From the Editor: Belts and Corsets

By Cat Warren

Feminist essayist Katha Pollitt has argued convincingly that just beyond the current attacks on reproductive health care lies a myriad of less visible ways that federal, state, and local government cutbacks, “touted as neutral and necessary belt-tightening,” will fall disproportionately on women.

And that is true in our universities as well. Contingent faculty are disproportionately women and are thus being laid off disproportionately. The same is true of staff. And it is also true of women’s and gender studies programs.

In the laundering of grim news about downsizing—or “rightsizing”—higher education to fit the realities of the twenty-first century, little attention has been given to the programs that have always, despite the claims of conservatives, existed on the edge of the humanities and depended on the kindness of friends. These are the programs that rob Petra to pay Pauline, surviving on four-figure operating budgets and cobbling together faculty based on 25 percent lines here and quid pro quos with sympathetic department chairs there.

Now, of course, we’re all supposed to bravely tighten our belts, as though we’re equal. All together now. The trouble is, women’s and gender studies programs are being handed whalebone corsets without even an apologetic nod from administrators and faculty colleagues. If the little programs disappear entirely under the constriction? Well, a pity. But we all know that the categorical imperatives of traditional disciplines apply.

As a former director of women’s and gender studies who resigned in anger because of administrative kowtowing to conservative influences, I find myself inexplicably sad but not puzzled that these programs, which are largely a labor of love on the part of both faculty and students, are either having their already small budgets slashed or are disappearing entirely—in Maine, in Texas, in Pennsylvania.

One academic blogger, reacting to proposed concurrent cuts of women’s studies and philosophy in Nevada (which appear temporarily in limbo because of faculty taking buyouts), wrote that he sincerely hoped that the women’s studies faculty would be retained in one department or another. But for a state university to consider eliminating philosophy? That was another category entirely. “These are real people whose lives may be destroyed by this move.”

Don’t get me wrong. I am horrified and angry about what is happening to language programs and philosophy programs here and in Britain. Hey, my husband is a philosopher. This issue of Academe is devoted to the topic. You won’t get an inappropriate Martin Niemöller quotation from me.

But who will care if faculty in women’s and gender studies programs get absorbed back into the organism of standard disciplines? Who will speak for these programs, especially in the shell game that makes it entirely too easy to make changes and then claim that nothing has changed?

A few faculty members. A few passionate and devoted students. As one women’s studies major at Temple University noted about the disappearance of an independent women’s studies program, and the ultimate administrative claim that the move was made to “strengthen” traditional departments, “I guess what was most shocking about it was that it wasn’t really shocking at all—this kind of tactic is widely accepted and normalized at every level of education.”

Corset is. But it shouldn’t be.