Feminism is Not Just for Academics: Overcoming Disconnect and Division

Cherise Charleswell I Women's Issues I Analysis I January 14th, 2014

In the most simplistic terms, a feminist is anyone who thinks about gender, access, and equality. In broader terms, feminism may be defined as the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.1 However, despite language that seems inclusive, feminism has always been plagued by division and disconnect, which has led various groups to feel marginalized, silenced, and as of recent, unrepresented by feminism. In short, there is an undeniable and understandable (if one considers historical events and circumstances) development that has led to a rift between academics and non-academics, scholars and practitioners, critics and activists, feminists and those who may not know that they are feminists, in every sense of the word, but are unable or unwilling to claim the term.

From a historical standpoint, feminism has been identified with the West, and each era has been seen as successive waves; with its origins steeped in social criticism (including the work of abolitionist), advocacy, and activism. These waves are characterized as distinct moments in history in which the face of feminism was, for some irrevocable reason, altered. First Wave feminists of the early 20th century were the Suffragettes, fighting for voting, property rights, and the autonomy of women. These feminists were primarily white, middle-class, propertied, and well-educated, with the exception of noted women of color such as Sojourner Truth and Mary Church Terrell. From the onset, the focus of women organizing in the U.S. and West, neglected the important work and efforts of other women's rights workers. For example, the "First Wave" of Feminism took place in Japan, beginning in 1868 during the Meiji Restoration, which was a period of rapid transformation from a feudal shogunate to a modern nation.2 It was during this time when women's consciousness began to raise and the term "good wife, wise mother" was coined. This term meant that, in order to become good citizens, women had to become educated and take part in pubic affairs.2 Japan's Second Wave of feminism was in full-swing by the 1910s when, in 1911, Hiratsuka Haruko (pen name Raicho) founded the feminist magazine, Seito (Bluestocking).2

By the time of the Second Wave, the inherent racism and classism within feminism was being called out; along with other societal inequities. Other issues were explored, such as the unequal and inequitable distribution of labor (and today women still earn $0.77 for every $1.00 earned by men)3 and middle-class ideals. However, another important change in dynamics was taking place, and that was the institutionalization of feminism within academia; with the earliest objectives being to counteract the rampant sexism and discrimination women academics faced.

The result of all of this is that, despite its grassroots origins and focus on social activism and transformative change, feminism has become the property of academics; which has led to open discussions about whether feminism is still relevant, needed, or useful. When considering the issues that continue to impact the lives and well-being of women and families - the gender income gap, feminization of poverty, street harassment, human/sex trafficking, attacks on reproductive rights, and a pervasive rape culture that leads to actual discussion of "legitimate" rape - it is clear that feminism is still quite relevant. However, the realization that there are so many issues which still need to be addressed contributes to the widening of the rift. Third Wave feminists who brought forth the concerns of the marginalized, such as lesbians, transgendered women, and women of color during the 1990s have taken it upon themselves to attempt to address the widening disconnect.


By the 1960s, the efforts of the women's liberation movement had helped to increase awareness that university education often lacked a woman's perspective. In 1970, the first Women's Studies department was found at San Diego State College (now San Diego State University), with the second department found at Cornell University in the same year, thus marking the beginning of academic feminism. Academic feminism has its roots in the women's liberation movement, and its initial critical objective was the interpretation of women's experience, in order to change women's condition. These programs attempted to and continue to serve an important role in re-examining history, literature, anthropology, psychology, communications and media, and more recently pop culture, as well as other subjects; as well as exploring the "missing women's" perspective.

Thus, academic feminism can rightfully be considered an extension of the women's liberation/feminist movement, but should not be viewed as the only form of feminism. These departments underwent rapid development and expansion, and the National Women's Studies Association was founded in 1977. However, it may have been inevitable that these departments, existing within the realm of an academic institution, would themselves become institutionalized. Women's studies have since continued to deal with this challenge, and have attempted to balance curriculum in an attempt to enact social change. In fact, the 2013 theme of the National Women's Studies Association Conference - largely attended by academics, established scholars, junior scholars, post-docs, and graduate students - was Negotiating Points of Encounter, while the sub-themes included Practices of Effecting Change." Nevertheless, the tension between feminism and women's studies remains, simply because there is an inherent difference between them. While women's studies function strictly in academia, as an institutionalized discipline, feminism is able to take place within academic culture while also remaining deeply rooted in the larger sociocultural arena outside of academia.

