Cultural Critique 53 (2003) 144-148
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Disciplining Feminism: From Social Activism to Academic Discourse, by Ellen Messer-Davidow. Duke University Press, 2002
Disciplining Feminism is a valuable testament to the monumental struggle feminists undertook in the last half century to establish the study of women and gender as a social and academic phenomenon. "Academic feminism," a term that signifies an (inter)discipline, invokes a remembrance of its roots in sociopolitical activism and the mission to claim a space in institutions of knowledge-production.
In the introduction, "Knowing and Doing," the author positions herself by connecting her academic turn toward feminist studies to personal circumstances and the political environment of the 1960s. Having helped to launch a women's studies program at the University of Cincinnati gives the author a unique perspective on the specific issues and strategies of second-wave feminism. This view is informative in terms of the particular constraints and the catalysts that induced the growth of women's studies in academic institutions. It is an inspirational as well as cautionary tale that acknowledges failures honestly and reconfigures them productively.
The main argument of the study is that feminism set out to transform but instead was transformed (indeed, domesticated) by academic institutions that regulated (disciplined) its scholarship. Part I, "Confronting the Institutional-Disciplinary Order," analyzes how this Foucauldian paradigm frames the lives of individual women scholars—in "Disciplining Women" (chapter 1)—and in the life cycle of movements—in "Constructing Sex Discrimination" (chapter 2). That feminism and feminist/women's studies are themselves implicated in the disciplining systems, in using their methods and languages as [End Page 144] strategies, becomes the focus in the second part, "Institutionalizing and Intellectualizing Feminist Studies." The paradoxes of gaining legitimacy, especially with the increasing control exerted by academic associations and journals, are analyzed in "Articulating Projects" (chapter 3), "Formatting Feminist Studies" (chapter 4), and "Proliferating the Discourse" (chapter 5). The seemingly active forms of "articulating," "formatting," and "proliferating," while they make women's studies prominent and powerful, also serve to constrict and constrain its force. The third and last part, "Crystallizing the Future," delineates the recuperative dynamics within institutionalized aca-demic feminism that help to counter organized conservative forces in "Remaking Change Agency" (chapter 6) and "Playing by the New Rules" (chapter 7). The author exhorts us "not to abandon the national and local organization we built but to retool them for greater political effectivity" (287) and ends with practical tips that are worthy of discussion and debate—to develop viable networks, to create councils of academic and activist organizations, to identify public issues for coalition building, to make scholarship accessible to policy makers, and to train academics in media, lobbying, legislative functions, and fund-raising. Thus, while the analysis asserts that feminism is co-opted by institutional operations, it also documents negotiations toward successful resistance and epistemic reformulation.
Omnipotent institutionalizing discourses that discipline their subjects were visible to a generation seeking entry and legitimation in particular ways, as the author argues. In implicit comparison, power seems less discernible today while exerting equal, if not more, tangible influences in different guises. The author points out, however, that conservative organizations and their ability to deploy key resources are quite locatable in their function and effect. It is certainly acceptable to most feminists that academic institutions are "a necessary but not a sufficient condition" (105) of feminist growth. The inclusion of feminist work in academic journals (the author names ASA's The American Sociologist, University of Chicago's American Journal of Sociology, the PMLA, New Literary History, Critical Inquiry), in simultaneously affirming disciplinary conventions and innovations, comes as no surprise to critical observers today. Some conferences and journals may have blunted feminism's transformative potential (chapter 4), but to say that it is a function of production [End Page 145] per se does disservice to a number of feminist activities today, both academic and otherwise, that have taken on the issue of social and political change.
The argument that "the higher-education system exercised its power not through repression but through production" (127) undermines not only...