Tag Archives: feminism

Another Breakthrough in Feminist Mathematics

I have written many pieces over the years about the massive attempt to enroll more women in STEM fields, noting in one essay here that “Readers of the higher education press and literature may be forgiven for supposing that there is more research on why there are not more women in STEM fields than there is actual research in the STEM fields themselves.” Now comes a new book, Inventing the Mathematician: Gender, Race and Our Cultural Understanding of Mathematics (State University of New York Press), by Sara N. Hottinger, interim dean of arts and humanities and a professor of women’s and gender studies at Keene State College, suggesting that the problem may not be with women but with math.

In a revealing, just published interview with Hottinger, “Hidden Figures: Women’s studies meets mathematics in a new book arguing for a more inclusive cultural notion of numeracy,” Inside Higher Ed notes that her book’s “ultimate goal is to deconstruct our individual and cultural ideas about math — then build them back up again in a more inclusive fashion.”

Here are some highlights of that interview in which Prof. Hottinger mounts a vigorous challenge to conventional understandings of women and math. I have numbered these selected nuggets to facilitate later discussion of them.

  1. During my senior year of college, I did an independent study on psychoanalytic theorist and philosopher Jacques Lacan and ended up writing my final paper on the connections between mathematical topology and Lacanian theory. I wrote my women’s studies senior thesis on feminist pedagogies in the mathematics classroom and the ways in which feminist approaches to the teaching of math allowed marginalized students to understand and work with mathematical knowledge in innovative new ways.
  2. … the content of any science is profoundly constrained by the language within which its discourses are formulated; and mainstream Western physical science has, since Galileo, been formulated in the language of mathematics. But whose mathematics? The question is a fundamental one, for, as Aronowitz has observed, “neither logic nor mathematics escapes the ‘contamination’ of the social.” And as feminist thinkers have repeatedly pointed out, in the present culture this contamination is overwhelmingly capitalist, patriarchal and militaristic.
  3. I continued this work in my doctoral dissertation, where I made the epistemological argument that mathematical ways of knowing are shaped within communities…. And, now, in this book, I consider the cultural construction of mathematical subjectivity and argue that mathematics plays a significant role in the construction of normative Western subjectivity and in the constitution of the West itself.
  4. … recently, feminist and poststructuralist critiques have demystified the substantive content of mainstream Western scientific practice, revealing the ideology of domination concealed behind the façade of “objectivity.”
  5. In much the same way that feminist education scholars have shown, via discourse analysis, the incompatibility between femininity and mathematical achievement, both Walker and Stinson show the complex ways successful black mathematics students must accommodate, reconfigure or resist the discursive construction of a normative white, masculine mathematical subjectivity.
  6. The teaching of science and mathematics must be purged of its authoritarian and elitist characteristics, and the content of these subjects enriched by incorporating the insights of the feminist, queer, multiculturalist and ecological critiques.
  7. Because mathematics is understood to be the ultimate manifestation of the human ability to reason, mathematical achievement is a clear marker in the construction of an ideal subjectivity. If these multiple associations — between reason, masculinity, subjectivity and mathematics — are teased apart, we can better understand why mathematical subjectivity and the ability to succeed in mathematics is so difficult to achieve for those in marginalized groups. For example, if mathematical subjectivity and the ability to reason is constructed within Western culture as masculine, then women will continue to find it difficult to see themselves as mathematical subjects. Women will have to choose between being good mathematicians or being “proper” women.
  8. See Ginzberg (1989), Cope-Kasten (1989), Nye (1990) and Plumwood (1993b) for lucid feminist critiques of conventional (masculinist) mathematical logic.

I suspect Minding The Campus has few readers who will be persuaded by this deconstructionist argument. Indeed, many readers may find it disconcertingly familiar while others will suspect I’m perpetrating some sort of hoax.

Right on both counts!

Paragraphs 1, 3, 5, and 7 are, as I claimed, from Prof. Hottinger’s interview with Inside Higher Ed. But paragraphs 2, 4, 6, and 8 are quoted from NYU Physicist Alan Sokal’s famous 1996 hoax published in Social Text, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” which claimed that “physical ‘reality’ … is at bottom a social and linguistic construct.”

