Scholarly feminism shifts focus to issues of sexuality

David Song/Daily
Valerie Traub. professor of English and women's studies, discusses the changing relationship between feminism and the economic and political culture at Lane Hall on Monday. Buy this photo

By Emma Kinery, Daily Staff Reporter
Published March 16, 2015

In celebration of the 20th anniversary of the University’s Institute for Research on Women and Gender, a panel of feminist scholars looked back on the history of various academic departments related to feminism and considered the future of feminist research.

Panelists explored key focuses of discussion over the past 20 years, including gender and sexuality.

Kathleen Canning, professor of history, women’s studies and German, discussed how the focus of feminist theory has shifted from an emphasis on the body to defining gender, and ultimately toward the study of sexuality. Canning said while instructing a recent course on gender and sexuality, students were most interested in components pertaining to sexuality.

She noted that of the incoming class of women’s studies graduate students, about half of the students’ focus was on sexuality in some way.

“Now I would say sexuality is much more in the foreground than body or gender,” Canning said.

Both the University’s Center for the Education of Women and the women’s studies major were established prior to the Institute for Research on Women and Gender’s founding in 1995.

Patricia Gurin, a former professor of psychology and women’s studies, provided panel attendants with a brief history of the development of these departments. Gurin, who began her tenure at the University in 1966, also discussed her experience with a particular University policy, the Michigan Mandate.

Gurin said former University President James Duderstadt’s 1988 policy, which aimed to create a more inclusive community at the University, but didn’t address women as part of the framework. In response, Gurin participated in an assembly to address the issue.

“He listened to that,” Gurin said. “That’s when President Duderstadt enunciated the women’s agenda, and IRWG comes along as a really wonderful place where it’s not just about women’s lives, it’s about women’s scholarship. Twenty years later, there is really an enormous amount of scholarship that has come out of IRWG.”

Each panelist discussed their individual work and how it changed over time.

Canning spoke first about her interest in feminist scholarship and the body, particularly what the definition of the body is and what it has meant throughout time. During the research for her article “The Body as Method? Reflections on the Place of the Body in Gender History,” Canning found that the definition is not fixed and is dependent on other elements.

“I see the three terms: gender, body and sexuality, as a set of moving parts that are almost always connected to one another, even if one or another might be very hegemonic at any given point,” Canning said. “So I see it as our task to actually dig down and try to excavate the ways to which the terms relate to each other.”

As a psychologist, Gurin’s discussion concerned how feminist theory has become increasingly prevalent in the field of psychology. Twenty years ago, Gurin said feminist scholarship was alien in the field of psychology.

Gurin also said gender has now become more than just a variable in research groups and that the movement away from binary gender has opened up psychology to more research. Today the focus is not as much on men or women, but rather different types of men and women as the groupings have become broader.

Valerie Traub, professor of English and women’s studies, said she doesn’t see the study of feminism fading from academic spheres anytime soon.

“Circulating within the humanities are a variety of criticisms about feminism’s fate: fears of the success of a conservative reaction against feminism within in the academy and without … ambivalence about feminism’s entanglement in academic knowledge, anxieties about the displacement of feminism,” Traub said. “My own sense is that announcements of the death of feminism in literary studies are premature.”

Many attendees were interested in how feminist studies expanded in disciplines beyond the humanities. As a psychologist, Gurin was able to speak on behalf of feminist practices in the medical field, but others discussed how feminist theory has been involved in business and engineering.

Monday’s venue was filled with about 50 graduate students, many of whom were happy to make use of the forum to further their own studies.

Engineering freshman Diana Thompson, who is in the women in science program, was also interested in where the two fields intersect.

“I thought that this would kind of relate but not directly, so I could see a different perspective of where feminism is,” Thompson said. “Feminism in these fields is a lot different than engineering. It’s very much more theoretical.”

Matthieu Dupas, a graduate student of French literature and gender studies in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, enjoyed the variety of disciplines involved in the conversation.

“It was very nice to have feminist scholars coming in from different disciplines and together endeavoring to picture the evolution of the interdisciplinary fields of women’s studies,” Dupas said. “For us, these scholars are at the peak of their field, and so it’s very cool to have their perspectives.”