The invisible labour of academic feminism

Image: Flickr/University of Michigan School of Natural Resources & Environment

I’ve had the distinct honour of teaching in the field of Women’s Studies for 15 years. I’ve been lucky enough to see students transition from first-year students to a wide variety of fulfilling paths. I’ve stayed in touch with many of them and have been able to bear witness to their personal and political evolutions. It may come as no surprise to Feminist Current readers that many of my former students embraced radical feminism after college. When we cross paths later in life, they’re eager to ask me about feminist politics. Perhaps more to the point, they’re eager to ask me why we didn’t talk about radical feminism in class. I have a few responses, but more than anything these questions make me consider how the feminist community views the labour of an academic feminist.

Women’s Studies professors often try to meet students where they’re at in the learning process. We ask probing questions. We facilitate Socratic dialogue. We might even privilege students’ understanding, processing, and cognitively dissonant wrestling over our own personal politics. On most days, this is the labour of facilitating a productive, academic discussion in a Women’s Studies classroom. We acknowledge learning preferences, set community agreements, and come together to try and test the boundaries of our understanding. Most days. Today, I’m going to lecture.

“Why didn’t we talk about radical feminism in class?”

I am asked the following questions almost weekly: Why weren’t my Women’s Studies professors more radical? Why didn’t they tell me about the importance of dedicated, woman-only space? Why did they let me think anyone could “identify” as a woman and then send me out into a world where lesbian feminists and trans activists are duking it out over whether a penis is male or female?

There are lots of reasons students might not remember talking about these things in class. The first and most simple one being that there might not have been time. On average, instructors get about 15 weeks to teach introductory Women’s Studies students all woman-related things. The second reason is that we’re human, and instructors make choices about what to teach based on areas of specialized research and personal comfort level with the material. Third, it might not have fit in the curriculum. We all answer to someone, and Women’s Studies professors answer to university programs, departments, and accreditation standards — it’s education, after all. (More on this later.) Finally, it may have been part of the curriculum, but students forgot. (Or, they weren’t quite ready to hear it.)

Even though higher education has a reputation for pushing an agenda, the vast majority of academics aren’t evangelical. Just because instructors present particular information doesn’t mean they want to indoctrinate students. Ideally, if they’re following the best practices of teaching and learning, they present you with lots of disparate, differing information and then facilitate a process to help students work through and apply it. After all, the brain that does the work is the brain that does the learning. I don’t always agree with the information I present to students (hello, totalitarian views of gender identity), but that’s okay. I’m trying to teach students how to think for themselves.

This is not to say that I don’t ever share my personal views with students; I come out to students as a lesbian, as a radical feminist, as a recovering Republican, as a survivor of abuse, etc. every semester. Scholars of feminist pedagogy are divided on this front, but I am a firm believer that it’s hard to be what you can’t see. So, all of this is to say that if you graduated and then encountered a text listing the 343865 gender identities and thought to yourself, “This is crap!” Well, then, I consider the system to have worked. It says to me that you developed a skill set for weeding through the information you agree with and the information you don’t. If that seems like a copout, I hear you, but it’s also the truth.

For those not persuaded and still wondering why Women’s Studies professors don’t present radical feminist views: we do! Well, some of us do... The unsatisfying news, though, is that on the whole, introductory students don’t gravitate towards radical feminist texts. Indeed, some of my former students who are now radical feminists didn’t like those texts when I assigned them 10 years ago. Education is a long game. We can’t go from “Does this mean I have to stop watching The Bachelor?” to “Burn the system to the ground!” in one week. The radical feminist texts we read aren’t the ones students identify with because they’re hard to incorporate into an existing worldview. As many readers know, they require one to fundamentally change a worldview. Rather than finding creative ways to work inside an existing system, radical feminism requires that we abolish the system altogether. For many undergraduates, liberal feminism — and the bending over backwards one must do to accommodate its politics — is a stepping stone to more radical politics.

“You’re not interrupting my real work. You are my real work.”

What does all of this mean for the way we think the labour of an academic feminist? If we coalesce the above examples of building students’ critical thinking skills and meeting students where they are in the process of discovering feminism, a primary theme emerges: teaching is student-centered and often requires privileging student process over the instructor’s political agenda. It’s all about the students.

