Hungary is bidding good riddance to the academic junk food of Gender Studies and Women’s Studies. Last week, the Hungarian government announced plans to withdraw funding from gender studies programs at state-funded universities “after determining the programs serve no identifiable purpose and are based on ‘ideology rather than science.’”
The decision will affect only a small number of students, according to the report, because such programs are not yet popular or widespread in Hungary. In many parts of the English-speaking world, in contrast, tens of thousands of students take courses and earn degrees in Gender Studies, which is sometimes called Women’s Studies, or Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality studies.
Defunding such programmes in more liberal parts of Europe and North America and Canada, would trigger off feminist paroxysms of apocalyptic proportions. But if Hungarian officials are correct that they serve no purpose and are based in ideology rather than science, should we not seriously consider abolishing them?
I have argued for years that the answer to this question is an emphatic and unqualified yes. Evidence drawn from the programs’ own websites suggests that, far from serving no purpose at all, they exist to create foot soldiers for feminist social change, mainly by transforming the role of women and greatly enlarging the reach of the feminist state.
Far from serving no purpose at all, Gender and Women’s Studies create foot soldiers for feminist social change.
Take a look, as one random example, at the two professors who head up the University of Warwick’s Centre for the Study of Women and Gender. Both emphasise their involvement in feminist activism. Director Nickie Charles researches how women “through involvement in social movements can bring about social change.” Deputy Director Maria Pereira “maintains an active involvement in feminist movements.” Gender studies programmes make no pretence of pursuing knowledge for the sake of truth.
On the matter of the content of the courses, the Hungarian government is unquestionably correct. Women’s and Gender Studies programmes produce and promote ideology rather than science or objective knowledge. In particular, they advance theories of oppression and resistance, often employing a range of different kinds of feminist, Marxist, queer, post-modern, post-colonial, eco-critical, and other theories.
While theories are often employed in academic research and teaching, their purpose in legitimate disciplines is to be tested. Feminist theories are not tested except through comparison with other feminist or related (leftist) theories. They are almost never tested against non-feminist (or anti-feminist) theories. The fundamental tenets of feminism—that gender is a social construct and that all major world cultures, especially western cultures, are built on a deep-seated misogyny resulting in the subjugation of women—are not up for debate. These tenets are presented as truths to be learned.
That hundreds of thousands of students across the English-speaking world learn dogma as truth is a staggering testament to the triumph of ideology at institutions of higher education.
A good example of the unproven/unprovable ideological biases of gender theory can be found in the reading material for a course offered at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada in 2015 called “Gender, Race, Sex, and Power,” described as an introduction to “intersectional feminist scholarship and debate.” The required reading on the subject of gender was a chapter called “Introduction to Gender” from a textbook Language and Gender by Penelope Eckert and Sally McConnell-Ginet.
The authors of this text are typical of most feminist ideologues in adhering to the theory that gender is a social construct, telling us in the opening pages of the chapter that “the very definition of the biological categories male and female, […] is ultimately social.” Given that anything humans do in language is ultimately dependent on society, of course the labels male and female are in that sense social. But Eckert and McConnell-Ginet mean far more than that.
Eckert and McConnell-Ginet mean that gender is something we “perform,” (a very popular word in gender discourse) with little or no basis in biology. They assert that “Labelling someone a man or a woman is a social decision,” i.e. it has no natural or biological basis that pre-exists language. Everything in the chapter follows from this key plank of feminist thought, which mandates a consistent downplaying or outright denial of natural, biological differences in male-female nature and development.
Eckert and McConnell-Ginet chronicle what they term the scripting of masculine and feminine identities from human infancy to adulthood. In their argument, un-gendered infants are made into boys and girls by conditioning and modelling; their masculinity and femininity are an effect of cultural programming. The implication throughout the discussion is that boys and girls can and should be re-conditioned and re-modelled at will.
Hundreds of thousands of students across the English-speaking world learn dogma as truth.
