You might have seen this meme floating around on social media. The image itself varies (I admit I only picked this one because I like that the guy has a pipe), but the caption is the important part.
I’ve seen this particular complaint, and that particular retort, thrown around in non-meme form as well. I’ve also seen some people try to argue that there should be some kind of justification for “Men’s Studies,” which apparently has even become enough of a thing in some circles to merit a Wikipedia entry.
But I have come here today not to praise Men’s Studies, but to bury it. And, at the same time, to point out the gross conceptual error in that particular internet meme’s retort to the concept of men’s studies, and why I would argue that this kind of thinking is in fact harmful to feminism.
First, let me say that I would call myself a feminist. A strongly pro-equality, strongly sex-positive individualist feminist. I’m pro-LGBT, strongly believe that no one should be discriminated against on the basis of gender, support and encourage the involvement of women in geek culture, I’m (obviously, it’s crazy this needs to be said) strongly opposed to rape and sexual harassment of any kind. And while being sex-positive I also do recognize and share concerns about the depiction or objectification of women in popular media, to the point that I have to admit I don’t always approve of some of the links or articles on this very website, and have said so to my own boss (or as I call him, “The Invincible Overlord”). But I also believe in free speech being an essential route to social evolution, which I likewise consider part of my perspective on feminism.
And that’s the thing: those of you (my friends reading this) who haven’t looked into feminism a great deal might not realize that “Feminism” is not one thing. As much as people sometimes try to present it as some kind of monolithic entity (both its supposed proponents, including certain groups desperately trying to own control over the definition of that term; and those who oppose the thing they’ve set up and called feminism), there are in fact huge varieties of perspectives within feminism, that are often in direct opposition to one another. That’s how you can end up with situations like the one where a self-defined feminist organization claiming to be dedicated to defending women could end up censoring and shutting down a talk being given by a famous (but sex-positive) feminist woman.
In that scenario, the Ada Initiative allegedly interested in promoting involvement and agency for women in the tech industry, were advocating a kind of censorious anti-sex feminism and took umbrage with a talk about drug use and harm reduction by Violet Blue, whose feminist credentials are fairly unimpeachable but are of a different kind of feminism (one that believes in empowering women who make choices as individuals rather than theoretically “protecting” them as an abstract group).
Guidelines for geek conventions created by the Ada Initiative were later used in an attempt to pressure the Escapist Expo into setting up an “anti-harassment” policy that would have potentially targeted a large number of women that engaged in cosplay or drew art that anyone might claim to feel “uncomfortable” with (note: fortunately, the people at the Escapist realized those implications and later revised their anti-harassment code to something far more sensible). I’m fairly sure that a large number of those women artists and cosplayers would define themselves as feminists, but would certainly not feel like the Ada Initiative style of feminism speaks for them. Lately, there have been brands of feminism that have moved away from the bra-burning sexual liberation of the past and turned into enforcers over other women (many of whom also consider themselves feminists) as to what they are or are not allowed to wear. And as you might imagine, this has created a significant internal conflict within feminism:
To say nothing of what happens in the conflicts between feminists when it comes to actual feminists in the adult industry (like the harassment that “Suicide Girl” and “I Hit It With My Axe” star Mandy Morbid wrote about experiencing from supposed feminists even while she was gravely ill in the hospital. I know for a fact that Mandy Morbid says she is a feminist just as much as the people who have viciously attacked her say they are.
It’s not just about sex, there’s also a famous conflict between feminist schools of thought on the subject of Transgender inclusion; where some revered (mostly “second-wave”) Feminists including Gloria Steinem and Germaine Greer had rejected the idea of accepting Trans Women as real women or including them in the feminist movement, arguing that Trans Women are nothing more than “males who’ve castrated themselves” who are engaging in some kind of a “pantomime” representing a fake view of womanhood from a male image (it should be noted that Steinem has later recanted some of her more vitriolic views, but others, including Greer, have not). The perspective of these feminists has been extreme enough to lead them to deny Trans Women participation in Feminist events, cultural festivals, and to try to deny them jobs or access to charity support on account of their not being “real women.” This is of course totally at odds with the view many other (particularly post-second-wave) feminists have that Transgender Rights are a compatible or even essential part of the feminist cause.
