Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Once and Future Feminism


Quick author's note: As a long-time reader of ITM, I'm happy to be guest-posting at the invitation of JJ Cohen. What follows is a transcription (with minor revisions and added hyperlinks) of a talk that I delivered at the International Congress of Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, MI, on May 9, 2014, as part of the panel discussion called “Writing the Middle Ages for Multiple Audiences.” The roundtable was organized by Michael Alan Ryan, and sponsored by the Medieval Academy of America’s Committee on Centers and Regional Associations (CARA).

I've inserted many of the handout references as links in the text, and still included the handout info at the end. It's really the tip of the iceberg of relevant material out there, but some good selected readings.

What do you think of these resolutions? I'd love to read your thoughts in the comments, especially if they help me be disciplined in keeping the resolutions myself.

My thanks to Michael Alan Ryan for inviting me to be a part of the session and to Irina Dumitrescu for her astute comments on earlier versions of this talk.

Laura Saetveit Miles
Førsteamanuensis (Associate Professor) of English Literature
Institutt for Fremmedspråk, University of Bergen

“Once and Future Feminism”  


Back in February, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote a column begging academics to be more relevant and write for the public. “Professors, don’t cloister yourselves like medieval monks — we need you!” he wrote. His column struck a nerve among academics, not to mention medievalists, many of whom rallied to defend both themselves and medieval monks – some of the biggest public intellectuals of their time, as we happen to know.

In any case, with the humanities under threat and anti-intellectualism running amuck, everyone seems to be talking about how to make the academy more relevant to the world outside the ivory tower. Hence exactly this timely session on “Writing the Middle Ages for Multiple Audiences.” Today I’d like to combine this concern about academic outreach with a movement that is still desperately relevant and necessary today: feminism.

It may be nice to think that we don’t need feminism any more because we’ve come so far as a society. But as you’ve probably noticed, the war on women is alive and well. Just a few examples, some tips of the iceberg: According to one study, in the media, three-quarters of victims represented are women, while three-quarters of experts are men. The so-called ‘confidence gap’ suggests many women consistently underestimate and undersell themselves, compared to men. The well-known gender pay gap persists: women make 77 cents to a man’s dollar in this country, even worse for minorities and single mothers.

But what about in the academy? For all our education we are not immune to sexism. On average, female full professors earn $16,000 a year less than men. Women are less likely to be awarded tenure than men, some studies have shown. For women, having babies is a career killer; while for men, having babies is a career advantage. While there maybe be near gender parity representation amoung junior faculty, higher adminstration – the people with the power – remains overwhelmingly male.

We all STILL need feminism – inside and outside the academy.

The cultural critic bell hooks defined feminism as “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression, for all people, female and male.” While this is only one of many definitions of feminism out there, I think it’s vital to emphasize that anyone can be affected by sexism and anyone can work against it; any man or woman can be a feminist by refusing to accept gender inequality.

Today I’m not going to talk about marching in the street or calling your senator. I’m going to talk about how our intellectual passions can highlight inequality today, and can open up a space for counteracting modern sexism. I’d like to talk about specific ways of writing the Middle Ages for multiple audiences in order to make the future a better place for women than the present or the past.

Some of you will have done many visible feminist actions, or written amazing feminist criticism, or been in positions of power where you could effect policies to reduce sexism in your workplace and world.

But the act of writing for the public, of writing for multiple audiences, offers a powerful platform for feminist writing. For most scholars there is very little incentive to spend time on this kind of writing, and so we rarely do it. At least this is what I see, and it’s something I want to change. Thus here is a list of my own feminist outreach resolutions for myself for this year until next May's Kalamazoo Medieval Congress. I hereby hold myself publicly accountable for following through on these three resolutions of writing for multiple audiences. These are not complicated goals or totally comprehensive or terribly original, but they are do-able and practical, and maybe some of them hadn’t occurred to you before.

Can you make any of these resolutions? Consider this talk as both encouragement and permission – for myself, for you – to take the time, to reach out, to be a bit political, to make the world take seriously the need for once and future feminism.

Three Resolutions


During graduate school, I was once discussing the very first dissertation chapter I had written with an extremely influential, anthologized feminist literary critic on my chapter committee. She asked, “But are there even medievalist feminist critics? How can you do feminist work on the Middle Ages?”

Whatever my response was at the time, I’ve spent years trying to think of a better one. Clearly, as medievalists, we have some work to do. How can we educate non-medievalist academics about the Middle Ages through feminist criticism? How can we show what feminism has to gain from the Middle Ages?  

This is about multiple audiences outside of the readers of Speculum and postmedieval. When you publish about medieval women, or perform feminist criticism on medieval topics, think about how can you make your work part of a larger conversation, whether that be across your field, across history, or across feminist studies itself.

