Should Women Speak First in University Classrooms?

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Assemble a roomful of feminists to discuss the situation of women on university campuses, and what do you get? A case study in self-righteousness and intellectual hollowness.

Such was the scene at Dalhousie University’s recent panel in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in which seven feminist activists outlined the steps necessary to overcome rampant campus misogyny. One of the ideas put forward “several times” and greeted with applause, according to a report on the proceedings, was that university policy should mandate female priority in all classroom discussions.

The panel was organized in the wake of the suspension of 13 dentistry students over a scandal involving tasteless Facebook posts. These included a poster promoting the use of chloroform as a form of seduction, fantasies about violent sexuality, and a joke about how penises are helpful to women.

As has now become standard practice at North American universities, the actions of these few male students, which seem to have had absolutely no relation to any real-world violence, were eagerly trumpeted as evidence of campus-wide gendered discrimination.

What discrimination? Women are now vastly in the majority at universities all across the continent, outnumbering their male peers at a ratio of 2–1. In some disciplines, there are virtually no men left. In those where women remain in a minority, such as engineering, aggressive affirmative action programs are underway to attract them. There are likely a variety of reasons for the notable decline in male participation, but it is probable that awareness of the preference for females and a disinclination to experience both the subtle and not-so-subtle anti-male bias of these academic environments are having their unsurprising impact.

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If there ever was a time in the past half-century when institutional sexism discouraged women from pursuing higher education, it is emphatically not now. A myriad of programs and special scholarships and bursaries exists to support women’s post-secondary endeavors. Whole departments devote themselves to the study of women, and most departments offer special courses on women’s history, women’s cultural production, women’s participation in war, women’s spirituality, and so on. Feminism has so pervaded the academy that every subject, at least in the humanities and social sciences, now emphasizes—even prioritizes—women’s concerns, theories, and perspectives. The vast majority of instructors in these disciplines teach from a feminist perspective; only a tiny minority would dare to teach as anti-feminists, and any disparaging classroom remarks about women would bring swift censure. Disparaging remarks about men, in contrast, are commonplace and acceptable.

So why the panel on misogyny in academia? It’s a big leap to see the sexual fantasies of a few dentistry students—swiftly and harshly punished by the university administration—as evidence of any widespread campus culture other than, perhaps, the normal sexual preoccupations of healthy young men. But feminists do not make political gains by being tolerant or reasonable. From the moment the Facebook fiasco became public, they went into full-blown rape crisis mode, insisting that emergency measures were needed to combat the stigmatizing and silencing of women.

That’s how we come to a professor’s suggestion in all seriousness that first-place in classroom discussion be reserved for women by administrative fiat. The professor who put forward the recommendation, Judy Haiven of the Sobey School of Business at St. Mary’s University, already prioritizes women’s voices as an unofficial classroom practice, and she thinks it should be extended to all. Why? Because despite all the apparent gains women have made, they are still hesitant to speak. And that must be because of the insidious social conditioning and overt sexism that tell them their opinions are unworthy.

One would think that someone like Professor Haiven, with her prestigious, well-paid job as professor of business management, who in herself seems evidence that women are not held back from academic advancement, would be reassuring women that success is possible for those with brains and dedication. Not so. Despite the fact that women now outnumber men in post-secondary achievement, Professor Haiven persists in seeing disadvantage: women are “taking a back seat” and not “taking a more active role [ …] in running things,” she laments. Jacqueline Skiptunis, the vice-president academic of the Student Union at Dal, has taken an “active role” in student government but agrees that much more is needed to promote women’s well being. She has at times felt hesitant to speak, and “when she did speak up, her statements were often questioned, and believed only when a man agreed with her.”

There you go. Incontrovertible evidence of pervasive contempt for women in the halls of academe. What is so helpful about feminist theory is the penetrating insight it provides into human realities that might otherwise seem less than clear. Might it not have been that the “questioning” Skiptunis experienced was evidence of her colleagues’ unbiased respect for truth and their belief in her integrity and tough-mindedness? Might the fact that at least some men agreed with her show that men valued her opinions and contributions? Perhaps her sense of hesitation was coloured by general insecurity rather than by any actual bias against her? Perhaps men also feel insecure about their verbal contributions to discussion?

Nonsense. Women know what their experiences mean, and feminist orthodoxy dictates that they be believed.

But some of the (risible) complexities of that orthodoxy were also made evident by the discussion following Haiven’s suggestion to privilege female voices. Judy Ashburn, a transgender outreach coordinator for Halifax’s sexual resource center, one-upped Professor Haiven by suggesting that black women should speak first. Feminism has “come a long way” since its early days, you see, moving to ever finer calibrations of victimhood according to the theory of “intersectionality.” Sure, (white) women are disadvantaged in relation to (white) men, but they have race privilege in relation to black or brown women—and thus racialized women must have priority. But it’s more complicated than that. Heterosexual women of color are privileged over their womyn-loving fellow warriors, so lesbians of color must speak before heterosexual women of color (where white lesbians fit in the hierarchy has been much disputed though never absolutely determined; perhaps they may alternate in preference with racialized straight women). And what about racialized women with disabilities? To the head of the line.

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In our present climate, of course, Muslim women can claim far more damaging and virulent discrimination than even disabled black lesbians with mood disorders, so their position trumps all others, especially if they wear the niqab or burqa. (In fact, a case might be made that merely speaking first is not enough for these victims of Islamophobia and that discussion be given over to them exclusively.)

Professor Haiven may be surprised to discover that, far from reaping their due reward for centuries of oppression, white women under the logic of her theory may not be allotted much classroom time at all, and may even have to spend most of it apologizing for unearned privilege.

Two jaundiced thoughts present themselves at this juncture, prompted by my own experience of feminism and classroom gender dynamics. The first is that, under the cookie-cutter dogma of feminist ideology, it isn’t really necessary, or even desirable, for all to have their (predictable) say. Feminism is so certain of the uniform meaning of women’s experience—all of it neatly and ineluctably determined by identity categories—that all that is needed is one representative woman to speak for each specified group to guarantee feminist coherence and equitable coverage.

The second jaundiced thought is that many women remain silent for good reason. Having been nurtured and cossetted and praised all their lives, protected from the criticism or questions Skiptunis found offensive, given good grades and special scholarships to help them into university, told that all opposition was a form of misogyny to be outlawed or at least ignored, they may never have developed the determination, resilience, or independence of thought necessary to have meaningful contributions to make to complex class discussions. Given their moment to orate, they may well reveal, as teachers sometimes discover, that they have nothing of value to say. And in this, their vociferous betters have led the way.

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