What is Feminism, for Real?

In my Fall 2011 Feminist Debates course, we ended the semester by reading Feminism for Real: Deconstructing the Academic Industrial Complex of Feminism. This was a particularly powerful book to read in the last few weeks of my final semester of teaching. It focuses on the feminist academic industrial complex and how those within the academy determine who is a real feminist and where real feminism is taking place.

Here’s how Jessica Yee defines the feminist academic industrial complex in her introduction:

…the conflicts between what feminism means at school as opposed to at home, the frustration of trying to relate to definitions of feminism that will never fit no matter how much you try to change yourself to fit them, and the anger and frustration of changing a system while being in the system yourself.

The policing of feminism and feminist identities has been a central topic of interest for me for years. My undergraduate thesis was all about the category “woman” and who it does/doesn’t include. And my master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation were concerned with the struggle between challenging identity categories and still being able to claim them. Additionally, challenging limited notions of what counts as rigorous thinking/scholarship and where it can/should occur have been central to my work at the University. As a graduate professor, teaching queer theory and feminist pedagogy, I became increasingly interested in troubling, playing with and expanding how we (as students and teachers) engage with ideas and theories, where we do that engagement and for what purpose.

My personal experiences with feeling alienated from academic feminism are not the same as the writers in Feminism for Real. The “truth-telling” in this collection is performed by a wide range of Indigenous women and women of color, whose experiences of oppression and marginalization are very different than my experiences, as a white adjunct, of feeling disconnected and devalued. Yet, their discussions moved me and helped to clarify my own disenchantment and growing anger with the academy.

I wish I could remember how I felt a little over a year ago, as I prepared to teach my two sessions on this book. I have a vague memory that it was difficult to prepare. In her introduction, Yee states that the book isn’t “a hate-on academic feminism.” And, it isn’t. But, as I read and reread that book and really thought about the uncomfortable truths it was telling about what academic feminism (and the academy in general) does to many, I realized I was done, if not for good, for a long while. I had spent almost my whole life in formal school, starting at age 5 and only taking half a year off, in 1999. That’s just over 30 years. I had loved school. I had loved learning and engaging. But it was time to move on.

Here are my lecture notes from the one of the two class sessions.