Friday, 9 September 2011

Gender studies, sexism, male bias and privilege

This week the London Evening Standard reported that ex gender studies student Tom Martin is suing the London School of Economics because he believed his course to have an anti men bias and was expected to read books that positioned women as always victims and men as always perpetrators, and never dealt with men’s issues. LSE have responded:

‘The university's legal team has asked for the case to be struck out, claiming the core texts were not compulsory, merely recommended readings, and that the texts were equally available for both men and women to read, so therefore did not directly discriminate against men. The team also argues that "any discriminatory effect [against men] was plainly justifiable".’


I personally believe that Mr Martin took the course with the express intent of calling out what he saw as an anti-male bias, because for the life of me I can’t understand why someone studying gender studies would object to exploring how layers of patriarchal privilege overlap to create inequality between women and men. Gender studies, as far as I can tell, is about looking at intersectionality and how women’s ‘issues’ (and other groups) or lives or stories or history or social status had traditionally taken a back seat to the overwhelming white male narrative that forms the canon and backbone of academia.

This piece on CIF is very good on why gender studies isn’t about women good men bad:

In this piece, Jonathan Dean makes this very pertinent point:

‘In my own discipline – politics – the key undergraduate texts are overwhelmingly by and about men. And yet this is seen by most as unproblematic, as natural or inevitable. Gender studies is an attempt to critique this entrenched male bias.’

As I say, to take a gender studies course and then accuse it of critiquing academic and social male bias makes me pretty suspicious about why he took the course in the first place. Fame? Notoriety? Apparently this guy runs an anti sexism website. I wonder if it includes information about rape culture and the impact of conflict and war on women, as an example…(or would that be SEXIST? Talking about WOMEN!)

But anyway, I digress…

What this story has got me thinking about is that entrenched male bias and how this impacted on my own university career (which ended, with a First Class Honours in English Literature, in 2006). I went to UCL in Bloomsbury, right next to Virginia Woolf’s old house. And what I learnt there was that (with some exceptions, i.e. the aforementioned Woolf) male authors were named, and women authors were ‘women in literary period or movement’.

The male bias on my course was overwhelming. In my second and third year we would have four set texts per module, and on every single module 3 of the texts would be by men and one by women. I had lectures on Wordsworth, Manley Hopkins, Dickens and ‘women in Victorians’ (George Eliot was the exception). Lectures on Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald with no mention of Gertrude Stein. Over and over again on my courses the message was sent out that whilst men were individuals, greats; who formed movements and spoke out from the canon, women were a group, an interest, a sub-section.

Of course, a lot of my feminist lecturers recognised this and goodness knows things were better than when, as one lecture informed me, the Norton Anthology of Poetry had something like 30 women in it (for non lit grads, this is the bible of the English literature under-grad). But whereas the very idea of a lecture titled ‘Men in Modernism’ would be ridiculous, talking ‘Women in Modernism’ was perfectly acceptable, even though if we look at those women modernist writers, the difference and range between them and their books is as different and diverse as those men writers. Djuna Barnes and Dorothy Richardson? Hardly the same are they?

In my second and third years I had feminist tutors who let me run wild with my gender angle on literature (writing on Woolf, Mansfield, Rhys, Plath, Brontes, Djuna Barnes - women everywhere!) which unfortunately left me floundering a bit when it actually came to studying the set texts. But their supportive and feminist ideas helped me become the activist and writer I am today. Not so good was my first year, where my tutor asked me not to write any more gender essays after doing one on Paradise Lost (come to think of it, I don’t think there were any women writers on that ‘key text’ course).

I also attended all the gender seminars. Male and female sexuality in modernist literature, gender in Shakespeare – courses almost always run by women with all women classes. The idea that gender was a subject for men too didn’t register where men were canon and women were specialist.

Of course, women weren’t the least represented group on my course. BME writers and colonialist theory did get a brief look in (Zadie Smith, Hanif Kureishi as examples) but despite a disappointingly un-robust post-colonialism course; just as the syllabus was mainly men, it was also mainly white.

In fact, the one ‘minority group’ that was well represented on my course was gay and queer literature – thanks in part to the famous ‘History and literary representation of homosexuality’ module. And of course, a lot of canonical authors were likely to be, or definitely were, gay or bi. After all, even Shakespeare had Mr. W.H ;-)

What I am trying to show here is that even on a course that I loved every minute of (except Chaucer. And Old English) there was an exceptionally male bias. Embarrassingly so. So there is a good reason that a course that seeks to challenge the unquestioned male bias, like gender studies, is allowed to do exactly that.

What Tom Martin has a problem with, in my mind, is his privilege. He has never experienced that othering that comes from your status in society as a woman. He has not experienced that exclusion, that sense that you are not part of the ‘greats’, that feeling that you are not half the population, but a minority, a specialism. He has lived with male privilege all his life (I don’t know what other privileges he may or may not have as an FYI, so sticking with male) and when that’s challenged, when that is not the priority in his academic world, he panics and lashes out and calls sexism.

Last night I had a conversation on Twitter with Mock the Week about their lack of female representation. They informed me that in their six-year history, ‘18 out of 63 of our regulars & guests have been female, which is... 28.6%, so we're doing alright? :-)’.

No, that is not doing ‘alright’. It is not alright that women are so marginalised in our culture, that women’s voices are silenced and not heard, that women’s stories are seen as ‘other’ or homogeneous.

And it is certainly not right that when this is challenged, that there are accusations of sexism or female bias.

Throughout academia, throughout pretty much every damn point of life, male privilege is entrenched. Gender studies is a place where that inherent, unchallenged privilege is questioned and where an alternative view and criticism of power structures is offered. Where different voices and stories are given weight and attention. Where women are considered.

That’s not too much to ask. To be considered. To be recognised. To be seen and heard.

Check your privilege. You never know, you might learn something.

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