I myself make a resolution to submit my next feminist article to a non-medieval journal. Take your article on Eleanor of Aquitaine and submit it to Past and Present; try your Christine de Pizan article at PMLA before Exemplaria. Another approach: If you publish in Signs: A Journal of Women in Culture and Society, or the Feminist Review, or the Journal of Gender Studies, you’ll be working to dispel exactly the kind of misperceptions of the Middle Ages I encountered with that modern feminist critic.

Insisting on the complex, fascinating history of women in the Middle Ages is a crucial way of demonstrating to our colleagues and administrators – the people holding the power and the purse-strings – that the medieval is not marginal but foundational, not dusty but vibrant, not irrelevant but innovative.


You all know how spotty coverage of the Middle Ages can be on Wikipedia. But, like it or not, it’s where our students go – not to mention the world. Coverage of medieval women and women’s issues is even worse. And that gender bias is reflected in the fact that only around 10% of Wikipedia editors are women. The world’s new knowledge authority overwhelmingly represents men and men’s history.

A third resolution: find an ailing wikipedia article about a medieval woman or related medieval topic, and adopt it for revision, or begin a new page and invite some colleagues to help develop it with you. Nurture the entry slowly by adding new material a little at a time, using verifiable citations to help ensure your additions stick. Be sure to add relevant bibliography by female scholars.

Watch what happens to your edits; re-edit if necessary, and remain faithful even when anonymous editors work against your expertise. Wikipedia can sometimes be a hostile environment where you can see your edits get deleted within minutes. Don’t be discouraged. You are an authority, you are expert enough to edit, and your contributions will help improve undergraduate papers everywhere.  

[Never edited Wikipedia? There some good resources online, including this brochure, to help get you started as an editor of Wikipedia. At Kalamazoo, you may have made it to the epic Medieval Women Wikipedia Write-in hosted by the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship and spearheaded by Dorothy Kim – a record of some results here. Dorothy also has some blog entries on ITM on the Medieval Women Wikipedia Write-in – here and here.]  

I myself had never edited Wikipedia before, but now I have adopted the entry on the thirteenth-century holy woman Elizabeth of Töss and will be checking in on it and adding to it for a half-hour every Friday afternoon, as my little outreach date. None of the current scholarship by important female scholars like Alexandra Barratt and Sarah McNamer is represented there, and most egregiously, the article denies Elizabeth of Töss any connection to the fascinating Revelations text almost certainly documenting her visions.

I will donate this weekly half-hour for the sake of restoring Elizabeth’s voice and because that single anonymous article is viewed over 200 times a month – and until my edits, none of those readers knew of her incredible visionary account, stripped again of her correct identification as it had been for hundreds of years.


Back in 2000, critic bell hooks commented on the disconnect between academic feminist theory and the world outside the ivory tower. In her book Feminism is for Everybody, she wrote:

“… Work was and is produced by the academy that is oftentimes visionary, but these insights rarely reach many people. As a consequence the academization of feminist thought in this manner undermines feminist movement via depoliticization. Deradicalized, it is like every other academic discipline with the only difference being the focus on gender.” (22)

She takes these lucid observations and offers a concrete solution: write for multiple audiences. In her words,

“Literature that helps inform masses of people, that helps individuals understand feminist thinking and feminist politics, needs to be written in a range of styles and formats. We need work that is especially geared towards youth culture. No one produces this work in academic settings.” (22-3)

Now, as medievalists, we are in a unique position to write literature that helps inform masses of people, because popular culture is currently obsessed with anything medieval: TV shows like Game of Thrones, movies versions of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis’ work, King Arthur anything, the Vikings, video games, etc. etc. Also medieval archeological discoveries, like finding Richard III’s bones, are making headlines.

This is all awesome.

The opening here for us is to use our expertise to offer to those same audiences a narrative that highlights women’s history and historical accomplishments. In the meantime we can counteract inaccurate portrayals of the Middle Ages, especially sexist and misogynistic inaccuracies. I’m not saying to re-feminize the past and misrepresent it as more egalitarian than it really was, but rather to resist the re-colonization of the past by the sexism of today. The past is sexist enough without us making it more sexist, right?

Whatever representation of women in whatever medieval show inspires you, or annoys you, write up a short editorial and send it to the newspaper, magazine, online new site or blog that you read. If you have the opportunity, consider how it might actually be worth a little of your time to reach a new audience and feed their passion for the historical material you respect and love. And consider how a feminist agenda can make a big difference to those readers.

