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A Feminist I: Reflections from Academia. (Book Reviews: Comptes Rendus).

Christine Overall

Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 1998; 214 pp.

As Christine Overall explains, A Feminist I: Reflections from Academia is an effort in "theoretical autobiography" (p. 15). The book documents her personal experiences as a feminist philosophy professor and draws insight from those experiences for feminist theorizing and pedagogy. In the final chapter ("Personal Histories, Social Identities, and Feminist Philosophical Inquiry"), she reflects on the practice of theoretical autobiography itself (that of using one's own personal history as a resource for academic writing), which philosophers in particular have looked upon with disdain. Against that background, the book is refreshing. The personal nature of it, along with Overall's clear and fluid prose, makes it a joy to read.

In each chapter, Overall comments on some aspect of her experience and how her occasionally shifting socio-political position has shaped that experience. The chapter following the introduction is on "role muddles" (chapter 2) and how muddled Overall has felt at times as a feminist academic. Role muddles are a central concept of the book, appearing in various chapters, and so I will focus on them below. The two chapters that follow the role muddles chapter are mostly on pedagogy. Chapter 3, "Women and Men in Education" is about offensive gender-related practices within the university, particularly masculine styles of debate in the classroom. Based on her own experience, Overall offers insights on how to abolish or reform these practices. In Chapter 4, "A Tale of Two Classes," she discusses the need to learn "different pedagogical roles" with different students, and what she learned about pedagogy by teaching two very different yet similar groups of students in her "Philosophy and Feminism" course.

Later chapters deal directly with the intersection of Overall's sociopolitical position and her position as an academic. In "Nowhere at Home" (chapter 5), she writes about her working class background and how, when she first entered university, she felt like "an immigrant to the realm of thought" (p. 119), but then was at home nowhere once she became a middle-class academic (one who still identified strongly with the working class). Chapter 6, "Feeling Fraudulent," is about her feelings of fraudulence, rooted partly in her gender, that have pervaded her life as an academic. She feels like a fraud, for example, when she succumbs to the intense pressure to "mother" her students (pressure that is "sexagist") because of her feminist commitment to a society where women should be able to function without being slotted, continually, into care-giver roles. In "Passing for Normal" (chapter 7), she writes about the intense "pressure to pass" for able-bodied that she felt when she was temporarily disabled by a debilitat ing illness.

Overall does a lot of confessing in the book and, to do a bit of that myself, I am a former student of Overall's and have often looked upon her as a role model. Hence, I was particularly fascinated by her chapter on the "role muddles" she has experienced as a feminist academic. Assuming that many feminist professors feel similarly muddled, I want to expand on Overall's suggestions for how feminist academics can deal with the unique muddles that they encounter.

Role muddles occur when we are forced either into social roles that are incompatible (because they exact conflicting expectations upon us), or when we are forced into roles where the relevant expectations are ambiguous. (1) Various factors combine to create the kinds of muddles that feminist academics face as feminists. For example, the stereotype that feminists are always eager to participate in feminist political work imposes on feminist scholars the expectation of an "open-door policy," causing them to muddle through the issue of when, if ever, it is appropriate to lock the door and hide behind it! (pp. 32-34). Also because of sexism as well as other forms of oppression, women in academia tend to occupy roles where they have relatively little power compared to their male colleagues, yet some students revere them as strong, emancipated women (p. 38). There, the expectations differ in terms of who the feminist academic is and of what she is capable of bringing about in her own institution.

Other feminist role muddles arise explicitly out of a tension within feminism between the call for unity among feminists and forces that oppose unity. Feminists need to be unified in political action; but they also need to allow for some leeway in what constitutes "a feminist insight," rather than adopt strict definitions that exclude the experiences and perspectives of some women prematurely. The pull towards greater or lesser unity creates muddles such as whether one's own work is truly feminist and whether it is ever appropriate to criticize other women on the grounds that their views and actions detract from feminist goals.

There are a couple of points I want to make about feminist role muddles. First, I think it is important to be clear about how pervasive they are. Surely, feminist academics are not continually muddled in their interactions with others, for then they would not have as much power as they have in some relationships (e.g., with many students). It is important to emphasize (more than Overall herself does) that role muddles often occur only in certain contexts or only within certain relationships. And the reason why is that stereotypes often threaten us only in environments where we are constructed in relation to them. (2) To give an example from Overall's own life, a working-class student might be very vocal and self-assured on her "working class home turf" (p. 119), but lose her self-confidence once she enters university, where the turf is ruled by the middle class (and she herself is subject to classist stereotypes). Similarly, sexagist stereotypes can permeate relationships with some students, but not with thos e students who do not appeal to one's "maternal side." Feminist academics need not feel all muddled in those relationships.

