When ‘feminist’ and ‘gender’ become embarrassing dirty words in academia

I am a research student in gender studies in one of the constitutive colleges of the University of London and feel extremely privileged to be part of such a thriving intellectual community. But one brief episode of anti-intellectual feminism in the main building’s lift was enough for me to rethink the breadth of my social bubble.

Last week, I shuffled into a lift with two other students (one woman and one man) and as the doors closed in on us there began a conversation that surged the lava within me. The female student started talking about an essay on politics and social media she was writing. Inspired by the slogan ‘the international is personal’, she marvelled at how clever it sounded but was stumped that such an amazing framework of thought so neatly fitted into a single, powerful phrase is derived from the work of (* in a self-conscious, embarrassed whisper *) feminists.

In a mocking, incredulous tone, she mentions that there were issues raised in her gender classes that chimed with the subject of her essay and it seems, unbelievably, chimed with her as well. By then, I had nearly dropped everything I had at hand and wanted to evacuate the lift screaming (in my head, of course. I was, after all, surrounded by an intellectual community. What would others think?).

The school’s library is stocked aisle upon aisle with books on feminism and gender. Much of contemporary academic work in the social sciences, art, philosophy, law, and to a certain extent, even the hard sciences owe a great deal to feminism and its intellectual product, feminist theory. To remain up to date and relevant, scholars outside of gender studies have referred to the contributions of feminist scholars, and so I’m not one to believe that gender studies as a discipline lacks prestige or legitimacy. But the way one can laugh at the idea of studying gender in this day and age seems to suggest some wildly contrarian views in academia that I wasn’t aware of until now.

But perhaps the way gender and feminist theory have become so normalised in academia that it risks (and indeed sometimes criticised for) being depoliticised, defanged of its original motivation to right the wrongs of social structures, one can teach and learn feminist theory without seemingly moved or provoked by its political potency. And so the butch, meddling, oversensitive stereotype of the feminist continues to creep into a student’s imagination and everyday conversation, even when feminist women and men are ordinary people who, on a superficial level, are no different from themselves.

Although this is just one female student in a huge network of lecturers and other students who may know better, and thus not entirely representative of academia as suggested in my title, I think the depoliticised nature of feminism and its misrepresentation in media and folk discourse have resulted in the perpetuation of ‘feminist’ as a dirty word, no matter how worldly, clever, media-savvy, and sensitive students in one the most prestigious colleges in the UK are.

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