So what does all this tell us? First, that we have to throw out the idea that there’s only a single feminism out there. Second, all of the above? It’s HISTORY. I’ve just shown you history.
Yes, back to the original topic we go! The idea that we need a Men’s Studies because there’s a Women’s Studies is dumb. But it is equally dumb, and probably far more short-sighted and deleterious, to argue that History is men’s studies. History is the study of humanity, and if you really want to concede the field of that arena to men, you aren’t helping your cause, you’re drowning it, for any number of reasons.
I’ll note to y’all that this is personal to me. As an academic, I did degree work in both History and Comparative Studies. Now, the latter wasn’t Women’s Studies (though I did take Women’s Studies courses), but the point stands that I’ve looked at things from both sides. Women’s Studies is one of various interdisciplinary academic fields (like Religious Studies, which, if you’re curious, was the one I did), which is by no means the same as History. To clarify, an “interdisciplinary study” is a field of academic study that combines multiple individual academic fields. So Women’s Studies (like Religious Studies, and most of the other “studies”) takes pieces of the methodology from History, Anthropology, Psychology, Sociology, Political Science, and sometimes other fields. This provides certain advantages. It allows for a broad examination of specific case studies or the observation of a particular phenomenon from a variety of angles, but it also means that it is explicitly NOT any one of those aforementioned fields. An important distinction is that there are significantly different standards for academic methodology in these various fields; from things like modes of research to methods of citation. I can tell you for a fact that the onus on proper citation or use of primary sources to support an argument are not nearly as strong in any comparative study as they are in History.
This is not to say that there shouldn’t be Women’s Studies, but that mistaking that for “history, women’s version” is a disastrous misreading. The study of the history of women NEEDS to be done within the field of History itself, and indeed a great deal of important work has been done within that field. And when it is done in the field of History, it takes on a different level and style of rigor than within Women’s Studies, where ultimately the main purpose is not in the careful and accurate assessment of historical fact, but in looking at the broad-stroke nature of women’s issues from a modern lens. Work that has fallen under the aegis of Women’s Studies has involved positions, including historical claims, that would never have passed the muster of burden of proof in History (usually justified under the idea of it being ‘different ways of knowing‘ than historical research).
The problem with this is that by doing so, by setting history apart, writing it off as a “tool of the patriarchy to oppress women,” you are writing off all the foundational concepts of our intellectual world, including those very concepts that allowed the emergence of Women’s Studies in the first place. You are dismissing the value of fact-based study as valid for women, or as a valid way for women to discover the story of women through history. It may not be as immediately apparent as in the sciences, where this concept that ‘fact’ is an optional and possibly ‘oppressive’ demand has led to a situation where women still lag behind in the hard-sciences or medical professions but are overwhelmingly over-represented as both the sellers of and customer base for quack medicine like homeopathy or movements like anti-vaccination; but the damage it does is just as insidious, because it tarnishes the entire ideological basis of one’s causes. How can it not if what you’re saying by claiming that History is a masculine discipline amounts to “proving your claims is for boys?” In just what way does cornering yourself into an academic ghetto and cutting yourself off from the foundations of the Western intellectual tradition do anything other than cut off your own nose, breaking your own tools, to spite the Patriarchy’s face?
History as a discipline needs women, and needs people doing serious historical research related to women in history. Women’s Studies may have its uses, but it is not that.
History belongs to women as much as men; and History as a discipline must likewise. So I close with a quote from another feminist, Janet Radcliffe-Richards; she said it about the sciences but it applies just as much to history: “It is hard to imagine anything better calculated to delight the soul of patriarchal man than the sight of women’s most vociferous leaders taking an approach to feminism that continues so much of his own work: luring women off into a special area of their own where they will remain screened from the detailed study of philosophy and science to which he always said they were unsuited, teaching them indignation instead of argument, fantasy and metaphor instead of science, and doing all this by continuing his very own technique of persuading women that their true interests lie elsewhere than in the areas colonized by men.”
Kasimir Urbanski doesn’t write on a specific subject; he’s EveryJoe’s resident maniac-at-large. A recovering Humanities academic and world-traveler, he now lives in South America and is a researcher of fringe religion, eastern philosophy, and esoteric consciousness-expansion. In his spare time he writes tabletop RPGs, and blogs about them at therpgpundit.blogspot.com.
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