Director's Letter, January 9, 2017

Dear FRI community,

We begin a new academic quarter and calendar year in discouraging political times. The 2016 presidential election in the US underscores both the vulnerability and importance of feminist research. We are facing state-sanctioned religious intolerance, regressive immigration policies, the gutting of environmental protections, the erosion of women’s reproductive rights, and the resurgence of white supremacy, to name a few troubling developments. Trump’s triumph underscored what we already know: many white people in the US have a definition of “racism” that is narrow and personal rather than systemic and structural, as well as a view of “sexism” that is clouded by racial privilege. Feminist scholarship can and must prioritize intersectional inequalities, pointing toward new political visions.

The Feminist Research Institute is a young organization still building a foundation and finding its voice. We are proud to have hosted an inaugural conference, developed research award programs for faculty and graduate students, and directed much energy toward pursuing external grants. Devoted as we are to reaching all corners of the campus, a key internal challenge is how to promote and support interdisciplinary feminist research when different fields have such different definitions and vocabularies of feminism. This is no trivial matter.

For a scholar in cardiac medicine, a feminist approach might mean exploring gender differences in heart disease or how gender, culture, and nationality influence the pursuit and delivery of care. A feminist engineer might want to investigate pipeline problems in the training of female engineers. A feminist sociologist might trace links between gender non-conformity and experiences of violence among teenagers in high school. A feminist economist might uncover the structures that pull women of color into low-paying home care work. A feminist humanities scholar might chart shifts in cultural discourse (literature, media, current events) showing how they express and legitimate the growth of fascist politics. A feminist artist or designer might create new materials (websites, housing interiors, clothing) that are intersectionally sustainable – for the environment, labor rights, consumer use.

None of these is inherently more serious, scholarly, or legitimate than another. Nor is one set of questions “elementary” and another set “advanced.” To achieve its potential, feminist scholarship must remain open to multiple approaches, bearing in mind some critical insights that all share to varying degrees:

  • Who produces knowledge matters. Identity, social background, and training all shape the kinds of questions researchers ask, the kinds of “data” that count as evidence, and the range of possible interpretations of that data.
  • There is no “neutral” human body or human experience from which all others deviate.
  • Sex and gender are related but not synonymous, and both exist on a spectrum. Binary categories are cultural impositions, not biological or social facts.
  • Gender, race, and sexuality are institutionalized systems of power, not merely individual attributes. For example, wealth and opportunity accumulate around ideas, people, and practices identified as masculine, even though definitions of masculinity change over time and space and exclude many men.

Openness, curiosity, and willingness to work across different definitions of feminist scholarship could not be more critical in the current political climate. The place for that work is here and the time is now.

— FRI interim director, Laura Grindstaff

Laura Grindstaff