Debating Women’s Studies with Jennifer Roback Morse

When FIFE, as in feminism is for everyone, a campus group invited me to speak at the University of Virginia, I was immediately on board. What I hadn't entirely absorbed was that this wasn't a straight up lecture with questions and answers, my usual gig, but a debate orchestrated by the conservative minded Intercollegiate Studies Institute about the validity of Women's Studies. The planners wondered—Are We Getting It Right?—and posed this question to myself and my debate partner, Jennifer Roback Morse. Morse, who describes herself as your coach for the culture wars, opposes the existence of Women's Studies, arguing that tax payer dollars would be better spent supporting a Men's Studies program. In formal debate speak, I was described as the affirmative debater, which was funny since the genesis of the evening was the Network of Enlightened Women, a regressive contradiction of an organization, their premise being that Women's Studies was discriminatory.

Morse's opinions were less annoying than the fact that she entirely derailed the topic. Instead of focusing on Women's Studies, she prioritized telling this packed audience that men were in bad shape—men were more likely to be depressed, abandoned by their wives, and men have a harder time getting jobs than women. Her overriding message was—work, have kids by the time you are 25, stay home with them while they are young and then grow up to make a living telling other women not to make a living. Morse is relatively honest that her argument derives mostly from her own biography—she had fertility problems, felt trapped in academia and forced to decide between her job and her family, and being married to another professor, free to actually make choices such as to work or not work.

I'm always one to play nice; at least I have found I get further if I focus on delivering my perspective without engaging with what I might describe as another person's nonsense. That evening, my main point was that a successful liberal arts education should teach one how to think and be less about accumulating knowledge. I also argued that it's all the better for a student to be in a class and not agree with the professor; learning how to challenge someone else's perceived wisdom is a great educational moment. Using my own experience of having been an Art History major turned feminist activist and writer, I argued that our undergraduate classes are rarely a predictor of what we pursue in our professional lives. Yes, Women's Studies has a bias—just like English departments that disproportionately teach Shakespeare and History departments that leave the contribution of Black and Native Americans as a footnote. I also highlighted my hope that one day Women's Studies would be conflated into other departments; as is this department often fills in the gaps left by other major departments.

I stayed on topic because I thought it pointless to try to fight "her facts" with "my facts." And I knew most of her facts to be bogus. True, men might be more likely to commit suicide but it's disproportionately gay men and therefore, most likely because they didn't fit into society's (aka Morse's) definition of men. It's not that men suffer more depression, but they are less likely to seek help thus having the depression manifest more negatively than in women (again, the reason men often repress their depression is because this illness might disqualify them from the strong, protector, de-facto role they otherwise inhabit). Women might be more likely to "file" for divorce—but most have been pushed to that place either because they have been emotionally abandoned in their marriages or because they realize life will be easier without being saddled with someone else.

The main difference between Morse and me was that I actually believe in these young women. I know that most of them will have a life somewhere between Morse and me—they will be partnered, will become parents, will have jobs, will contribute to supporting their families, and will be pioneering. Morse and her camp have more reason to tamp down these women's ambitions—for one, there are only so many women who can be successful as cultural critics and, two, because the more options women have the less likely they will be to solely adhere to their biological mandates. I'm less threatened by the part of them that might be more conventional—such as having babies and taking their husband's names—because I know that nothing is more likely to push people toward feminism than feeling trapped and feeling like you don't have options. In Morse's world women won't have options, life for women will be scripted, what a perfect invitation to feminism.

Editor's note: Jennifer Roback Morse was one of the presenters at Contraception Is Not the Answer (CINTA). Also, check out Andrea Lynch's recent post analyzing Morse's article on Medicaid births in Oklahoma.

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  • rabblerouser

    I was actually at the debate at UVA between Amy Richards and Jennifer Roback Morse, although as a feminist I was concerned that a feminist organization would actually co-sponser a debate about whether or not we should have women's studies programs–why is this question even on the table? At any rate, Richards is right, the formal debate question was quickly abandoned, but that probably has something to do with the fact that Richards never actually addressed it. Instead, she raised the banner of the mind/body dualism–"I think, therefore I am," an idea that lies at the root of misogyny–in the name of women's studies programs! (As an aside, Descarte said this, not Plato, as Richards cited.) As a result of Richards clear lack of preparation for this debate, we all got to hear her and Morse tell us what great moms they are: Richards manages to bake muffins for her kid's class every week. If this isn't proof that we still need women's studies programs, I don't know what is. In the future, I hope that Richards demonstrates that she "actually believes in [us]" by taking invitations to debate seriously enough to actually prepare, instead of leading campus feminists to an embarrassing slaughter.

  • amy-richards

    In debating the merits of Women's Studies, my point (which seems to have been lost) — is that the benefit of an undergraduate education is to teach one how to learn and think, not to accumulate knowledge. If one were to challenge Women's Studies on the grounds of it being biased and not intellectual enough of a pursuit, which was being argued by some students at UVA, I argued that we should challenge other majors which are equally biased: for example, History, which is really white man's history, and English, which disproportionately teaches Shakespeare and relegates writers such as Toni Morrison to more specialized classes. The other argument I made was that the success of Women's Studies speaks to its importance — with more than 700 programs on college campuses, students are demanding it and universities are responding. The need is there whether or not we believe in its merits.


    And to your specific slams: while I did prepare, true, I could have been more prepared — for instance, I didn't receive the official debate format until hours before the event — but that was because ISI never sent it to me. My point about baking muffins was in the rebuttal period and was a direct response to my opponent saying that one cannot be a mother and professional simultaneously; because that was her experience, I didn't want everyone to think that it had to be everyone's. And I decided to include the "to be or not to be…" while I was having dinner with students before the debate. I was specifically talking to someone who was a philosophy major, and it was she who attributed the quote to Plato, (not that I should have had to be dependent on her), but given this exchange perhaps the real debate should not have been about what one learns in Women's Studies, but in any major.


    Thanks for your feedback — Amy