Why Academic Feminism is Full of Shit

Feminism is not an academic theory. Feminism is a grassroots movement of women.

Universities, like all institutions in society, are patriarchal – they are run by men, for men, to further the interests of men and to oppress women. This means feminism and academia are opposites in every way. Trying to bring feminism into academia is like capturing a beautiful, vibrant butterfly, putting a pin through her heart and putting her on display in a museum. She will look pretty impressive and lots of people will marvel at her, but she is also dead.

Feminism is a war on patriarchy not a war between women

Academia is based on competition. The aim is to win, to outwit your opponents, to overturn past theories and come up with new bigger better shinier ones.

Academics love to divide feminists into competing theories – radical feminists, liberal feminists, Marxist feminists, post-deconstructivist-neo-radical-genderqueer-antediluvian feminists… and then set these theories arguing against one another. We are too clever to fall for these divide and rule tactics.

Academics love to divide feminists into ‘waves’ – first, second, third, fourth… as if each generation overthrows the last. Young feminist students are encouraged to write essays mocking feminist ideas from the past, seeing ‘second wave feminists’ as the enemy or patronising them – they had a few good ideas, bless them, but we’ve moved on now. How dare they try to turn us against our own feminist foremothers? How dare they try to turn our role models into our enemies? Feminism is not like water, it does not come in ‘waves’, each one washing over the debris and wreckage of the last. Feminism is a fire, passed down by generations of women for thousands of years, and sometimes it’s a tiny little ember and sometimes it rages so powerfully that whole countries are set alight but it’s the same fire and it never goes out.

Feminism is Real

You don’t need to read books to be a feminist. You don’t need to be able to read at all. If you go looking for feminism in lecture halls and academic journals and books you won’t find it there, because that isn’t where it lives. Feminism is in you. It IS you. And every other woman and girl who ever lived, or is living, or will live… feminism is born from us women, from our life experiences, from our feelings, from our experiences of sexism and oppression, some of which are shared with millions of women and some of which are unique to us. If what you are told to read does not either speak directly to you as a woman, or teach you about the life experiences of other women, or give practical and workable ideas for destroying patriarchy, it is not feminist. Unlike academics, feminists are not interested in questions like “To what extent does ‘queering’ theory deconstruct feminist conceptions of agency?” A feminist exam paper would ask “How can we destroy patriarchy?” and the correct answer would be for all the women to simultaneously storm out of the room, occupy the University buildings and call a global woman-strike.

Feminism rejects authority

Academia is built on the idea of expertise, of all-knowing authority figures educating the next generation of bright young things. This is because patriarchy needs hierarchies, it needs to tell young women that their thoughts and feelings and intuitions are not enough, that they need to be quiet and obey and learn from their superiors. No woman needs an expert to teach her how to be a feminist, what feminism is, or which feminist ideas are the ‘right’ ideas. Feminism is about women’s lives. Every woman is the expert on her own life. Every woman’s knowledge and experience is valuable in its own right. All women are sisters and we listen to one another and respect one another and celebrate our shared experiences and celebrate our differences in a way that all the theories and academics and ‘experts’ in the world could analyse for one thousand years and still never begin to understand.

Feminism rejects academic privilege

Academic training is training in how to use privilege to oppress and dominate others. Academia uses specialist language that the vast majority of women do not understand. This is not because women are stupid. This is a deliberate tactic to exclude us, to ensure that we do not know what is being said about us, to silence and humiliate us in discussion. No matter how hard we try to learn the language, we will never be good enough, we will never quite understand, we will never win the arguments. Patriarchy depends on women never being good enough, always being to blame for their own oppression.

It is not women’s responsibility to learn academic jargon. It is feminist academics’ responsibility to communicate to us in language we can understand. If you are a woman who has been subjected to academic training you need to recognise the tactics you have been trained in. By learning how to use inaccessible academic jargon in conversation and refer to books you have read and theories you have learnt, you have been given the tools to enable you to defeat other women, to make them feel stupid, to come out on top not because you are right and they are wrong but because you have academic privilege and they do not. It is your responsibility to work on yourself to undo this training. Stop assuming everyone has read the books you’ve read. Stop assuming everyone became a feminist because they read a load of books rather than because they were sexually abused and feminism helped them to understand their experience, or because they have a new baby girl and don’t want her to grow up in a world full of shitty misogynistic crap, or one thousand other reasons that have everything to do with experiencing oppression and nothing to do with the University Library. Stop starting sentences with “We all know…” “We’ve all read…” “We all agree that…” You cannot read other women’s minds or know their lives – don’t assume anything about other women and what they know, think or read.

