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  • The Paradox of a Feminist Academic Journal
  • Ruth-Ellen Boetcher Joeres (bio)

When I was recently talking to a friend of mine—a feminist psychotherapist who is fairly skeptical of the academic world—about the matter of doing scholarship differently and more innovatively, she expressed strong and immediate cynicism. How, she asked, can you speak of an academic journal and “change” in the same breath? Aren’t all academic journals just organs of the establishment?

Her questions have forced me to rethink my original intention of pinpointing fairly cheerily and unproblematically the differences that SIGNS, the feminist scholarly journal I edited, has made in the often rigid world of academic publishing. But already before I spoke with her, I was struggling with the paradox of that journal: that is, given its initial aim to make feminism respectable in the academy, and given that it has in many ways succeeded beyond its wildest dreams by becoming perhaps the strongest and most respected voice of U.S. scholarly/academic feminism, how can I think of it as it once was conceived, namely, as something different, even insurgent, as an agent for change? For just being in the academy will transform and ultimately modify grassroots ideas. Moreover, academic journals, by their very nature, will tend to codify and legitimize particular ways of thinking. By definition, they cannot be or remain insurgent. At least not for very long.

Therefore, the predicaments Barbara Laslett and I frequently encountered during 1990–1995, the five years of our joint editorship of SIGNS during its residency at the University of Minnesota, seem, in light of such thoughts, utterly predictable. For SIGNS and its editors and editorial board are now viewed by many as gatekeepers, therefore limiters and confiners and controllers of scholarly adventures, not rebellious challengers to the academic status quo. Maybe the Chronicle of Higher Education had already figured that out when they did a feature on us in March 1993 that claimed even then that we were grappling with the ambiguities of success. 1

Thus it has become increasingly hard for me to think about innovations and change in terms of the academic journal with which I spent my waking (and often sleeping) hours during those five years. I tend, in the long run, to agree with my friend Kate Stimpson’s first sentence of the first editorial in the first [End Page 439] issue of SIGNS, namely, “Journals should have an animating purpose”—a sentence I have often approvingly quoted. Yet now it elicits a skeptical response in me: “but can they?” In the twenty years since SIGNS was founded, feminism has not only firmly established itself in the academy, it has become old hat, in some respects staid; and even though dramatic changes have occurred as a result of its presence there on curricular and scholarly levels, even though the world of U.S. scholarship is no longer what it was in 1975, all sorts of other insurgencies have now arisen—multicultural inquiry, gay/lesbian studies, expansions in postmodern thinking, men’s studies, etc.—that challenge at least some of the tenets on which feminism and SIGNS are based.

At the same time, I believe firmly that without feminism, all of those other insurgencies perhaps would not have arisen themselves. Without SIGNS, many academic journals in the U.S. today would also look quite different. And so within the fairly confining borders of the academy, SIGNS, as a major voice of American feminist inquiry, has obviously made a significant difference.

That said, it is the paradox that is implied in the academic institutionalization of a grassroots movement that most occupies me at the moment and that is vividly reflected for me in the case of SIGNS as a feminist journal within the academy. I think it will be the greatest challenge that SIGNS will continue to face now that it is in its third decade of existence: namely, not to become rigidified into something that can be labelled the canon of feminist inquiry, since, after all, it is the literal liveliness of feminist inquiry, its animating nature, that to my mind keeps it effective. As academic journal editors, we cannot perhaps be activists as...

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pp. 439-443
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