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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Studying Women's Studies

The Learning Curve

By Travis R. Kavulla

A nominal change to expand the Committee on Degrees on Women’s Studies (which has the same status as the Committee on the Study of Religion) to include the words “gender” and “sexuality” in its title provided an occasion recently for Kenan Professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield ’53 to level three charges. Women’s studies, he said, “has no conservative or anti-feminist scholars.” He continued by saying women “are not really a self-standing subject,” and in a later interview with The Crimson, he characterized the committee as a “department of feminist studies.” His objections, expounded on at the Nov. 17 meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, raised eyebrows but, according to Mansfield, no reply from members of the committee. He sat down, and the Faculty took a voice vote—and the change, unsurprisingly, was approved.

Walking into the Women’s Studies Resource Room was Director of Undergraduate Studies Kath Weston’s suggestion for how to get “a good overview of the interests of our concentrators and the kind of work the program is doing.” So I did. Its shelves were filled with theses from the committee’s 17 years of existence. All, of course, related to women’s or gender issues; but what was intriguing about the theses was that their authors chose to become full concentrators in women’s studies at all. The titles, to be sure, were sometimes zany—“The Hymeneal Seal: Embodying Female Virginity in Early Modern England” or “Thelma and Louise: Voices of Resistance”—but each could be fit, it seemed, into one of Harvard’s departments, whether history or visual and environmental studies.

The difference between women’s studies and other, traditional, departments becomes apparent when the theses, tutorials and “foundation courses” are examined. According to its syllabus, Women’s Studies 97, the sophomore tutorial, seeks “to provide the necessary intellectual tools for critically thinking through the multiplicities, problems, and promises of feminist theory and social practice alike.” Yet for a course dedicated to examining issues critically, surprisingly the tutorial’s syllabus lacks any semblance of a critical voice—none of Mansfield’s work on gender studies, nothing from Edmund Burke (a good counterpoint to John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women) or Phyllis Schlafly.

Disturbed by these omissions, I talked to Professor Afsaneh Najmabadi, chair of the committee. “We don’t recognize our courses,” she told me, “from a point of view of ideological delineation.” Women’s studies, Najmabadi argued, is what the committee focuses on. But her argument cuts both ways. If the method for choosing books and articles for tutorials were truly devoid of ideology, it is downright puzzling why all of them would end up being liberal manifestoes on the topic. It is not as if feminist theory’s vociferous detractors have not produced a large body of work in their own right.

By comparison, one of Mansfield’s courses, “Topics in Political Philosophy: Manliness,” last offered in the spring, presents remarkable equity to feminism and its detractors. Simone de Beauvoir’s opus, The Second Sex, is followed by conservative Andrew Sullivan’s “On Testosterone.” Indeed, for a class run by the government department’s “lone conservative,” the syllabus is quite heavy on feminist literature. But such balanced evaluation does not seem to have a place within the Committee on Degrees in Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies—so much so that Mansfield’s course was not even cross-listed with the committee, despite being populated mostly by undergraduates and having a clear topical connection with the committee’s work.

At its heart, “women’s studies is about a way of producing knowledge,” Najmabadi told me. And that is what is perhaps most disturbing about the field.

By studying a foundation in feminist thought first, and then a multitude of other departmental topics second, women’s studies is necessarily tunnel-visioned. While history concentrators must reconcile numerous genres of history with one another in an attempt to determine “knowledge” from a set of facts, the women’s studies’ approach to history necessitates (per its very name) a primary focus on women. So while every history concentrator learns in tutorial to treat as specious works which approach history with, say, a gendered lens or any other agenda rather than a blank slate, women’s studies encourages its concentrators to take that very approach.

It is striking that the work women’s studies and its concentrators have produced are not examined by other departments. In her oral examination, Moon Duchin ’96, the author of a thesis entitled “Math/Theory: Constructing a Feminist Epistemology of Mathematics,” would have experienced questions at the hands of feminist theorists, not mathematicians. And while applying feminist theory to math is one of the lengthiest reaches, even the more usual work of women’s studies (on history, sociology or art) deserve to be subjected to the same process of academic discourse that awaits the average history concentrator.

Nothing allows women’s studies to claim exclusivity by virtue of its concentrators’ special training in feminist theory. Indeed, that women’s studies is clearly endangered by groupthink (because it lacks any semblance of ideological balance in its readings) is all the more reason to subject what it produces to examination by a larger, more critical body of academics.

It is highly disturbing that at least one of Mansfield’s declarations—the only one that can be factually verified—proves true. No conservative or anti-feminist speakers have been invited to speak at a women’s studies event in at least the past three or four years. Likewise, the courses required of concentrators hardly resemble the balance one receives in a history tutorial, or even the highly criticized Ec 10—where liberal articles are at least presented, even if balance is not attained. It’s time for women’s studies to undergo an examination itself, just as its concentrators’ theses deserve, and that scrutiny must be more thorough than a voice vote of the Faculty.

Travis R. Kavulla ’06 is a history concentrator in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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