Volume 92, Issue 74

Tuesday, February 9, 1999


Protecting thy honour

Moaning and groaning to the top

Life's tragedies

Women in separate research

Women in separate research

Re: Women's Research

To the Editor:

One of the recurring debates that has always divided those concerned with the elimination of racism and sexism is the value of separation. In the campaign to end their oppression, should blacks and women stand apart from, or work with, people who are neither black nor female?

As any aficionado of Spike Lee's films knows, the debate is as old as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X (in fact older); it is also as recent as the Feb. 3 Gazette, which carried a story on Black History Month and an advertisement for a "Showcase of Women's Research in Social Science."

The arguments for "separatism" are fairly standard: it promotes strength through solidarity, provides mutually supportive relationships that might not otherwise be available and – in the case of research – provides positive role models and allows for the creation of networks which allow members of oppressed groups to enter high status areas from which they might otherwise be excluded. But there are dangers. Consider, for example, the ad for the showcase of "Women's Research."

Although I suspect the organizers think of themselves as feminists promoting a feminist cause, the fact is that the term "women's research" establishes an implicit contrast, not between "women's research" and "men's research" but between "women's research" and "research." The net effect is to reinforce the image of women as "the other," the not-quite-up-to-par, the slightly deficient, which is precisely the image early feminists like Simone de Beauvoir (whose ground-breaking The Second Sex which was originally entitled The Other) fought to undermine.

The ad also suggests there will be displays on adolescent friendship, low birth weight infants, individual well-being, care giving, multi-generational families, etc.. In fact, virtually all the topics listed associate "women researchers" with gender-stereotypical activities and domains (family, children, nurturance, friendship relations). All this fosters an essentialized view of women since it suggests that women are "naturally" attracted to those activities to which they have traditionally been allocated in patriarchal systems.

Just as importantly, the topics listed convey the impression that women will succeed in academia only to the extent that their research interests conform to gender stereotypes and that hardly seems a good message to be promoting. Are there no women at Western doing research in areas that are not gender stereotypical? Of course there are.

Why did they not participate in this event in significant numbers? I hope they will answer this for themselves but I suspect at least one reason is they think of themselves more as "researchers" than "women doing research" and have no wish to contribute to ghettoization and othering of academic women that an event like this promotes.

What about Black History Month? Can the same or similar critiques be made here? Probably not. At least in the past, one of the goals here has been to showcase the forgotten achievements of blacks who have succeeded in areas where a racist society does not expect them to succeed. The information disseminated during Black History Month, in other words, has functioned to erode stereotypes, not maintain them.

What then is the answer to the original question on the value of emphasizing separation? The answer ends up where all good feminist analysations end up these days: it depends upon the context and the underlying logic of what is being done.

Michael Carroll
Sociology Professor

To Contact The Opinions Department:

Copyright The Gazette 1999