- Reflections on WiG, the Yearbook, and Feminism
Sometimes professional experiences coalesce in striking ways. Last fall Katharina Gerstenberger and I sat down to dinner during the GSA convention and reflected on the Yearbook, our relationship to WiG, and feminism in general. My feelings were a muddled mix of relief and circumspection. After three years of hard labor editing the Yearbook I was both ready to move on and yet more invested than ever in the state of feminism. I use the term feminism rather than Gender Studies because it cuts closer to the bone. It offers a more expedient frame for the male/female conflicts I’ve experienced at my own institution in recent years. “Gender Studies,” by contrast, suggests to me how academia defuses with abstractions what would otherwise have more political impact. I noticed Fatih Akin make a similar point in The Other Side of Heaven, which I recently taught. Halfway through the film a character walks past the words “Rebel Studies” spray-painted on a wall, an image that obliquely censures a university system that continues to feed Germany’s historical aversion to revolution. Late in the fall I read an essay in the New York Times magazine written by a graduate student, a young woman used to the “flawlessly egalitarian” behavior of her graduate professors, who for the first time experienced flagrant sexism from a visiting male writer. She expressed deep gratitude to the generation of Second Wave feminists who vociferously rebelled against sexism in academia long before the term “sexual harassment” even existed. Her essay appeared as I worked on a conference paper about Alice Schwarzer’s various heated encounters with Verona Feldbusch on television in 2001 and in the pages of German Feuilletons with Charlotte Roche and a new generation of feminists, like the authors of the recent Neue deutsche Mädchen (New German Girls). Their debates resonated even more when I noticed a poster in my college library advertising for a campus-wide conference on women and power that featured a graphic of a stiletto heeled shoe. While these various congruities make feminism [End Page 23] again a compelling issue to me, on a more personal level they remind me of my vexed feelings toward WiG and the extent to which it embodies the best of Second Wave and contemporary feminism.
When I applied for the position of co-editor at the Yearbook I down-played feminist politics, which felt less acute at the time. Instead I emphasized my hope of soliciting and cultivating scholarship that moves the field of Germanics forward. Long before Cultural Studies became the dominant paradigm, Germanists were already paying close attention to the insistent particulars of history and culture. Now that so many scholars of other national spheres share this grounding, I felt it was time, despite my above critique of abstraction, to formulate paradigms more appropriate to Germany’s position in the global surround as it slouches toward its post-twentieth century identity. New kinds of theory as launch pad could presumably help us to understand the surprising alliances and/or tensions that emerge in the process, with gender issues remaining a critical link to real lives and the larger contexts that shape them.
Some of my present ambivalence emerges when I look back on such high-flown aims. Ambition can sometimes remain awkwardly disconnected from what is concretely possible. The kinds of scholarship I worked with over the last three years followed more traditional, but very solid, imperatives. As Katharina and I stated in the introduction to volume 24, some of our essays attempted to revise the canon by adding overlooked female authors, while others challenged existing interpretations of various works from a feminist perspective. There is no question in my mind about the continued importance of feminist inquiry, but as I followed the heated debates over German feminism this past summer, I sensed that scholarship on female subjectivity, in all its light and dark hues, lagged behind.
Alice Schwarzer continues to fight the good fight of Second Wave feminism with campaigns against pornography, prostitution, and the oppression of women under Islam. Despite criticism from academics over her sweeping, undifferentiated approach and from...