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A Very Important Lesson Women’s Studies Should Be Teaching

There's much to be gained in welcoming dissent.

As a “tween” and a teenager, I loved math and science. A major part of their appeal was that, especially in math, there were answers. Solutions. When you completed a proof in plane geometry, for example, it was done. Same with solving a problem in algebra. When a problem was solved, it was solved, once and forever. I was a math major in college until it became too difficult for me; my nadir was Theory of Ordinary Differential Equations.

I came into psychology almost by accident. To complete a major still possible for me in my senior year, Natural Sciences, I had to take the introductory course in psychology. I loved it. The teacher was great, I found the material fascinating, and I did well. And the psychology I was learning was, in its own way, scientific. There were studies that provided data. Results didn’t have the certainty of math or physics, but this wasn’t philosophy either. I was hooked.

The type of psychology I studied in graduate school was experimental psych, where science and math were still very relevant. For several years, that domain was my focus. However, again through happenstance—this time it was an idea a colleague and I had one day in 1976, when I was 33—my interests shifted to something I still wish to God I had never gotten into, with its constant turmoil and arguments: gender issues.

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As clear as answers could be in math and science, and even to some degree in experimental psychology, this was absolutely not the case for the psychology of gender. Yet some people in academia—namely, many in women’s studies—seemed to feel they were clear. Nevertheless, even before I began my own research in gender issues, I was a solid backer of women’s studies, lending my support when several female faculty members got together to start the department with that name. But much as I believed in the field, I believed even more in the unbiased truth, as best we could reach it. And early on I began to sense that in women’s studies, the phenomenon of groupthink might often be operating.

I remember a weekday evening more than 35 years ago, when I went to the lounge of a dorm on the campus where I taught. I was there for a talk being given by a teacher from the women's studies department, and her topic was how women are portrayed in film. I had heard a lot of good things about this teacher and how bright she was, but I had also heard that she was a lesbian separatist, a woman who would just as soon have nothing at all to do with men.

Such women scared me because I felt they had tremendous appeal to those millions of women who had been hurt by men. Even strictly heterosexual women whose experiences with men were not so bad seemed envious of groups of lesbians, who seemed so relaxed and comfortable with each other.

As was often the case for those kinds of campus events, I looked around and realized that I was one of just a few men present. Out of about 50 people, I counted only three, including myself. That bothered me a lot. It just added to my belief that the women's movement was an insular one that didn't want input from opposing points of view. And that's why I was there. I saw myself as the representative not so much of men but of a possible alternative truth.

The speaker was indeed very good. As I had heard around campus, she was intelligent and articulate. And if she was a lesbian separatist, she was not saying so publicly, and any anger she had toward men was certainly restrained. Her words on the topic, however, were uncompromising. In movies, she said, women's principal role was as a sex object.

She turned to a movie from several years earlier, Shampoo, which starred Warren Beatty.

"Consider that film," she said. "There we have some excellent actresses, including Julie Christie and Lee Grant, and they are simply sexual objects for Warren Beatty's lust. There is a whole list of women in that film who are there to satisfy Beatty's sexual..."

I remembered the movie very differently and felt I had to say so. I was swept by that surge of nervousness I inevitably feel when I put my hand up to make a critical comment at a presentation, worried that my voice will crack or that I'll get tongue-tied. It's so different being in the audience than being the presenter. But I felt compelled to raise my hand, and I did.

The speaker immediately called on me.

"Well," I said, and I cleared my throat. "You know I saw Shampoo when it first came out and, to me, the real sex object in that movie was Warren Beatty. My recollection is that all kinds of women wanted him, and one focus of the film was how difficult this made his life. Really, I thought that was one of its main points, the difficulties a man can have if he's too attractive to women. He was the real sex object, much more so than the women, I think."

I could feel myself shaking, not with anger, but with nervousness.

"Hmmm," the speaker said. "...Actually that's a good point. I never thought about it that way. I guess sexual objectification can go both ways, even if it is usually women who are objectified. Thanks."

I couldn't believe it. I looked around the room and noticed that a lot of the young women in the audience were nodding their heads and smiling at me. Is it something they had thought, but were afraid to say?

I felt great about being there and having had the courage to speak up. I've made a difference, I said to myself, I really have. Yes, I thought, but suppose I hadn't come to this talk. I don't think those other two guys would have said a word. And at a lot of these talks, there are no guys around at all. Then, all that these young women hear is that uncriticized stuff. I can't spend my life going to all these talks. I can't be in every women's studies classroom. They're hearing things that may be far from the whole story, and no one else seems to care!

For my own part, as a teacher, I tried to balance things. Within several years I was teaching a course titled “Human Relationships,” with a heavy emphasis on gender issues. I used a variety of sources, including the first edition of David Buss’s The Evolution of Desire: Strategies in Human Mating (1995), which was not a favorite among feminists. And then, near the end of my 25+ year teaching career, I co-taught a course titled “The Psychology of Gender” with an ardent feminist colleague, who had taught the Psychology of Women for years.

But I never forgot that moment more than 35 years ago when I spoke my piece. And it turns out that it was noteworthy that the presenter, whose feelings about feminism were about as strong as anyone’s back then, didn’t simply dismiss what I had to say. Other times when I have also spoken up, sometimes citing data directly countering the speaker’s argument, I have been ignored both by the speaker and the audience.

I wasn’t the only person concerned that women’s studies might not be open-minded enough.

By the 1990s articles and books were being written about this possible problem. Writing in a scholarly journal in 1991, Camille Paglia described women’s studies as “institutionalized sexism,” claiming that “academic feminists have silenced men and dissenting women.”

Professing Feminism: Cautionary Tales from the Strange World of Women Studies, was published in 1995 (and a revised edition in 2003). Written by two female academics, one of whom, Daphne Patai, had taught women’s studies, it too took issue with what they saw as “ideological policing” in the classroom.

The issue of openness in the social sciences is one that many people are wary of discussing, but in a recent, well-publicized speech social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt (2011) has spoken about what he sees as a liberal bias within his field, especially as regards areas such as, but not limited to, gender studies.

I can’t even remember the name of that teacher from so many years ago, but I still appreciate her open-mindedness. I am sorry to say that over the more than 35 years since attending her talk, I have rarely found that in the field of gender studies; those writings of the ’90s, as well as Haidt’s speech of just three years ago, show that I’m not alone in my concerns.

I think the field and its students are all the poorer for it.

 

References

Haidt, J. (2011) The bright future of post-partisan social psychology. Talk given at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, San Antonio, TX, Jan. 11, 2011.

Paglia, C. (1991) Junk bonds and corporate raiders: Academe in the hour of the wolf. Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics. Third Series, Vol. 1 (2), pp. 139-212.

Patai, D. & Koertge, N. (1995) Professing Feminism: Cautionary Tales from the Strange World of Women’s Studies. New York: Basic Books.

 

 

Mark Sherman, Ph.D., is a psychologist and humor writer.

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