Archive for December 19th, 2013


Hey gang. Sorry I haven’t posted in a while; I’ll tell you, it’s been a heck of a busy semester. Still, I couldn’t bear the thought of ending the year with my last post all the way back in September. So, let’s end the year with everyone’s favorite kind of post: cis-hetero white guy writes some stuff about feminism. There’s no way this can go bad, right?

I’ve been paying close attention to a lot of discussions that have popped-up on the tubes over the past several months, and one that I’ve found particularly interesting involves the intersection of three ideas: librarianship, objectivity, and feminism. Way back in August, Chris Bourg wrote about a queer/feminist agenda in librarianship and then argued that all librarians have implicit agendas. A week later, Barbara Fister wrote about the librarian’s agenda to promote “certain ways of seeking and using evidence.” In October Annie Pho tipped me off to a great little book on feminist theory in library instruction. In November, Andromeda Yelton wrote an excellent piece on the phenomenology of gender, to which Chris Bourg responded with some reservations. Throughout all of this, everyone’s favorite ornery ornis meditated on gender and silencing. And then, on the closely related issue of gender and technology, there were hundreds of tweets and several posts, such as those by Lisa Rabey, Nicholas Schiller, Kate Kosturski, and others. For the best summary of what’s been going on, I recommend checking out the libtechgender project–it’s pretty awesome. Anyway, I know I’m leaving out lots of other stuff, but you get the idea: librarians are concerned about gender and sexuality. And that includes me.

This is the part where I explain that, yes, I do identify as a feminist. Yes, straight white guys are playing life on the lowest difficulty setting. And non-straight and/or non-white and/or non-guys are systematically mistreated/disrespected/ignored/silenced/etc.. No way am I going to dispute that. In fact, I take the systematic discrimination to be so blatantly obvious that there’s no need to argue that it exists: society is set up in such a way as to favor straight white guys to the detriment of everyone else. Question: does that include libraries? Do libraries favor straight white guys? Does librarianship? Does library science? Well, there is that thing about male library directors being disproportionately overrepresented. And LC subject headings can be pretty sexist at times. And for a profession overwhelmingly female, there sure are an awful lot of dudes giving keynotes. And don’t even get me started on the rampant, abject sexism facing tech-leaning library ladies. It’s depressing, to say the least.


Now, an interesting question is whether the sexism facing librarians is (1) a product of more general, societal issues related to sex and gender, or (2) inherent in librarianship itself. Or, more likely, a little of both. So, are male library directors better paid because of pay disparity in employment in general, or because something about librarianship itself creates pay disparity. Is librarianship fundamentally sexist, or does it merely inherit the more general social trends towards discrimination? Likewise, are sexist subject headings (or under-representation of women’s studies concepts) a signal of bias seeping into cataloging from the broader culture, or are the very concepts of cataloging and classification necessarily sexist? Here’s a brain teaser: are women programmers and coders at a disadvantage because of tech culture, or because programming languages are themselves gendered? I could keep raising these sorts of questions, but I think these are sufficient to illustrate a bit of an important divide. When we advocate for a feminist agenda in libraries, we need to be clear as to which feminist agenda we’re rooting for.

First, let’s establish a working definition of feminism: feminism “refers to any theory which sees the relationship between the sexes as one of inequality, subordination, or oppression, and which aims to identify and remedy the sources of that oppression” (Oxford Companion to Philosophy, 2nd edition). Of course, “inequality,” “subordination,” and “oppression” have contested meanings. Likewise, the sources of oppression and acceptable remedies are polarizing issues. If you’re going to advocate for feminism in libraries, you’d best figure out what these terms and concepts mean. Of course, there are hundreds (thousands?) of variations on feminist theory, and I have no desire to cover every one (because I can’t). But, there is a natural dividing line between the predominant theories. On one side we have the critical feminists; on the other the analytic feminists. Each side has lots of variations and it may be best to think in terms of a spectrum of feminist theories. I’ll just discuss the poles.

