A Dialogue on Action: Risks and Possibilities of Feminism in the Academy in the 21st Century
Jessica Ketcham Weber, Lisa Costello, Allison Gross,
Regina Clemens Fox, and Lorie Jacobs

This collective essay represents the voices of five female teacher-scholar-activists. We all come from different backgrounds, work and study at different kinds of universities, and have different research interests, but we all share a concern for identifying the status of feminism in the academy at the beginning of the 21st century, particularly with regard to the declining popularity of the term ‘feminist’ and the willingness to identify oneself as such among, most notably, young women today. This essay brings our various perspectives and voices together, and while we outline our central concerns individually below, we do so as a group, collaboratively making rhetorical, feminist choices in order to show that where there is dissensus, there is also consensus – that the very spaces in which our perspectives diverge provide unique opportunities for furthering the feminist goals that are of value to all of us. At the same time, we seek, through this rhetorical form, to demonstrate the importance of building connections with others without sacrificing an awareness of the differences crucial to resisting reductive accounts of what it means to do feminist work.

Doing Feminism: Space, Discourse, Action

Rather than focusing on what feminism is, a focus that is often a privileged discourse, why not also think about where feminism happens and what we DO as feminists in the academy? In the academic schism between theory and practice, theory has been privileged primarily because it is directly correlated to publishing, promotion, and tenure. Practice has value, but it is a value attached to the activity of ‘service’, a realm that is promoted by universities as a core mission, and yet, is not structurally rewarded as such. In the field of Rhetoric and Composition in particular, the work of teaching writing is often seen as a service to the university – and this service is increasingly gendered in nature. The exploration of such gendered practices and structures are an intimate part of action and the DOING of feminism, as they are inevitably related to theory. Ellen Messer-Davidow notes in Disciplining Feminism that the problem arises in translation, because we operate in “discontinuous discourses” (11). Activist and academic discourses are at odds because they see and define change differently. As she observes, “the tactical skills of activism rendered ‘change’ as conflicts to be shaped, whereas the intellectual skills of disciplines had rendered it as schematics to be debated” (ibid.). It is in these divergent renderings that we can find a space of translation in which to see and enact change. Re-thinking (about) feminist action as space and spaces, allows it to evolve as more than an intellectual endeavour or a practice. In feminist spaces, we can discuss and shape, define and DO.

Feminist spaces embody risks and possibilities for feminism in the 21st century because they cannot be contained – they are both personal and public. Feminist spaces are at once discursive and embodied, individual and communal. They require that we perform feminism as a personal and a public commitment, because different situations require alternative feminist actions. Feminist spaces are DONE and are defined and re-defined as they happen. DOING feminism means taking up space, shaping space, moving space, and making space for action. In feminist spaces we can consciously enact subversive feminism. It is also our responsibility to open these spaces to embrace feminist action that is ‘unaware’. In these open feminist spaces, we are responsible to teach and share knowledge – to make conscious what is unconscious – so that in the process of naming, the doing happens again. As bell hooks continues to insist, we need to acknowledge the intersectionality of feminism with race, class, and sexual preference and understand that each feminist action is informed by diverse knowledges. Likewise, as Marjorie Pryse suggests, we can move toward “transversal” feminist politics, where each participant in the evolving dialogue of feminism can both be “root[ed] in her own membership and identity,” and also shift “to put herself in a situation of exchange with women who have different membership and identity” (109). We can share knowledge to make these issues less about division and more about what needs to happen. When we integrate issues of inequality as dialogue, practice, and methodology, and enact them in diverse feminist spaces, we can see what we have done and what we still need to learn and DO.

Reclaiming Public Voices in Institutional Spaces

There is an increasingly complicated relationship between public feminist voices and public feminist spaces. In our globalized world of privatization and corporatization, feminist action in the 21st century might be best analyzed in relation to feminist spaces. Among other things, the field of feminist geography attends to the construction of gender through the use of and construction of spaces. In her book Feminism and Geography: The Limits of Geographical Knowledge, Gillian Rose reflects on the relationship between feminist thought and space: “feminism refracts the space of the everyday through an awareness of the distinction between public and private space” (19). Throughout her book she examines the construction of public space as a place where women’s actions, bodies, and voices aren’t legitimate. Implicating its patriarchal construction and conception, Rose asserts that “public space is violently policed to exclude its Others” (62). Taking Jürgen Habermas to task on his articulation of the public sphere as if it were singular, Nancy Fraser called for subaltern counterpublics, or “parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counter-discourses, which in turn permit them to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs” (67). It is in these counter-spaces that we can begin to articulate the complexities of feminist action in the 21st century academy.

