Conference report for The Scholar and The Feminist III, 1976

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THE SCHOLAR AND THE FEMINIST III: THE SEARCH FOR ORIGINS Conference Report

On Saturday, April 10, 1976, the Barnard College Women's Center sponsored the third in a series of conferences on The Scholar and The Feminist. As their common title indicates, the conferences have addressed the current and difficult question: How does the feminist scholar per- ceive and pursue her research? In particular, how does she connect the convictions she holds as a feminist to the particular work she carries out as a scholar within the intellectual community?

For our first conference, The Scholar and The Feminist (May 11, 1974), we invited twelve scholars from widely different disciplines to speak about their own intellectual biographies in the context of their current research. what had been the impact of feminism on their interests, their goals, and their identity as scholars? Their answers covered a wide range of opinions and experiences, from highly personal and individual ac- counts to universal and moving statements about the life and the work of the feminist scholar.

By the time of our second conference, The Scholar and The Feminist II: Toward New Criteria of Relevance, (April 12, 1975), the number of scholars who identified themselves as feminists was continuing to grow. New journals devoting themselves to feminist scholarship were springing up. It was evident that in many different disciplines, feminists were beginning to have an impact on traditional methodologies. This conference, then, spoke to the issue: What kinds of changes does feminism bring to the conduct of scholarship? The two morning speakers addressed the new kinds of questions raised by feminist scholars, the new data that feminist schol- ars were uncovering, the new assumptions that they were applying to old data, and the new concepts that feminist thinkers were bringing to tradi- tional fields.

By this year, substantial work was appearing in professional jour- nals as well as journals specializing in feminist studies and in collec- tions of work devoted specifically to the feminist perspective within given disciplines. The feminist scholar was making herself visible, and we wanted to plan a conference that took a closer look at some of the work now being produced in such abundance.

As we began to think about this year's conference, we were struck by a phenomenon which was by no means characteristic of all feminist scholar- ship but certainly a common feature of much current work, namely, the im- pulse toward "trans-disciplinary" work, i.e., work that goes outside the boundaries of the traditional disciplines. At first, we decided to con- centrate on this phenomenon. Our tentative title was, "Crossing Boundaries: Some Interdisciplinary Implications of Feminism.” iut as we explored this possibility, we noticed several things. In the first place, not all femi- nist scholars are doing interdisciplinary work. In fact, most of them are

identified with their original discipline, although some are making forays into other fields, and others have made an attempt to cooperate with other feminist scholars in order to combine skills. Thus, while some feminist scholarship has the impulse to be inter— or trans—disciplinary, examples of such efforts are--with some exceptions—-still in the embryonic stages.

.In the second place, it had been our intention to find a speaker who would answer the question, what lies behind the ”trans—disciplinary” impulse that many feminist scholars feel? As we talked about this, we began to realize that we were perhaps taking a falsely naive position. The question, once posed, began to answer itself.

Although they may have vastly differing orientations, feminist scholars are united by a concern for and an identification with women, their point of view, their experience, their condition (past and present), and their relation to the social structure. Thus the world of feminist scholarship is automatically inter-disciplinary in scope, because it is problem—centered. Bringing many disciplines to bear on a single issue or problem is a common trend in the academic world. But what on-the surface may appear to be a kinship with a general tendency in academic or intel- lectual life is at a deeper level something distinctive.

As feminists, we agree that the present and past position of women in society and culture has neither been ordained by a higher power, nor determined by the Vnatural order" of things. As we pursue our research, we are thus led at some point to search for origins. What does the pres- ent unsatisfactory position of women stem from? How far back does it go? In what structures-—psychological, social, economic, political, biological-— does it have its basis? '

Behind the "inter—” or "trans—disciplinary" impulse, then, is the problem of origins. The theme of this year's conference thus became The Scholar and The Feminist III: The Search for Origins. As we began pub- licizing the conference, it soon was evident that we had picked a central, even a burning question to examine. The favorable reaction to this year's conference was apparent from the moment the pre—registration forms were mailed out. One week after registrations opened, the Women's Center had received 100 reservations. They continued to come in at the rate of 15 to 20 a day, and it soon appeared that our intended capacity of 250 partici- pants would have to be revised upward. The decision was made to move the morning session from Lehman Auditorium to the gymnasium, in order to make room for the larger number of participants. We calculated that the pos- sible sacrifice in intimacy would be compensated for by the enthusiasm and good will of the people who could be accommodated in this way.

For this year's conference, we used the very successful format of last year, with two major morning speakers, a lunch break, and then a series of afternoon seminars. The larger size of the conference-—we closed regis- trations at 470--dictated larger seminars, in some cases, but none was over 40 in size, and this proved a workable number for discussion.

The morning session began with welcoming remarks by Elizabeth Janeway, who placed feminist scholarship in the perspective of its im- portance for women and men alike, as a force that will transform both the educational curriculum and our thinking. The first major paper was presented by Rayna R. Reiter, anthropologist from The New School for Social Research. Acknowledging that feminists, inside and outside the academy, are looking to anthropology for answers about the fundamental issue of women's condition, Reiter undertook a general review of what is and what is not known at the present time, along with a feminist critique of the gaps in our knowledge left by a male—oriented tradition of learning. She outlined three major transitional points, moving from the present to the past, in the development of civilization: the growth of modern in- dustrial and post-industrial capitalism, with its profound impact on family organization; the development of the state and modern state orga- nization, first formulated by Engels as the transition from kinship—based, communal life to the beginning of hierarchical political structures; and finally, the original human family and society and the primate social or- ganization from which they emerged.