Critical feminists (CFs) trace their lineage to four important 20th Century ideas: psychoanalysis, post-structuralism, phenomenology, and pluralism (alliteration win!). From psychoanalysis, CFs adopt the position that our attitudes towards the world are necessarily shaped by unconscious motivations that are immune to rational reflection. From post-structuralism, CFs adopt the position that all thought and belief is constructed within a language, all languages are shaped by cultural and historical processes, and that, hence, you cannot understand any phenomenon independent of contingent human interests. The idea is that our basic epistemological categories (truth, reason, objectivity, knowledge, etc.) and moral categories (justice, equality, fairness, etc.) can only be understood in context and there are no transcendent, universal concepts or values. From phenomenology, CFs adopt the position that we cannot understand the world independently of the subjective, lived experience. From pluralism, CFs adopt the position that there are many equally valid ways of knowing the world. Put it all together, and you get something like this:

  1. Concepts considered fundamental in Western conceptions of philosophy, morality, and politics–like truth, science, objectivity, justice, etc.–were primarily developed by wealthy white guys in the context of a patriarchal society (think of the Enlightenment).
  2. Because of their provenance, these Western “values” only reflect the thinking of the dominant male culture and do not address women’s (or others’) perspectives.
  3. So, things we are told are universal (like truth or justice) are really filled with hidden biases, they aren’t universal, they don’t capture subjective experiences, and they only represent one of many ways of knowing the world.

To name two examples, the post-Enlightenment beliefs that science is the best means of accessing the truth and that democratic systems are the most just, are not reflective of the perspectives of the marginalized and oppressed social groups that played no role in the creation of science and democracy. The task then for the critical feminist is to (1) lay bare the inherent bias and subjectivity in our most basic beliefs about the world and (2) remove those universal claims from their place of privilege by cultivating equal respect for alternative, non-(white/masculine/wealthy/etc.) ways of knowing. Western society was born in patriarchy and dominates the world through its insistence that Western values are superior. But, since “Western” is just a code for “wealthy white men,” we need to reject Western, post-Enlightenment hegemony and look at the world as it actually is: a multifaceted place of innumerable conceptions of reality, with none deserving any place of privilege or dominance. I’ll grant that this only scratches the surface of critical feminist theory. Poke around the critical feminist theory literature and you’ll quickly bump into Marxism, postmodernism, social constructionism, post-colonialism, literary theory, deconstructionism and a wide range of influential theorists including Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous, Michel Foucault, Bruno Latour, Luce Irigaray, Judith Butler, and more. But, alas, this is a blog and not an encyclopedia. If you want to read more, Josephine Donovan’s Feminist Theory: The Intellectual Traditions is probably the best general overview. You need this book. You might also want to get your hands on the Continental Feminism Reader. If you just want something online, try Jennifer Hansen’s SEP entry on ‘Continental Feminism‘. (And to the six people who will read this, please share books in the comments if you’d like.)


Okay, so, that’s a very rough sketch of critical feminism and it tends to dominate a lot of contemporary feminist discourse. Yes, different theorists may reject one or two of the four P’s, or disagree about interpretations, but it’s close enough. In contrast, analytic feminism (AF) rejects all of the P’s, more or less. On most interpretations of AF, we can explore unconscious biases rationally, we can assert universal or transcendent truths, we can come to at least a partial understanding of the world outside of subjective experience, and there are some ways of knowing that are superior to others. While the critical feminist argues that things like objectivity are inherently subjective and biased towards patriarchal interests, the analytic feminist would say that objectivity really is possible and, indeed, vital. Importantly, the analytic feminist respects subjective experience, social context, implicit biases and all the things the critical feminist wants to highlight. The distinction is over what we do with objectivity, science, and similar claims to universal, transcendent truths. I think the idea is that systematic oppression of women is not evidence that our values are wrong, but evidence that we haven’t lived up to our values. Generally, AF is cool with science, truth, justice, equality, universal values, and so on, but social and cultural biases have prevented society from living up to those ideals. For the analytic feminist, the goal of feminism is to identify the biases and cultural conditions that have shaped how we use science, what we accept as true, how we set up democracy, and so on. Key analytic feminists include Martha Nussbaum, Ann Cudd, Elizabeth Anderson, Sandra Harding, Susan Haack, and others. The journal Hypatia  is a good source for analytic feminist scholarship. Personally, Nussbaum’s Sex and Social Justice  is the analytic text that probably most influenced my thinking on feminism. I’ll also confess that my thesis adviser was the thoroughly analytic “Gay Moralist,” John Corvino. Seriously, go watch his videos.

Here’s a good example of the difference: an analytic feminist might say that women are underrepresented in science because society has unfairly discouraged women from pursuing scientific studies (the whole “girls can’t do math” thing or the “men are rational, women are irrational” stereotype…that kind of stuff). The solution is to get society to realize that girls can do math, women are just as rational as men, and good science has nothing to do with what’s between your legs. In contrast, the critical feminist might say that women are underrepresented because scientific inquiry is itself inherently sexist. For example, (in?)famously, Luce Irigaray argued that E = mc^2 is “a sexed equation” which “privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us”, and which therefore belongs to a “masculine physics” [quoted everywhere]. Irigaray thought that fluid mechanics is systematically ignored in physics because masculinist physics has difficulty coping with fluidity, which is a feminine attribute. You can probably see where this is going.

