Feminist baptisms and academic breakthroughs

(…) 48 years after the first Women’s Liberation March in London, three feminists reflect about the world-changing shifts we have seen in the last few decades in the Netherlands and the change they would most like to see coming next.

This morning, as I recover from a nasty cold with my favourite mug filled with ginger-honey tea, I open the Journal of Gender Studies & Feminist Anthropology (LOVA), which pilled up at the door with the Christmas postcards. I move my breakfast aside and quickly go through the pages until I find, on page 87, the essay I wrote about my interview with three feminist anthropologists: Joke Schrijvers, Ina Keuper and Karin Willemse.

From preparing and doing this interview, back in November, to writing about it, I enjoyed all the steps of learning about the incredible lives of these and other women, these feminists who have changed laws and policies, hearts and minds, and academia itself. Here’s a small excerpt of the text:

Backlash and new-feminisms: The effects on women’s words, minds and jobs
In 2017, ‘feminism’ became one of the most searched words online. The search volume increased by more than seventy per cent compared to 2016, according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary. “No one word can ever encapsulate all the news, events, or stories of a given year, particularly a year with so much news and so many stories. But when a single word is looked up in great volume, and also stands out as one associated with several different important stories, we can learn something about ourselves”, said the dictionary.

The contemporality of the F-word seems justified. In 2017 the ‘post-feminist illusion’, that feminism has reached its goals, and that contemporary women have little or nothing to nag about, shattered. To start with, 2017 was the year of Trump’s election as president of the USA, an event followed by a record number of women’s marches around the world. It was also the year of the pussy-hat, a pink hat, handcrafted and used by thousands involved in those marches for added visual impact. Above all, 2017 showed the world that feminist mobilization still works, not only in the streets but also digitally. With the Hashtag MeToo, the movement to expose women’s protest against experiences with sexual violence began to spread globally and went viral on social media.

Also, 2019 is a very special year for Dutch women, says Karin. The Dutch celebrate a hundred years of women’s suffrage in The Netherlands. Around the country, a comprehensive programme of events includes history, art, and theatre (note to myself: do not miss De Verleiders Female on stage until 28 February 2020) to celebrate a year so special for Dutch women.

But while feminist activists seem to be sweeping the world again and bringing gender to mainstream discussions, its position as a central subject in academia and research should not be taken for granted, Karin says. In universities, gender is brought up to the discussions only when teachers have an affinity with it, lacking overall institutional anchoring and continuity. This can be partially explained by the fact that universities in The Netherlands are fairly hierarchical institutes. Most decision-making positions are still dominated by men who are generally unaware of what is going on in the field of gender studies. “Men in power prefer to appoint in higher positions other men with a similar background and attitude, which is mostly white, middle-class and of a certain age’, says Karin. Also, nepotism and ‘us-know-us-networks’ complicate institutional change and the establishment of gender authority at and from the top.

Attempts to address this issue more radically are often met with suspicion. This summer, the Eindhoven University of Technology took radical action to increase its share of female professors by opening job vacancies to women only, Joke tells us. The university was met with a lot of criticism. Many academics, women and men, have double feelings about this type of quota arrangements.

A second dimension to mainstreaming gender in academia concerns the shift from gender used in relation to social change and activism towards the concept of gender as a neutral analytical tool. First of all, the term ‘women’s studies’ has been replaced by ‘gender studies’, and in gender studies, the ‘women’s oppression’ of the 1970s has given way to ‘intersectionality’. It is as if “gender has lost some of its sense of urgency”, Karin says. Joke, for whom commitment to the good cause always mattered the most, thinks this happened mainly because gender research has “lost its activist orientated social goal. It has become an analytical concept, a popular academic concept, but there is little action or immediate relation with changing the real world.” LOVA has struggled with this transition too, Ina explains. “In the past ten years, in the LOVA board, we have had lots of discussion about these concepts. Including discussions about re-naming LOVA.” After all, LOVA derived its name from the old term ‘women’s studies’. “In the end, we decided on gender studies and feminist anthropology. We decided to keep the word feminist in it because we thought that activism should continue being part of it.” 

Nowadays, even if without the sense of urgency that characterised feminist activism in the old days, LOVA continues to connect researchers, lecturers, students and alumni outside the regular study program (the four of us are a strong example). The challenge for LOVA and each one of us as feminists seems to be: how we channel this new awareness and activism into productive and strategic action in academia and research?

From “Three feminists, five decades of feminism, and forty years of LOVA“, by Filipa Oitavén, in Annual LOVA JOURNAL, Issue 40 / December 2019.

If you want to read the rest and more (I tell you, there are many other interesting articles in this issue) consider supporting LOVA’s work*, by becoming a member, and receive the LOVA Journal for free with your next Christmas. You can become a member here: https://lova.network/membership/

*LOVA is an active network of engaged feminist anthropologists within and outside the Netherlands. LOVA’s members are very diverse: they consist of students, junior and senior academics and professionals working outside of academia. LOVA’s academic members study gender in relation to a wide variety of topics such as development, sexuality, ethnicity, poverty, multiculturalism, conflict and globalization. LOVA members are also actively involved in governmental and non-governmental organizations.

Feminist baptisms and academic breakthroughs

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