Sokal’s “Ridicule Didn’t Work,” James Piereson and Naomi Schaefer Riley wrote recently in the Weekly Standard. “The trends that Sokal spoofed remain trendy in academic liberal arts. “‘You might have thought that humanities scholars, and particularly those working in subfields of cultural studies, would have been mortified with embarrassment, like a pretentious man who got caught mistaking his son’s finger-paintings for Jackson Pollock originals,’ says intellectual historian Wilfred McClay. ‘But they weren’t much embarrassed, and those fields have not suffered noticeably.’” In fact, their influence is even greater than before, “because highly ideological fields such as gender and race studies have broken out of the academic hothouse and into the mainstream of American life and politics.”

Thus what Sokal spoofed remains true of much of contemporary social science, especially cultural studies attempting to deconstruct, reconstruct, or otherwise transform our understanding or race, gender, sex, etc.: it’s often hard to tell the parodies from the real thing.

Nora Ephron’s Famous Talk At Wellesley’s Graduation, 1996

Twenty years ago, writer and director Nora Ephron gave the commencement speech at Wellesley, her Alma Mater. Her words were ;ife lessons and still resonate, including this line: “We weren’t meant to have futures, we were meant to marry them.”

President Walsh,Nora Ephron trustees, faculty, friends, noble parents…and dear
class of 1996, I am so proud of you. Thank you for asking me to speak to you today. I had a wonderful time trying to imagine who had been ahead of me on the list and had said no; I was positive you’d have to have gone to Martha Stewart first. And I meant to call her to see what she would have said, but I forgot. She would probably be up here telling you how to turn your lovely black robes into tents. I will try to be at least as helpful, if not quite as specific as that.

I’m very conscious of how easy it is to let people down on a day like
this, because I remember my own graduation from Wellesley very, very well, I am sorry to say. The speaker was Santha Rama Rau who was a woman writer, and I was going to be a woman writer. And in fact, I had spent four years at Wellesley going to lectures by women writers hoping that I would be the beneficiary of some terrific secret–which I never was.

And now here I was at graduation, under these very trees, absolutely
terrified. Something was over. Something safe and protected. And
something else was about to begin. I was heading off to New York and I was sure that I would live there forever and never meet anyone and end up dying one of those New York deaths where no one even notices you’re missing until the smell drifts into the hallway weeks later. And I sat here thinking, “OK, Santha, this is my last chance for a really terrific secret, lay it on me,” and she spoke about the need to place friendship over love of country, which I must tell you had never crossed my mind one way or the other.

I want to tell you a little bit about my class, the class of 1962. When we came to Wellesley in the fall of 1958, there was an article in theHarvard Crimson about the women’s colleges, one of those stupid mean little articles full of stereotypes, like girls at Bryn Mawr wear black. We were girls then, by the way, Wellesley girls. How long ago was it? It was so long ago that while I was here, Wellesley actually threw six young women out for lesbianism. It was so long ago that we had curfews. It was so long ago that if you had a boy in your room, you had to leave the door open six inches, and if you closed the door you had to put a sock on the doorknob. In my class of, I don’t know, maybe 375 young women, there were six Asians and 5 Blacks. There was a strict quota on the number of Jews. Tuition was $2,000 a year and in my junior year it was raised to $2,250 and my parents practically had a heart attack.

How long ago? If you needed an abortion, you drove to a gas station in Union, New Jersey, with $500 in cash in an envelope and you were taken, blindfolded, to a motel room and operated on without an anesthetic. On the lighter side, and as you no doubt read in the New York Times magazine, and were flabbergasted to learn, there were the posture pictures. We not only took off most of our clothes to have our posture pictures taken, we took them off without ever even thinking, this is weird, why are we doing this?–not only that, we had also had speech therapy–I was told I had a New Jersey accent I really ought to do something about, which was a shock to me since I was from Beverly Hills, California, and had never set foot in the state of New Jersey… not only that, we were required to take a course called Fundamentals, Fundies, where we actually were taught how to get in and out of the back seat of the car. Some of us were named things like Winkie.

We all parted our hair in the middle. How long ago was it? It was so long ago that among the things that I honestly cannot conceive of life without, that had not yet been invented: panty hose, lattes, Advil, pasta (there was no pasta then, there was only spaghetti and macaroni)–I sit here writing this speech on a computer next to a touch tone phone with an answering machine and a Rolodex, there are several CDs on my desk, a bottle of Snapple, there are felt-tip pens and an electric pencil sharpener… well, you get the point, it was a long time ago.