Deeds Not Words

Academia values theory over practice. The more abstract and detached from real life your work is, the better. The more inaccessible your ideas and the less likely the woman who’s been cleaning your lecture theatre every day for the last ten years whose name you don’t even know could understand a word of it, the better. The aim is to create exclusivity in order to acquire and maintain power.

The end result or goal in academia is theory. Fieldwork or research is done in order to produce theory. In feminism, theory is written in order to produce action. Writing a book about rape culture is good, but organising a protest against a notorious rapist is better, volunteering at your local Rape Crisis Centre is better, boycotting corporations that use rape jokes to generate ‘controversy’ and sell their products is better. The best feminist academics are those who work for the grassroots, who ask activists, survivors and women’s organisations what they need and then put the needs of those women on the ground before their own careers and egos. They produce studies that will convince the government to fund more women’s shelters, or research that will help dispel rape myths. Feminism isn’t just something we are or something we have, it’s something we DO, every day. When feminists are concerned about an issue, we don’t write a paper or organise a conference. We get out there and campaign for change and don’t stop until we get it.

Academia encourages inaction. Social justice movements are either ignored completely or else analysed, criticised and sneered at by middle class white academics. Our own concepts and language are appropriated by academics and used against us, used to criticise feminism not in order to improve it but in order to paralyse it, to kill it off before it becomes too big and threatening. Too late. Feminism is big, it is threatening. We will continue standing together and fighting for freedom from male violence and oppression. It must hurt to watch from the sidelines, writing your snide pompous articles that most of us will never read and knowing that you can’t keep us down.

Academia oppresses women. Feminism liberates us!

Graffiti on Cambridge Union Society building saying 'Women Deserve Better'


21 Comments on “Why Academic Feminism is Full of Shit”

  1. Lis says:

    If you are a woman who has been subjected to academic training you need to recognise the tactics you have been trained in. By learning how to use inaccessible academic jargon in conversation and refer to books you have read and theories you have learnt, you have been given the tools to enable you to defeat other women, to make them feel stupid, to come out on top not because you are right and they are wrong but because you have academic privilege and they do not. It is your responsibility to work on yourself to undo this training.

    I really needed to hear this criticism. Thank you. In general, I’m gonna be showing this article to everyone I know, especially to all the women I know who hesitate to call themselves feminists because they haven’t read twenty books…

  2. Every woman’s knowledge and experience is valuable in its own right. All women are sisters and we listen to one another and respect one another and celebrate our shared experiences and celebrate our differences in a way that all the theories and academics and ‘experts’ in the world could analyse for one thousand years and still never begin to understand.

    Except for we don’t. White feminists oppress black feminists. Rich feminists oppress poor feminists. Cis feminists oppress trans feminists. I wish this were the case, but we are a long way from being so. And claiming that we are often makes me feel erased in areas where I am oppressed.

    • Lis says:

      I recognise what you’re saying, and I know that different people take different things away from articles, but for what it’s worth, what I took away from this one was a reminder that there’s one more way in which some women oppress other women: through the language we use, and through the idea that we have to learn through experts instead of from our sisters.

      • Yes. Academics is definitely a way women can oppress each other. I think it is related somehow to class issues, but I haven’t quite worked that out yet. I definitely need to work out how to divest myself of academic privilege.

        One of the reasons I often don’t want to is that in my (limited) experience, women who have read more widely are more likely to have come across beginner’s discussions about how colour/trans status/disability are ways they can oppress other women, and hence are more likely to do basic things to try to negate that privilege. Hence I often feel safer in more academic environments. I don’t know how to deconstruct this privilege; it’s not right to privilege academic environments, but also not right that I have to put myself out in multiple vulnerable ways. Any thoughts would be welcome.

    • Lis says:

      I don’t know how to deconstruct this privilege; it’s not right to privilege academic environments, but also not right that I have to put myself out in multiple vulnerable ways. Any thoughts would be welcome.

      Well, I don’t think anyone’s to blame for trying to find places where they feel safe, and for sticking to those places.

      In my case I’ve found that some of the times I felt unsafe, that feeling of unsafety wasn’t coming from actual shit that people were doing, but from my prejudices about them. But there are a lot of spaces which I still avoid, even though I know that the reason I feel unsafe there is because of my prejudices, because breaking down those prejudices takes a long time and I feel like I need so much safety at the moment.

      So that’s one thing. But I think the biggest deal is just for women with lots of academic privilege, arguing privilege, class privilege etc. to acknowledge that we have it, acknowledge when we’re benefiting from it (for example, in having access to academic spaces, in being listened to), and to do our best not to use it to hurt or exclude other people – there’s advice for how to avoid that in the article.

    • jillweiss says:

      All women are sisters and we listen to one another and respect one another and celebrate our shared experiences and celebrate our differences….

