Future Possibilities for Gender and Feminist Studies at the New School (and Beyond)

By Ximena Bustamante and Julie Chaparro [1]

Through the years, there have been several efforts to open spaces for gender and feminist studies at the New School. These have included the demand to reopen the Gender and Feminist Theory Program that worked at the graduate level during the nineties, and which, despite wide support from faculty, students, and staff, has not yet become a reality. However, there also have been achievements, such as the recent creation of a Gender Studies minor at Eugene Lang College. The Conference “No Longer in Exile: The Legacy and Future of Gender Studies at The New School” constituted a celebration of all these historical efforts and also an invitation to think about future possibilities and courses of action to build fruitful ground for feminism and gender studies at the New School.

Regarding the possibilities for the future, it is revealing that among the group of students that got together to contribute to this conference, there was a particular concern about the creation of an institutional figure that would grants us a permanent space of intellectual exchange and work beyond the conference. That is how Julie Chaparro and I decided to sketch some ideas on how that figure might look like and to explore what could be the political and epistemological consequences of particular institutional arrangements. An exercise like this necessarily has to take into account budgetary and structural limitations at the New School, but also the possibilities offered by previous interdisciplinary experiences and by the various resources that the institution does have.

One of the figures at Social Research that could constitute a framework of reference for this project is that of the Committee on Historical Studies, which grants both an MA and a joint Ph.D with all the disciplines. The Committee, in the case of gender studies, would require hiring at least one person to coordinate the activities, while the rest of the faculty would have its main appointment in other departments. Despite the fact that the Committee itself would not hire professors –at least in the beginning stages– its  constitution as a space of convergence of existing faculty that works on gender and feminist studies could serve as a platform to foster the hiring of faculty committed to Gender Studies in the different departments. As Nancy Fraser pointed out in a document she kindly shared with us, in which she develops some reflections about the resources and intellectual focus necessary to constitute a program at the graduate level, there are some departments at the NSSR that are in particular need of including gender studies consciousness when hiring, such as sociology, philosophy, and economics.

The figure of the Committee has the advantage of creating the possibility for cross-polinization among disciplines, something that tends to be more difficult with independent programs focused on gender. Independent programs allow high levels specialization, but precisely for that reason they tend to become worlds unto themselves or, to put it bluntly, to constitute a sort of ghetto. Another problem that independent programs face is that the academic credentials they offer to students tend to entail difficulties for job placement. As the experience of many programs offering Ph.Ds in gender studies has shown, traditional departments are not likely to hire feminist teachers and scholars who are not explicitly trained in a “regular” discipline. Perhaps the possibility of offering a dual degree could be a good solution for this issue.

Now the committee we are suggesting could offer not only a joint Ph.D., but also an MA in gender. The benefits of offering an MA is that it helps to build an academic and structural foundation for the joint PhD, for example through the development of core courses on feminist theory and methodology. An issue to consider at this point would be that there is very little funding for master students at the New School, and this could restrict the appeal of a MA in gender studies that would leave many of its students struggling to find employment and in debt. For this reason, it would be necessary to find ways to offer funding to students in such an MA. One option would be offering RAs and TAs within the Committee, so students could have an income and contribute to the organization of activities. It would also be necessary to consider to what extent students who finish an MA and want to pursue a PhD in an other department at the new school, would be able to do it.  It would be necessary to address the institutional mechanisms to assure this possibility.

In spite of these difficulties, a Committee similar to that of Historical studies would allow the New School to go beyond the idea of a “traditional Program” that concentrates on granting academic certificates.  Its flexibility would allow it to carry out the tasks of offering an MA and a joint degree but would also open the possibility of articulating initiatives such as the linking of feminist politics inside and outside of academia. But what do we mean when we talk about linking feminist politics inside and outside academia? The way in which this issue is commonly stated is: linking theory to practice; theory to “the real world”, or theory to activism. However, we consider it necessary to bring into question this framing for various reasons. The first is that the university is in no way separated from “the real world”, but plays a crucial role within it, as one of the institutions that tends to monopolize the production of what is considered legitimate knowledge. As such, it reproduces and produces wider social and political structures, social hierarchies, and uneven power relations. Second, we do not speak about linking theory and practice, since this could lead to an understanding of the university as a realm of ideas where disembodied theory is produced. This tends to reinforce the disavowal of the material conditions of the possibility of academic institutions, as well as of the specific practices on which its peculiar forms of knowledge production rest. Moreover, if we take seriously the assumption that knowledge and power are deeply entangled, we would be forced to address how the practices of knowledge production necessarily have political consequences that go beyond the accepted limits of the university, and that in fact help constitute those very limits.

When we talk about feminist politics we are very consciously selecting the words ‘politics’ and ‘feminism’. We consider it is necessary to use the notion of politics to underscore  power relations inside and outside academia. We use the term feminism, because we believe that the institutionalization of feminism within the academia has lead, in many cases, to the constitution of gender studies as just one more academic field, disavowing its connections to feminism as a social and political movement and which seems to be comfortable obtaining a position of privilege within the university, without pretending to question its phalogocentric foundations, to borrow the term Derrida used while addressing the conflicting standing of women´s studies inside the university.

We would like to see feminist politics within the university as well as an intensification of some of the connections between the university and feminist politics outside of it. Now we are aware that to speak only of “feminism politics” is almost as vague as saying that one wants to link “theory and practice”.  This concept only becomes meaningful if we clarify what kind of feminism we are talking about. We do not understand, for example, linking feminist politics inside and outside academia as making the students do internships in international organizations such as the Interamerican Bank of Development or any other organization that plays a key role in the perpetuation of economic exploitation, particularly for third world countries.

