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Is gender research only for feminists?

Oct 20 2009

Is gender research only for feminists? Stanford Professor Shelley Fisher Fishkin offers insights into the value of gender scholarship in her recently published book, Feminist Engagements: Forays into American Literature and Culture (Palgrave/MacMillan 2009). I had a wonderful conversation with Professor Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Professor of English and Director of American Studies Program, and a Clayman Institute Faculty Affiliate.

This conversation follows months of planning for the Clayman Institute’s 35th Anniversary celebration. We have been examining the reasons for founding of the Institute, the progress made and the work left to be accomplished. We are launching this Gender News service to help promote these conversations so that they may impact the public discourse on gender.  Professor Fishkin’s work points to the use gender analysis to innovate knowledge; for this reason, in addition to our pure delight in her topic, Professor Fishkin’s book, Feminist Engagements, is a perfect addition to our inaugural Gender News.

In her Introduction, Fishkin addresses perceptions of Feminism in the 21st century: I’m saddened when a student prefaces a comment with, “I’m not a feminist but . . .” I’m dismayed when it becomes clear that for her, “feminist” is the “F-word”—a term to be shunned, despite the fact that she may hold attitudes that feminists have advocated for over a century. For me, the word brings to mind feats of daring self-respect and acts of courage, endurance and imagination; it conjures up a cast of remarkable extraordinary and ordinary women and men, bravely patient and bravely impatient; it suggests an abiding sense of social justice and passion for changing the world. 

Further, Fishkin identifies the way in which gender research can open new ways of thinking by “making visible the largely invisible mental maps that constrict the canvases on which women—and men—can paint their lives.” She speaks of the lessons learned from the feminist engagements in her book. While these lessons were applied to her scholarship, I believe they offer insight into all who are interested in investigating the world of women and men.

Her lessons are summarized: (1)   Feminist scholars and feminist scholarship taught me that paradigms that produced cultural narratives that omitted or marginalized women and their work needed to be challenged-- and encouraged me to view all cultural paradigms as contingent and open to question. Feminist scholarship helped model for me how to challenge segregated literary and cultural narratives, making me sensitive  to exclusions based not only on  gender or sexual orientation, but also on  race and nationality. (2)    Feminist scholars and feminist scholarship helped encourage me to be more attentive to the presence or absence of work by and about women (and minorities) in editions and anthologies. (3)    Feminist scholars and feminist scholarship helped give me the courage to be iconoclastic and impassioned as an editor and as a critic.  Feminist scholars’ recognition of the importance of attending to the intersection of the personal and the political contributed significantly to the genesis of People of the Book, a volume which probes the intersection of the personal and the intellectual. 

In addition, writing by feminist critics like the four to whom this book is dedicated (and others) helped model for me how to craft my arguments as a critic with passion and conviction, and encouraged me to experiment with infusing my scholarship with my own voice. In particular, lesson #2 resonates with the launch of the Clayman Institute’s Gender News. We hope to serve as an outlet and catalyst for work by and about women – and men – in the hope of pushing out the boundaries of gender equality. We hope, that by reading this book, many others will join the gender revolution with passion to affect change. I loved connecting with Professor Fishkin and learning of her long history with the Institute. She was first a Visiting Scholar at the then Institute for Research on Women and Gender, and later was a Clayman Institute Faculty Research Fellow. We invite our friends, old and new, to submit news items to be included in Gender News.

A gender lens
exposes gaps in knowledge,
identifies root causes of barriers,
and proposes workable solutions.