I include a line in my syllabus that reads, “You’re not interrupting my real work. You are my real work.” And that’s where the divide between the visible and invisible labour of an academic feminist breaks down. The students are the real work. It’s impossible to belabour this point. There’s this myth that teaching is a vocation — that people do it because they love it, and if you love your job you’ll never work a day in your life. But I’m here to tell you that it’s hard work. Students — and the rest of the feminist community — often don’t see it as such because it looks like real life. Stay with me here…

In some disciplines, students easily separate classroom content from the “real” world. For example, when I took Algebra I spent most of the semester wondering how I’d ever use that information in real life. Women’s Studies doesn’t often have that problem, because we talk about real life. We bond. We share and struggle together. It’s even sometimes fun. But those classroom experiences don’t happen organically. We design and curate learning experiences for students — those “ah-ha” moments in class don’t happen by accident. We read student writing, carefully crafting comments that will both encourage them, correct logical leaps and sweeping analyses, and (sometimes) gently steer them away from stuff that’s just plain wrong. We sit on curriculum committees, advocating for inclusive courses and diverse learning experiences for students. We fight like hell for students to be able to sit in a Women’s Studies classroom, because that opportunity is almost always under attack. Much of this work is invisible to students and the larger feminist community, who are often disappointed in the way we show up (or don’t) in more visible activist circles and online debates. But here’s where the proverbial rubber meets the road: our labour is present, even when we’re not.

I have a dear friend and colleague who also works in higher education, teaching students to be activists and community organizers. When her students post on social media about their activism, she’s started responding with #JanesLabor to make the work she does visible. The students are our real work. I’m not trying to take credit for the work students do — rather, I’m making visible the product of the biggest time and energy investment made by many academic feminists: students in the world making a difference. You are the work we put forward in the world. And we love the work we do. We love you! But give us a little credit. If only because much of women’s labour goes unrecognized and is undervalued. We taught you that — it was on the exam.

Amanda Irvin, PhD, lives in New York and works at Columbia University. She is a feminist who specializes in women’s writing, active learning, and student success.

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  • fxduffy

    What an individual women’s studies professor does in her classroom in terms of radical feminism is one thing, but there’s no doubt in my mind that women’s studies bolted from radical feminism many decades ago and, in so doing, cut itself off from its roots. This process was called professionalization, the culture wars, post-modernism, post-feminism and I’m sure today you could add in trans. infiltration. That any radical feminists come out of this liberalization process is either a minor miracle or by the luck of the draw with professors.

    To boot, in the U.S., there is the huge problem of students being taught by very low status instructors who are not only paid just above minimum wage but have very few, if any, benefits. Adjuncts now typically teach about half of all college courses. And then there are non-tenured professors (low salary–few benefits) with one of two year contracts. Although these are in no position to procure for students an influential career down the line, they are more likely to offer them a radical view of the world–I mean what do they have to lose. And I’m sure that since the majority of these are women, the former with MA degrees usually, the latter with Ph.Ds, they are the ones who are most responsible for influencing feminism of any stripe in their students.

    • calabasa

      That’s me. I awaken my students to feminism every semester by requiring even the lowest level students read Deborah Tannen’s “There Is No Unmarked Woman.” Several of my female students told me it was the first time they’d heard of feminism (though I did not present it as an explicitly feminist text) and began researching it for their research papers (I did not tell these students how to choose their feminism, as I believe, like the author of the article, that is their own journey). I have a student now in 101 who is writing an investigative research paper about the various waves of feminism and what their stances and ramifications are (she has to arrive at a position at the end; I will wait to see if she arrives at radical feminism or not). She chose the topic, not me (I didn’t even encourage her; perhaps that is my duty, but I try to be very objective in the classroom). I am the “adjunct with an M.A.” (in this case MFA), zero benefits, no permanent contract, and low pay. I don’t talk about my politics in the classroom, but I do carefully pick my texts. I try to choose work that will appeal to those on both sides of the divide (for example, if I have a piece about male violence I will include poems or a piece about good fathers) so that male students don’t go on the defensive and will be more open to the more radical texts I present (same thing when it comes to racism and sexism–I won’t choose sexist or racist texts but I will choose texts from all different perspectives so that no one ever feels attacked). I try to keep politics out of it, but of course students can read between the lines and politics come into it, during their reading discussions. I have reprimanded young male students for addressing me inappropriately and called out male assumptions by challenging male students as to why they don’t think a woman doctor would be as good (my students do the discussion questions, and the two young women writing the questions after “There Is No Unmarked Woman” asked the question of the male students as to whether they trust women doctors and pilots) despite empirical evidence to the contrary, as to why they would answer “I wouldn’t go to a girl doctor,” and ask if they would ever call a male doctor a “boy;” I challenge male students when they refer to even elderly women as “girls.” I ask them how they feel being taught by a female teacher, and whether they believe a man could teach them more about writing (and they usually abashedly tell me no, even if they secretly believe it).

