When ‘feminist’ and ‘gender’ become embarrassing dirty words in academia

// 8 February 2011

I am a research student in gender studies in one of the constitutive colleges of the University of London and feel extremely privileged to be part of such a thriving intellectual community. But one brief episode of anti-intellectual feminism in the main building’s lift was enough for me to rethink the breadth of my social bubble.

Last week, I shuffled into a lift with two other students (one woman and one man) and as the doors closed in on us there began a conversation that surged the lava within me. The female student started talking about an essay on politics and social media she was writing. Inspired by the slogan ‘the international is personal’, she marvelled at how clever it sounded but was stumped that such an amazing framework of thought so neatly fitted into a single, powerful phrase is derived from the work of (* in a self-conscious, embarrassed whisper *) feminists.

In a mocking, incredulous tone, she mentions that there were issues raised in her gender classes that chimed with the subject of her essay and it seems, unbelievably, chimed with her as well. By then, I had nearly dropped everything I had at hand and wanted to evacuate the lift screaming (in my head, of course. I was, after all, surrounded by an intellectual community. What would others think?).

The school’s library is stocked aisle upon aisle with books on feminism and gender. Much of contemporary academic work in the social sciences, art, philosophy, law, and to a certain extent, even the hard sciences owe a great deal to feminism and its intellectual product, feminist theory. To remain up to date and relevant, scholars outside of gender studies have referred to the contributions of feminist scholars, and so I’m not one to believe that gender studies as a discipline lacks prestige or legitimacy. But the way one can laugh at the idea of studying gender in this day and age seems to suggest some wildly contrarian views in academia that I wasn’t aware of until now.

But perhaps the way gender and feminist theory have become so normalised in academia that it risks (and indeed sometimes criticised for) being depoliticised, defanged of its original motivation to right the wrongs of social structures, one can teach and learn feminist theory without seemingly moved or provoked by its political potency. And so the butch, meddling, oversensitive stereotype of the feminist continues to creep into a student’s imagination and everyday conversation, even when feminist women and men are ordinary people who, on a superficial level, are no different from themselves.

Although this is just one female student in a huge network of lecturers and other students who may know better, and thus not entirely representative of academia as suggested in my title, I think the depoliticised nature of feminism and its misrepresentation in media and folk discourse have resulted in the perpetuation of ‘feminist’ as a dirty word, no matter how worldly, clever, media-savvy, and sensitive students in one the most prestigious colleges in the UK are.

Comments From You

Katy // Posted 8 February 2011 at 10:33 pm

I can understand your anger at the female student’s apparent disrespect for feminists and their work- people’s disregard for feminism and what it has achieved gets me angry all the time.

For example, at college today (at an all girls’ school) I was talking with a classmate after French, after having our essays on gender equality returned to us. She then started going on about how she found these topics boring and irrelevant and I was shocked. I reminded her that women’s rights, feminism, equality of the sexes, it’s all about /us/- girls! It concerns all of us. But she insisted we were ‘equal enough’ already and said any further struggle would result in a society where men could punch women and they would no longer hold doors open for us. This was coming from a very intelligent and all-round sensible girl. I could hardly believe my ears.

I know it’s not quite the same, and this is rather minor, but it is relevant in that the lack of respect for and indeed the ignorance about feminism seem to crop up in all levels.

Mary Tracy // Posted 9 February 2011 at 2:13 am

I understand your anger. I think it’s important to remember that all theory has been “depoliticised”. It’s probably just as difficult to find within academia any reference to “class struggle”. It is important for this current “political climate” that people do not remember the ideas that made society fairer once upon a time. It’s “in vogue” now to outsmart the people who told us “how the world worked” by claiming that “nobody can tell how the world works”. After the smugness and pretentiousness dies out, we are left with the fact that these ideas translate into political inaction, which is exactly what “the system” wanted all along: for those few who get to the highest echelons of education to be indiferent when watching a world in flames.

Alicia // Posted 9 February 2011 at 10:09 pm


It happens to the most intelligent people indeed, the dismissal of feminism. I guess social awareness takes empathy and sympathy, none of which requires much intelligence. I can also understand the way women deny the relevance of feminism and the struggle for further gender equality especially in countries where many rights have been won for women in the last decades. I think we do not like position our individual selves as victimised or helpless. Being defensive offers an easy, if not thin disguise for insecurity and weakness (though not necessarily in a devastatingly bad way).


I did say that feminist theory has the *risk* of being depoliticised in academia. It becomes depoliticised if taught in a way that will result in little use in ‘real life’. Many feminist academics are quite aware about the unstable relationship between activism and academia, and as an aspiring academic, I see that theory has much to offer in terms of helping us *understand* and to some extent *explain* in broad terms what is actually happening around and within us. Perhaps this is just me being defensive of academia, mainly because I’ve invested a lot (mainly time and money) into staying in university so that one day I can teach students to be politically active, the same students with privilege to change the world. And this is not a grand scheme of an academic who wants to maintain one’s position of superiority (particularly during these deeply uncertain times under the coalition govt), but rather I want higher education to be a source of good. As easy yet profoundly complicated as that.

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