Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Cher Man

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I just wanted to add my two cents about the "man as chair of women's studies department" story . While it did not have a doctoral degree, our women's studies program had a prominent gay historian as its Head for a couple of years, until he stepped down for health reasons. He was as fair and reasonable and kind as you hope your colleagues could ever be. He led job searches for men as well as women candidates, and was more open to queer studies than I have found many, MANY women to be, especially in women's studies, where there seems to be a great deal of fear that queer means men (woman, of course, too often means straight). His presence helped neutralize THAT kind of ongoing homophobia, and as a lesbian trying to make a place for queers in what I found to be a very straight curriculum, I thought he was a blessing. He was efficient about meetings, took the responsibility of power when it was his job to figure things out, and happily left things to the larger group to decide if they were so inclined. He helped make a smooth transition in the program from a "women's" studies focus to one more inclusive of "gender" studies, and I think the program will be stronger for it.

Plus, he wrote me a terrific letter, and that goes a long way.

Was he more fair because he felt less entitled in his role, and felt more, too, the need to accomodate others and make them feel comfortable with his leadership? Maybe so. But while I concede that it worked because of the very real power women held in the program--power that he knew he had to recognize and work with-- it really worked. SO maybe the question is not whether or not men should head women's studies, but rather, how do we make better progress empowering women throughout universities so that when men are Chairs, they experience this same kind of need to cultivate womens' good will as part of their everyday strategy of leadership?


shrinkykitten said...

I am of many minds about this, but for the most part I am grouchy, and I’ll tell you why. First, I think that a man as head of “Gender and women’s studies” is different from man as head of “Women’s studies” and my comments will focus on the latter.

I worry that a man legitimizes a Women’s studies department in a way a woman never could. Women who study women are seen as more marginal, not real scientists, not studying “people,” their research is seen as replete with bias and emotion, and likely trying to work out their own issues through their research. Studying women is simply not real science. However, if a man does it, these issues become moot. Men in women-dominated fields are often exalted (esp. by women), are promoted more quickly and paid at higher rates (and this is absolutely not true of women in male-dominated fields).

What does it do to female grad students in that department when they think about their own prospects in the field? As a woman grad student in a female-dominated program, but with a professorship (nationally) that is dominated by men, I can tell you it is disheartening and has shifted my own ideas of what is possible for me. I could imagine if I studied women’s studies, I would think that my sex would be an asset, but his promotion might convince me otherwise.

On the other hand, I think it is wonderful when men are feminists, and that male feminist scholarship is extremely important. But, at the same time, there is something a little weird tome about a man who is an “expert” on women. This isn’t a fully formulated idea, but I feel as though often women are expected to solve the social ills that affect men (such as violence against men in the form of rape, domestic violence, and sexual abuse). Complaints are often made that there aren’t DV programs for me (I won’t enter into the debate on DV and men as victims here) or rape crisis lines for men, etc. To which I assert back, why aren’t men making them? And I’m not completely clear on how these two ideas fit – but I feel like a really good place for men within feminism is to work on issues of men and masculinity (an area in huge need of good research, I think). Which doesn’t mean they ought not study women, I think it’s good, just as it’s good for women to study masculinity. I think it goes back to my issue about men who study women are seen as more legitimate.

Finally, as an aside barely related to this and more related to another post of yours – it stuns me that a prof in G&WS told a student that she/he would be better served not studying queer studies. I recently taught a gender-related class and got two comments that were similar. First, one student complained that most of the readings were by lesbians (and actually, I think I far underrepresented lesbians and need to work on this for the next time I teach this particular course). Second, one student wrote that I ought not cover lesbians or transgendered women & men at all and should just focus on women. I think I didn’t realize that they were mutually exclusive categories (sarcasm), and certainly didn’t realize that students still saw them as such by the end of the class. So, I definitely have some more work to do.

atoep said...

Nice picture.

Sfrajett said...

Shrinky, I am with you on the problem of men legitimating women's studies. Does a nationally-recognized man have more clout than a woman of the same rank and accomplishment? Probably. Does his presence as Head or Chair lend more prestige to the program than a just-as-famous woman would? Highly likely. Is there gross sexism everywhere in the academy and does this situation reflect that? Oh yeah. But if a man wants to take a post usually held by women, and if his presence lends more prestige to the post, is the problem with the man, with the department, the university, or the sexism of the whole freaking academy? And what if this guy made queer students and faculty of all genders feel more comfortable than the old homophobic ladies ever did?

For me, the sad queer studies student story just shows that "women" are not always allies, and "men" are not necessarily enemies. So I'm cautious about slamming a man as Chair on the basis of gender, 'cause I've seen some (but not all by any means) women colleagues be way, way worst sexists in everyday department life. I guess I don't think gender tells me much about what anybody's politics are going to be, so I'm cautious about generalizing what a male chair of women's studies really means.