      This is the hope but not the reality. Far from it. Most women I know don’t particularly like other women although they rarely admit it. I certainly don’t respect a lot of women.

      But I do agree with the premise of this paper ….but listening to Judith Butler makes me feel this way, and Avital Ronell is worse.

      [Moderator note: Some of this comment has been removed as it didn't meet our comment policy.]

  3. Veronica says:

    Thanks Rachelette for a thought-provoking article! I love the imagine of the feminist exam where we storm out of the exam hall to occupy!!

    I think what you are saying about academia privileging theory over practice/action is and important thing to think about – and something that has frustrated me too. But I am also thinking about fabulous feminist academics like Liz Kelly or Ann Oakley who challenge academia from within and write about women and issues that are embedded in real women’s lives. Also I’m aware of the immense struggle that feminist academics have in living and working in extremely patriarchal institutions, so I want to support their struggle – if the option is either to leave academia altogether, or to fight to create a feminist space within it, I am definitely in favour of the latter option.

    The question of language is a really important one and I’ve been really happy to see the discussion of theoretical versus accessible language being brought up in discussion groups recently.

  4. scrozz says:

    I suppose I disagree with you that “Universities…are run by men, for men, to further the interests of men and to oppress women.”

    Education and skill sharing is fantastic. I love learning. Universities certainly aren’t run “for men”. They’re run for all of the students who go there – it’s not a conspiracy. There is no secret agenda to “further the interests of men and to oppress women”. When institutions demonstrate some patriarchal behaviours, we should make noise about them and challenge them (i.e. educate them).

    Learning and teaching are feminist acts. The idea that women are “co-operative” and men are “competitive” is gender essentialism – let women be who we are – lots of us are competitive and want to have successful careers – and believe it or not, enjoy the work environment.

  5. KM says:

    I think part of the problem is there is tendency both in academia and in the mainstream media to talk as if feminism the academic subject and actual feminism were the same thing. So you get people talking about how feminism concerns itself with this or that academic theory, and it fills me with rage because that’s not the whole of feminism, it’s a little tiny piece of feminism, but it gets talked about as if it were the whole thing.

    And I’d like to echo the author that it’s incredibly irritating when you tell someone about something that has happened to you, or something you’ve observed in your life, and they say, “Oh, you mean the theory of such-and-such, that’s wrong because [academic-speak].” Or they start having a debate about it. When you talk to academics they pick holes in your argument or point out that you chose the wrong words, but when you talk to real people they actually try to understand what you are trying to communicate.

    I worry that when we talk about how academic feminists should not use jargon and try to be accessible, that we could be buying into the idea that academic feminists are the best feminists, that they know the most about feminism and they have to dumb it down for the rest of us. I don’t think that’s the case, I think academic feminists have a very particular kind of knowledge. They aren’t expert feminists, they’re expert feminist academics, and there’s a big difference.

    I do have some academic feminists in my life who I know and love! But I have to say I loved this article, and having space to engage in some gentle academia-bashing feels pretty damn good.

    Also, “subject” means “topic”, “modernity” is not a word, and if you want to “construct” or “deconstruct” something it had better be made of wood and nails or bricks and mortar!!!

  6. I am going to disagree – fake unity is not useful.
    Understanding the divisions within a movement and working to transcend them is essential.

    There is no uncontested universal feminism that rules them all. There are many ways of seeing and moving forward. Feminism so far has fared poorly in helping poor women because of this fallacy of oneness which makes it focus on White middle class women. It also excludes other victims of patriarchy.
    Note how you neatly do this – feminism is for every woman but if you academics look at the specifics issues of Black Working Class Woman- they are dividing feminism.
    The solutions that come out then can never be tailored to that group because they must work for everyone. This is a contradiction

    Academics research and understand and therefore categorise.
    Activists (and some academics) engage with them and others and translate message and act.
    Academia is not feminism – I learned from a Namibian Communist and have used the work done by academics to deepen my understanding.

    AS for the simplistic storming out the room – sigh.

  7. I found this post really frustrating, but then, perhaps the author will dismiss my criticisms because I am a feminist in academia and am merely repeating what I have been taught by the terrible male privilege-reproducing institutions of which I am a part. First -

    ‘Feminism is not an academic theory. Feminism is a grassroots movement of women.’

    - you make a mistake in thinking it’s either/or. Most revolutionary movements involve theoretical and practical components; Marx and Gramsci have much to say about the interaction between intellectuals and the working classes.

