Feminist scholars in the fields of history, anthropology, philosophy and law discussed class relations within academia, race relations within the women's movement, ways to confront imperialism and heterosexism, and tools for decoding the U.S. celebrity machine at a daylong symposium celebrating the 20th anniversary of the MIT Program in Women's Studies.
The event, "Challenges for Women's Studies: Power, Politics and Gender," drew a capacity crowd to Room 10-250 on Saturday, Feb. 12. Speakers included Chandra Talpade Mohanty, professor of women's studies at Syracuse University; "Nation" columnist and Columbia Law School professor Patricia Williams; and members of the MIT faculty.
President Susan Hockfield, visibly moved by the standing ovation she received on entering the hall, added her own "voice to those celebrating two decades of educational and scholarly achievement" and praised the Program in Women's Studies as an interdisciplinary field that combines insight with analysis in a way that "informs those who set university policies as well as the young women and men who strive to understand the world and make it a batter place."
Stating that Marie Curie had long ago "exploded the myth that women could not do science," Hockfield noted the importance to society of drawing more young women into science and technology and of making MIT and even more supportive environment while challenging its students to their highest potential.
Ruth Perry, founding director in 1984 of the Program in Women's Studies, commented that the challenge to the program is not producing "more women CEOs but steadfastly championing all women's right to full and dignified humanity."
The colonial academy
Higher education is "deeply classed in all its assumptions. Working-class students and women are thus 'deeply closeted' in the academy," said Sarah Deutsch, professor and chair of history at Duke University, in her comments to open the discussion, "Gender and Class: Conversations Without Guilt."
Deutsch likened the challenges facing women's studies in bringing out discussions of class prejudice within universities to the ones that once faced suffragists or trade unionists in the early 20th century.
"Cross-class coalitions among women are difficult to create; they're always contingent and don't necessarily last. But if we can't talk about class in this environment, how will we do it in the larger world?" Deutsch asked.
Sally Haslanger and Rae Langton, both professors of linguistics and philosophy, offered theory and narrative as ways to illuminate class divisions and how they relate to gender.
Haslanger, animatedly seizing chalk and blackboard, drew a map to guide the audience through her theory, which posits that "markings of gender, race, ethnicity and so on situate the body within a larger structure of domination and submission. Class, symbolized by work, is where you're located," she said.
Langton acknowledged she was one of those "deeply closeted working-class women in the academy. I'm outing myself now," she said, going on to discuss "how who you are affects what it is that you value." For example, Langton's working-class roots helped her become a philosopher, because in her family of "builders and miners" physical strength, not school, was valued. Her sister, who did want to participate in the men's work, "had a big fight."
The whole idea of citizenship has been gobbled up by militaristic, hypermasculine and hegemonic values, with dire, gendered results now under way in things like the "maid trade," declared Chandra Mohanty, in her talk, "Feminists Confront Empire." Mohanty, who is the Dean's Professor of Humanities at Syracuse, sees an "urgent challenge for feminists to name, analyze and confront the empire and work for its demise," she said.
She offered some steps on behalf of democracy and multigendered citizenship. These included analyzing the operation and effect of empire, connecting analysis to practice, "being present and visible as feminists, and believing there is another world and acting on it," she said.
The gender decoy
Patricia Williams cited examples from pop culture, the media and Bush administration policies to portray the challenges facing feminists and ordinary folk who don't want to "trade precious civil liberties for homeland security."
In her talk, "Race, Gender and Law in a Divided World," Williams discussed the role in Bush's America of well-known African-Americans, including Michael Jackson, Mohammed Ali, Will Smith, Oprah, Anita Hill and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, whom Williams called the "anti-Anita Hill."
Analysis of the political use of celebrity shows Rice is a "gender decoy, an elegant black female, a figurehead for a preemptive war," Williams declared. She also noted the painful irony that Rice, whose generation came of age with the bombing of a church in Birmingham, would become the "public face of a chaotic force that now bombs mosques."
Speakers at the anniversary event also included Elizabeth Wood, director of the Program in Women's Studies and associate professor of history; Lisa Rofel, associate professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz; Evelynn Hammonds, professor of the history of science and of African and African-American Studies at Harvard; and Rebecca Faery, director of First-Year Writing at MIT.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 16, 2005 (download PDF).