Academic Feminists and the Women's Movement

by Ann Leffler, Dair L. Gillespie and Elinor Lerner Ratner,1973

Copyright © 1973 by Ann Leffler, Dair L. Gillespie and Elinor Lerner Ratner.
All Rights Reserved.


This is not a sisterly essay. We believe the women's movement is in danger of co-option from the right, from small groups of women whose institutional affiliations give them disproportionate power within it. We believe academic women constitute one such group. We believe something must be done. Unfortunately, we don't know what. We console ourselves with the hope that if enough movement women become concerned, someone will think of a solution.

In the meantime, we do know that the problem is serious and that calls for unity are not the answer. We expect to be called alarmist, divisive, and intolerant. Consequently, before we analyze the specific issue of academic feminists and the women's movement, we want to state some assumptions about the development of political movements and the role slogans like "unity" and "tolerance" play in that development.


Members of a nascent political movement attack only external targets. Internally, despite differences--on intellectual, behavioral and organizational questions--they mainly tolerate each other. Eventually, however, internal and external necessities force the new movement to discard it's laissez-faire policy. Even internal issues become matters of political conflict.

Take ideational matters, for instance. A new movement needs information and concepts desperately; it accepts anything members devise. Ignored rather than opposed, it initially attacks prevailing ideologies rather than institutions. Without resources and a mass base, it can use for weapons only ideas. But facts and perspectives are hard to come by. "Our history has been stolen from us," reads an early Women's Liberation poem: a common protest among fledgling movements. Members search everywhere for information which may articulate their situation. They explore forgotten areas; they peruse obscure treatises; they apply well-known theories in novel ways. With old assumptions in question, each member moves freely in any intellectual direction she chooses: all ideas are welcome, and all are important.

This tolerance no longer works once large-scale recruitment begins and opponents mobilize. Seeking support for their views, members notice that incompatible perspectives exist within the movement. Fighting external opponents, they come to see a connection between tactics, strategy and theory: seemingly trivial questions in any one of these areas may reflect and affect one's stand on the other two. For a movement at this stage, every internal ideational dispute is important. Myriad factions develop, propose new ideas, criticize those of other factions, in the process delineating their own and their antagonists' politics. From this point on, it is clear that one develops a new idea in practical and theoretical opposition to internal as well as external views; one refines old ideas for the same reason. As conflict replaces tolerance, the overarching tendency is constantly to clarify the political underpinnings--the political assumptions and implications--of all ideas.

Factions do not, however, confine themselves to quarrels over philosophy. People begin linking particular politics with their advocates' life circumstances. Factions trace particular to lifestyles, external political affiliations, and placement in the larger social structure. A group may advocate certain politics to include a disenfranchised sector of the target population, for instance, or it may oppose other politics because they reflect strong external affiliations and susceptibility to co-optation. Either way, behavioral and situational differences quickly become matters of conflict on their own. So movement people scrutinize the hitherto sacrosanct private world of daily life. They learn that behavior too is political. This means they are accountable to the movement for everything; they must be prepared to justify their actions as well as their ideas.

Finally, as a fledgling movement widens it's base, it's own structure becomes problematic for it. It needs spokespeople, for instance; how should they be chosen? It obtains resources; how should they be distributed, and what should the decision-making process be? And it aquires advocates in high places; what should it require of them? At the start it is necessarily pluralist on organizational questions, allowing everyone to do as she pleases in the movements name. For one thing, it lacks power to institute formal controls over members. Furthermore, the probability of individual aggrandizement is low enough, the nature of members' commitment sufficiently clear, so that the movement can rely simply on recruits' good faith. But once it attracts adherents with unequal external resources and different personal commitments, a laissez-faire approach to internal workings no longer serves. For in the absence of formal, effective anti-elitist policies and structures, those members who command most power outside tend to take over the movement. Too, enlisting in the movement may no longer mean subordinating one's profiteering by means of the movement. The movement begins to have problems with elites and opportunists. And as the movement expands, the position of elites enables them to profit personally from their influence, while opportunists cash in on rewards to win prominence from within it. Eventually elitism and opportunism appear almost indistinguishable, each reinforcing the other. If unchecked at this stage, movement leaders become practically invulnerable to internal attacks; the movement's stratification system hardens; and the rank-and-file loses control over it's own movement.

