Teaching Feminist Theory Discussion (November-December 1998)


[Ed. Note: The following 3 queries are compiled here, as they are similar in information sought.]

Query From Nancy Robertson nmrobertson@erols.com 16 Nov 1998

I am interested in people's experiences teaching feminist theory/women's history/women's studies and, in particular, does anyone have any exercises for students to use at the beginning of a semester to see how familiar they are with feminist theory, or theory in general? Thanks for your help.

Responses:

From Sharon R. Harrow sharrow@u.arizona.edu 18 Nov 1998

I am a PhD candidate who has taught mostly freshman writing classes in literature, so I don't know if this will be helpful to you or not. I have taught a number of texts-both fictional and non-fictional- that deal with or are about feminist issues. I usually assume that my students are unfamiliar with and hostile to the very idea of feminism. So I start with an essay that addresses feminism, or with a short story where gender issues are foregrounded, and we go from there. I try to get them to begin the discussion about gender, and move to stereotypes. When they come up with lists of stereotypes that are gender based, and when they have discussed issues that have affected them as gendered beings, they seem more open to the idea of feminism as something they can fit into their worlds.

I try to go at it circuitously because as teenagers and young adults, they often need to be coached out into speaking-as I'm sure you know- and once they feel comfortable, I have much better success at getting them to suggest ideas that would sound radical if I suggested them. I also taught a lot of 18th c material, and focused several classes on 'the construction of difference'- so a historical/theoretical perspective often helps them to see our culture as something constructed, and not natural. I have students respond with disturbingly sexist comments from time to time, but I try to tailor my approach so that I can avoid that. This is a vague answer, I know, but I hope it helps.

From Nikki Brown nikki.brown@yale.edu 23 Nov 1998

I'm a grad student who's done some teaching of women's studies courses in the past. The last course I taught was "Women in America: The 20th Century." I found it useful to go around the room and ask my students what first comes to mind when they think of feminism, the word and the idea. I think I also asked them to shout out...some of the negative stereotypes of feminism. And I asked them to keep these ideas in mind and discuss if they were feminists, or if they believed in feminism. And finally, I asked why or why not.

I wanted them to think about feminism on a personal level, and why or how they came to consider themselves feminists or not. Plus, I wanted to see what the belief systems of my students were. It worked. On the first day all of my sections had rolling conversations on what feminism is and isn't.

The same is possible with feminist theory. Perhaps you can open with a short discussion on what issues feminist theory should encompass.. Or you can do a writing exercise - take 10 to 15 minutes at the beginning and have students write down in a brief paragraph what they think fem. theory should include, and then go around the room and discuss.

Another idea is to present your students on the first day with maybe two or three short handouts on fem. theory, read them in class, and then have a discussion on comparison and contrast. I would love to know what you have on your syllabus. I might be teaching a course on fem. theory. I hope this helps.

2nd Query From Penny Huang phuang@u.washington.edu 23 Nov 1998

Does anyone have a handy syllabus for teaching feminist theory in the social sciences?

Since Feminist Studies originated from the Humanities, its development in the social sciences has been a little slow-going. Are there any social scientists out there who can help me out?

Responses:

From Tiffany Wayne tkwayne@cats.ucsc.edu 27 Nov 1998

Regarding Penny Huang's query about feminist studies and the social sciences.. I am curious about the idea that feminist studies originated in the humanities? I guess if you are referring to the development of certain linguistic theories, then perhaps. But even at that level, feminists first responded to theory/method and then created their own theories across the disciplines at much the same speed. On a related note, while most women's studies programs are now "interdisciplinary" to varying degrees, your question about the social sciences made me think back and realize as an undergrad (fairly recently in the early 1990s), many of the "core" women's studies courses that I took were in fact through a Sociology department.

At any rate, two books that introduced me to feminist studies and that might prove useful to you are:

DuBois, Ellen Carol, et al., _Feminist Scholarship: Kindling in the Graves of Academe_(Illini Books, 1987). A general overview of the development of feminist studies across the disciplines.

Sydie, R.A., _Natural Women, Cultured Men: A Feminist Perspective on Sociological Theory_(NYU Press, 1987). Good discussions of feminism and Durkheim, Weber, Marx/Engels, Freud. I'm sure there is more recent work on this topic, but my days in Sociology are over, and I'm not up on recent scholarship. Still, seems that it would be a good intro text for students. If you'd like, I can find the syllabus for the class (Feminist Criticism of Social Theory taught by Margaret Lampland at UC-San Diego) that used this text and send it to you separately?? Just didn't have a chance to find it right away.

From Virginia Sapiro sapiro@polisci.wisc.edu 30 Nov 1998

I know there is a wide spread perception in the humanities that the social sciences have been rather retarded in the development of feminist studies (I have heard this before), but I don't agree. (I wrote an admittedly cranky piece about this, which also briefly discusses the different ways that scholars in the humanities and social sciences tend to conceptualize theory in the first place: "Feminist Studies and Political Science -- and Vice Versa," in Domna C. Stanton and Abigail J. Stewart, eds., Feminisms in the Academy. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995, pp.291-310. Reprinted in Anne Phillips, ed., Feminism and Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp.67-89.)

Partly, the answer depends on what one would mean by "from the Humanities." If one is interested in historical development of feminist theories, we have to reach to theory generated before we had these silly disciplinary divides; the "disciplinary" base of the course, then, would be in how the instructor approaches the material, and what your training tells you the uses of theory should be, and what should be the bases for interpretation and criticism. Given my training in political science, the first courses in feminist theory I taught spent a good deal of time on theorists like Rousseau, Wollstonecraft, Mill/Taylor, Engels, Freud, Horney. For historical developments that are important and which originated with people more involved in the social sciences as such, Charlotte Perkins Gilman (for once, not the "Yellow Wallpaper," but her very important sociological treatises, such as Women and Economics.