The feminist politics that we would like to see are those willing to question the politics of knowledge production inside the university, a questioning that necessarily leads to a critical reading of the boundaries that delimit what is “inside” from that which is “outside” . In this sense, linking feminist politics inside and outside the academia could be understood as a necessarily endless effort to destabilize that boundary and to build bidirectional exchanges.  To question the practices of knowledge production means, among other things, to address the issue of what knowledge is considered valid and what knowledge is not; of the material conditions in which this knowledge it is produced; of how truth claims are made; and of how the supposedly neutral parameters for academic promotion are tied to privileges of gender, class, race, nationality, etc. A present example would be the research presented in an earlier conference panel by Howell Williams and Randi Irwin, which addressed the institutional politics regarding maternity leave and child care at the New School, while interrogating the material conditions of possibility for knowledge production and questioning the supposedly gender neutral mechanism of academic advancement.

To question the power relations embedded in the practices of knowledge production inevitably leads to the issue of the physical and symbolic boundaries that define what is inside and what is outside the university. For instance, it would be worth asking: who are the people that clean and guard our university? What is the color, sex, nationality, and language spoken by most of them? If we pay attention, we would see that most of them are Dominicans, Mexicans, and African-Americans. And many of them are women (mainly the ones who do the cleaning tasks). What is, in turn, the sex, color and class of the majority of students and professors? This exercise of comparison leads us to see who has the possibility to have access to the New School as student and professor, and who is more likely to access as a personal of service. This is an issue that should be address by feminist politics within the university.

Another issue that the kind of feminist politics we are committed to must address is what is understood as relevant feminist thought in the curriculum. To what extent there is space for non-eurocentric feminist thought, whether feminism of color in the US, post-colonial feminism, latin-american feminism ,or African feminism? We would like to see a curriculum and initiatives that take into account postcolonial and women of color feminism, while also bringing in other traditions of feminist thought in the third world. In addition, we would like to see feminist and gender analysis that seriously addresses the relation between feminism and capitalism, the uneven limitations and benefits that this economic system has for women in different social strata and geopolitical locations, and, therefore,  the material consequences of categories such as race and gender.

Now, what kind of concrete initiatives could be created at the New School trough the figure of a Committee to link feminist politics inside and outside academia? How could these initiatives interrogate the practices of knowledge production and destabilize the boundary between what is granted a place inside of academia and what is outside? We will mention some ideas that came to mind.

Currently there are series of talks within each department with academics coming from different universities, so it might be possible to create systematic seminars or workshops with organized groups of women, for example, women of color, immigrant women, women in  labor unions, etc. This would allow us to establish a dialogue between what is being done and thought in the university and the work and experiences of organized women outside of it. The creation of these kinds of spaces would foster further exchange.

A figure that is very much needed at the New School, and which could benefit from an interdisciplinary structure such as the Committee, is the Research group. These groups might include not only professors or students, but also feminists working on related issues outside the university.A Committee like the one we are considering could open space for a research group or observatory on gender and institutional politics within the New School. Although this project might need from the participation of at least one professor, students could play a leading role on it. It should also include staff members. The results of the research could be used to demand institutional transformations.

Other initiatives that could be triggered by the committee might relate to the accessibility of scholarly research. We are conscious that this is a problem due to the strict intellectual property rights in the US, but there could be ways of getting around these limitations.  For instance, a web page which summaries – or offers slightly modified versions - of the papers published by the faculty could be made available. Students could also publish research papers using a creative commons license. Research groups could offer work in progress reports on the site. Communication with community and feminist press could be established in order for faculty, students, and staff to contribute notes to them.

Others initiative might include designing classes or seminars taught by a professor and someone outside academia or the creation of classes that involve speakers from different groups or organizations. It would also be relevant to discuss the creation of a program for visiting scholars that could bring feminist not only from France or Germany, but from Latin America and Africa. It would be possible also to invite organized women from countries belonging to the global south to participate in workshops or conferences.

In terms of the curriculum, it would be necessary to have a permanent seminar on feminist methodologies, which could deal with issues concerning reflexivity and the consequences of the power relations between researcher and subjects.

The Committee could find ways to contribute to expand programs of continuing education. For example, students (individually or collectively) could be involved in the design and teaching of continuing education courses. Participation in a project like this might be used to graduate from the MA. The  students might be required to work with the guide of a professor or group of professors through the process, but more importantly, the definition of the topics and contents of the courses should be done in dialogue with the organizations and groups of women to whom the continuing education program would be directed.

Another type of initiative to link feminist politics in and outside university might relate to the work that Mariana Assis and Elizabeth Ziff presented this morning. Drawing from oral as well as printed sources, they build an institutional memory regarding the role women in two foundational moments of the university. Works like this could be done with organizations, groups, communities, etc. Finally, the Committee could introduce non-traditional methodologies of teaching and  establish more horizontal mechanisms for the students to participate in the definition of the curriculum.

These are only ideas of the kind of initiatives that a figure such as a Committee on gender and feminist studies could foster. However, the discussion of which of them are viable, given the structural and political limitations of the New School, and the university as an institution broadly speaking, is an open one. We invite all the students interested in the creation of a space like this at the graduate level to join forces and share ideas on how we might begin to organize and to settle the groundwork for the establishment of a flexible structure that would allow us to bring feminism back into academia, and at the same time to question the policed boundaries that separate us from the other way of doing feminist politics.

[1] Ximena Bustamante, MA student; Politics Department; Julie Chaparro, MA student, Sociology Department. This text was presented in the Gender Studies Conference on March 27, Session 4.