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If We Want Feminism to Have a Real Impact, Then Let's Stop Teaching So Much Theory

By refusing to engage with personal matters, academics are alienating a generation

Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

For three years, I taught feminist theory to undergraduates while working on my Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley. There was a time when Berkeley was the epicenter of radical feminism: In the 1970s, women’s rights activists regularly stormed campus buildings, demanding birth control, abortion, self-defense classes, and childcare. But when I started teaching in 2007, nothing particularly radical was happening anymore.

Far from being sites of activism and empowerment, Berkeley’s Women’s Studies classes were weighed down by theory and jargon. Using departmental guidelines, I crafted a syllabus that was meant to help my students think critically about gender, but what that really meant is that we spent our days wrestling with dense and difficult texts, parsing the works of Gayatri Spivak, Monique Wittig, and Judith Butler. We devoted inordinate amounts of time to asking whether gender and sexuality were social constructs, rather than biological facts. We casually threw around words like “subalterneity,” “essentialism,” and “phallogocentrism” as if they really meant something.

My students lit up in these discussions—they were animated, thoughtful, and articulate—but even so, I am haunted by the feeling that I failed them in that classroom by squandering an opportunity to address questions that really mattered to them. What, for instance, did feminism mean in the context of a frat party? What did empowerment look like in a casual hook-up? How does internet porn influence our sexual choices? Do rape jokes have consequences?

I was curious about whether the standard curriculum has changed since I left academia, so I tracked down syllabi from Women’s Studies departments across the country. I drew a random sampling of 20 schools from the top 50 research universities and liberal arts colleges in the U.S. New and World Report ranking (excluding institutions like the United States Naval Academy and Yeshiva University, which do not have Women’s Studies programs at all) and studied their introductory Women’s Studies courses.

Across the board, the syllabi begin with a history of feminism and theories of gender, then shift to political debates: At Williams, students delve into reproductive justice arguments, while at the University of Pennsylvania they learn about disability rights; University of Florida offers a module on “interlocking systems of oppression,” while at Barnard, they examine “hunger as ideology.” These are all important topics—some more relevant than others—but what is missing is an engagement with the culture that students face immediately outside the classroom. Today, 1 out of 5 college women is a victim of attempted or completed sexual assault, and three-quarters of those victims are incapacitated. At the same time, researchers find that slut-shaming is a regular occurrence on campuses. Surely these are the kinds of issues we should be discussing in the Women’s Studies classroom.

It wasn’t always like this. When the first Women's Studies programs were created in the late sixties, “the personal is political” was the rallying cry. “Consciousness-raising” led to the realization that problems women assumed were personal could, in fact, be the result of systematic patterns of oppression. Today, universities provide some spaces on campus for students to talk openly about sex, including health services, counseling clinics, and women’s centers. But these resources are designed to offer practical advice and help in times of crisis, rather than intellectual engagement with questions of gender and sexuality. By bringing the personal back into Women’s Studies departments, we would be giving students an opportunity to rigorously and seriously engage with issues that directly affect them—like consent, rape culture and contraception—at a crucial point in their intellectual evolution. Through debate and argument, students could sharpen their opinions and learn to respect those of their classmates.

The very act of analyzing college culture through a feminist lens would allow them to respond to it in a critical way. College students face a barrage of confusing messages about sexuality, ranging from presentations by the BDSM club during the university-sponsored Sex Week to Take Back the Night rallies. Both kinds of event are described as feminist, which only adds to students’ bewilderment. Women’s Studies departments could be helping students untangle these competing claims and make sense of how coercion and consent work in their own lives. But to do this, instructors must be willing to discuss personal issues in class.

Of course, bringing real life problems to the classroom can create a minefield. It is easier to talk about theories of “sexual politics” or “sexual objectification” than sex itself. As an instructor, I always found it tricky to teach about the sexual revolution, fearing that I was encouraging promiscuity. My students were just as likely to wear hijabs as booty-shorts, and I wanted to recognize the validity of more conservative worldviews without seeming as though I was judging. Abstract ideas about the cultural construction of sexuality were an easy out—an easy cop-out, too.

And universities frown on teachers making things too personal in the classroom, in part because this could open the door to sexual harassment charges. In a joint statement last year, the Departments of Justice and Education defined sexual harassment as “unwelcome … verbal conduct of a sexual nature”—a description so broad and subjective that it makes it difficult to lead any discussion about sexuality at all. Policies like this actively discourage Women’s Studies instructors from challenging students to leave their comfort zones and broaden their minds when it comes to sex. It is much safer to speak in conceptual terms so vague they could not possibly offend anyone.

The turn toward abstraction is not unique to Women’s Studies. Across the humanities, there has been a widespread shift to theory and jargon, rendering many fields inaccessible to those outside academia. While many critics have pointed out how problematic this is, it is particularly tragic for departments—like Women’s Studies, African American Studies, Native American Studies, and Latino Studies—that were born out of student activism. In the late 1960s and early ’70s, universities created these departments to respond to student demands for courses that would give them the knowledge and skills to tackle problems in their communities. Without their activist spark, these fields lose their purpose.

Today, feminism has a major image problem. Celebrities like Taylor Swift, Bjork, and Lady Gaga have vocally disavowed feminism, and even Yahoo’s CEO Marissa Mayer and Supreme Court judge Sandra Day O’Connor deny being feminists, despite actively fighting against gender discrimination. Those who do carry the feminist mantle often do so in the most tentative language. “That word can be very extreme. I guess I am a feminist. … Why do you have to choose what kind of woman you are?” asks Beyonce. Sheryl Sandberg, for her part, calls Lean In a “sort of feminist manifesto.”

Women’s Studies is not entirely to blame for feminism’s fall from grace, but it has certainly not done much to make feminism useful or accessible or appealing to the generation it addresses on college campuses. These departments have an opportunity to make feminism relevant again by helping college students understand the nature of gender inequality they are currently facing and to develop strategies to tackle it. But this will involve moving away from theory and meeting students where they are. It’s not too late to turn things around.

I recently spoke with a friend who is about to start teaching in the Women’s Studies department of a college that has just been under intense media scrutiny because of its handling of a violent rape case in the spring. “It is would be ridiculous to launch into gender theory without calling out the elephant in the room,” she tells me. She plans to start the semester with a frank conversation about the rape, since it is already on everybody’s mind. She wants to speak to her students in direct, personal terms, but she’s anxious about going against academic convention. “I might end up looking like a fool, but I don’t think there’s any other way,” she says. I can’t wait to hear how it goes.