Early manifestations of feminism in the academy were their own kind of subaltern counterpublic. In an article examining the implications for feminists who don’t acknowledge the divide between academics and activism, Robyn Weigman begins, “In the early seventies, feminism in the US academy was less an organized entity than a set of practices: an ensemble of courses listed on bulletin boards and often taught for free by faculty and community leaders […] today, it is surely safe to say, much has changed” (18). She cites general education courses which feature women’s and gender issues, feminist scholarship as part of competency exams in many fields, expanding programs and departments with major and minors, PhD programs in Women’s Studies, and tenure lines in women’s literature and women’s studies as evidence that indeed feminism has become institutionalized in pockets of academia. I’d add to this list the physical spaces seemingly dedicated to women on campuses – places such as women’s centres, women’s and gender studies departments, group exercise classes for university women, and women’s clinics. Are these feminist spaces? Are they places for feminist action? In their exploratory video on the subject, Lisa Costello and Jessica Ketcham Weber attempt to find out whether these spaces can function as counterpublics anymore.[1]

What happens to places when they become official…formalized…institutionalized? Let’s think for a moment about other institutionalized spaces on many university campuses. What happens to community action when it becomes formalized through service-learning programs or part of graduation requirements? What happens to free speech on campus once there are designated free speech zones? More importantly, as a teacher of service-learning classes, a frequenter of my campus women’s centre and free speech alley, how can I/we talk about these issues without seeming like we are critical of the work being done in these spaces? I’ve recently seen the danger of these spaces potentially disappearing if they aren’t constantly celebrated in the eyes of administration. Let’s look a bit harder at our college and university campuses and rethink space as crucial to action/doing. Are the places dedicated to/for women on your campus encouraging feminist action or simply commodifying the movement?

Feminist Pedagogy Under the Radar

Consider, for example, the de-centred classroom, initiated, of course, by the work of Paolo Friere and bell hooks, among others. It is now commonplace for a classroom space to move beyond the “banking concept of education” to one where authority is shared and fluid between teacher and students. Miriam Wallace, in “Beyond Love and Battle: Practicing Feminist Pedagogy,” says feminist pedagogy “ought to mean a self-questioning and self-aware pedagogical practice which began with the assumptions that power differentials exist in all social situations, that the language in which we describe ourselves and our activities is constitutive as well as descriptive, and that shifting pedagogical practices and assumptions would reveal some of the ways in which social power is created and made invisible” (184). Similarly, Gail Stygall links collaboration and feminist practice in her article “Women and Language in the Collaborative Writing Classroom,” claiming feminist “liberal ideology […] assumes that the classroom is a free, open forum, because the instructor can mediate inequalities by articulating, modeling, and enforcing the rules of respectful, relevant exchange and development of positions” (253). In my experience, most teachers perform collaboration/negotiation with their students, some as simply as valuing the narrative voice in composition, while others use student-created assessment and service-learning projects. All are developed in the spirit, if not the name, of feminist praxis. Feminist pedagogy has manifested itself as part of a commodified active learning concept, methods which appear in Best Practices manuals across the curriculum and grade levels. Group work and peer critiques take place in nearly every classroom space, yet, rarely is any of it associated with a feminist pedagogy outside of academic journals. We are doing feminism nearly every day in today’s classroom, but rarely calling it so. Feminist praxis has become as commonplace as the ‘banking concept’ it was originally intended to resist, making feminist pedagogy an example of both an achievement and an unnaming at once.

In some spaces, an undercover feminist practice is necessary. It is far more practical for the secondary teacher to ask her students to collaborate without calling attention to its feminist origins. Imagine the parents who might object to ‘feminist pedagogy’ but have no trouble seeing the rewards of ‘collaborative learning’. While I see the value for teachers to let some things go unsaid, I worry about the implications when so few students, parents, and even teachers recognize their work as part of an ongoing feminist movement, one that is working, perhaps too well. In some ways we can certainly argue that the work of feminism is done. On iFeminists.com, Katie Allison Granju argues, in “Feminism’s Fourth Wave: Women are doing nearly everything men do, but...”, that we’ve made undeniable progress as visible in her third-grade daughter’s experience: she “is growing up in a pop culture infused with grrl-power – from the Powerpuff Girls to Jessica Lynch” (para. 8). The other side of that coin, however, is that an unconscious practice leads to disassociation of feminist work from feminism.

Even the students who take on gender issues in their own research are fearful of the F-word. Like Claire, a freshman composition student, who thought that criticizing her much-beloved Barbie employed a “Femi-Nazi” perspective. And even though she eventually came to agree with feminist theories on the subject through her own personal and collaborative research, she balked at the idea of ever calling herself a “feminist.” Those teachers who understand how de-centred pedagogy engages feminism actively and use it in their classrooms unnamed, may intend it to be a subversive tactic to disentangle the F-word from the practice, thereby making it more user-friendly. But, such unnaming for the sake of reclaiming is problematic, risking disassociation and disengagement rather than intersectionality. Are we, through unnamed and passive pedagogies, in danger of yielding the exact opposite of what bell hooks calls for, and landing ourselves right back at square one?