Anyway, as I was saying, the Crimson had this snippy article which said that Wellesley was a school for tunicata–tunicata apparently being small fish who spend the first part of their lives frantically swimming around the ocean floor exploring their environment, and the second part of their lives just lying there breeding. It was mean and snippy, but it had the horrible ring of truth, it was one of those do-not-ask-for-whom-the-bell-tolls things, and it burned itself into our brains. Years later, at my 25th reunion, one of my classmates mentioned it, and everyone remembered what tunicata were, word for word.

MRS. Degree

My class went to college in the era when you got a masters degrees in teaching because it was “something to fall back on” in the worst case scenario, the worst case scenario being that no one married you and you actually had to go to work. As this same classmate said at our reunion, “Our education was a dress rehearsal for a life we never led.” Isn’t that the saddest line? We weren’t meant to have futures, we were meant to marry them. We weren’t meant to have politics, or careers that mattered, or opinions, or lives; we were meant to marry them. If you wanted to be an architect, you married an architect. Non Ministrare sed Ministrari–you know the old joke, not to be ministers but to be ministers’ wives.

I’ve written about my years at Wellesley, and I don’t want to repeat myself any more than is necessary. But I do want to retell one anecdote from the piece I did about my 10th Wellesley reunion. I’ll tell it a little differently for those of you who read it. Which was that, during my junior year, when I was engaged for a very short period of time, I thought I might transfer to Barnard my senior year. I went to see my class dean and she said to me, “Let me give you some advice. You’ve worked so hard at Wellesley, when you marry, take a year off. Devote yourself to your husband and your marriage.” Of course it was stunning piece of advice to give me because I’d always intended to work after college. My mother was a career woman, and all of us, her four daughters, grew up understanding that the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” was as valid for girls as for boys. Take a year off being a wife. I always wondered what I was supposed to do in that year. Iron?

I repeated the story for years, as proof that Wellesley wanted its graduates to be merely housewives. But I turned out to be wrong, because years later I met another Wellesley graduate who had been as hell-bent on domesticity as I had been on a career. And she had gone to the same dean with the same problem, and the dean had said to her, “Don’t have children right away. Take a year to work.” And so I saw that what Wellesley wanted was for us to avoid the extremes. To be instead, that thing in the middle. A lady. We were to take the fabulous education we had received here and use it to preside at dinner table or at a committee meeting, and when two people disagreed we would be intelligent enough to step in and point out the remarkable similarities between their two opposing positions. We were to spend our lives making nice.

Many of my classmates did exactly what they were supposed to when they graduated from Wellesley, and some of them, by the way, lived happily ever after. But many of them didn’t. All sorts of things happened that no one expected. They needed money so they had to work. They got divorced so they had to work. They were bored witless so they had to work. The women’s movement came along and made harsh value judgments about their lives–judgments that caught them by surprise, because they were doing what they were supposed to be doing, weren’t they? The rules had changed, they were caught in some kind of strange time warp. They had never intended to be the heroines of their own lives, they’d intended to be–what?–First Ladies, I guess, first ladies in the lives of big men. They ended up feeling like victims. They ended up, and this is really sad, thinking that their years in college were the best years of their lives.

Why am I telling you this? It was a long time ago, right? Things have changed, haven’t they? Yes, they have. But I mention it because I want to remind you of the undertow, of the specific gravity. American society has a remarkable ability to resist change, or to take whatever change has taken place and attempt to make it go away. Things are different for you than they were for us. Just the fact that you chose to come to a single-sex college makes you smarter than we were–we came because it’s what you did in those days–and the college you are graduating from is a very different place. All sorts of things caused Wellesley to change, but it did change, and today it’s a place that understands its obligations to women in today’s world.

The women’s movement has made a huge difference, too, particularly for young women like you. There are women doctors and women lawyers. There are anchorwomen, although most of them are blonde. But at the same time, the pay differential between men and women has barely changed. In my business, the movie business, there are many more women directors, but it’s just as hard to make a movie about women as it ever was, and look at the parts the Oscar-nominated actresses played this year: hooker, hooker, hooker, hooker, and nun. It’s 1996, and you are graduating from Wellesley in the Year of the Wonderbra. The Wonderbra is not a step forward for women. Nothing that hurts that much is a step forward for women.

The Glass Ceiling

What I’m saying is, don’t delude yourself that the powerful cultural values that wrecked the lives of so many of my classmates have vanished from the earth. Don’t let the New York Times article about the brilliant success of Wellesley graduates in the business world fool you–there’s still a glass ceiling. Don’t let the number of women in the work force trick you–there are still lots of magazines devoted almost exclusively to making perfect casseroles and turning various things into tents.