If one wants to focus on more contemporary development of feminist theory, especially from an academic social science approach, some of the key founders of contemporary feminist theory and women's studies are (with works in the 60s and 70s): Juliet Mitchell, Margaret Benston, Sheila Rowbotham, Anne Oakley, Charlotte Bunch, Nancy Chodorow, Angela Davis, Zillah Eisenstein, Nancy Hartsock, Gayle Rubin, etc. (Please excuse if I left out obvious people; there are too many to name). Because of the signal importance of debates over marxism/materialism in the development of contemporary feminist theories, and psychoanalysis (when it is not focusing just on literary texts), there is a large literature in these areas, including many important theorists whose work I did not list here.

Especially given that social scientists and humanities scholars tend to think about theory a bit differently, and probably identify different kinds of texts as "theory," for a social science approach I would look right at those kinds of works that social scientists (but perhaps not humanities scholars) think of as "theory;" that is, texts that attempt to offer a narrative about how some important phenomenon works, that they intend to be employed in some kind of empirical testing. For this, we would probably look within disciplinary writings at the major themes of the kinds of puzzles feminist scholars in those different areas have tried to work on. (One of the most famous examples -- one of the most cited works in the humanities, in fact -- would be Carol Gilligan's work, of course. But here it might be good to consult with scholars in different fields to find out what the turning point kinds of works have been. ) These don't tend to show up much in "feminist theory" courses found within women's studies programs, because of the dominance of humanities within many of these programs, especially in the theory end.

One of the major topics that is likely to show up especially in social science approaches is theoretical works aimed at analyzing the state, law, and policy and their relationship to gender/sexuality, etc. There is a lot of this work done by historians, sociologists, political scientists, legal scholars, etc.

But let me emphasize again, that for feminist theory (here Gilligan is a good example, and there are many others) probably the most important difference between a social science and humanities approach to feminist theory will be what we do with the texts, and how we read them.

Sorry to go on, but this is one of my favorite tin drums. Hope this is helpful.

From Joan Gundersen gunderj@elon.edu 01 Dec 1998

Even if philosophers wrote the standard texts on Feminist Theory - i.e. Rosemary Tong's _Feminist Thought_ and Alison Jaggar & Paula Rothenberg's _Feminist Fireworks_, they certainly included in their discussions theorists from a variety of social sciences. I think this misperception may be a result of the recent flood of deconstructionist and literary theorists into the field. Theory is not an invention of the 1980s.

From Carolyn Brewer carolyn@central.murdoch.edu.au 01 Dec 1998

We must be careful not to leave out the feminist theologians, especially, but not entirely, from the Catholic tradition, whose insights into the way religion marginalise and makes invisible women's experience began very early in this second wave of feminism. I am thinking particularly of Rita Gross, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Carol Christ, Mary Daly -and many others. Matilda Joslyn Gage and the committee of women who compiled 'the Woman's Bible' in the 1890s began this critical work late last century. [Ed. Note: See more on Matilda Gage in separate discussion thread.]

From Lisa Connelly Cook LCC11@aol.com 02 Dec 1998

As Gerder Lerner makes clear in her book _The Creation of Feminist Consciousness_(1993), especially in her chapter "One Thousand Years of Feminist Bible Criticism," this work began long before a handful of U.S. feminists made the attempt in the 1890s.

3rd Query From Bettina Tate Pedersen bettina.t.pedersen@email.csun.edu 07 Dec 1998

I have received a request from my brother-in-law for a text that would introduce the basic premises, questions, issues,conflicts in current feminism/feminist theory. He is a clinical psychologist and administrator for a large clinic in L.A.

I believe his training/background is influenced by Christianity, even evangelical Christianity, since he graduated from Fuller Theological Seminary/Graduate School.

I have several ideas in mind but would appreciate any suggestions from list members. He actually asked for such a book for Christmas!

Responses:

From Sydney Langdon aalan@asu.edu 08 Dec 1998

I'm home, the book is at the office, but one of the best overview texts for feminist theory if Rosemary Tong. I have her 1989 edition... Lifted this from Amazon re: the 2nd edition and note the new edition includes some aspects of cultural feminism, which is generally lacking from most texts which concentrate on political feminism.

_Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction_ By Rosemary Putnam Tong
Our Price: $25.00
Availability: This title usually ships within 24 hours. Holiday Note:Use any shipping method for delivery by Dec. 24. (U.S. customers)
Paperback-360 pages, 2nd edition (March 1998) Westview Press: ISBN: 0813332958; Dimensions (in inches): 0.96 x 8.95 x 5.95

'In this second edition of her 1989 survey on feminist theory, Rosemary Putnam Tong provides a more comprehensive and substantially redrawn map of twentieth-century feminist thinking. Besides providing up-to-date coverage of liberal, radical (libertarian and cultural), and Marxist-socialist schools of feminism, she covers psychoanalytic, existentialist, and postmodern feminism. All the new chapters on ecofeminism and multicultural and global feminism have been added.'

From Christa Knebel christa@axicom.net 09 Dec 1998

I've been very impressed with a Women's Studies text called _An Introduction to Women's Studies_ by Virginia Sapiro published by Mayfield(?), I believe. It is arranged in topical fashion including such subjects as communications, institutions, parenting, and motherhood, etc., while incorporating as much recent research as possible. I actually don't use it because I teach a high school course and the text is too dense for this age level, but I have often wanted to recommend it for a college course.