- Women's Studies on the Edge, and: The Evolution of American Women's Studies: Reflections on Triumphs, Controversies, and Change
Some have argued that Women's Studies is the most self-scrutinized field of study in the academy. The sheer number of books and articles on the history and current issues facing Women's Studies show that its practitioners reflect extensively on Women's Studies as a field of scholarship and teaching within universities and colleges, as well as on its relationship to the contemporary feminist movement and other forms of activism. The two books under review, Women's Studies on the Edge edited by Joan Wallach Scott and The Evolution of American Women's Studies: Reflections on Triumphs, Controversies, and Change edited by Alice E. Ginsberg, contribute to that discussion. Both address general themes in current thinking and practice of Women's Studies, including curricular, organizational, and personal. What is most revealing about juxtaposing these two books is how Women's Studies has been in a state of flux about the content of its subject of knowledge and therefore its name and activist goals in and outside the academy. In the past decade, the critical questioning of Women's Studies' attachment to women as its subject has been seen as either an intrinsic process of the field and sign of its vitality and viability, or, conversely, as evidence of it having become congealed, lost its dynamism, become disciplined and co-opted—even a project [End Page 209] we should abandon. By addressing these differing views of Women's Studies, the two anthologies introduce scholars and students to the value and limitations of the field's past, and project for it a more open-ended future. They also validate student concerns that Women's Studies be open to a variety of constituents.
While both books were published in 2008, Women's Studies on the Edge has its roots in a 1997 issue of differences—although with additional essays—while The Evolution of American Women's Studies is a compilation of new writings. The first anthology addresses issues and controversies mostly in a theoretical essay format; the second relies on reflective essays of the contributors' personal and professional involvement in Women's Studies. While Women's Studies on the Edge may be more suitable to advanced undergraduate and graduate classes, various chapters in The Evolution of American Women's Studies can appeal to all students interested in the history and current relevance of the field.
The very title of Women's Studies on the Edge conjures up different and competing scenarios: Women's Studies on the edge of success, achieving its original intellectual and political goals and/or legitimizing incorporation into the academy; Women's Studies on the edge of co-optation through institutionalization and therefore failure. In her introduction, Joan Scott locates Women's Studies' troubles in the 1990s: While the field benefited from feminism's coming of age in the 1980s, political backlash and corporatist restructuring of the academy resulted in fears that Women's Studies had betrayed its original activist goals and was engaged in greater boundary policing and exclusionary practices that emphasized gender as its analytical focus. There were concerns that students were less identified with feminism, and that some academic feminists were abandoning Women's Studies altogether. While Scott attributes Women's Studies' difficulties in part to outside pressures, her anthology focuses primarily on critical reflection on internal crises; its purpose is to open up a discussion of new futures for the field, beyond those imagined by its founders, with no single line of argument and with some of the chapters contradicting one another.
The first two essays by Wendy Brown and Robyn Wiegman address Women's Studies' alleged failures. Brown argues its limitations, from a disciplinary viewpoint, as a field of study based in the identitarian project centered on...