Don’t underestimate how much antagonism there is toward women and how many people wish we could turn the clock back. One of the things people always say to you if you get upset is, don’t take it personally, but listen hard to what’s going on and, please, I beg you, take it personally. Understand: Every attack on Hillary Clinton for not knowing her place is an attack on you. Underneath almost all those attacks are the words: Get back, get back to where you once belonged. When Elizabeth Dole pretends that she isn’t serious about her career, that is an attack on you. The acquittal of O.J. Simpson is an attack on you. Any move to limit abortion rights is an attack on you–whether or not you believe in abortion. The fact that Clarence Thomas is sitting on the Supreme Court today is an attack on you.

Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim. Because you don’t have the alibi my class had–this is one of the great achievements and mixed blessings you inherit: Unlike us, you can’t say nobody told you there were other options. Your education is a dress rehearsal for a life that is yours to lead. Twenty-five years from now, you won’t have as easy a time making excuses as my class did. You won’t be able to blame the deans, or the culture, or anyone else: you will have no one to blame but yourselves. Whoa.

So what are you going to do? This is the season when a clutch of successful women–who have it all–give speeches to women like you and say, to be perfectly honest, you can’t have it all. Maybe young women don’t wonder whether they can have it all any longer, but in case any of you are wondering, of course you can have it all. What are you going to do? Everything, is my guess. It will be a little messy, but embrace the mess. It will be complicated, but rejoice in the complications. It will not be anything like what you think it will be like, but surprises are good for you. And don’t be frightened: you can always change your mind. I know: I’ve had four careers and three husbands. And this is something else I want to tell you, one of the hundreds of things I didn’t know when I was sitting here so many years ago: you are not going to be you, fixed and immutable you, forever. We have a game we play when we’re waiting for tables in restaurants, where you have to write the five things that describe yourself on a piece of paper.

When I was your age, I would have put: ambitious, Wellesley graduate, daughter, Democrat, single. Ten years later not one of those five things turned up on my list. I was: journalist, feminist, New Yorker, divorced, funny. Today not one of those five things turns up in my list: writer, director, mother, sister, happy. Whatever those five things are for you today, they won’t make the list in ten years–not that you still won’t be some of those things, but they won’t be the five most important things about you. Which is one of the most delicious things available to women, and more particularly to women than to men. I think. It’s slightly easier for us to shift, to change our minds, to take another path.

Yogi Berra, the former New York Yankee who made a specialty of saying things that were famously maladroit, quoted himself at a recent commencement speech he gave. “When you see a fork in the road,” he said, “take it.” Yes, it’s supposed to be a joke, but as someone said in a movie I made, don’t laugh this is my life, this is the life many women lead: Two paths diverge in a wood, and we get to take them both. It’s another of the nicest things about being women; we can do that. Did I say it was hard? Yes, but let me say it again so that none of you can ever say the words, nobody said it was so hard. But it’s also incredibly interesting. You are so lucky to have that life as an option.

Whatever you choose, however many roads you travel, I hope that you choose not to be a lady. I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. And I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women. Thank you. Good luck. The first act of your life is over. Welcome to the best years of your lives.

The Mangling of American History

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The evolution of the historical profession in the United States in the last fifty years provides much reason for celebration.  It provides even more reason for unhappiness and dread.  Never before has the profession seemed so intellectually vibrant.  An unprecedented amount of scholarship and teaching is being devoted to regions outside of the traditional American concentration on itself and Europe. New subjects of enquiry — gender, race and ethnicity — have developed.  Never have historians been so influenced by the methodology and contributions of other disciplines, from anthropology to sociology.  

At the same time, never has the historical profession been so threatened.  Political correctness has both narrowed and distorted enquiry. Traditional fields demanding intellectual rigor, such as economic and intellectual history, are in decline.  Even worse, education about Western civilization and the Enlightenment, that font of American liberties, and the foundation of modern industrial, scientific and liberal world civilization, has come to be treated with increasing disdain at colleges and universities.  

