It is impossible to appreciate the impact of Second Wave feminism without recognizing its takeover of our universities. Evidence suggests that the takeover was quick and easy, and that feminism never even needed to hide its radicalism in order to conquer America’s institutions of higher learning without a fight.
In 2008, a major publisher brought out a book titled The Evolution of American Women’s Studies: Reflections on Triumphs, Controversies, and Change.
Written by feminist academics involved in the founding of women’s studies programs across the United States, the book is well worth reading for its picture of the objectives and methodologies of Second Wave Feminism.
The book contains essays by many feminist leaders of the 1960s and 1970s. These were the pioneers who launched the new women’s studies programs, taught the first courses in the field, and established the feminist journals that now largely control what passes for knowledge in our society.
Without the firm foothold they established in the academy, the feminist movement could never have become as powerful as it has, spreading out so decisively into the domains of law, medicine, politics, social services, journalism, entertainment, and Big Tech.
The book makes clear that women’s studies was always intended to have an activist agenda, percolating its resentful theories within the walls of the ivory tower but never content to let them stay there.
“From the beginning, the goal of women’s studies was not merely to study women’s position in the world but to change it” (p. 10). So writes the volume editor Alice Ginsberg. Ginsberg does not attempt to hide the fact that women’s studies was never committed to the dispassionate pursuit of knowledge that would identify it as a genuine academic field. Her words are echoed by many other contributors, who foreground social goals. “I remain convinced that teaching antiracist, antihomophobic, anti-capitalist, cross-cultural , transnational women’s studies courses […] is still the most important and pleasurable work that I do.” [Beverly Guy-Sheftall, p. 111).
Ginsberg admits that the embrace of subjectivity and political partisanship caused some within the academy to view Women’s Studies “with great suspicion” (p. 13). However, whatever suspicion there was did not deter the establishment of Women’s Studies programs. Within the decade of the 70s alone, according to Ginsberg, 300 such programs were founded in the United States (p. 15), followed by an even greater proliferation in the 1980s. Clearly, if there was opposition to the politicizing of university study, it was feeble and ineffectual.
Every contributor to the book makes clear that women’s studies was never simply about adding women’s lives and experiences to the traditional disciplines. It was always interventionist and partisan, always about female grievance and male guilt (p. 92). Philosophy professor Paula Rothenberg explains that “At the heart of Women’s Studies and framing the perspective from which it proceeds was the critical insight that ‘the personal is political’” (p. 69).
Women’s Studies director Ann Russo describes her teaching in a somewhat garbled manner: “I struggle in my classes to cultivate a sustained and simultaneous focus on the forces that shape how privilege, access, and power shape identities and experiences of oppression and resistance, as well as complicity in others’ oppression” (p. 135). This was typical academic mumbo-jumbo, but it’s meaning is clear enough. The primary subject of women’s studies was the oppression of women and women’s complicity in the oppression of other women.
As women’s studies developed, it did not become more nuanced in its account of oppressors and oppressed. Instead, it simply added more categories of oppression. According to sociologist Judith Lorber, “Feminism has moved from a focus on women’s oppression to recognition of the intersectionality of gender, social class, racial, ethnic, and other statuses that create the conditions of complex inequality” (p. 159). Heterosexual white men were always permanently outside the circle of concern and empathy. All human beings were assessed and understood in terms of their raced, sexed, gendered, and classed selves.
According to sociologist Nancy Naples, women’s studies classes were primarily intended to teach students to see themselves as structurally oppressed, using such methods as “journal writing, autobiographical essays, and oral histories of family and community members” in order “to explore how processes of oppression often hidden from view shaped their personal lives” (203). Women who entered the women’s studies classroom not seeing themselves as victims were to be trained to think differently. Women’s Studies was never about drawing one’s own conclusions from the material presented; it was about accepting and adhering to a dogma.
And what a dogma it was.
In one of the book’s chapters, titled “Women Studies: The Early Years,” the afore-mentioned Paula Rothenberg includes a detailed description of the feminist philosophy course she designed at William Paterson University in New Jersey sometime in the early 1970s; it provides a fascinating window on the general worldview of feminists in academia.
Rothenberg is a good representative of the feminist academy. She was an acknowledged thought leader, a respected philosophy professor for 37 years, and the author of many mainstream publications.
With Alison Jaggar, also an American feminist philosopher, Rothenberg co-authored one of the first women’s studies textbooks, an anthology titled Feminist Frameworks: Alternative Theoretical Accounts of the Relations Between Women and Men. The book went through three editions and was taught in many classrooms.
She also collected a series of essays in an anthology called White Privilege.
Published in 2004, the book demonstrated her ability to recognize significant feminist trends. Critical race theory, much discussed today, was alive and well in academia 20 years ago and more.