Nonetheless, the muddles Overall describes can really muddle up one's life, and it is important to try to minimize those conflicts in the lives of feminist academics. One way to do that is to try to avoid exacerbating the tension I described above between the call for unity within feminism and respect for difference among feminists. As Overall suggests, when feminists "polic[e] each other with cries of 'not PC'," (p. 51) they are not being constructive, in part because they are contributing to an environment where feminist role muddles can flourish.

Implicit in the book is the suggestion that feminists handle their role muddles by trying to engage with one another with moral integrity. It makes sense that integrity would be the goal in overcoming role muddles, but what would it mean exactly for feminists to act with integrity given the tensions within feminism and the stereotypes that threaten us? A paper by Cheshire Calhoun, "Standing for Something," (3) offers some guidance here for a couple of reasons. One is that Calhoun describes integrity as a personal virtue of someone who stands by her own endorsements, yet who resists the impulse to eliminate all inconsistencies in them when that would promote a simplistic understanding of what her endorsements are about. (4) If integrity were about wholeheartedness, or a lack of inconsistency and ambiguity (as it is on traditional philosophical accounts (5)) then integrity might just be a pipedream for feminist academics because of the unique tensions they experience. Integrity is not the solution to feminist r ole muddles if what that means is that feminists should simply get over their muddles.

According to Calhoun's theory, integrity is about not only standing by something (even when it might be something that is somewhat inconsistent), but also standing for something, which is a social act. Integrity cannot be a purely personal virtue, since standing for something is central to our conception of integrity and no one stands for anything only for themselves. They do it "for, and before, all deliberators who share the goal of determining what is worth doing." (6) A person with integrity puts forth her best judgment and in doing so meets the social responsibility that goes along with being "a member of an evaluating community." (7) That responsibility includes not only careful consideration about what is worth doing, but also respect for others as co-deliberators, who themselves need to be able to abide by their best judgment and who normally strive to do so.

Of course, the respect demanded of co-deliberators does not prohibit them from taking a critical stance. Deliberators need to be able to deliberate, and for that, they need to "accept the burden," as Calhoun puts it, "of standing for [something] in the face of conflict." (8) The burden there is not to become hardheaded or intransigent in defense of one's own best judgment (which is hardly a "burden" for some people). It is the burden of acknowledging that one can make mistakes and so can everyone else. That's the kind of integrity Overall recommends in a section on coping with role muddles, where she emphasizes that none of us is an infallible deliberator (p. 52).

Thus, when faced with such questions as "what, if anything, do I owe my female and/or feminist peers when I respond to and evaluate their work?" (pp. 35, 36), Calhoun's theory suggests that I act in accordance with my best judgment and be open to criticism about what that judgment is. But I am putting myself at risk if I simply dive in with a response in a community that does not respect me as a co-deliberator. Such respect is scarce, moreover, in some academic communities; and the effects of its absence are severe, particularly for feminist or female scholars because of their minority status in academia.

My suggestion, then, is that we look to Calhoun for strategies to deal with feminist role muddles. I have accepted that the muddles Overall describes are genuine muddles, although I have added that they are probably context-specific. In closing, I want to applaud Overall for the courage to reveal how muddled she has felt in her career as a feminist academic. I have no bones about continuing to have her as a role model, even if she is all muddled.


(1.) That definition differs slightly from Overall's on p. 31 (which includes only the first half of that disjunct), but it seems more inclusive of the different examples she gives of role muddles. For instance, the example about the open-door policy which I describe below seems to be about how muddled the role of feminist professor is, rather than an example of where different roles conflict.

(2.) See Maria Lugones's "Playfulness, 'World'-Travelling, and Loving Perception," Hypatia vol. 2, no. 2 (1987), pp. 3-19; and Margaret Urban Walker's discussion of "stereotype threats" in Moral Understandings: A Feminist Study in Ethics (New York: Routledge, 1998), pp. 196-197.

(3.) Cheshire Calhoun, "Standing for Something," The Journal of Philosophy vol. 92, no. 5 (1995), pp. 235-260.

(4.) Ibid., pp. 238-241.

(5.) A prime example is Harry Frankfurt's theory in "Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person," in The Inner Citadel: Essays on Individual Autonomy, John Christman, ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 63-76.

(6.) Calhoun, "Standing for Something," p. 257.

(7.) Ibid., p. 254.

(8.) Ibid., p. 260.
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Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:McLeod, Carolyn
Publication:Resources for Feminist Research
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2001
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