Thoughts on "Women's Studies" at Barnard, 1971

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Thoughts on "Women's Studies" at Barnard
 
 The spectre of educational decisions made as a response to current
 enthusiasms is often invoked in discussions of courses on women. The
 critical question at such times is whether in the proposed courses there
 is a body of knowledge related to the understanding of our human selves
 which deserves examination in the liberal arts curriculum. There is in
 fact an important body of knowledge which has hitherto escaped regular
 examination within conventionally organized courses centered around the
 experience of human beings, frequently implicitly understood as mostly
 male.
 
 More and more scholars are looking at neglected materials and finding
 that problematic differences exist in women's experiences and that there
 may be problematic differences in their perceptions of that experience.
 Related to this is the still vexing question of how biological differences
 affect both experience and perception. Popular interest may explain why
 neglected materials are rapidly being resurrected and re-examined, but the
 interest of scholars in these questions will not diminish when student
 interest diminishes. This is presumably what makes us teachers and
 scholars and our students students.
 
 But while student interest in women is at a peak, how should we as
 teachers and scholars respond? Should we reject the validity of the subject
 on the grounds that popular interest contaminates a subject and threatens
 the impartiality of the teacher? Or should we as scholars and as teachers
 dedicated to a continuing quest for knowledge find the strength to make these
 judgments independent of popular pressures but not perversely resistant to
 
 them? If we call into question a subject's legitimacy simply on the grounds
 
 
that there is popular interest in it, we are no better than those who wish
 to abolish those remote or obscure subjects with seemingly little relevance
 to contemporary interests and needs.
 
 The objection may be raised that courses on women are needlessly par-
 ticularizing and parochial. Might it not be more appropriate to think of
 such courses as a re-arrangement of familiar materials and an introduction
 of forgotten or neglected materials. Whether these materials occupy center
 stage as they would in courses specifically designed to deal with the woman
 factor in a variety of disciplines such as history, literature, economics,
 sociology, etc., or whether they are in varying amounts incorporated in
 existing courses, they heighten our awareness of a whole dimension of human
 life. Indeed, far from limiting our vision, these courses allow a more com-
 plete estimate of the range of human experience and accomplishment.
 
 The appearance of courses on women at Barnard has been in keeping with
 Barnard's academic style. Some of our faculty have had a long-standing
 interest in such materials and, in the present climate of interest in women,
 have been encouraged to offer courses where they may share this intellectual
 interest with students. In the case of faculty whose interest has been
 aroused in relatively recent times, that interest appears against a back-
 ground of intense involvement with a field where the special experience of
 women has clearly been ignored or, at the least, neglected, and the faculty
 member willing to investigate and organize this area as a course is doing so
 according to responsible canons of scholarly method.
 
 Sometimes these courses are presented within the framework of a collo-
 quium with a changing theme, in which case the "women" theme may he succeeded
 in some future year by another topic. At other times the course will be added
 
 as a regular offering and its fate, like that of other courses, will be
 
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determined by the educational and practical considerations that guide depart-
 mental offerings along with the impalpable criterion that applies to each
 course at Barnard: does it have a convincing life of its own? The applica-
 tion of these traditional criteria will in itself discourage an incongruous
 proliferation of courses.
 
 One could raise the further objection: why courses on women? Don't they
 make as little sense as courses on men? Those who propose such analogies are
 failing to acknowledge that most courses already center around the experiences
 and perceptions of males. In existing courses attention is rarely given to
 the social and economic role of women, which means that there is a neglect
 of the resulting psychological relationship between men and women, which in
 turn influences the nature of society and partly determines its values.
 
 The distinguished historian David Potter has observed that the frontier
 phenomenon in American history, with the high value it has placed on certain
 traits of aggressiveness and adventurousness, has resulted in significant
 differences in the experiences of men and women in American society. Courses
 on the West do not customarily explore this difference. Primary sources on
 women's life in the West would not typically appear on a reading list, al-
 though they add a needed perspective to a major period in American history.
 
 To give another example, the implications of Social Darwinism for the
 structuring of American society inspired a wide spectrum of critical response.
 It ranged from the belief in cooperation to the belief in competition as the
 most desirable means of social growth. what have loosely been called masculine
 and feminine traits might be associated with these modes of behavior. How one
 assessed sexual differences would perhaps influence one's intellectual con-
 frontation with Darwinism. Such considerations are not apt to arise in
 standard histories of social thought.
 
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Complex questions about women's reactions to historical events and the
 long-term impact of these reactions on society are likely to be asked only
 if one is familiar with at least the broad outlines of women's history. In
 English there are no up-to—date studies on the history of women in the Western
 world. A recently reissued attempt at a survey was made by the first Dean of
 Barnard College. Emily Putnam's book, as its title The Lady indicates, was
 a history of the lady understood in a narrow sense as the genteel lady, the
 turn-of-the-century ideal. More modern approaches may be found in Mary
 Beard's woman as Force in History which is restricted by its topical emphasis,
 and in Doris Stenton's Women in English History_which stops in the nineteenth
 century and is confined to the history of English women.
 