At all three major junctures, important changes contributed to the imposition of the traditions and structures that feminists today are seek- ing to dismantle. Reiter stressed the importance of thorough and accurate research in these and in other areas, so that the movement for the full equality of women will have an accurate and powerful “archeology of knowl- edge” at its service.

The second paper was presented by Elaine H, Pagels, Chair of the Barnard Department of Religion. Pagels used her expertise in the area of gnosticism, the early tradition of heretical beliefs that was systematically purged in the codification of Christian doctrine during the second century A.D., to develop a case-study of the ideological and political exclusion of women. She pointed to the curious fact that of all the world religions, only the Judeo—Christian tradition (and the Islamic, its near~relation) ex- cludes the feminine principle from the concept of God. This exclusion, Pagels demonstrated, was the result of a conscious and explicit effort by the Church_fathers to remove from the canonical literature those gnostic texts that refer to the Holy Trinity as, logically enough, the Father, the Son, and the Mother. At the same time, the organization of the church banned as heretical the practice of the gnostic communities of rotating the roles of bishop and priest by lot, thus including women as full and equal participants. ‘Thus, in this period, the expurgation of a female element from the Godhead coincides with the elimination of any priestly role for women within the church.

Instead of having a discussant on thesplatform, we invited the audience to serve as discussant for the two papers, and to draw out the implications and the interrelations between them. A series of probing questions from the floor closed the morning session.

After lunch, conference participants attended thirteen seminars, each considering a theme related to the problem of origins. Five of these

took up issues within traditional academic disciplines. Suzanne Wemple, of the Barnard history department, in an interesting follow—up to Elaine Pagels' paper, raised the question of what happened to women in the medieval church. Nanette Salomon traced the origins of the perception of women as sex objects in the tradition of Western art. Ann Douglas, of the Columbia English department, explored the idea of anger as a source of, as well as a block to, creativity in the works of some well—known American women writers. Ethel Tobach and Rhoda Unger brought the perspectives of biology and genetics, and of social psychology, respectively, to bear on the issue of gender differences.

Another group of seminars carried on the morning sub—theme of com- bining two disciplines or perspectives. Naomi Goldenberg presented a re- interpretation of Jungian archetypes from the point of view of a feminist and a student of religion. Joan Hazzard brought the Black feminist point of View to an examination of the tradition of Black women writers in the United States. Heidi Hartmann, a political economist, and Ellen Ross, a historian, combined their skills to investigate the origins of modern mar- riage. Similarly, Joan Peters, in comparative literature, and Mary Lef- kowitz, a classicist, compared interpretations ofThe Odyssey as a patri- archal classic. And Barbara Miller, a scholar of Oriental Studies at Bar- nard, and Agueda Pizzaro, poet and teacher of Spanish, presented an original thesis on the relation of bilingualism to sensuous expression in women's poetry.

A third category of afternoon seminars, the by-now traditional com- ponent in The Scholar and The Feminist, were activist or movement—oriented. Nadia Telsey, Barnard l969, explored the question of the physical haras- ment of women, going beyond the now much—discussed area of rape to more subtle forms of abuse that women experience in everyday life. Sylvia Federici presented the controversial view of the Wages for Housework move- ment that all women, whether or not they work outside the home, should receive government compensation for housework. Barbara Ehrenreich and Elizabeth Ewen conducted a heated but fruitful discussion on the relation of feminism to socialism, and generally on the political role of women in academic life.

As in previous years, the conference ended with a well—attended reception, in an atmosphere of exchange and conviviality that gave the day a satisfying sense of closure. At the reception and in the days that fol- lowed, we received enthusiastic reports on the conference from members of the Barnard faculty and students (interestingly, the number of Barnard people attending, both faculty and students, was up sharply this year from last); from the members of the Columbia University Seminar on Women and Society; and from those attending from other academic institutions and from non—academic organizations ranging from the New York Telephone Com- pany to Prime Time, a periodical for older women. One woman from the Women's Action Alliance called the conference the best she has ever at- tended, and this was not an isolated reaction.

Most comments indicated that, despite the proliferation of confer- ences on issues in Women's Studies, women in the professions, and related themes, the Barnard conference continues to be a unique and important event. In particular, people who had attended all three conferences re- marked on the feeling of continuity and of development that linked them as a series, with each conference building, conceptually, on the one before. They expressed the sense of being part of an on—going institution or forum that responded, at each point, to their most current concerns. And indeed, if we look at the series as a whole, we can see a progression from the general issue of the relation of feminism and scholarship to the specific problem, or research focus, the search for origins, that is central to the work feminist scholars are now carrying on. The Scholar and The Feminist has thus evolved in direct relation to the growth and the increasing maturity of feminist scholarship itself, from its thoughtful and provoca- tive beginnings to its present status as a major trend in the academic

world.

Hester Eisenstein April 19, 1976