Gender studies under attack from the new right

In Hungary, Poland, Germany and elsewhere, populist politicians are taking aim at the discipline

May 11, 2017
hungary riot police
Source: Getty
Tensions in Hungary: conservative politicians have accused gender studies of being a ‘pseudoscience’ and have called for its abolition

As populist, traditionalist politicians make waves across Europe and the US, they have found a new foe in the academy: gender studies.

The discipline, which generally challenges the idea that traditional male and female social roles are natural, stands accused of being a liberal, pseudoscientific ideology, one that undermines motherhood and discourages women from having children.

“There are certain political forces that are using gender to mobilise hate,” said Andrea Peto, Hungary's first professor of gender studies, based at the Central European University in Budapest, an institution under threat of closure from new legislation. Some now claim that the very idea of gender is “a force that is destroying the nation”, she said.

The battle over gender studies is being fiercely fought in Hungary, where one of the most recent flashpoints has been plans to create a new master’s degree in gender studies at Budapest’s Eötvös Loránd Science University, the first at a public higher education institution.

“[Gender studies] deny what we think about natural human existence,” said Bence Rétvári, parliamentary state secretary at Hungary's Ministry of Human Capacities in a TV interview explaining his opposition to the new course. The subject flies in the face of traditional values and has questionable scientific value, he was reported as saying.

Seemingly in response to the new programme, the ministry announced that Corvinus University, also in Budapest, would launch a “family sciences” degree.

Professor Peto explained that some believe studying gender will discourage women from having children, further lowering Hungary's already low birth rate.

Professor Peto’s own university, which has a sizeable gender studies department, is itself fighting for survival after the Hungarian government passed legislation that the institution says will force it out of the country. There has been speculation in the Hungarian press that CEU's gender studies programme is one of the things that has made it a target for the party of prime minister Viktor Orbán.

Such attacks are not confined to Hungary. Opposition to the idea of studying gender has a longer history in Poland, where last year the minister of science and higher education, Jarosław Gowin, suggested that some gender studies journals, as well those focusing on gay and lesbian issues, should be stripped of their official status.

He later clarified that universities and academics would continue to have autonomy over what they researched. But he bemoaned that money, particularly from European Union sources, was spent on such “pseudoscience”.

“While gender studies have never had a strong position in the region, both in terms of institutionalisation and funding, it has not been the target of comparable attacks by government officials before,” said Weronika Grzebalska, a doctoral student at the Polish Academy of Sciences, who looks at nationalism and right-wing politics from a gender perspective.

In Germany, the discipline is under fire from the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party in this year’s elections. The party, which despite a dip in popularity since the height of Germany's refugee crisis is still polling in third place, argues that gender studies is not a serious academic discipline and threatens to overturn the “natural” binary between men and women. In its manifesto, it says it would end state support for professorships and research in the field.

In Russia, meanwhile, the European University at St Petersburg has been hounded by a parliamentarian who reportedly called gender studies at the institution "disgusting" and "fake studies". It now faces the revocation of its licence.

Opposition to gender studies in the US has come from the "alt-right": commentator Milo Yiannopoulos has called for the abolition of the subject in all publicly funded universities.

As some conservative politicians become hostile towards gender rights, "it makes perfect sense that that would translate in the academy into an attack on gender studies", said Lisa Downing, professor of French discourses of sexuality at the University of Birmingham, who has written about the state of the subject.

At least since the 1970s, gender studies has been accused of trying to bring down the "established order, the nuclear family and society”, she said. What was different now was the growth of "far-right, alt-right" groups across the world "which gives legitimacy to the voices who in previous decades would have been more marginalised on the right".

But the discipline was not blame free, Professor Downing added: the "obscurantism" of some texts meant that they were often "not accessible to anybody except a tiny minority of highly educated people".

Despite challenges to the subject, Professor Peto saw the debate as an opportunity for the discipline to make itself heard. "Who cared about gender studies two years ago?" she said. "We were a small and unimportant subculture."

She added: "This will be a long fight, but a victorious fight.”

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (2)

It should be noted that a large faction of the left maintains that gender studies is not a serious discipline and have critiqued the safety pin, censorial, bullying and no-platforming culture that gender studies have helped to usher in. I have no sympathy for this domain's disappearance as it has merited its demise given stubborn, illogical, and unsubstantiated bases upon which it rests.
Part of the trouble is that there seems to be a lack of clarity about what sort of subject it is. In the article we have "French discourses of sexuality" and "nationalism and right-wing politics from a gender perspective" as two examples. Many university departments where it is taught also include genetics. As a blend of humanities and science it is inevitable that it'll come in for criticism. Although Native American "two spirit" philosophy is interesting and valid from a social/historical perspective it doesn't provide any scientific insight. People would think it was crazy to teach creation myths in a geology department.

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