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Notes & Comments: February 1998.

Abolish women's studies

So-called "women's studies" programs began cropping up on campuses across the country in the 1970s. Although they started largely in imitation of the militant black studies programs that had swept the country's colleges and universities in the late Sixties, they soon vastly outstripped black and other minority studies programs in size and influence. Today, there is hardly a college campus that doesn't sport a women's studies program or department. At many institutions, it is even possible to major in women's studies.

The very familiarity of these developments has lulled many people into forgetting how odd they are. For what "women's studies" describes is not an academic discipline but rather a knot of grievances searching for recognition. Like black studies and--a more recent phenomenon--homosexual ("gay") studies, women's studies exists primarily to promote a species of political solidarity. Intellectually, women's studies has always been a terrible embarrassment. That is one reason its advocates are so truculent: like the Wizard of Oz, they must work overtime to keep up the illusion that their subject even exists. Comparing what goes on in the name of women's studies to genuine scholarship is like comparing the "space program" said to have been undertaken by a small African country to compete with America's Apollo missions: there were plenty of rockets, but, being made of wood, they didn't get very far.

Sensible women know this as clearly as do sensible men. How could it be otherwise? Women's studies addresses no definable subject matter. It advances no distinct area of knowledge. It masquerades as an academic specialty, but--again like black studies and homosexual studies--women's studies is ostentatiously inimical to any serious scholarship. It rejects, in principle as well as in practice, the ideal of scholarly disinterestedness; it castigates the goal of objective knowledge as a patriarchal fiction; it seeks to refract all academic activity and institutional practice through the lens of a single guiding obsession: gender.

Most non-academics will snicker, and rightly, when told about the "scholarly" paper called "Toward a Feminist Algebra" But the contention--as one leading feminist put it--that "gender is a fundamental category of literary analysis" is no less preposterous, and yet one finds that slogan accepted as gospel in women's studies programs. If someone really wanted to do academic women a favor, he--or she--would instantly abolish all women's studies programs and courses. That would leave a lot of feminist radicals stranded, but at least it would rescue women from this confining intellectual ghetto.

Several recent events have prompted us to reflect anew on these matters. There were, for example, the much-publicized women's studies conferences held this winter at the State University of New York at New Paltz, which we reported on in this space in our November and December issues. These events--"Revolting Behavior: The Challenges of Women's Sexual Freedom" and "Subject to Desire: Refiguring the Body"--belong to a grotesque fringe of women's studies where antinomian politics blends with sexual desperation. Devoted to subjects like "Sex Toys for Women" "How to Get What You Want in Bed" and "Safe, Sane & Consensual S/M: An Alternate Way of Loving" they underscored the pathetic as well as preposterous aspects of women's studies.

Of course, advocates of women's studies and kindred forays into the academic sex jungle would hotly deny our assessment. But here, too, we note a large element of mendacity. On the one hand, they claim that "sex toys for women" and the rest are part of a proud, emancipatory journey, as fit a subject for academic inquiry as differential calculus. On the other hand, they know that this isn't so and are quick to dissemble whenever such events come under public scrutiny. The extent of the untruthfulness is breathtaking. On January 2, The Times of London ran a story about the proliferation of sex studies on American campuses. In response to rising public indignation about such institutionally sanctioned displays of perversity, The Times reported, some universities have begun to take "precautions to protect their graduates." A case in point is Brown University, where, according to The Times, "a course on `Queers and Culture' is described on report cards ... as `Identities-Communities' in order not to offend potential employers." But why stop there? Why not call a course in basket weaving "nuclear physics"? Or "sex toys for women" "mechanical engineering"?

These examples show that there is much that is patently absurd about women's studies. But the fact that something is absurd does not necessarily mean it is harmless. This was brought home to us by the critic John Leo in his column in U.S. News & World Report for January 19. Titled "No Takeovers, Please" Mr. Leo's column reported on "Vision 2000," a document prepared by the women's studies programs at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the five other land-grant universities of New England. Under the guise of promoting "diversity" and "gender equity," "Vision 2000" advocates the transformation of these six universities into radical feminist fiefdoms. Its nine recommendations aim at bringing every aspect of academic existence, from the curriculum and hiring of faculty to student social life, under the control of a feminist diktat.

The first recommendation, for example, ostensibly concerns fostering "accountability for gender equity." To this end, "Vision 2000" calls for student evaluations of all courses. Such evaluations are to include "measures of gender equity in course content and classroom environment. Heads of departments, schools, and colleges [are to] use these evaluations both to identify and reward superior achievement, and to identify and intervene in undesirable practices." But think about this for a moment. What would "gender equity" in a course on chemistry be? What would it be for literary history until at least the mid-eighteenth century? What would it be for the entire history of philosophy? For music? For architecture? For mathematics? Gender "equity'-- by which the framers of this document mean "equal numbers of men and women in the underrepresented groups"-- is impossible without a vast distortion of the historical record.

But it is not simply in the curriculum that "Vision 2000" wants to intervene. The document also demands that university leaders "utilize institutional research capacity to produce the data necessary to raise consciousness, instigate action, and monitor progress [toward gender equity] on our campuses." The correct translation of "produce the data necessary to raise consciousness" of course, is "manufacture the data to support the desired fiction."