Applied to ideational matters, slogans like "unity' and "tolerance" discourage the refinement of political beliefs; applied to behavioral matters, they prevent individual accountability to the movement. But, their affect on organizational issues is worst. To advocate that everyone "do her own thing," that "we all respect each other's trips," is to exempt the problems of opportunism and elitism from the movements name. For if one's trip happens to be amassing fame and fortune with the movements name, how can the tolerant gainsay her? Further, if members must stick together no matter what, they will end up united under the direction of leaders they cannot control.

In a political movement, once elitism and opportunism develop, demands for unity and tolerance legitimate the status quo and discourage rank-and-file dissidence. It will be our thesis in this essay that elitism and opportunism have developed in the women's movement. We do not suggest they be dealt with in a sisterly way.


Because the authors are academic women, we have been in an opportune position to observe the changing women's movement. therefore, we shall focus upon academic feminists. However, we do not believe their behavior is unique. In the first place, our description of academic feminists applies to other groups as with advantageous institutional connections--e.g., media women, entertainers, non-academic professionals, Democratic and republican party regulars, union leaders etc. It also applies, though less strongly, to women with left connections--e.g. Socialist Workers Party and New American Movement members. In all these cases, the women involved mainly remain sub-ordinate and responsible to male hegemony. But once they enter the women's movement, their institutional or social connections give them greater access to politically useful resources that non-affiliated movement women have. For our argument, that's all that matters.

In the second place, our description of the women's movement applies to other political movements. They too are plagued by pressures from without. We choose to discuss the case of academic feminists and Women's Liberation because we know it best . But by carefully examining this particular case, we hope to begin exposing some of the general processes by which institutional forces affect a movement's structure and ideology.


Four years ago [in 1969], one of the authors gave a pro-Women's Liberation speech at a professional meeting. Afterward, a senior woman in the field pulled her aside and warned her, "If you keep talking like that, you'll ruin your career chances.' That woman is now a leader in the professions feminist group.

Four years ago, a student in the same profession publicly disavowed her department's Women's Liberation caucus. She did not believe that women were discriminated against. In 1972 she accepted a university appointment to teach a sex-roles course.

Four years ago, few academic women gave credence to accusation of sexism in the university. ("I've never experienced discrimination. If a women's competent enough, she'll have no problems. Screaming 'sexism' is just a way to avoid placing the blame where it belongs: on women's own ineptitude.") Today academic women appear on TV and radio shows claiming to represent the women's movement in it's fight against sexism everywhere.

Four years ago, to support women's cause was prima facie evidence of Women's Liberation membership. And Women's Liberation members, academics agreed, were irresponsible, immature, anti-intellectual, dogmatic, homely zealots. Consequently, four years ago, there was no safe way to discuss the Woman Problem without risking professional opprobrium. And four years ago, few female academics belonged to the women's movement. Unlike other women, academics hadn't the justification of ignorance. They had heard of Women's Liberation. They opposed it.

Things have changed in academe. Female social scientists, for instance, are now concerned with the question of women. Most claim to favor Women's Liberation. Many call their work "feminist." Some considered by their colleagues, to be leaders in the fight for feminism. Nor is this sudden devotion confined to social scientists. Everyone's on the side of the angels lately; besides, the pay is good.

But what are our academic heroines up to nowadays? Have these once unsympathetic ladies really grown? Are they currently contributing to the cause? Does one swallow make a summer? And what about Naomi?


Her professional affiliations give an academic woman certain advantages over most women. When she embraces feminism, she commands politically useful resources unavailable to "lay" feminists. (1)

For one thing, the universities directly provide her with goodies. Her classes contain captive audiences of undergraduates, often pressured into her pet research projects in the name of the name of the movement, intellectual endeavor, or course requirements. The universities also supply her with a national network of contacts; institutional resources of money for travel, mailing, and phoning; books, and duplication services; and a labor pool to do the work she considers beneath her. (After all, "I didn't go to graduate school to do my own typing.")

An academic's institutional affiliations also afford her greater access to media than "lay" feminists have. Professional journals print her studies. From there, her work may be picked up and disseminated by secondary media sources. Few outlets exist for non-academic papers (a fact especially striking when we consider the proportion of women each camp contains). Further, professionals can publish in both academic and movement journals; non-academics, only in the later. Academic women also have access to the mass media proper (TV, radio, and newspaper coverage) via their institutional connections. Their views are solicited, their speeches noted, and their activities reported.