For example, the medievalist Jeffrey Jerome Cohen was recently asked to consult on a children’s sticker book about Arthurian legend. Not exactly a grant-winning, tenure-worthy project. But he recognized that something that seemingly trivial actually reaches an important audience: the next generation of medievalists, and mathematicians, and millionaires. When he gave feedback on a section of the sticker book about Merlin and Morgan la Fay, he took the opportunity to make a feminist critique that both more authentically represents the past and more fairly inspires the future:

“[Morgan] isn't a wicked character so much as a person angry for the choices taken from her: forced to end her study of magic, forced to marry a man she does not love. Does the potion she is making have to be described as "nasty"? It would be good to have Morgan a little more balanced. I often think about my daughter reading books like this, and what lessons she will take away. Merlin is presented here as he always is now days, as wise and good -- and yet he is also a schemer and rogue.
When Merlin is purely good and Morgan all bad, this gendered divide sends a message that I wish children didn't have to receive yet again -- and it isn't even true to the medieval materials, in which both Merlin and Morgan (like most people in the world) are complicated.” (Personal email, April 25, 2014)

Here is my resolution: One time this year, I will publish something, consult on something, contribute to something completely non-academic – in a way that helps repair the gender divide; in a way that gently revises uninformed views of the past, while respecting the curiousity behind those views; in a way that engages passionately and stylishly with serious issues of sexism.

If you’re a woman, write ANYTHING for the wider public if only to help rectify the HUGE gender imbalance of public intellectuals: by one count, only about one-quarter of public intellectuals are women. If there’s a gap, fill it with yourself.

Medievalist Diane Watt recently did this by publishing an editorial in the online news and views website, The Conversation, that sources its articles from the academic and research community and delivers them direct to the public. Watt wrote about the problem of the huge imbalance between the way male and female authors are treated in book reviews in the media. Her solution: start early, in the classroom, by improving the representation of texts and criticism by women authors. As a feminist medievalist scholar and teacher, Watt not only schools us on the gender gap, but helps to rectify it through her own writing as a woman for a wider public audience.


The problem is that very little of this kind of feminist writing for multiple audiences is rewarded in our academic jobs, and none counts towards tenure – at least not officially, in the US. It’s often seen as risky to be politicized or to take time away from insitutional work. Not to mention we may be teaching four classes a term on top of completely unreal expectations of peer-reviewed publications.

These are very real barriers, especially for young un-tenured academics.

But what about just a half-hour a week? What if we considered that half-hour of outreach as required as part of our duty to the public, according to our personal vision of our vocation, even if that doesn’t match the institutional vision?

Consider what resolutions you will make before this time next year. What half-hour of your week can you donate to, say, the Wikipedia article on the visionary author Julian of Norwich, and the entry’s 400 daily readersprobably including your own students?

After all, when was the last time an academic article of yours had over 12,000 views in a month?  


On academic outreach, recently:
Nicholas Kristof, “Professors, We Need You!,” The New York Times, 14 Feb. 2014.
Jessie Daniels, “Roundup of Responses to Kristof’s Call for Professors in the Public Sphere,” JustPublics@365, 19 Feb. 2014.

On gender discrimination in the media:
Diane Watt, “Women will be left out of review sections as long as they’re left out of the classroom,” The Conversation, 10 March 2014.

On the so-called “confidence gap”:
Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, “The Confidence Gap,” The Atlantic, 14 April 2014.
Kim Tran, “Racism, Sexism, and the Myth of the ‘Confidence Gap,” the feminist wire, 28 April 2014.

On the gender pay gap in higher education:
AAUP Academe report, “Losing Focus: The Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession, 2013-14,” p. 26, Survey Report Table 5.
AAUP 2013-14 Faculty Survey (sort by ‘Gender Breakdown’):

On gender discrimination in higher education:
Mary Ann Mason, et. al, Do Babies Matter? Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower (Rutgers, 2013)
Mason, “In the Ivory Tower, Men Only,” Slate, 17 June, 2013.

 On feminism in general, and also feminism and Medieval Studies:
bell hooks, Feminism is for Everybody (South End Press, 2000)
---, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (South End Press, 1984, 2000)
Kathryn Maude, “Citation and marginalisation: the ethics of feminism in Medieval Studies,” Journal of Gender Studies (2014), http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09589236.2014.909719

On Wikipedia and the Medieval Feminist Wikipedia Write-In at Kalamazoo 2014:
Dorothy Kim, “Scholarly Organizations and Wikipedia Editing,” In the Middle (blog), 27 April 2014.

1 comment:

Jonathan Hsy said...

@LSM: What an great posting! Thanks so much for this -- and for providing all these additional links and resources.

The AHA blog has just featured a writeup on the SMFS Wikipedia Write-In and other digital endeavors at #Kzoo2014 as well!