 As to studies on women in more limited periods, there are serious gaps
 in modern scholarship. For example, in medieval history there are scholarly
 studies in French and German. However, among historians writing in English
 only Alice Kemp-Welch in the 1910's and somewhat more recently Eileen Power
 have attempted to give biographical sketches of a few outstanding medieval
 women. Eileen Power also wrote a history of English nunneries, beginning her
 account in the thirteenth century, omitting thus the history of some seven
 hundred years when opportunities for intellectual and spiritual fufillment
 were provided to women mainly in the monastic life. Some specialized studies
 are available, but for additional information on medieval women one has to go
 to primary sources. Social and literary histories may yield a chapter, a few
 paragraphs and most frequently nothing on the subject. In brief, the con-
 tributions of women to medieval society and culture and their legal and
 economic status in the Middle Ages are topics which have been neglected by
 modern historians writing in English.
 
 4.
 
 
Medieval history may be a specialized, remote field; but the dearth of studies in English by comparison with French and German studies, in periods closer to our own time, suggests a cultural bias among historians. Given this situation, it is not surprising that in current discussions on the legal, social and professional status of women the historical background is neglected, or is at best slighted. Even in Simone de Beauvoir's Second Sex, which by now has acquired the authority of a classic, pronouncements on the nature and role of women, for example by patristic authors such as Tertullian, are cited out of their historical context.

Admittedly the question arises whether a college like ours should en- courage courses where inquiry would be directed at such neglected subjects. Would the inclusion of courses on women upset our balanced curriculum and weaken its professional approach? Apprehension concerning the introduction of new courses into the university curriculum is a phenomenon almost as old as the university. In the 13th century there were prohibitions at Paris against courses on Aristotle, and two centuries later, in order to teach Plato, Marsilio Ficino had to set up the Florentine Academy. American colleges and univer- sities, certainly in the past fifty years, seem to have been more receptive to curricular.innovation in response to current interest than were their medieval counterparts. The establishment of Israel as an independent nation resulted in the introduction of courses on Jewish History. The growth of courses in Russian History appears to be correlated to the rise of Communist Russia as an international power. Courses in Labor History following upon the Great Depression reflected an interest prevalent at that time which seems to have waned in recent years. The objective examination of labor problems in the classroom reduced polarization of public opinion and contributed to the

acceptance of much-needed reforms. The Labor History courses may have since

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diminished in number and popularity, but the more sophisticated study of the subject and the scholarship attendant upon its popularity is a permanent gain. History may not repeat itself, but historiography often does.

If we acknowledge that the purpose of a liberal arts curriculum is not merely to provide pre—professional preparation to our students but also to give them an appreciation of their cultural heritage, then we may draw the conclusion that, in an institution where women are educated, it is our duty to give them an awareness of their legacy as women. The nature of that legacy is riddled with problems of sexual definition. Since positive answers cannot be supplied, it is even more urgent to place the whole "woman question" with- in a multiplicity of scholarly perspectives. In so doing, our students will become aware, not only of the variety of roles women have played and of the social and economic necessities which may have prompted them, but also of the characteristic dilemmas they faced and the resources they called upon.

It is a cliché of the moment to parallel Women's Studies with Black Studies. To be sure there are similarities, but there are also notable differences, and it is important to distinguish between these. The genesis of Black Studies, like the genesis of Women's Studies, may be traced to con- temporary social movements. In each case a self-conscious constituency has demanded intensified study of a little-known cultural heritage. On the other hand, women cannot be defined as a minority or as a unique ethnic or racial group, nor were they uniformly suppressed. Demands for courses centering on blacks could in many instances be fulfilled only by a major in Afro-American Studies. An institutional decision to establish a major was often needed as a catalyst for the creation of such courses and the acquisition of trained faculty.

At Barnard such a catalyst is not needed. In our college there has been

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a long-standing commitment to the education of women. Consequently Barnard faculty members from time to time have concerned themselves with questions relating to women. our academic orientation has been hospitable to such scholarly concerns, and we have at this moment an extraordinary array of faculty with the skills to continue and to expand this orientation. In our library we have the nucleus of a Women"s Collection upon which we may build. Barnard has never been known for its readiness to jump on the bandwagon. Indeed, its existence as a recognizable entity at a time when women's colleges have understandably lost faith in their original rationale is the best example of this. For equally good if paradoxical reasons Barnard should be skeptical about stepping on a women's Studies bandwagon. It is not imperative for us to have a major in Women's Studies to generate courses or to attract additional faculty. In fact, in setting up a major now we may create the unwarranted impression that we are responding solely to current pressures. Rather than hastily committing ourselves at this juncture to a major, let us grant the freedom to the faculty to offer courses as they develop out of spontaneous scholarly curiosities. The proper outlines of a Women's Studies Program will emerge as we teach and think in concert. By extension, we will be testing out our talents and resources, and exploring the grounds of a con- temporary rationale for Barnard as an institution with a distinct personality

that renders an important service to the University and to American education.

Annette K. Baxter and Suzanne F. Wemple Department of History, Barnard College