Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The Blogosphere and Academia: Celebrating Femininities

Happy Women's History Month! Everyone (men too) nurture your underappreciated feminine qualities as you appreciate women in the making of history!

With Larry Summers and David Brooks to contend with, and reading Maureen Dowd’s op-ed I’ve been thinking more and more about the social category of woman and what that means for communication and signification. What does it take to be heard? This entails questions of style and tone – use subtlety or get straight to the point? If being pointed and still unacknowledgment is the result, where does civility have a place? How does gender performance, and gender as signifier, come into play with styles of effective communication? What does it mean when your comments aren’t responded to (in class, at a talk, when blogging, etc)? Are the issues women raise uninteresting, trivial, overstated? or do we signify positions of uninterest, triviality, and/or overstatedness? How much leeway do we give the established order of communication before we say, screw it I’ll say it whatever way is necessary? Do the ends justify the means?

These questions have been recurrent for me in the blogosphere more so than in my, albeit, limited experiences in academia. The blogosphere has been largely a masculinist experience, as distinctive from patriarchal. Pro-feminists can be masculinist in that masculine practices are normalized while espousing feminist ideals. Practices gendered beings take part in will in some way reflect the genders of those beings, especially if gendered ways are not interrogated but simply enacted and normalized. Given that the most well-known and popular bloggers are men, and that they often set the tone of snark (and by the way I like snark) and attack the blogosphere was gendered when I came into it. Trying to indoctrinate myself into the blogging culture quickly, and quickly finding once I felt I'd been properly socialized that I didn't particularly like many of the cultural ways of communication I decided to step back from it - disengage a bit and try to figure out a way to blog that would suit my gendered style and feminist ideals. So I tread the line between snark and community building. The Walt Whitman poem "Prairie Grass-Dividing" from Leaves of Grass is part evidence to this. The poem in it's entirety is:

THE prairie-grass dividing—its special odor breathing,
I demand of it the spiritual corresponding,
Demand the most copious and close companionship of men,
Demand the blades to rise of words, acts, beings,
Those of the open atmosphere, coarse, sunlit, fresh, nutritious, 5
Those that go their own gait, erect, stepping with freedom and command—leading, not following,
Those with a never-quell’d audacity—those with sweet and lusty flesh, clear of taint,
Those that look carelessly in the faces of Presidents and Governors, as to say, Who are you?
Those of earth-born passion, simple, never-constrain’d, never obedient,
Those of inland America.
Isn't that great? (Although, I don't mind "taint" or "following," if I trust the leader.) Currently, the first half is up with Prairie Sociology's name. But I started by putting up the snarkier second half. If you've read this blog before, chances are you know how I feel about the President. But my point is that there are two impulses in this poem that I've felt myself in blogging. I like the constructive conflict that can occur freely in blogging. I've learned quite a bit from that, more about communication probably than actual substance. But back to the point, I thought about what are we trying to cultivate here that perhaps isn't as immediately apparent with blogging? community? constructive conflict (not anonymous trolls that just rip and shred for good measure)? nutritiousness (i.e. feeding each other's minds)? copious companionship, open atmosphere (what else is the blogosphere)? The audacity is important, but given, so I opted for the first half as a bit of femininity. But my main point is the poem in its entirety: socially constructed values of femininity like community and nurturing with the more socially constructed masculine qualities of snark and audacity. Taken together, that would be the ultimate blogging experience in my opinion.

Other women bloggers have noticed masculine normativity too. The she-bloggers are out! Take cover, she might get (to) you!

And on biology…It’s interesting to see women’s history month being referred to as estrogen month, a predominantly female hormone although males produce small amounts of estrogen too. Women produce different levels of estrogen as well. But anyway… So is estrogen being referred to metaphorically for femininity or literally to celebrate female biology? If the latter, is this a response to Summers and the whole women and science debate?

Speaking of Summers, on to academia and the signification and representation of "women" in the institution: Linda Kerber, Chair of History at University of Iowa, discusses in The Chronicle for Higher Education how a feminine and feminist intervention in academia might impact the masculinist institution:
If we are going to reconfigure our universities so that men as well as
women will be able to meet the challenges of human life, we are in
desperate need of social scientists who understand the social and
economic relations within their own academic institutions; who understand
that choices about what "fringe" benefits cover are themselves
socially constructed. "Choices" about 80-hour weeks, whether
free or coerced, actually follow choices that the institution has already
made about the configuration of the work that it sustains. We need
economists who will not dismiss criticism as coming from "activists
whose sensibilities might be at odds with intellectual debate" (as
one Harvard economist complained to a Boston Globe reporter in the
wake of the Summers controversy), but rather bring their expertise about
race and gender stratification in the workplace squarely to the necessary
work of reconfiguring the academic institutions in which they live...

Many years ago the abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote an
essay, "Women and the Alphabet," in which he made the point
that if you didn't like uppity women the place to start was at the
beginning. Once you teach girls the alphabet they'll want to read, once
they read they'll get ideas, once they get ideas they'll make claims.
Once Harvard decided to educate female students, it should not have been
surprised that the institution would face questions about the social
arrangements in which scholarship takes place. Women have been earning
Ph.D.'s in the academy in equal numbers to men for more than a decade.
Why be surprised that we now demand that workplaces be user-friendly to
us -- and to all?

Happy women's history month: an affirmative celebration of femininities, corrective to normalized masculine ways (as far as femininities and masculinities have been socially constructed, always throw in the qualifier for good measure), and appreciation for women who have been able to make a difference.

Some important women, often overlooked, who helped shape sociology: Anna Julia Cooper, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Harriet Martineau, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Mary Church Terrell, Florence Kelly, Jane Addams. Feel free to add women important to sociology in the comments.


At 12:26 PM, Blogger Brayden said...

Nice post Erin. I especially like your interpretation of the Whitman poem.

At 3:03 PM, Blogger Erin said...

Thanks professor.


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