Construction, not Representation: Performing Feminism

We can ask similar questions about what’s happening in the political arena. For example, would a female president necessarily promote a feminist agenda, or might it also risk commodifying the movement and facilitating the assertion that sexism must be dead because we have a female president?[2] Furthermore, what might addressing this question tell us about the relationship between politics and our concerns within the academy? On February 23, 2008, Tina Fey made a return appearance to Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” for a segment entitled “Women’s News.” In that appearance, Fey commented that despite having “our first serious female presidential candidate in Hillary Clinton […] women have come so far as feminists that they don’t feel obligated to vote for a candidate just because she’s a woman. Women today feel perfectly free to make whatever choice Oprah tells them to.” Fey’s commentary implicates all women (“as feminists”) and underscores a salient issue to feminists in the 21st century. It is well known that Clinton’s campaign has sparked a debate between second wave and third wave feminists (and among younger women who may not identify themselves as feminists at all) about who best represents the interests of women. But I am less interested in whether or not Obama or Clinton is just such a representative than in the suggestion Fey makes that how one votes communicates something important about what kind of woman, or what kind of feminist, one is. In other words, according to the second wave viewpoint, it is not enough to hold certain beliefs or values; those values must be represented by and in one’s actions. From this point of view, voting for Clinton ‘says something’ that voting for Obama does not. Conversely, from another perspective (and this would be closer to the third wave viewpoint), it is in the very act of voting (or, in this case, simply supporting) that one, in a sense, constitutes one’s feminist identity (i.e. constructs the values that are taken as a priori by second wave feminists). This division among feminists, raised by the current presidential campaign, highlights what I consider to be a major issue for feminism in the 21st century: if we consider our actions to be part of the ‘performance’ of feminisms, then what are the risks and possibilities of various kinds of performance (or lack thereof)?

A focus on feminism as something enacted in and (continually) structured through performance is a crucial tool for resisting essentialism, which is the death knell, so to speak, for all historically marginalized, disenfranchised populations. Judith Butler’s scholarship on performativity is perhaps the most salient example of how discourse “produce[s] the phenomena that it regulates and constrains” (2). Yet it is genre studies that has helped us understand how we may nonetheless shape conceptions of feminism through an understanding of social action (see Carolyn Miller). If we accept the poststructuralist argument that our identities are constructed in performance, which renders the reduction of an individual to one salient ‘characteristic’ (be it race, class, gender, or sexuality) impossible, then it is our responsibility as feminist scholars to attend to the ways in which those constructions occur. Attention to the actions that we as feminists take that allow us to self-define as feminists allows for a more open discussion – another important ‘space’ – in which to explore intersectionality—not only between race and gender, for example, but also between material, discursive, and intrapersonal forces. Furthermore, this is a space that might also allow us to see precisely where the interests and goals of second-wave feminists intersect with third-wave feminists, which might in turn help us to see what future actions we can take that can both speak to and construct the interests of all individuals concerned about gender equality rather than allowing our actions (e.g. voting for Clinton or Obama) to be something that divides us. In this sense, I would argue it is not a small thing to advocate for greater meta-awareness of the choices we make in various rhetorical situations in which we find ourselves (an insistence on self-reflexivity and refusal to work ‘under the radar’) – whether it be the classroom or the voting booth.

Rhetorical Approaches to Feminisms: Identifying Kairos for Feminist Action

In the past, problems with radical feminism(s) have stemmed not from foundational ideas, but from negotiation of meaning between rhetor and audience, leading to misunderstanding and misperception about what feminism(s) is and could be for each person involved. Feminism(s) thus, at times, has become an “f” word – a term not to utter in certain company. Feminists therefore must actively seek to co-construct what feminism(s) means in each community, becoming inclusive and open to alternative interpretations if it is to thrive. Vehement opposition to feminism(s) can be diffused with rhetorical approaches suggested by ancient rhetoricians. Hostile audiences were not uncommon in Ancient Greece and Rome; in fact, they were the norm, and from these cultural contexts some of our most effective rhetorical traditions emerged.