In Rothenberg’s essay on the evolution of American Women’s Studies, she, like others, stressed the activist focus of Women’s Studies, pointing out that “The line between intellectual and political work was virtually seamless” and, again, that “The line between Women’s Studies as an academic department and the Women’s Center and the Women’s Collective was very fine—I don’t think any of us would have been able to say where one ended and the other began.” Clearly, the courses were never primarily about knowledge; always about creating foot soldiers for the social justice feminist movement.
Rothenberg provides a list of the assigned texts for her first course, which makes for eye-opening reading.
Anyone who still thinks that women’s studies started out with the moderate aim of introducing women’s history perspectives into a primarily male educational environment will be quickly disabused of that false idea by a glance at the crudely reductionist, anti-scientific, intemperate, hate-filled, agit-prop theories that were part of the core curriculum. These were clearly texts of propaganda.
Like most of Second Wave feminism, the course was heavily Marxist in its orientation. Required reading included Frederick Engels’ 1884 The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, which argued that the patriarchal family and private property were intertwined elements at the core of women’s oppression.
Building on that Communist chestnut, Eli Zaretsky’s book Capitalism, the Family, and Personal Life made classic Marxist arguments about the nuclear family as the oppressive lynchpin of capitalism, while Evelyn Reed’s “Is Biology Woman’s Destiny,” originally published in the journal International Socialist Review in 1971, argued the social constructionist position that women’s place in society was in no way natural but was “exclusively the result of manmade institutions and laws in class-divided patriarchal society.”
Nowhere in the assigned readings can one find any defense of capitalism or of women’s place in the family. Nowhere is it suggested that male and female sex roles developed from the exigencies of human survival. Nowhere is it suggested that loving a man and raising children with him are what many normal women desire. Nowhere is it suggested that male contributions to society should be seriously acknowledged, even celebrated. Readings ranged from left to far left, with nothing allowed to distract from the radical socialist-feminist ideological slant.
The course even had a preposterous section on female sexuality that established every element of the radical feminist thesis that male sexuality is degrading and exploitative, and female sexuality “constructed” (the approved feminist term) through violence and dehumanization.
This section included Susan Lydon’s 1970 essay “The Politics of Orgasm,” which argued that women’s sexuality was “defined by men to benefit men,” and Susan Griffin’s 1971 article “Rape: the All-American Crime,” which alleged that rape was the most frequently committed violent crime in America, and that it was an act of mass terrorism, condoned by society, by which powerful men subjugated women and less powerful men.
Lucy Komisar’s 1970 article “Violence and the Masculine Mystique” continued to hammer away at the significance of rape by alleging that “The ultimate proof of manhood is sexual violence.”
Sidney Abbot’s “Sappho was a Right on Woman” completed the attack on heterosexuality by advocating lesbianism for young women who reject the “passivity, ignorance, docility, virtue and ineffectuality” that allegedly constituted femininity. Only by becoming a lesbian, according to the author, could a woman hope to be “a whole human being.”
The course also included a section on the particular experiences of black women, who were doubly dehumanized in a society both racist and sexist: Frances Beal’s essay “Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female” advanced the intersectionality of black womanhood.
We see here all the elements of feminism that flowered in the 1980, ‘90s and beyond: the emphasis was anti-western, anti-family, anti-white, pro-Marxist, anti-heterosexual, pro-lesbian, rape-obsessed, and above all anti-male.
In the introduction to the volume, editor Alice Ginsberg had scoffed at conservative Christian Pat Robertson’s description of academic feminism, but it turned out that Robertson was not wrong: “The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians” (qtd. on p. 6). With the exception of the witchcraft, every facet named by Robertson is clearly on display in Rothenberg’s syllabus.
Striking in Rothenberg’s description of the establishment of women’s studies is how very little criticism or resistance it encountered. Far from what we might have expected from a traditional male-dominated enterprise, there was no concerted pushback. Male academics did not make it difficult for women to build their bastions of male-blaming, female-supremacist knowledge-production. They did not object to the politicization of higher learning or the importation of untested and untestable theories into the domain of serious knowledge.
On the contrary, faculty welcomed the politicization and ideological contamination of academia. As Rothenberg described it, “Women’s studies grew out of the extraordinary activism and energy of the Women’s Liberation Movement” of the late 1960s. Within a few years, a decade at most, feminism went from being a fringe social movement to a major part of many elite universities in North America, where tens of thousands of students were affected by it by every year.
Moreover, contributors to the volume make clear that feminist so-called “scholarship” was explicitly intended to provide front-line activists with frameworks and manufactured data for their activism. Feminist activists and so-called scholars worked hand in hand. Rothenberg quotes feminist Catherine Stimpson to the effect that “Feminists offered scholars an agenda for research, while scholars provided activists a theoretical framework and data to form the basis for social policy and progress” (p, 71). In other words, the activists made clear the issues and perspectives academics should explore, and the academics provided the activists with a sheen of academic legitimacy to bolster their arguments about male violence, rape culture, the pay gap, white privilege, and so on.
With little debate and even less protest, academia surrendered to feminist dogmatism. The rest, as they say, is history.
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