Monday, September 20, 2010

Gender Studies, Classics, and Who we Are

Leah MacLaren wrote a piece last week encouraging undergraduates to steer clear of gender studies, and to stick to the classics. Her argument (I think) is that, in the end, women’s studies (or the new studies of masculinity) are facile, while classical literature and philosophy, which just happens to be mainly by men, contains real revelations about humanity that these theories can’t even come close to elucidating.

Now, I’ll agree with Leah that Shakespeare knew a thing or two about human nature and that we don’t necessarily do students of literature any favours by inserting random female writer here just to make sure we have a woman’s voice in our Elizabethan literature class, if the woman in question couldn’t really write (I once took a class entitled literature and social change, which ended up being exclusively on suffragist literature …. while it would have made a fascinating unit in a larger class, there really weren’t enough suffragists who could write well to, in my opinion, warrant an entire class to their work – I had been hoping for Voltaire, Swift, Martin Luther King Junior’s speech, and maybe some Bob Dylan.)

Gender, whether you believe it’s biologically determined or socially constructed, effectively divides the world’s population into two halves (yes, I know that I am ignoring middle-sex, transgender, gender-queer …. but that’s outside of the scope of what I’m trying to say, so work with me …) and which half you fit into has such a profound effect of your life, no matter what culture you live in, that I can’t agree with Leah that the study of gender is facile. Maybe some of the theories that emerged in the early days of the second wave of feminism are, but all the more reason for a continued academic dialogue on the topic, an antithesis to these early theses from which new understandings of how the gender assigned to us affects the choices we have and, ultimately, the quality of the lives we live.

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