Gorgias, in “On the Nonexistent,” explained that nothing could be known, because even if we could know something, we would have to perceive it through our own senses, and then communicate it to another through language (134-136). These processes of perceiving and languaging are subjective, and thus what we communicate is too. Doing feminism(s) rhetorically requires that we recognize other people’s subjectivity, and our own, in each communicative act, especially where we hope to overcome oppression. We can approach every opportunity to do feminism(s) kairotically, as the Ancients would. Gorgias and Isocrates conceived of kairos, in the sense of the rhetor paying close attention to the context of communication, understanding the audience and its needs, and identifying emergent moments in time and space that were ideal for rhetorical action. Spaces such as these are where feminism(s) can develop and flourish (Miller xii.). Additionally, Cicero conceived of kairos as the rhetor planning/preparing to construct rhetorical action by learning about the audience’s needs, reading the context, and responding to it, but also by constructing spaces where rhetorical action can most effectively occur (Miller xii.). Feminism(s) stands to have the greatest impact where it involves its audience, no matter how hostile it may be, in the negotiation of what it does and what it means.

As noted above, identity is a performance, which means it is dynamic and open to collaborative and cooperative construction, so it is important that we use the spaces that we encounter/develop to invite others to co-construct feminism together, which demands understanding intersections of identity that construct people’s subjectivities. We can then begin to acknowledge oppression in the many forms it takes, which is the first step in combating it. Despite popular assertions that we don’t ‘need’ feminism anymore, we still live in a society that supports oppression in many forms, and to overcome oppression we must face it together. Enacting feminism(s) rhetorically, then, means that we can complicate different categories of oppression that people are subjected to in order to “define complex experiences as closely to their full complexity as possible” so that we do not do as others in the past have done: “ignore voices on the margin” (Grillo 33). We can successfully cultivate feminism(s) in the kairotic spaces we find and/or construct by “trying to understand the complex ways that race, gender, sexual orientation, and class (among other things) are related” (Grillo 36) and allow that to shape the meaning both rhetor and audience create and take away from the rhetorical events of doing feminism(s). As scholars and activists of feminism(s), we must be vigilant, always, on the one hand, preparing and planning for rhetorical events to occur, as Cicero would have us do, and, on the other hand, seizing emergent moments that lend themselves to doing feminism(s) rhetorically, as Gorgias and Isocrates would advise. If we want others to do feminism(s), we cannot allow feminism(s) to violate or oppress potential feminists (read: everyone/anyone) or we become that which we have tried to overcome. Feminism(s) does not have to be the ‘f’ word that people in polite company just do not say; rather, it should be the event in which everyone is invited to participate.

Collective Thoughts

As five female teacher-scholar-activists, we set out to outline our various concerns about the status of feminism in the academy in the 21st century. As we worked individually and collaboratively outlining our central concerns about what it means to do feminist work, we found that inviting participation for feminist work and feminist action requires the space in which to do this work and this action. We also find that enacting feminism comes from the performance of feminism. We can name, perform, invite, include, expand, teach, etc. In addition, we must perform feminism consciously; we must speak the word ‘feminism’ to make these choices and these actions wilful and visible. And finally, when we do feminism, we need to focus on purposeful movement and shifts – be in constant motion so that this action is not contained or watered down or dismissed.

Feminism in the academy in the 21st century, as we have variously elaborated here, is about both locating and constructing spaces for women and men in and against history. Our collective experiences bind us and divide us, while our individual backgrounds define us. For feminism to continue to dialogue, we must continue to engage with others in feminist action. We ‘do’ feminism communally whenever we enact spaces that are stable and locatable, but we also enact spaces that are make-shift, flexible, responsive, ephemeral-- spaces that come in the form of classrooms and offices and meetings, playgrounds, shelters, political arenas, voting booths, and shopping malls. When we invite participation and dialogue, we invite work on discursive, academic agendas in research and methods. When we invite participation and dialogue, we invite work on community services, equal pay, and ending domestic violence. When we invite participation and dialogue, we ask that it is explicit and conscious rather than covert or oblivious or involuntary. When we invite participation and dialogue, we ask that it is rhetorical and flexible, able to shift to suit its purpose and goals for the audience/interlocutor at hand. In such a way, we believe feminism in the 21st century is anything but irrelevant or done. We believe there is far more to be accomplished and that searching for consensus rather than dissensus, for intersectionality among and between our various goals and scholarship is the best place to start. We believe the action of building connections with others without sacrificing an awareness of the differences or the methods is what it means to do feminist work.


1 See Costello, Lisa and Jessica Ketcham Weber. "Reclaiming Feminist Discourse in Institutionalized Campus Spaces." [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QVoKhac_-7E]. (28 August 2008) and Costello, Lisa and Jessica Ketcham Weber. "Reclaiming Feminist Discourse in Institutionalized Campus Spaces, Part Two." [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9xlVggim9h0]. (28 August 2008). back

2 Political pundits and scholars alike are looking at Sarah Palin, McCain's Vice-Presidential running mate, to begin to answer this question. back


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