The authors also include a section on what they call the manufacturing of heterosexual desire, which is also not natural, they tell us, but “highly structured and learned” through “dominant socially endorsed images.” This claim is also a common plank of gender ideology: in particular, the chapter argues that girls and women are taught to desire men not because it is natural but because girls and women are bombarded from a young age by images of heterosexual romance. The implication is that there is something potentially nefarious about this process, and that girls might be better off learning a different way of being.
The authors also discuss the supposed devaluing of the feminine in culture, claiming that male activities are more highly valued than female activities, and that girls are often told that they their femaleness will prevent them from pursuing conventionally-male professions and activities. As an example, they claim that a girl will conventionally learn that she cannot be an astronaut when she grows up because she is a girl.
Another section of the chapter emphasises the pervasive inequalities and injustices that work against women in everything from household chores to the order in which men and women tend to be mentioned in sentences. The emphasis of this section is on the multifarious ways in which girls and women are consistently disadvantaged in relation to boys and men in our society. Such assertions are likely, of course, to produce resentment and anger in female readers who accept that the history of humanity is a history of injustice against their sex.
What is especially notable about the chapter is that it gives no indication that such claims about gender are in any way contentious.
Students aren’t made aware of the hundreds of studies that have revealed significant biological differences between men and women. They’re not even told that there is a debate on the matter, or that trained scientists have reached a consensus about the biological basis of sex that cannot simply be denied. In fact, readers are given the opposite impression, that the social constructionists have the far more sophisticated case.
It is presented as fact that “Gender is the […] process of creating a dichotomy [between male and female] by effacing similarity and elaborating on difference, and where there are biological differences, these differences are exaggerated and extended in the service of constructing gender.” Here the authors (reluctantly) admit that there may be some biological basis to sex difference but maintain that it is significantly exaggerated by both researchers and popular commentators.
The authors cite some few scientific studies in support of their position, but no student reading the chapter and being introduced to the idea of gender as a social construct would have any idea that a majority of scientists have come in good faith to the opposite view of the physiological and biological basis of sex difference. For a compendious summation of hundreds of studies of sex differences, see Steven Rhoads’ Taking Sex Differences Seriously.
What is perhaps most shocking in the feminist introduction to gender is the strong suggestion by Eckert and McConnell-Ginet that any researcher who focuses on biological differences between men and women is corrupt. Readers are told, for example, that everyone from scientists to journalists to the reading public has an insatiable appetite for sensationalistic gender news: “Any results that might support physiological differences are readily snatched up and combined with any variety of gender stereotypes in some often quite fantastic leaps of logic. And the products of these leaps can in turn feed directly into social, and particularly into educational policy, with arguments that gender equity in such ‘left-brain areas’ as mathematics and engineering is impossible.”
Most shocking is the suggestion that any researcher
who focuses on biological differences between
men and women is corrupt.
The authors give no examples of these “fantastic leaps of logic,” but the statement tells students in no uncertain terms that whenever they encounter a claim about natural differences between male and female, they can reliably shut their minds to it. They can be certain that “gender stereotypes” and “fantastic leaps of logic” are at work in biased, ideologically-driven individuals, probably misogynists who want to prevent women from achieving what they’re capable of in mathematics and engineering. It is never admitted that the authors of this chapter, who are not scientists—in fact, they are both linguists—might themselves be choosing their examples and studies to support an ideological position for which there is scant evidence and abundant counter-evidence.
On every major facet of gender knowledge, the chapter opts for feminist orthodoxy over unbiased, research-based discussion, distorting students’ understanding by telling them not only that social constructionist theories are true but also that scientific facts about sex difference are false.
Students emerge from such programs misinformed about the world and filled with a revolutionary zeal as baseless as it is dangerous. Gender and Women’s Studies are about as academic or scientific as Tooth Fairy Studies or Yogic Flying or Voodoo Studies. Taxpayers should not be forced to fund these Mickey Mouse courses and students should flee from these fake disciplines like the prophet Elijah fled from the wicked queen Jezebel.
(Dr Janice Fiamengo is Professor of English at the University of Ottawa, Canada. Her books include Sons of Feminism: Men Have Their Say, Home Ground and Foreign Territory: Essays on Early Canadian Literature, and Other Selves: Animals in the Canadian Literary Imagination)