In the article, "The Relationship of Feminism and Women's Studies," columnist Melissa Miles McCarter expressed the differences between women's studies and feminism, and provided examples on how they intersect:

These different sites meant that women's studies practice of working within a methodology and institution that often differed from feminism in general meant that women's studies could be seen as inherently patriarchal, or at least as a study which didn't successfully subvert or undermine the institution. In fact, feminism could involve practices that were completely different than what went on in academia while although women's studies might critique and challenge its institutional site, it was also shaped by academic culture and epistemology, ultimately legitimizing academia's role in the larger culture.4

Despite academic feminism's awareness of intersectionality, it typically ignores and/or dismisses the classist and lingering racist underpinnings of its behavior. The following passages from the poem, A Slam on Feminism in Academia, by feminist poet, writer, artist and arts-educator, Shaunga Tagore, provides the greatest indictment of this behavior.

why did you let me through the doors in the first place

if you were just gonna turn around and force me out?

why did you let me in this ivory tower

filled with hippie feel-good activist academics

debating about feminist organizing in high theory discourse

while barely-paid migrant workers prepare lunches

for seminars, conferences, forums

and get deported the next day

an award winning tenured professor once told me

the only way i will succeed at graduate school

is if i read 300 pages of theory per work per class

and if i'm not capable

my writing must be of low quality

my intellect must be incredibly juvenile

Her indictment continues with...

your ideal graduate student is

someone who can't talk about personality or privilege

without referencing some article

your ideal graduate student is

rich enough

white enough

straight enough

able-bodied and minded-enough

to be given luxury of enjoying sitting in a corner reading 900 pages a week

(with their fair trade starbucks coffee in hand and their lulu lemon track pants on ass)

And then she draws to social activism..

some of us are not here to one day

soullessly recite the entire cannon of queer theory development

with our hearts and minds closed

some of us do not wish to compete to be the

newest biggest baddest radical faculty-hire

some of us need to engage with feminist theory

so we can ground it in our community activist work

our creative works

our personal relationships

for our families, communities and histories

for our own fucking deserved peace of minds

In the article, Disciplining feminism: From social activism to academic discourse, author Ellen-Messer-Davidow argues that any further separation of feminist activists and women's studies scholars damages both sides; however, it is her contention that academics have accepted this damage in exchange for the benefits of institutional acceptance.5 Certainly being part of the institutional and patriarchal system of academia takes its toll on feminist expression and activism in women's studies. Effecting change becomes a secondary or tertiary concern, outside of being pre-occupied with numerous books and articles written with the perspective of other privileged academics (in a sense upholding a glass tower and preaching to the choir, as these scholarly works are from academic feminists who have/had-when-writing institutional backing and power; which means that their work largely remains inaccessible5), collecting more letters behind one's last name, becoming tenured, being sure that one is not signaled out as too 'political', and being perceived as not meeting some agreed upon political/intellectual standard. In understanding this, a valid question remains: Is the rift widening because academic feminists are now imprisoned by institutional structures and isolated from large-scale social feminist movements?

Everyday Feminism

The reality is that there are many women worldwide who are doing feminist work, have feminist beliefs, and are dedicated to the empowerment of women, but do not refer to themselves as feminists, or do not find feminism as welcoming and inclusive of their perspectives, immediate concerns, and life experiences. In her book, Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman's Guide To Why Feminism Matters, Jessica Valenti,6 noted that it was her mother who introduced her to feminism but, when speaking about feminist issues, discussions about theory and rhetoric did not occur between them. Valenti's mother, like many other women who are not part of the academy, did not have a need for or desire to discuss and argue about mundane matters such as theory. Instead, they are concerned with Everyday Feminism. They are the field feminists and practitioners, women's rights activists, social justice activists, artists who work to challenge sexist images, public health specialists, clinicians, and research scientist advocating for women's health, lawyers and political activists working to safeguard legislation that will improve the lives of women and families, as well as the women who simply teach their daughters that they are equal to men, and should not accept societal inequities, whether based on race or gender.

These are the women who do not have the luxury to donate many hours to discussing theories, such as intersectionality, and instead have to cope with those very intersections on a daily basis; whether it is racial profiling, residential segregation which result in various health disparities, lack of access to healthcare, or poor housing. These are the women, and male allies, who may apply feminism to work through social issues, take collective action, make transformative cultural changes, and find their own voice and truth.

Digital Feminism - A Gateway for Fourth Wave Feminists?

Online feminism involves the harnessing of online media to discuss, uplift, and activate gender equality and social justice.8 Feminist thought is often met with hostility by women of color, who may not feel represented by women's studies, and many of whom are unaware of socialist feminism and womanism and how these schools address the intersectionality of race, class, and gender as drivers of oppression. Thus, social media and other online platforms provide an opportunity to interact with, educate, and increase awareness among audiences of color. Due to the fact that they provide personal perspectives on issues and communities that are outside of the realm, and thus off the radar of traditional and scholarly feminist discourse, grassroots social media sites have become an important source for breaking developments, as well as a source of stories and events that are often overlooked by mainstream media and established feminist organizations.

