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Feminism's Attachments.

    There is no women's studies without feminism. Feminism is the
   theoretical and political foundation of women's studies.
   --Bonnie Zimmerman (1) 

ALTHOUGH BONNIE ZIMMERMAN'S CLAIM would seem to verge on the obvious for many in women's and gender studies (WGS), consider the following not-so-unusual scenarios:

* colleague who teaches several WGS courses, serves on WGS program committees, and produces knowledge on topics such as Islam, marriage practices, and social movements through the lenses of race, class, gender, sexuality, and nation, emphatically refuses the label "feminist," preferring instead to position herself as "womanist."

* colleague in WGS, whose current scholarship focuses on legal studies, disability studies, and social welfare policy, and a graduate student in WGS, whose dissertation is on a First Nations community center in a large urban setting, are both regularly challenged by their colleagues to explain what makes their work feminist, and thus WGS.

* Colleagues at a national meeting of the CWSA/ACEF (the Canadian national association for WGS) openly worry that changing the name of the association to something that doesn't include the words "women," "gender," or "feminist" will mean a loss of visibility and perceived value for the work of the discipline of WGS. (2)

Taken together, these scenarios point to the need to rethink a number of assumptions that circulate around the questions of both this forum on "whither feminisms?" and in the field of WGS more generally about the assumed relationship between feminism and WGS. We want to argue--perhaps provocatively--for the possibilities opened up in interrogating the multiple attachments that the above scenarios make apparent. Of course, we are not alone in this provocation to rethink attachments to feminism. (3) But here, we contend that such attachments within WGS contexts both enable and delimit, produce and fail to produce, intellectual work that is up to the demands of the worlds we inhabit. Our focus, then, is on exploring some of the possible consequences of "letting go."

As the above scenarios demonstrate, there are any number of ways in which feminism and WGS are consistently sutured together, including that WGS and its practitioners are/must be feminist; that both WGS and feminism require a focus on "appropriate" subjects; that the appropriate subjects of WGS and feminism are women or gender; and that feminism is the (only?) means to analyze the range of topics included in WGS, even while the term itself is increasingly contested and now more typically referred to in the plural ("feminisms"). They demonstrate the ease with which WGS assumes that feminism is both necessary for and foundational to the field. And as the prompt for this forum points out, this foundational status is both intellectual and institutional: WGS is feminist, and without feminism, there is no intellectual project unique to WGS, and without WGS, there is no institutional space that is (unquestionably) feminist. Our concern is that these attachments to feminism are not benign, but rather shape how WGS can (and too often does) respond to the questions of this forum about the consequences of institutional consolidations and changes.

But the "whither feminisms?" question also reveals another meaning to this idea of attachment--that is, as a deeply held affective bond embedded in our individual disciplinary (and professional) identity formations. Why do we--the practitioners of WGS desire to maintain this connection so centrally in the first place? Is it that we wonder who we would be without feminism--even though the complexity, multiplicity, and indeed often contradictory understandings of this term can, and have, led to much disagreement about the sort of professional identity WGS should produce? There is no doubt that in interrogating the primacy of this attachment, we risk confrontation with the various fears, anxieties, and nostalgias--as well as the hopes--that fuel our passions for the intellectual, pedagogical, and institutional labor we do under the sign "WGS." If our intellectual identities and disciplinary claims are tied to the unquestioned centrality of feminism, then challenging that attachment certainly seems risky.

And yet, we want to argue that it is only in facing head-on this primary attachment that we can ask difficult but important questions about the limits it places on our ability to address the silences, invisibilities, and epistemic violences that WGS is otherwise supposed to expose and help remedy. For example, we might ask whether the unspoken concern of the question "whither feminisms?" is really a roundabout way to ask another longstanding question that continues to haunt this field--in name-change debates, in curriculum and cross-listing discussions, and throughout other disciplinary gate-keeping practices: "what about the women?" Does it, in other words, reflect an anxiety about the field's purported political goals and the appropriate subjects and proper objects associated with those goals? If this is the case--and we think it is--how might this attachment to feminism as foundational to WGS drive current anxieties about the relationship between institutional consolidation and the intellectual (and desired political) work of WGS?

These questions are not hypothetical, at least for us, as we each confront these very anxieties--in ourselves and others--in reworking how our disciplinary identities are organized at our respective institutions (a small university in Canada; a small liberal arts college in the United States). Over the past year or so, we, both together and with our respective colleagues, have been working through the "whither feminisms?" question and practicing an exciting form of letting go. Instead of "Women's Studies" at the University of Prince Edward Island, Braithwaite's program is changing its name to "Diversity and Social Justice Studies." Orr's "Women's and Gender Studies" program at Beloit College is currently undergoing a re-visioning process where, as of this writing, the name getting the most support from students and faculty is "Critical Identity Studies." In mentioning our current institutional projects, we are not advocating that all WGS programs follow our lead; indeed, as both Laura Briggs and Breanne Fahs also argue in this forum, the politics of program naming, curricular revisions, and institutional coalition building are always local and reflect a range of competing intellectual and institutional concerns. And there is no doubt that such name changes and organizational reconfigurations as we are proposing can have unintended consequences for the work we do in the changing university climate (to say nothing of the "devilish bargains" and "contortions" they can involve, as Marilee Lindemann notes). But we mention our own situations here nonetheless, as a way to illustrate other sets of possibilities for doing WGS work, other ways to pursue the passions that feminism opens up.

And so our challenge to the "whither feminisms?" question is: Why do we tend to regard the intellectual and institutional consolidations referenced in the question as existentially threatening, a priori, rather than even considering the possibilities such reorganizations might open up? Clearly, we do not want to simply acquiesce to the very real coercive moves to merge WGS with other units deemed less threatening, moves that often originate from conservative quarters dedicated to eliminating anything perceived as "feminist" (or leftist, or simply identity-based). There may indeed be many reasons to keep feminism at the center of, even foundational to, WGS. Or, likewise, there may be reasons to indeed let it "wither"--to evoke Sharra L. Vostral's play on words--as the focus of WGS. But as is now obvious, we worry that such strong attachments as we've outlined here often leave too much unquestioned. The result is that our reactions become about maintaining--and policing--familiar boundaries rather than raising new questions about them. If we seek to bring about the visions that feminism has instilled in us--for more difference, more justice, more possibilities we owe it to ourselves and those we seek to inspire to rethink all of our assumptions about its continued centrality to WGS.


(1.) Bonnie Zimmerman, "Beyond Dualisms: Some Thoughts about the Future of Women's Studies," in Women's Studies for the Future: Foundations, Interrogations, Politics, eds. Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Agatha Beins (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005), 31-39.

(2.) The association did ultimately change its name and is now Women's and Gender Studies et Recherches Feministes (WGSRF).

(3.) See Layli [Phillips] Maparyan, "Feminism," in Rethinking Women's and Gender Studies, eds. Catherine M. Orr, Ann Braithwaite, and Diane Lichtenstein (New York: Routledge, 2012), 17-33; Janet Halley, Split Decisions: How and Why to Take a Break from Feminism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008); and Robyn Wiegman, "Dear Ian" [A Response to Janet Halley], Duke Journal of Gender Law and Policy 11, no. 7 (Spring 2004), 93-120.
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Title Annotation:Forum: W/G/S Studies
Author:Braithwaite, Ann; Orr, Catherine M.
Publication:Feminist Studies
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2013
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