Continue reading The Mangling of American History

The Affirmative Action Zealots Have Won: Time to Surrender

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For a half century
I’ve vehemently opposed racial preferences in higher education. Opposition was
partially ideological–I believe in merit–and partly based on sorrowful
firsthand experience with affirmative action students and faculty. Though my
principles remain unchanged I am now ready to concede defeat, throw in the
towel and raise the white flag. Abolishing racial preferences is the academic
equivalent of trying to win a land war in Asia: the enemy is just too strong,
too tenacious and willing to use whatever means necessary. Our side may win a
few battles, e.g., California’s Proposition 209, Hopwood, but at the end of the day, hoards of faceless
bureaucrats and left-wing faculty soldier on. If it takes a village to uncover
special abilities that justify admitting the academically marginal, rest
assured, the village will be recruited, trained and then celebrated as
champions of social justice. Our side just lacks the stomach to outlast zealots
who shamelessly use every ruse imaginable.

Continue reading The Affirmative Action Zealots Have Won: Time to Surrender

Nora Ephron’s Commencement Talk at Wellesley, 1996

Nora Ephron.jpgPresident Walsh, trustees, faculty, friends, noble parents…and dear class of 1996, I am so proud of you. Thank you for asking me to speak to you today. I had a wonderful time trying to imagine who had been ahead of me on the list and had said no; I was positive you’d have to have gone to Martha Stewart first. And I meant to call her to see what she would have said, but I forgot. She would probably be up here telling you how to turn your lovely black robes into tents. I will try to be at least as helpful, if not quite as specific as that.

I’m very conscious of how easy it is to let people down on a day like
this, because I remember my own graduation from Wellesley very, very
well, I am sorry to say. The speaker was Santha Rama Rau who was a woman
writer, and I was going to be a woman writer. And in fact, I had spent
four years at Wellesley going to lectures by women writers hoping that I
would be the beneficiary of some terrific secret–which I never was.
And now here I was at graduation, under these very trees, absolutely
terrified. Something was over. Something safe and protected. And
something else was about to begin. I was heading off to New York and I
was sure that I would live there forever and never meet anyone and end
up dying one of those New York deaths where no one even notices you’re
missing until the smell drifts into the hallway weeks later. And I sat
here thinking, “OK, Santha, this is my last chance for a really terrific
secret, lay it on me,” and she spoke about the need to place friendship
over love of country, which I must tell you had never crossed my mind
one way or the other.

Continue reading Nora Ephron’s Commencement Talk at Wellesley, 1996

The AAUW–More Manipulation by Survey

The American Association of University Women, the voice of hard-line campus feminism, published a survey today showing that 48 percent of American 7th to 12th graders were sexually harassed during the last school year, with 87 percent of those harassed suffering negative effects such as absenteeism, poor sleep and stomach aches. These are alarming numbers, but then, the AAUW specializes in quite high, quite alarming numbers, which are typically left unexamined by the journalists who report them.

Continue reading The AAUW–More Manipulation by Survey

A Riposte

In his comment on my Sept. 19 essay, “The Feminist War Against Fraternities,” Duke Cheston has abandoned the argument he made in a Sept. 13 essay for the Pope Canter that college fraternities are incubators of rape–and hence should be abolished. Indeed, he quotes with approval from Heather Mac Donald’s “The Campus Rape Myth,” her 2008 article for the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal in which she effectively demolished the assumption–dear to the hearts of feminists–that rape is widespread on college campuses in the first place. Mac Donald dug behind that oft-repeated Women’s Center statistic–that one out of every four college women becomes a rape or attempted-rape victim by the time she reaches age 25–and discovered that it was based on a single faulty study commissioned by Ms. magazine in 1987 whose lead researcher had simply concluded on her own that certain kinds of sexual encounters reported to her by her female informants constituted rape. Some 42 percent of those supposed victims went on to have sex again with their supposed assailants. It goes without saying, then, that there can’t be too many rapes committed by fraternity men–because there aren’t too many rapes (as defined in the criminal legal system) committed by college men, period.

Continue reading A Riposte

The Yale Sex Harassment Controversy

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The academic gender wars are back in the news, with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights announcing an investigation into a Title IX complaint against Yale University.  Sixteen current and former Yale students claim that the university discriminates against women by allowing a sexually hostile environment to flourish.  Is there really a problem with the sexual climate at Yale?  And if so, is it much more of a two-way street than the complainants allege?

An evaluation of the charges is complicated by the fact that the specifics have not been publicly released.  Some details, however, can be gleaned from the complainants’ statements as well as a Huffington Post article by Yale research fellow Claire Gordon, a former director of the Yale Women’s Center who declined to co-sign the complaint but summarized the draft.