These viewpoints are shared on various social media pages and especially blogs and websites that are dedicated to different feminists' perspectives and groups, including the musings of those who, again, do not readily accept the label of 'feminist'. Unlike academic journal articles, this information is accessible and not tied to bias and competition that is pervasive in academia. In a sense, any person who has some form of access to digital media technologies, including limited service, has the potential to engage in the various feminist communities that exist today. In fact, one group, the Feminist Network9, had undergone a global campaign to identify and link feminists from across the globe, and have begun doing so by building a directory and database.

Instead of dedicating many pages to discussions on theory, digital feminists are those who provide personal insight and analysis on their real-life experiences and observations. Thus, digital feminism can act as an entry point for feminist thought and actions, and provide a meeting space for non-academic feminists who may not have the means to attend women's studies conferences or afford exclusive, feminist, scholarly journal subscriptions.

Those who may have a problem with a digital platform being representative face for feminist discourse and activism, due to it not being rooted in academia, need to remember that the feminist movement in the U.S. picked up steam and gained its position of prestige because discontented housewives - including working-class women of color - stopped believing they were merely neurotic, grew tired of second-class citizen status, and began to organize on a grassroots level to address societal issues that negatively impacted their lives, health, and well-being.

Ultimately, the overwhelming variety of perspectives, viewpoints, and schools of thoughts found within online feminist communities represent the new face of feminism; and, for this reason, those engaged in digital feminism are being referred to as Fourth Wave feminists. Does the future of feminism lie in a non-academic, non-disciplinary path or an inter-disciplinary field feminism path? Regardless, in order for feminism to resist declarations that it is dead or irrelevant, it needs to repair the disconnect between academic feminism and non-academic feminists, and support the expansion of feminism outside of the walls of academia.


Truth is feminism is a Big Tent, with room for everybody, and needs to move marginalized groups into the center and make them an integral part of the movement. This can be done through focusing on inclusion, beyond academia and its contested women's studies courses whose curriculum still present the scholarly work of women of color as if they remain the exotic "Other." One does not have to be perfectly acquainted with every academic idea or truly understand the term 'feminist pedagogy', or possess the ability to recite various feminist academic theories, in order to effectively discuss feminist issues or self-identify as a feminist. If one is against all systems of oppression, particularly global patriarchy, and believes in women's freedom, gender equality, and equal opportunity in all spheres of life, then they are essentially feminists, whether they claim the label or not.

To be fair, it needs to be reiterated that academic feminism serves it purpose and is simply one avenue of feminism which one may choose to travel down. Overall, feminism is an empowering framework from which a person may understand, critique, and change the world, while defining their place in it. Central to the tenets of feminism is the matter of choice. Feminists should be free to self-identify as feminists, and should also be allowed to carve out their own path within feminism, whether it is in an academic career in women's studies or working within the realm of social justice activism and women's rights organizing. Feminism must remain inclusive and should not be dominated by any sub-group.

An oversimplification of the words of Antonio Gramsci, an Italian writer, politician, political theorist, philosopher, sociologist, linguist, and founding member of the Communist Party of Italy, in which he called for "traditional intellectuals," who are representative of today's academics, to join with the "organic intellectuals" from the working class to effect social change, best describes the path forward that feminism should choose.


1. Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Retrieved on December 29, 2013 from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/feminism

2. Reese L. Gender Difference in History. Teaching About Women in China and Japan. Social Education, NCSS, March 2003. Retrieved on December 19, 2013 from http://www.womeninworldhistory.com/essay-04.html

3. The Institute for Women's Policy Research. Pay Equity & Discrimination. http://www.iwpr.org/initiatives/pay-equity-and-discrimination

4. McCarter MM. (2010). The Relationship of Feminism and Women's Studies Notes on Composition Studies. Retrieved on December 23, 2013 from http://voices.yahoo.com/the-relationship-feminism-womens-studies-5846764.html

5. Messer-Davidow E. Disciplining feminism: From social activism to academic discourse. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002.

6. Valenti J. Full frontal feminism : a young woman's guide to why feminism matters. Emeryville, CA : Seal Press, 2007.

7. Feminist academics seem to have failed us. What now? Shadow's Crescent. Retrieved on December 23, 2013 from shadowscrescent.wordpress.com/2013/01/30/feminist-academics-seemed-to-have-failed-us-what-now/

8. Martin CE, Valenti V. FemFuture: Online revolution. New Feminist Solutions, Barnard Center for Research on Women. 2012; 8:1-34.

9. Feminist Network. http://feministnetworkproject.wordpress.com/