Some of the recommendations contained in "Vision 2000" are little more than silly populist palaver--the demand, for example, that "all employees have library privileges equal to those of the faculty" or the demand that "all members of the university community have equal access to important communities and conversations." Yet why should a janitor have library privileges equal to those of a professor? Why should the president include the kitchen help in his deliberations about fundraising?

But many of the recommendations sound an ominous, indeed, a totalitarian, note. "All General Education courses," we read, are to "integrate scholarship on and by women and use content and pedagogies that are women-friendly." And if they don't? "Academic departments that consistently surface with disproportionately high female drop-out rates are penalized." There have always been far fewer women than men in the hard sciences and mathematics, but this must stop. And teachers who do not aid in stopping it will themselves be stopped: "Faculty whose students identify their courses, teaching styles, and mentoring as failing to be inclusive do not receive teaching prizes, satisfactory teaching evaluations, or merit raises."

It is tempting to dismiss "vision 2000" as simply another feminist screed, totally out of touch with reality. The problem, as Mr. Leo points out, is that three of the five university presidents--in Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire--have already signed on to its recommendations "in spirit." Which means that some or all of its proposals may well be enforced on their campuses. Mr. Leo is quite right that
 Campus feminists, like most multiculturalists, tend to believe that all
 knowledge is constructed and that college women are being spoon-fed "male"
 or "white male" knowledge that must be deposed and replaced by "new
 knowledges" created by women and minorities. This word view turns the
 debate away from learning and toward a politicized power struggle to
 control the curriculum.


For the most part, women's studies programs are, as Mr. Leo puts it, "part therapy group, part training grounds for feminist cadres." He concludes by observing that "it's a close question whether these politicized outposts should be academic departments at all." In our view, however, the question is by no means close. Morally as well as intellectually, women's studies is a disaster, and one that increasingly threatens the basic integrity of the academic enterprise. Spouting the language of "equality," "diversity," and "inclusiveness," women's studies is really Orwellianism for the twenty-first century, with Big Sister standing in for Orwell's outdated male counterpart. No, the question is not close. Women's studies should not be reformed or modified or rethought. It should be abolished altogether.

Philippe de Montebello at the Met

It's a little sad that the board of trustees at the Metropolitan Museum of Art has felt obliged to drop the term "director" in naming Philippe de Montebello as the museum's new chief executive, but the decision itself is an excellent one. In the two decades that Mr. de Montebello has been in charge of the museum's artistic affairs, he has not only rescued our greatest museum from the extravagant follies and intellectual demoralization caused by the reckless tenure of his immediate predecessor, but he has also restored the institution to a position of leadership in the cultural life of the nation. His achievement is all the more remarkable when we compare it to the woeful decline in standards that has overtaken so many other art museums--and not only in New York, of course--in the same period.

It was the Met board itself that, some twenty years ago, demoted the office of the director to second-class status by installing a paid president as the museum's chief executive officer. This introduced a division of labor--and, what is more important, a division of authority--that was bound to cause more problems than it solved. It was never exactly a secret, moreover, that the board's decision to effect that division of authority was a direct consequence of its own failure to rein in the excesses of Mr. de Montebello's predecessor. The board, rather than acknowledge the role that its own failure in museum governance contributed to the Met's mounting problems, covered its embarrassment by announcing a change in administrative structure that was claimed to be more "democratic" than the traditional directorship. This was nothing but face-saving humbug at the time, and it has now --at last--been acknowledged to have been humbug by the new board's decision to restore full authority to what is in everything but name the traditional office of the director, who, in another face-saving stratagem by the board, will now be called the museum's chief executive officer. Exactly who is expected to be fooled by this publicity device is anyone's guess.

What made the Met's decision to demote the office of the director especially unfortunate at the time was that it lent the museum's prestige to a larger, ill-fated trend that saw book publishing houses placed in the hands of executives who knew nothing about books, universities appointing presidents who knew nothing about scholarship or learning, opera companies handed over to bureaucrats who knew nothing about music, and so on and on throughout our major institutions of cultural life. We've lived with this phenomenon long enough now to assess its cultural costs, which have been enormous. If the programs in our art museums have come more and more to resemble the vulgarities of the mass media, if the intellectual quality of a university education has sunk to new levels of mediocrity and ignorance, if a great many other institutions of high culture have similarly settled for mistaken notions of "democratic" change, it is in large part because their governing boards have failed to uphold the standards appropriate to the functions of these institutions. They have failed, in other words, to appoint top executives who know what those standards are and are willing to fight for their advancement.

It speaks well for both Mr. de Montebello and William H. Luers, the outgoing president of the museum, that they have not allowed the worst to happen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We weren't so lucky with Mr. Luer's predecessor as president, however, and other museums have similarly experienced grave problems caused by the policy of divided authority. In a great art museum, there is no substitute for a director--or, if you like, a chief executive officer --who really knows something about art, and it is a measure of the present crisis that something so obvious even needs to be stated. It is nice to know that, at the Met at least, this obvious fact of cultural life has again been given its due.
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Title Annotation:women's studies; New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art
Publication:New Criterion
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 1998
Words:2160
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