These university-based resources give academic feminists a disproportionate share in defining the movement. They exert undue influence on both ideological and structural matters.

First, academic feminists control certain communication channels between the movement and the target population. Their decisions on who gets to use which channels and what sort of message is conveyed affect the movement. For instance, they often receive requests for speakers. Matching audiences with "compatible" spokespeople, they determine which views are disseminated to which groups. ("I'll address the State House rally; I'm good at that. You talk to the Thursday night Great Books Club.") When special journal issues solicit their editorial advice, they divvy up work assignments the same way. Further, in their classes on women, they influence their students views of the movement through their lectures, choice of required reading, and selection of guest speakers.

University funds help too. For example, conferences provide occasions for interaction both among movement members and between the movement and the target population. Since academic institutions frequently subsidize conferences, university feminists influence the movement by establishing conference topics and format. Further, these same institutions pay honorariums to selected "lay" feminist speakers, so academics carry great weight in deciding which non-academics become movement spokeswomen.

Finally, with their media contacts and their credentials of expertise, academic feminists have a better crack at the target population that the "civilian" movement does. So they can legitimize their preeminence to the movement, by claiming special privileged communication with the masses. ("I talk with lots of people all over the country, and I know what reaches them.") They get away with this claim precisely because it is false. The communication flows only one way: they address the People, but the People have neither organizations nor media for formal means to reply. How can Jane Doe, Average Person, answer a newspaper series, radio marathon, or TV guest appearance? Academic feminists talk to , not with, the People. But their monopoly of communication channels makes it difficult for the movement to doubt, much less publicly dispute, their claim to represent the People.

Feminism's new members have a lot of weight to swing around.


Academic feminists exercise great influence over the "civilian" movement. But there exists no semblance of a checks-and-balances system between the two groups. The movement did not elect academics to lead it; there was never a plebiscite; and there is no recall mechanism. Rather, their institutional affiliations give academics pre-eminence. So they must answer to only one constituency: their (mostly male, mostly hostile) colleagues.

Sometimes academic feminists do owe their jobs partly to movement ferment or pressure from women's caucuses. But the fact remains that the movement can neither reward nor punish them materially, once they are ensconced in their positions. It simply lacks the material wherewithal. And wielding what clout it has is difficult, since its loose structure hampers cohesive action. The professions, on the other hand, enjoy both ample resources and the tight organization to use them deliberately. Consequently the movement cannot exert the leverage the professions can over academic feminists generally. The only realm in which it outweighs the professions is the moral realm; the only pressure point it can touch is individual conscience. And normally, alas, ethical judgments don't sway people who are padded by good salaries, lucrative grants, and the knowledge that their job futures depend more on their colleagues good graces than on the movement's opinion. After all, academics get their credentials of expertise, their reputations, their jobs, and their security from their colleagues, not from the rag tag movement. An academic woman may submit herself, voluntarily and individually, to the moral sanctions which constitute the movements control over her. But academic women are formally and collectively responsible solely to the institutions which underwrite them; the universities.

Academic feminists, of course, say the movement's esteem means everything to them. They know their souls are pure. But we speak here of objective situations, not self-definitions. Saints may subsume material urgings under moral imperatives. Those of us as yet uncanonized cannot be relied upon to do so unless a movement exists strong enough to force the decision. In the case of academic women, however, the movement lacks enough strength; in fact, as we argued earlier academics give more influence than they receive. And regardless of where an academic woman thinks her loyalty belongs, the important point is not whether she's deceiving herself. The point is, the movement can't count on anything.

For whoever takes money from one side and morals from another faces a potential conflict of interest. Where the material stakes are high enough, and the possibility of moral retaliation low, there are always pressures for betrayal.(2) An academic feminist can tone down her side of things, drop the subject, change the positions, or play herself off as the voice of moderation in contrast with movement extremism. ("If you think what I'm saying is weird, you should listen to the screaming fanatics in the streets!") To maintain movement esteem, she can use the "later-for-you" ploy. "I promise to start fighting as soon as my position gets a little more secure." (After the Ph.D., after tenure, after the revolution.) "I can't join your child-in for free campus day care right now--they'll cancel my grant on role-models in early education." And then there are the "I gave at the office" lines: "Last year I signed your petition to the City Council, so get off my back." Or, "I'm too busy with the HEW suit." Next


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