultation characteristic of revival meetings, and even the dress and demeanor codes imposed in bootcamps and finishing schools. We also find echoes in feminist classrooms of the obligatory self-incrimination demanded in China during the Cultural Revolution, and, of course, the interventionist techniques of psychotherapy.

They go even farther, suggesting that feminist theory has a special appeal to the black-and-white thinking characteristic of the emotionally damaged, those with personality disorders and victim complexes, and it is indeed difficult to explain the likes of Valerie Solanas, Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon without alluding to this explanation.

Ultimately, Patai and Koertge seek not to bury Women’s Studies but to improve it, though both of them are of the opinion that its ultimate success lies in being absorbed into the other disciplines rather than forever existing on its own, separate from the wider body of academia. They also hint at an opinion I share: that Women’s Studies owes its immunity from outside criticism to an insidious refusal by the wider professoriate to challenge feminist theory out of fear of being denounced as sexist. To make their point, they quote James Baldwin:

Every time I attend a conference of white writers, I have a method for finding out if my colleagues are racist. It consists of uttering stupidities and maintaining absurd theses. If they listen respectfully and, at the end, overwhelm me with applause, there isn’t the slightest doubt: they are filthy racists.

Feminist absurdities have been left unchallenged for far too long, and by Baldwin’s measure, this does not speak well of those who have remained silent.