      To add to this, it is always amusing after using that text to ask students to look around at what everybody is wearing and ask them whether the text is still relevant or true (it invariably is; the young women mostly have a style–some will be in jeans and t-shirt, but many are well-dressed and carefully made up–while the young men all wear some variation of the same thing: pants or jeans, sneakers, and t-shirt of some kind). I also always ask the question, “How many here think gender inequality is still an issue in America in the 21st century?” Inevitably almost all the female students will raise their hands (in one memorable class in which every student was a person of color, ALL the female students raised their hands) and few (or none) of the male students will (in that particular class, the only male student who raised his hand was gay). I then ask the question, “Hey guys, how about you talk to your female peers and find out about this issue? They can’t all be wrong, can they? What do you think you are missing?” I ask this jokingly, but it is always an eye-opening moment. (I wonder how this would play out if the question were about race in a mixed-race class; I have a feeling more white students would raise their hands than male students do to the gender question in my classes, because they feel they should, if nothing else. It’s difficult for me to test this hypothesis, however, as I have majority-minority classes and have had many classes that are all POC, which always makes me feel a bit strange, as their white teacher; at least I am a woman so I feel a solidarity with all the younger women, and like all of my students of color as a woman I have had the experience of oppression, and can relate, if in a different way).

      So yes–politics do make their way into my class in the form of student-led discussions about the texts I pick, which address race, gender, class, parenting and etc. Politics inevitably come into it, but I let the students bring politics into it, not me.

      • FierceMild

        Thank you for sharing all of this. It’s a very interesting perspective. I think I would find it difficult to walk all those lines at once.

  • Your argument for not teaching Radical Feminism in Women’s Studies is not convincing to me. My bachelor’s is in Economics, and I learned about Marxism and Maoism even though few of the students and none of the teachers agreed with these philosophies. It was endemic to the subject of world economy.

    • Tired feminist

      I think she’s not saying she doesn’t teach radical feminism, she’s just saying she teaches many other things too…

  • FierceMild

    I felt the same way initially, but I see her point about taking the long view as well. I don’t think that as young college students most women are ready to hear about Radical Feminism.

    • Mira

      Which is so unfortunate.

      I’m 21 years old, and Radical Feminism is changing my life. Idk, at first, I just read a bit here and there, and I felt like EVERYTHING clicked. There was no resistance within me.

      It’s helping me so much on my self love journey. Oh my goodness, it’s helped TREMENDOUSLY with my problems with self objectification.

      Lol, I’m also very radical when it comes to my politics. Liberalism is too conservative for me.

      Maybe I need to realize not everyone is like me?

      I have 4 little sisters, and I don’t hold back. I’ve recently started watching documentaries with the oldest, who is 15, and I’ve started to talk to her about Patriarchy, and other things. The other one’s are too little to fully understand bigger words. I encourage them to set boundaries and use their voice which is powerful, and to also stick it to annoying boys at school who try to push them around.

      Idk, but I feel like I’ve found my life’s calling! I worship at the altar of radical feminism. xDDD

    • Leo

      I’m not sure, I think some aspects might be challenging, PiV criticism might be a bit difficult for some to understand (though affirming for others as Independent Radical says above), but then, what are young people typically known for politically, if NOT for being radical? And if they’ve chosen to take a course that’s about politics, they may be more likely to be open to such political positions. I think this is precisely why we’re seeing groups of often misguided but (potentially usefully) angry and shouty young liberals, who are causing trouble on college campuses. They’re desperate for a cause and could be brilliant if only they had access to a stronger analysis and were taught how to apply it. If those young liberal women are prepared to get angry at us for being meanie TERFs because that’s what they’re been told they should do to protect women, what could they do if they’d been given access to real feminist analysis… Some aspects of Radical Feminism are easier to grasp and not as immediately controversial, but still point in the right direction, maybe those could be taught. Facts and figures are relatively ‘safe’ at least.

      I think if there’s any hope, it has to be with young women and entrusted to them, as well. This kind of change will likely only be gradual, and they may pass it to the next generation (whether their own children eventually, a younger sibling, a niece…) as well.