Gordon paints a shocking picture of virulent misogyny: fraternity pledges shouting chants that celebrate rape and necrophilia; pledges from another frat chanting “Dick, dick, dick” outside the Women’s Center — so intimidating a female staffer that she had to go in through the back door — and having themselves photographed with a sign that reads “We love Yale sluts”;  an email circulated among athletes and fraternity members rating 53 female freshmen on how many beers a man would need to drink to have sex with them.  All this outrageous behavior, Gordon and the complainants assert, is treated as little more than boys-will-be-boys hijinks. 

Continue reading The Yale Sex Harassment Controversy

The Law Professor Versus the Thin-Skinned Feminist

The year was 1996. Bill Clinton was serving his first term as president. Barack Obama was a civil-rights attorney in Chicago who had yet to hold any public office. It was that long ago. According to J. Patrick Kelly, vice dean of the Widener University School of Law, 1996 was the year that Professor Lawrence J. Connell embarked upon an alleged “ongoing pattern of behavior” involving “statements and characterizations about minorities and women” that might have not only violated the school’s Discrimination and Harassment Code but raise “issues of safety and your fitness to teach,” as Kelly put it in a Dec. 10 letter to Connell.
That sounds ominous and very serious. Connell, a tenured professor with 20 years at Widener, has been on administrative leave and barred from campus since Dec. 20 pending a law school investigation that could result in his firing. Let’s look at what he is supposed to have done way back when. According to Kelly’s letter, Connell had admitted in 1996 to having “made inappropriate statements about the dress and appearance” of a female student in one of his classes. Then-dean Arthur Frakt had apologized to the student on behalf of the law school. There was a second allegation that Connell had made “demeaning remarks” about the same student that year while drinking in a bar, but according to Kelly’s letter, Connell had disputed that charge.
Those were Incidents #1 and #2 in Connell’s “ongoing pattern of behavior,” as hinted at in Kelly’s letter. So what was Incident #3? It was a series of 2010 classroom hypotheticals involving a supposed shooting of Widener Law School Dean Linda Ammons—a full fourteen years later! In short, Connell is being asked to defend himself against allegations that are now more than a decade and a half old (and that at the time were not viewed as warranting disciplinary action), but is obliged to disprove a “pattern” consisting of incidents widely separated in time whose only resemblance to each other is that their supposed victims were female (the “minorities” thrust of Kelly’s letter apparently stemmed from the fact that Ammons in black and Connell is white). To fill in the yawning gap between then and now, Kelly wrote that he had looked at Connell’s student evaluations over several years and “found similar complaints” about “the violent scenarios of last spring.” Student evaluations are by their very nature anonymous (and often motivated by dissatisfaction with grades), and are thus impossible to defend against.

Continue reading The Law Professor Versus the Thin-Skinned Feminist

Pro-life College Event Hurts Feminists’ Feelings!

The Duke University women’s center has canceled a discussion of student motherhood as “upsetting and not OK” because the sponsoring group, Duke Students for Life was holding a pro-life event elsewhere on campus. A spokesman for the center said the pictures at the “Week for Life” event were “traumatizing,” perhaps because he was under the impression that body parts of aborted babies were being shown. Actually the pictures featured various stages of fetal development, based on sonograms. The spokesman failed to indicate how far away pre-birth photos must be to justify holding a discussion of motherhood at the center. The center allows pro-choice speakers but not pro-life ones. The mission statement of the center by the way, in addition to firmly opposing “ableism” and “heterosexism” says: “We ascribe to a broadly defined, fluctuating and inclusive feminist ideology that welcomes discordant viewpoints from varied experiences.” Not too inclusive and not too discordant, though.

Standpoint Theory Arrives At The Court

One of the key contributions of second-wave feminism to the academy is what is known as “standpoint theory,” which asserts that members of oppressed groups have special “ways of knowing” based on their group’s unique experiences. The problem standpoint theory attempted to address is how to respond to the apparent monopoly of knowledge and power held by men (usually called “white men” in these discussions). Since women were for centuries excluded from education and professional activities, how could they gain traction for their views and rapidly enhance their present status?

The easiest way to deal with this problem is to consider the source of an idea an adequate gauge of its validity and significance. This is known as the “genetic fallacy,” a form of ad hominem or ad feminam argument. Valorizing the viewpoints of hitherto marginalized groups is an obvious instance of this fallacy. It also discourages challenges to one’s point of view, since any challenge can be represented as an attempt to demean that group’s experience, out of which it presumably speaks.

