From academic to ‘private passion’? Angela McRobbie on women’s studies

// 25 March 2008

The story of the supposed death of women’s studies in universities continued last week, with another report of the last undergraduates filing out of London Metropolitan University. Angela McRobbie, a communications professor at Goldsmiths, weighs in today over at Comment is Free.

She has some interesting observations about the continued interest in feminist issues from students:

The feminist academy I inhabit might not have women’s studies on offer*, but it is nevertheless a place of intensity, enthusiasm and experimentation. I observe a number of patterns that merit further sociological analysis. In my undergraduate classroom of up to about 100 students, of whom about 80% are female and come from around the world, there is a high degree of interest in women’s issues, including questions of gender and sexuality. This is also the case for young British Muslim women tackling questions of reconciling faith with the secular values of the university. Outside the classroom I am frequently asked questions like “What can you recommend as reading for our Muslim women’s study group on prostitution?”, or “What did feminists in the 70s have to say about the family and housework?”

So students are still asking the questions. They are also, I suspect, still studying some of these issues, as feminist analysis is integrated into other fields (an acquantaince of mine has promised to explain feminist geography to me one of these days, which I am pleased to note seems to involve Derrida). In addition, feminism is flourishing outside the classroom, if we take McRobbie at her word. Isn’t it a good thing that feminism is a part of students’ lives not just their reading lists? McRobbie has some other observations though:

Often it seems feminism has become a kind of private passion, a way of working through the intractable issues of the day in regard to sexuality, and the requirement to fulfil so many normative expectations. There is also a genuine interest in feminism from the late 1960s onwards. But so denigrated and devalued is the women’s movement that it is often hard to dislodge the assumptions that it routinely required hostility to men. In fact it is as though the thing young women most fear is being seen as critical of men. Tired of trying to counter this feminist image, I often find myself persuading them that, actually, most reasonable men had respect for female grievance and found diminishing, as they might also do today, the endless need to be pleasing to men.

* You can do a gender studies MA at Goldsmiths though.

Comments From You

verte // Posted 25 March 2008 at 11:39 am

Funnily enough, when Angela ran our seminars last semester, her understanding of the Third Wave was vastly different from the experience of any of the women in our class; she seemed quite relieved. I admire her continued interest in young women’s experience of feminism, though. She’s very open to being corrected on where things are at.

I personally prefer the idea of Gender Studies to Women’s Studies. I think studying masculinity is important for feminism, and I like queer theory (which on Women’s Studies courses tends to be reviled, so I’m told). One of my supervisor’s interests is men and feminism, and my dissertation this year will be on masculinities and sexuality. HOWEVER, one thing that does intrigue me was Angela’s assertion a few weeks ago that what Gender/Women’s Studies consists of varies enormously at different institutions. At Goldsmiths the expectation is that we will mostly partake in densely intertextual theoretical work and everyone’s crazy about Deleuze (and the new possibilities Deleuzian methodologies might afford). Whereas, she said, at Glasgow we’d be looking at empirical studies of domestic violence and even the idea of reading something as theory-lite as Judith Butler would be met with some hostility. I like to think the two things can be combined.

And I owe you an email… Coming up.

Virago // Posted 25 March 2008 at 4:19 pm

I read most of my feminist theory, and first aligned myself fully as a feminist, while studying English at university. Feminist theory captivated me and reading of the portrayal of women in fiction and how this related to wider society spurred me to not only write about feminist theory in my assignments but read up on feminism in my free time.

And Feminist Geography sounds amazing! :)

Anne Onne // Posted 25 March 2008 at 5:47 pm

I just felt it needs to be said that you don’t need to study womens/gender studies to be a feminist. I know nobody here would make that assertion, but the overwhelming idea in the media seems to be that if for whatever reason certain studies are less popular in some universities, then it means feminism is disappearing. You need only look over at the ‘Comment Is Free’ page for a lot of commenters who seem relieved, thinking what it means a reduction in feminism.

Although I think we need plenty of young people stuying feminist theory (or indeed any suject, because the knowledge and new insights are valuable as a whole), I don’t think that this is necessarily a problem. Maybe less people are studying feminism a sa separate subject, but with the birth of internet feminist communities, and lots of interesting new books as well as the older theory, feminism has never been so accessible, and so varied. The misogynists out there might be proverbially chuckling and wringing their hands in glee at the thought of our dying ideology, but that’s not what’s really happening. In reality, many of us who don’t study womens’ studies at university (but study it here and there, extracurricularly, so to speak) are applying it to what we are doing, be it science, design, music, drama or what have you. I don’t see that as a loss at all.

But I’m glad there’s still places to study the theory. :)

Jess McCabe // Posted 25 March 2008 at 5:54 pm

Absolutely, Anne. I’ve never taken women’s studies or gender studies classes. I think it’s also (perhaps more) important to stress making feminism accessible to everyone, not just undergraduates.

One thing that I was planning to say in the post and forgot(!) was that there’s been an interesting discussion going on over on the London Feminist Network list about how it would be great to get some form of women’s studies integrated into the national curriculum somehow. Probably quite a hard one to sell, but it would be nice…

Amy // Posted 25 March 2008 at 7:03 pm

It is a good job that there are so many feminist resources outside of universities, because I recently discovered that there are no gender studies MAs on offer in this country that can be done via distance learning (unlike countless business and IT qualifications!). I make this point because there are many of us out there who for one reason or another (mine is that chronic illness means I am unable to attend university) have to rely on distance learning, and I was disappointed to find gender studies so woefully underrepresented in this field. Websites like this one and Feministing help to fill the void!

Anne Onne // Posted 30 March 2008 at 4:01 pm

I would love there to be more gender studies on the curriculim! I at least think there’s a place in PSHE for more of this, and since it’s not focused on in other subjects, and that we are adding to a lot of problems in our society by not frankly addressing these issues with our children. I can see the Daily Mail being horrified at the idea of their little boys being taught not to rape, or about ‘wimmin’s problems’, and I hope we can find a way around the kinds of people who would gladly skirt around the issue.

And I agree that we need to make gender studies accessible to all levels of learning.

Amy, that’s a great shame.

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