      • Independent Radical

        To be clear, I wasn’t affirmed by criticisms of vaginal intercourse to begin with. It took me some time to stop seeing them as too extreme, but knowing they existed definitely broadened my understanding of what feminism could be. So at first I felt I could be sex negative in the normal way (just being anti pornography and sadomasochism) and that wouldn’t make me too much of an extremist because other women were more extreme (which is still the case since I don’t oppose all sexual interactions between men and women). It took me some time to drift towards criticising more accepted sexualities.

        I don’t think we should try to convince women to be critical of vaginal intercourse straight away, but they should be told that feminists with such positions do exist (with the implication that these women are horrible monsters). Right now feminists critical of vaginal intercourse are used as a threat to keep other women in line (e.g. “if you start criticising pornography and sadomasochism you might end up as one of those horrible women who criticises vaginal intercourse”).

        I would like a neutral acknowledgement that these arguments exist and aren’t dangerous. Women criticising vaginal intercourse isn’t the end of the world whether you agree with these criticises or not. They don’t harm anybody beyond causing offense to people who already have their behaviours validated by, well, everyone.

        Having been to university, I’m not that hopeful regarding the younger generation. Being excessively angry and aggressive isn’t radicalism. You do need a controlled amount of anger to be a radical and be prepared to piss people and deal with the consequences, but liberals are not prepared to deal with the consequences. They act that way only because they have a community of people validating that behaviour (including people who are meant to be playing a leadership role within the community, like academics). They aren’t true critical thinkers and don’t learn to be. They just learn pretentious language with which to express their liberalism.

        I’ve never been “angry and shouty”. I just challenge what I’m told using rational arguments. Though that does tend to lead to anger and shouting, I know that isn’t the goal of political radicalism. The goal of political radical is a radically different and better world, but nobody believes in or is willing to fight for that nowadays. Revolutionary socialists are hated at comparable levels to radical feminists and even talking about politics is thoroughly uncool.

  • Independent Radical

    I cringe every time somebody says that women’s labour is undervalued (implying that it should be more valued). Praising women for their labour is often a way of rewarding them for playing a subordinate role. This is definitely the case when it comes to housework and prostitution (not that the too are comparable).

    Is it also the case with regard to the behaviour described in the article? I worry that it might be. Male academics can just teach the material and be done with it. Female academics are expected to be all warm and nurturing towards their students as part of their job, which seems absurd to me.

    I felt condescended when liberal academics (male and female) tried to be all nice and sweet to me after spouting opinions that I found offensive and ridiculous. I saw them as political opponents who couldn’t be reasoned with. They claimed to have paid attention to radical feminist texts, but I could tell they just didn’t get it. Whatever I said, they wouldn’t just told me that someone else had made the argument first (though they were probably right about that, unlike liberal feminism, radical feminism has many diverse voices so even if many of my positions aren’t typical within radical feminism I can find people who advocate them).

    Simply put, they weren’t going to listen to me and thought that my opposition to their viewpoints was the result of some intellectual or (worse) psychological failure that they had to fix. I’m a scientifically minded person who proudly rejects all aspects of femininity (including not only the idea that women have to be pretty and sexy, but the idea that they have to be nice and sweet too), so I wanted arguments and evidence (which liberals aren’t very good at), not nurturing (particularly nurturing that was aimed at getting me to give up positions that I had arrived at through arguments and evidence).

    I’m not saying academics shouldn’t form friendships with students, but all true friendships are consensual, not forced, so I don’t think it should be considered a mandatory part of such jobs. That said, so long as topics relevant to the academic field are being discussed it can be see as one way of doing the job, so the wages of academics should account for that, but it shouldn’t be something women are pressured into doing. Many brilliant male intellectuals were social recluses, because being a genius requires you to think differently from other people, which sets you apart from them. It should be just as acceptable for a female academic to just research and teach material, without being all warm and fuzzy towards students.

    If relationships are going to be formed, it should be because academics and students have things in common. If there had been a more radical feminist academic at my university, I could’ve formed a mutually beneficial relationship with them in which we stimulated each other. I would like to have been seen as an equal rather than an ignorant (you really think I’ve never heard liberal, sex positive bullshit before?) crazy person, who needed to be nurtured and educated out of their craziness.

    The article does make some good points though. Academics are limited by practical constraints and many people (men and women) dislike hearing radical ideas, particularly radical ideas that could benefit women. Stating upfront that you’re a radical feminist may not be the best strategy (though if accused of being one, you shouldn’t deny it, only to be forced to take back that denial later). It might be a better idea to gradually push the boundaries of mainstream sex positive thinking. Liberal feminism itself is not a stepping stone to radical feminism, but a reaction against it in my view, but one could discuss and criticise liberal feminist positions as a way of introducing radical feminism.