To the critical feminist, the analytic feminist is committed to perpetuating patriarchal notions of objectivity, truth, and justice. What’s more, in favoring traditionally masculine ideals like science and logical reasoning, analytic feminists are tacitly dismissing more feminine ways of knowing like listening, intuition, subjectivity, and emotion (I’ll assume you’re familiar with Women’s Ways of Knowing. It was required reading in my library science program, and this idea is right at the beginning, pp. 5-7). To the analytic feminist, the critical feminist is a relativist who pushes stereotypes of feminine thinking (intuition, empathy, emotion, nurturing, etc.) and who won’t acknowledge any facts that don’t fit a certain political agenda. Analytic feminists point to the successes of science for all humans and the slow but certain improvement in women’s lives compared to previous generations as evidence that it’s the will to live by our ideals that is the problem, not the ideals themselves. Sure, the analytic feminist will say, men have frequently attempted to use science and objectivity to back-up their sexism, racism, classism, etc. But, that’s because those men were assholes, not because science is sexist. To which the critical feminist will respond with something about how the very categories by which we judge “improvement” in women’s lives or “success” in science are affected by biases. “You’re a relativist! You’re supporting the patriarchy!” And around and around it goes.


Now, if you’re a librarian, this all may seem like academic quibbling. And a lot of it is. But, whether you align with more critical or more analytic feminists will affect how you approach issues of diversity, harassment, equality, etc.. While both analytic and critical feminists agree in the pursuit of social justice, diversity, empowering women, and eliminating biases from, they might take different routes to achieve those ends.
For example…

Information Literacy

  • CF rejects ACRL standards and things like the Project SAILS standardized test because they reinforce patriarchal power (Accardi, pp. 76-77) and fail to “provide space for student voice or experiential knowledge” (Ibid., p. 84). Information literacy is better measured through qualitative methods like reflective journals and interviews. In contrast, AF can accept ACRL standards and quantitative assessment tools, though it would seek to eliminate bias from said tools. Both men and women can be information literate in the same way, we just need to remove the obstacles to women’s achievement.

Collection Development

  • A CF might seek to establish a stand-alone women’s studies collection in a library, based on the premises that current classification standards are biased and that a separate collection would unite women scholars on campus. An AF might reject a stand-alone women’s studies collection and favor strengthening existing disciplinary collections through the addition of material about women, sexism, class, etc. (This was a real debate. See Lee, 2003. A great case study, though I don’t like her sweeping use of the term “non-feminist.” “Different-feminist” might be better.)


  • Males and females are frequently ascribed different management traits: analytical vs. intuitive, assertive vs. democratic, goal-oriented vs. people-oriented, tough vs. understanding, and so on. Should we encourage the same traits in both men and women (whatever those traits may be)? Or do men and women necessarily manage differently? Do these traits have any connection to the overrepresentation of male library directors? See Voelck, 2003 for more on this.

I could go on with examples, but this is already a pretty long post.

Basically, what we have, is a methodological distinction between two somewhat over-lapping takes on feminism, and the distinction can be distinguished in how you answer a simple question:

Are women oppressed because our societal ideals of justice and knowledge are flawed, or because as a society we aren’t living up to those ideals?

Maybe you favor the former. Maybe the latter. Maybe you fall somewhere in the middle. But, the important thing to understand is that “feminism” is not a monolithic theory. Where feminists agree is that women are treated differently than men in society and that treatment is overwhelmingly oppressive and unjust. But, not all feminists are concerned with the same issues. Not all feminists are postmodernists. Not all feminists have the same attitudes towards justice, equality, and so on. Seriously, go read Judith Butler and Martha Nussbaum back-to-back. Better yet, read Nussbaum’s brutal takedown of Butler and ask how feminism can admit of such divergent methods. Importantly, we should all realize that not every criticism of a feminist project is anti-feminist silencing. Sometimes feminists disagree. Going back to the discussion of feminist agendas in librarianship, we can ask whether our agenda should “debunk the myth of scientific objectivity and value-neutrality” (Bourg), or whether our agenda should adopt the implicitly scientific stance of helping patrons “form opinions based on the [objective] evidence” (Fister). So long as we can all agree that the current state of the world is less than ideal for women and that something needs to be changed, I think that’s a good start.


One last thing, you may have noticed in this post a conspicuous absence of class, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, disability, and other topics commonly discussed by feminists. There are two reasons. First, 2500 words is long enough. Second, the same distinction between more critical and more analytic approaches applies. Also, I just want to reiterate that there is a ton of stuff left unsaid. I’d be happy to delve into more technical points in the comments.

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