In the more academic-sounding form of “standpoint epistemology,” by which one’s racial or sexual identity provides a person with experiences that define how he or she thinks, deference is routinely paid to the special perspectives of minorities. While not wanting to get embroiled in biological essentialism or in the view that acquired experiences are inherited (or transmitted through some sort of collective unconscious), proponents of standpoint theory have turned it into a staple of feminism over the last few decades, and it has been of great utility as well to other identity groups. Its objective, as feminist scholar Sandra Harding, one of the founders of feminist standpoint theory, puts it, is to unearth the special powers that women’s lived experience can offer, the special knowledge that they can thus claim.

Continue reading Standpoint Theory Arrives At The Court

The Conference Radcliffe Didn’t Want To Host

Advertising for last Friday’s conference on feminism at Harvard, organized by Harvey Mansfield’s Program on Constitutional Government, was hilariously provocative. The flyer proclaimed “The Conference the Radcliffe Institute didn’t want to host!” and “A genuine Debate with DIVERSITY of views on THE LEGACY AND FUTURE OF FEMINISM” not to mention “Ladies Receive an Additional 50% off” (the conference was free, har har). Despite these seemingly obvious signals, a number of attendees at Friday’s events appeared palpably bewildered at the sight of conservatives amidst the conference’s more traditional (liberal) feminist panelists. Speakers such as Jennifer Roback Morse, Wendy Shalit, and Christina Hoff Somers offered arguments starkly different from those of their peers, providing debate upon issues that the audience appeared unaccustomed to hearing contested.

The all-caps billing of the conference was an obvious provocation for a university obviously inclined to remove and ignore dissenting viewpoints on certain feminist doctrines. Consider what passed for dialogue on Larry Summer’s resignation: Radcliffe organized a conference “Impediments to Change: Revisiting the Women in Science Question”; that the Harvard Gazette reported “presented a variety of views”; translation: every panelist rejected Summers’s question and rejected any attribution of scientific interest to gender. It’s no wonder that many conference attendees last Friday seemed astonished to hear conservative opinions.

The conference wasn’t simply an offering of dissenting opinion: it presented more traditionally left speakers than it did identifiable conservatives; its main novelty was that the latter (and several difficult-to-categorize participants) were present at all. The panel on women and work featured Linda Hirshman, a retired Brandeis professor and author of Get To Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World offer a stinging denunciation of the “hierarchical, patriarchal, and unjust family” yet also Jennifer Roback Morse, who defended women who eschew work for family, arguing that “our dignity as women does not depend upon being identical to men.” Rosalind Chait Barnett, Executive Director of the Community, Families & Work Program at Brandeis University, began the panel on Women and Science with a strong argument for “experiential, cultural, and organizational” factors as the source of discrepancies in scientific performance between genders, while Steven E. Rhoads, Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia, followed with an argument for biological explanations of gender interests. Several of the most interesting panelists didn’t evince easily-identifiable ideological leanings; again, I don’t see many of them on Radcliffe panel listings.

Continue reading The Conference Radcliffe Didn’t Want To Host

The Conference Radcliffe Didn’t Want To Host

First smile of the day: Harvard is holding a conference on women featuring a few speakers outside the traditional cozy confines of the feminist left.

Here is the announcement, rich in exclamation points, from the Program on Constitutional Government:

A Harvard First! The Conference the Radcliffe Institute Didn’t Want to Host! A Genuine Debate with DIVERSITY of Views on The Legacy and Future of Feminism

The shockingly diverse program includes Camille Paglia (keynote address tomorrow night, 8 p.m.), Wendy Shalit, Christina Hoff Sommers and Harvey Mansfield (guiding spirit of the conference, who will provide the conference wrap-up Friday at 4:45 p.m).

The conference is open to all and free. Organizers puckishly add this line: “Ladies receive an additional 50 percent off!”

Harvey Mansfield offered co-sponsorship of the conference to the Radcliffe Institute back in January but the Institute Dean, Barbara Gross, said there wasn’t enough time, since her planners work far ahead.

Is this the first time Harvard has held a genuinely diverse conference on women? Could be. Mansfield says he doesn’t know of any Radclifffe Institute meeting that bothered to include conservatives, though Phyllis Schlafly spoke there last year. Many of the ladies walked out in protest.

More information is available at pcg@gov.harvard.edu