The 'Woman Question' and Higher Education: Perspectives on Gender and Knowledge Production in America

July 3, 2008

Professor Plum is attempting to do in Ms Peacock in the library with a pen. Despite the successes of the women's movement of the 1960s and 1970s in opening university doors to women students, 19th-century prejudice is returning in new forms to bedevil us. A strong biological imperative has taken hold of intellectual life again and powerful men are telling us it is all about bodies, rather than about minds, social and political structures and rights (as Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz explores in her contribution to this volume).

The essayists in this exhilarating collection, who speak from experience in a wide range of disciplines, have produced a manifesto for change in higher education, providing a political analysis of the production of knowledge in the US academy, together with strategies for challenging institutional sexism. While the women's movement may have changed the arc of historical study, the heavy weight of culture and history is still upon us (Alice Kessler-Harris). The pressing invitation is to re-frame the 19th-century "woman question" for today (Elizabeth Higginbotham). Much of the work done by women and under-represented groups in general, not least to ameliorate workplace conditions for both sexes, remains unrewarded. Women should not be treated as "contingent faculty" but should attract a range of family-friendly policies backed by unionisation, including setting limits on that new petty tyrant of office life, the e-mail (Jerry A. Jacobs).

Situating their analysis in the US academy, these feminist writers show their ability both to name the problems and to forge a sharp, witty critical vocabulary to address them. In addition to raising the spectre of Cluedo's Professor Plum, the early chapters consolidate key arguments around science/biology and social science, demystifying the ubiquitous shibboleth of choice, so often used in an attempt to justify women's exclusion from influential positions (Mary Ann Dzuback, Ann Mari May and Horowitz). There is also systematic and fearless naming of universities (Pennsylvania, Harvard and the Bureau of International Research, California - Berkeley, Chicago) where the contribution of women researchers has been highly influential, even formative, but so often largely unacknowledged. But it would be a huge mistake to dismiss the commentary as peculiar to North America. Surely the same scrutiny is needed elsewhere, including Britain, in institutions with centuries of patriarchal infrastructure?

The closing essays also have a general applicability, inscribing important new terms around concepts of "missing women" and "the epistemology of ignorance" (Jane Roland Martin, Virginia Valian and Carla Fehr). Are smart men smarter than smart women? No, answers Fehr unequivocally, while Higginbotham asks why we continue to be assaulted by the wrong questions.

Detractors will find all the supporting data that they might fear to see, as the authors have done their homework/housework and it is spotless. The opening statement of the acknowledgements can stand for the remainder of us - that in encouraging our academic interests, as a stimulus to creative energy, in making us laugh and in reminding us to hold on to that which we value most for women (and men) in higher education, there cannot be much improvement on this book.

The 'Woman Question' and Higher Education: Perspectives on Gender and Knowledge Production in America

Edited by Ann Mari May. Edward Elgar, 200pp, £55.00. ISBN 9781847204011. Published 31 January 2008

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