Feminar 102: Notes on Teaching about Women, Gender, and Sexuality

In a speech in the House of Commons on 11 March 1873, Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli proclaimed that “a university should be a place of light, of liberty, and of learning.” Those of us in the humanities have seen our programs repeatedly attacked as meritless in terms of consumer profitability and, according to some, pernicious in their liberal persuasion.  We wish more people would believe in Disraeli’s aspirational statement rather than place faith in the profit models that currently drive too many university investments and curriculum choices. As I hope to demonstrate, the humanities offer more than a chance to discuss old books and therefore matter to every program within a university—if our goal is the making of a better, more just world for all.

I regularly teach an undergraduate class titled “Women in American Literature.”  The course was added to the curriculum decades ago in order to address the inadequacy of a predominantly white masculinist canon of literature to represent the cultural production of Americans, and it reflected the then dominant feminist critical practice of examining images of women.  The canon exploded in the 1980s through radical inclusion; as a result, literature anthologies now routinely offer writing by authors of all races, genders, classes, ethnicities, and sexual persuasions.  Nevertheless, what can be taught is not necessarily what is being taught.

As I tell my students at our first class meeting, I used to include male writers in my course since the only available anthologies then did so.  But, times have changed, and we need no longer relegate women to the status of spoken about rather than speaker.  These days I choose to focus solely on American literature by women writers.  Many students mention in their first reflection papers that they hadn’t expected the focus on women writers, but my introduction to the class made them realize they hadn’t actually read, or even knew of, many American women writers.  We then move on to read together and analyze gender, class, race, and sex representation in the works, along with the aesthetic qualities of each piece.

Some instructors of the same course still include, and sometimes focus upon, male writers’ creation of women characters, and that is their right, though I consider that decision a bit myopic given the rich tradition of women writers now readily accessible to all.  Much more troubling are those instructors who continue to disparage “women’s” literature as strictly a special interest.  One wonders how anyone can simply dismiss the work of half the population as a “special interest.”

The explanation can be found, in part, in recent studies of misogyny, the perceived entitlement that those who promote heteropatriarchal standards consider the norm, and because of which any form of identity politics or political correctness is too often marked as a dangerous challenge to those who hold power in politics, education, religion, law, and other ideological state apparatuses.  I’ve been working through Kate Manne’s Down Girl:  The Logic of Misogyny, a challenging philosophical investigation of what too many people simply dismiss as individual irrational behavior or psychological aberration.  Manne argues that misogyny is, instead, a political phenomenon, and we must address it as such.  As Manne documents through extensive examination of quotidian as well as catastrophic instances of misogynistic acts, we still live in a white heteropatriarchal society in which sexism is “the branch of patriarchal ideology that justifies and rationalizes a patriarchal social order” and in which misogyny is “the system that polices and enforces its governing norms and expectations” (20), rewarding only those who perform their cisgender designated roles as they have been traditionally inscribed.  While misogyny can involve hatred of women, more importantly, Manne argues, it has a specific social function as a “system of domination” similar to “racisms, xenophobia, classism, ageism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and so on” (13).  Misogyny is designed to keep women in their place—inferior to, beholden to, and complicit in male supremacist ideology that acknowledges women have value only if they never step over the line into the space belonging to men.

Manne focuses on both infamous acts of violence and everyday micro-aggressions against women in both the United States and Australia (the country of her birth), analyzing, for instance, the Isla Vista sorority killings, Trump’s never-ending assaults on Hillary Clinton, and Rush Limbaugh’s demand that male taxpayers should be able to witness the sex acts of those women who want health insurance to cover the cost of their birth control pills.  She also draws our attention to the particularly virulent form of misogyny, what Moya Bailey calls misogynoir, experienced by black women.

Manne’s book has received extensive laudatory reviews in leading critical journals even as, not surprisingly, it has been summarily dismissed on bookseller sites as liberal feminist ranting by anonymous readers, several of whom make clear that they have read only the first few pages.  The book demands a close reading of and commitment to taking seriously Manne’s meticulous investigation into misogyny’s history, social function, virulence, and effect.  You should read it, and you should also read and promote study of literature by women.

Analyzing literary works offers us the opportunity to interrogate the social practices and cultural narratives we have inherited, to question the values being passed down to us.  Education in the humanities—in philosophy, literature, religious studies, cultural history, foreign languages, classics—is key in helping us fight against the many systems of domination that still poison our lives today. Today, more than ever, we must work to ensure that the university is a place of light, learning, and liberty for all.

By Mary Papke
Professor of English
University of Tennessee Knoxville

Kate Manne.  Down Girl:  The Logic of Misogyny.  Oxford University Press, 2018.

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