    ‘The end result or goal in academia is theory. Fieldwork or research is done in order to produce theory. [...] Writing a book about rape culture is good, but organising a protest against a notorious rapist is better’

    - again, it is not an either/or. Both are part of the same project of challenging the culture that casts a blind eye towards violence against women. I think it’s also pretty essentialising about the nature of feminist academia to assume it’s all directed towards abstract theory – what about criminologists and psychologists who produce work to form the basis of government or activist groups’ policy? Do you think the Fawcett Society do their campaigning based on hunches rather than research and social theory? Also, I know that there are some corners of feminist theorising that seem to have remained unchanged since the high days of theory in the 80s and that specialise in obscurantism, but most feminist academics I know today are also very involved in local and national activism. Many people I know through LaDIYfest Sheffield are feminist academics; the same with the website Women’s Views on News, which I write for, at the same time as, yes, doing my pointless theorising.

    ‘Academics love to divide feminists into competing theories…Academics love to divide feminists into ‘waves’ – first, second, third, fourth…’

    - Academics don’t arbitrarily assign feminisms to ‘types’ – these differences emerge out of feminism itself, so for instance Marxist feminists might have a background in trade union activism. But there is nothing intrinsically wrong with categorisation – it can help us much better than a morass of undifferentiated thoughts to see what parts of our theories are valuable, how we can organise better, and what we want to prioritise in difficult times.

    ‘No woman needs an expert to teach her how to be a feminist, what feminism is, or which feminist ideas are the ‘right’ ideas.’

    - very much disagree with this – we do need to know which are the ‘right’ ideas, and academia can help here. Imagine where we would be if we had never realised that the racism of the suffrage movement was wrong, if we’d never recognised in the 60s that black women’s experiences mattered as much as those of disillusioned white housewives, if we’d not started more recently to question the politics of trans exclusion from feminism and what it meant to have a ‘women-only’ space. Of course women’s experiences are valid and in my case they’re one of the core places from which I draw my feminist energy, but at the same time your trust in instincts is naive, when lots of women’s instincts tell them, for instance, to exclude trans women from the feminist movement. Part of being a feminist, I think, is constantly learning and being open to new knowledge of ways in which your views might be replicating oppressive systems.

    I also strongly agree with scrozz’s point on universities not being ‘for men’, as well as his/her criticism of the gender essentialism of the way you categorise (ha! ironic) women and men’s ways of working. As scrozz says, you diminish a lot of women’s achievements by disregarding academic feminism.

    Things I do agree with: the way in which academics can sometimes overuse jargon and exclude others. I find this really annoying and know people who try to (I think) suppress criticism of their arguments by making them hard to understand – however, in my experience I’ve found this to be much more of a male academic trait, asserting dominance over a group by being as incomprehensible as possible, than a problem with women.

    I know this post is probably tl;dr, which I don’t make a habit of. My main problem with this blog post is that it creates binaries between ‘feminism’ and ‘academic feminism’ where in reality there is more of a continuum – again, perhaps ironically, the tendency not to think in this oppositional way is something that you learn in academia.

  8. @translesbianlogicianmusings

    for some reason I can’t login in the link to reply to your comment, but I’m surprised someone read all of that (!) and glad you found something to agree with. I don’t think you failed to say this in your post; I understood what you were saying and also agreed.

    It seems like what we were both trying to stress is that women’s knowledge and experiences should be respected, but this in itself isn’t going to make feminism inclusive and comfortable for everyone, when some people’s experiences and views negate others’.

  9. Lis says:

    I found it difficult to reply to some of the comments here directly so I’ll just post it as a separate comment.

    I think that, when people repeatedly use academic language and the kinds of power that go with that, and when that’s hurt someone, or groups of people, it’s ok sometimes for there to be articles which are quite angry about that behaviour. Even if they’re not careful to be very gentle to academics, even if they ignore good things which academics sometimes do.

    I hope that the academics here – including me, kinda – can do what people should always do when called out on behaviour which stamps over other people, and sit back a bit, think about what’s being said, think about the hurt we cause, not try to make it all about us, and accept that we have a lot of power here and should be careful with it.

  10. [...] This piece holds that it does, broadly arguing that universities, like other societal institutions, are patriarchal and exist to further the interests of men, and that academic feminism often silences non-academic feminists, reinforcing existing authority and ways of being rather than supporting calls to action and effecting real change. It argues that “You don’t need to read books to be a feminist. You don’t need to be able to read at all.” [...]

  11. [...] Why Academic Feminism is Full of Shit (feministactioncambridge.wordpress.com) [...]

  12. [...] Why Academic Feminism is Full of Shit (feministactioncambridge.wordpress.com) [...]

  13. […] of Butler’s writing to those outside of the heights of the academy serves as an example of why some feminists believe that academic feminism is ultimately oppressive. Because, these feminists argue, the historically patriarchal nature of the academy automatically […]


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