Wednesday, February 3, 2010

On this whole 'National Post' debacle...

For those who haven't heard, on January 26 the National Post put out an editorial decrying Women's Studies. The piece is a response to news of the 'death' of the program at institutions around the country. The NP editors discuss how the academic field is not disappearing from schools but is rather "being renamed to make [it] appear less controversial." The article then outlines the ways in which Women's Studies has purportedly damaged society since its inception in the late 1970s.

The editorial is ironically an excellent justification for the continued existence of Women's Studies. Clearly the discipline is just as important now as ever if a major national newspaper is so overtly patriarchal in its values. Much like the ChristWire piece on Glee, this editorial speaks eloquently to its own ignorance. The difference here is that it is definitely not a satire, and the source is a hugely influential newspaper in Canada (judging by sheer distribution alone). This extremist argument will be heard across the country, and unfortunately it will be listened to more often than most of us would like to believe. The continued existence and proliferation of Women's Studies programs is essential specifically because this kind of rhetoric can find a voice in major publications like the NP.

Of course, all of that is to give the NP much more credit than its opinion deserves: the article in question actually bemoans the victimization of the white male in Canadian society, and the "preferential treatment for 'traditionally disadvantaged groups.'"

A defence of the editorial by NP contributor Barbara Kay states that "All university programs, indeed our entire society believes in gender equality." Therein lies the core misconception, but Kay goes on to complain that "tax-funded institutions, our courts, our social service agencies and our charities believe in more than equality, they believe in special entitlements for women." She expands this complaint about institutionalized inequality to call Women's Studies "the politically activist arm of the feminist movement, which is nothing more today than a lobby group for women's interests, not at all a movement interested in true equality between the genders."

Kay's argument demonstrates her complete misunderstanding of the function of Women's Studies. It is not a niche field for radical feminists to lobby for their interests, it is a site for discussion of the role played by gender in society. The types of questions Kay and others at the NP raise with regards to equality, if there is any validity to them, are exactly the type addressed by Women's Studies. The discipline is not being "renamed" as much as it has evolved into 'Gender Studies,' a title that more effectively points to its expansive role in society. To ignore it as irrelevant is to gravely misunderstand the nature and history of humanity, but that is exactly what we have been teaching for the centuries. Only in the last few decades have we begun to rectify this as a progressive impulse, and this whole NP debacle displays the continuing presence of the old rhetoric. The patriarchy continues to exist at the foundation of our society, as do many other structures and impulses that produce inequality. This latest response to Women's Studies is less a casual brush-off of radical politics and more a dominant ideology reacting violently to a growing, threatening, and revisionary alternative.

Women's/Gender Studies are here to stay, no matter what Guelph University may think, and they serve to question societal values in the pursuit of progressive evolution. Kay and her NP peers share a conservative bias that directly influences their reaction to equity programs that favour marginalized people. Pure equality would mean not favouring any one person or group over another for any reason besides their subjective talents and merits, that much is true. But to assume that our society has reached a point where pure equality is even possible, much less the status quo, is delusional and furthermore an inherently privileged position.
Many other writers have responded to this editorial with intelligent arguments and restrained vitriol. Penni Stewart and Katherine Giroux-Bougard have written a great letter-to-the-editor explaining why Women's Studies exists. An excellent post on The Walrus Blog further demonstrates the value of common sense in discussing the nature of contemporary gender relationships. My friend Heather put together a fantastic post on radical feminism since the NP evidently has no understanding of the concept. All of these pieces are worthy reads, and critique the editorial in question more eloquently than I have. I strongly suggest taking a look.

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