    If one is willing to compromise honesty (which I generally am not) one strategy could be to point out that radical feminism exists without stating that you are one. This expands the political spectrum in the minds of students so that positions which they might otherwise regard as too radical seem less radical by comparison. For example, if students know that there are feminists critical of vagina intercourse (and all intercourse for that matter), then those aggressively critical of pornography and sadomasochism will seem like moderates by comparison. I myself was freaked out by criticisms of vaginal intercourse (and by radical feminism in general) at one point, but once you adopt certain feminist standards (e.g. women shouldn’t experience pain, discomfort, danger or domination during sex, especially when the act isn’t even that effective at giving them pleasure) more radical positions start to make sense, especially to women who are (for lack of a better word) “natural” radical feminists (like Leo discussed below) and have always enjoyed the kissing and cuddling aspects of sex (what sex liberals dismissively call “foreplay”) more than being penetrated.

    This way you still run the risk of freaking people out (I suspect even some people here are freaked out that I criticised intercourse and worry that I’m making them look bad), but at least their minds will be expanded, which can’t hurt. I think this is a case of bad publicity being better than no publicity.

    • shy virago

      Would love to know how you came to accept (or agree?) that too there is too much emphasis
      on penetration. What do you think about the work of Shere Hite?

  • Meagan Tyler

    Thanks for a really interesting piece on an under-explored topic. There was a wonderful memorial conference on Andrea Dworkin held in the U.K. a couple of years ago, and it was one of the only times in my career that feminist scholars from different universities were able to sit in a room and talk about the difficulties – and strategies for overcoming the difficulties – of teaching radical feminist texts.

    It absolutely is hard work. Worthwhile, yes. But the hidden labour part is spot on. It absorbs you in a way that teaching introduction to sociology or public policy just doesn’t. And so often we don’t get to see the great rewards, as students who were resistant at first, may have actually found something useful from it years or even decades later.

    And I didn’t read this piece as an argument to abandon teaching radical feminism but rather offering some explanation as to why many academic feminists don’t, or find it difficult, even if they are sympathetic. This is excaerbated by a maneegerialist push for high ‘student experience’ scores at most universities, mixed with short term contracts, with the renewal of them tied to good scores. There is a mountain of studies now showing that this makes it difficult for academics to teach any challenging material (feminist or otherwise) and it is a great shame, one that is devaluing the purpose of a tertiary education. The increasing limits on academic freedom and increasingly rare positions with tenure have sadly stripped academic life, and the learning process for students, of the depth it once had.

  • Independent Radical

    The fact that women are expected to be caregivers no matter what job they do is part of the oppressive status quo in my opinion. Women should always have the option of not being nice and sweet. An advantage of working in universities as opposed to schools is that taking care of students emotional needs isn’t a stated job requirement and therefore it isn’t expected of male academics (they just teach and discuss the course material). Women shouldn’t be expected to do it either. Any friendships they form with students should be strictly optional and based on common viewpoints and experiences.

  • Independent Radical

    “In essence, she calls for women to stop bonding with men and instead
    make their lives with other women, whether they are lesbian or not.”

    Really? Not according to this article ( which states that “when [the Hite Report] was finished, she realised it said a lot about men
    and asked herself whether they too were victims of cultural assumptions.
    “Are men’s human rights being ignored by telling them they have to get
    an erection every time?” she wanted to know.”

    Telling they have to get erections and preform sexually isn’t abusing the human rights of men. It just further encourages them to harm women. I have a hard time taking her seriously after a quote like that and I disagree with the attitude that sexual pleasure is a human right for women. It’s not a human right at all.

    Maybe the article is misrepresenting her, but even so I’m more of a prudish sex-hater than an advocate of female separatism. My criticisms of intercourse may be inspired by the writings of lesbian feminists online, but there are plenty of alternatives to it for women in relationships with men.

    Furthermore, although every woman has the right to avoid sex with (and generally live separately from) men if they want to, the sexuality advocated by some lesbian seems like more of the same. It’s about risk and vulnerability supposedly creating intimacy and bonding. I want a risk free (or very low risk) sexuality, which requires avoiding all forms of intercourse and oral sex, which I’m also forbidden from criticising. I want a sexuality that’s radically different from the status quo (and that doesn’t assume that sex has the magical power to make people love each other), not a sexuality that is the same at its core but that requires blind trust in and subordination to a woman instead of a man.

  • In French now if you are an adult woman you are Madame. It has been decreed by the language authorities.