A few years ago English professor, Michele Elam, noticed something curious in her introduction to feminist studies class – very few of her forty students felt comfortable using the word feminism, and still fewer identified themselves as feminists.  Despite being interested in gender equality, it was as if, Elam said, “being called a feminist was to suspect that some foul epithet had been hurled your way.”  As one student put it, “Feminism is the new F Word.  You can’t use it.”

Elam also noticed a similar dynamic playing out in classes she teaches on race.  Students seemed to have a hard time talking about it.  Explaining why, a student told Elam, “It’s touchy, it’s delicate, it’s a total killjoy in polite society to bring it up.”

With students distancing themselves from feminist theory and practice and silencing themselves on the topic of race, Elam believes that “race and gender have become unspeakable,” and accordingly “unteachable” in the classroom.


1917 Feminists: Women suffragists picketing in front of the White House. Source: Library of Congress

In her talk, “The New F Word (Feminism) and Beyond: Gender, Race, and other Classroom Unspeakables,” sponsored by the Center for Teaching and Learning at Stanford, Elam linked the dynamic she saw unfolding in her classes with a larger cultural trend that dismisses race and gender as serious academic subjects.  She noted, for example, that President Obama, in his July 2010 Urban League address implied that the study of race is best left out of higher education when he said that meaningful conversations about race would not occur at "a bunch of academic symposia or fancy commissions or panels" but instead "around kitchen tables and water coolers and church basements and in our schools and with our kids all across the country."

Elam pointed out that this same type of anti-intellectual stance toward race and gender can be found at the other end of the political spectrum too like when Sarah Palin in her recent address to the Susan B. Anthony List took a swipe at academic feminism.  After thanking the SBA List for being a home to a new conservative feminist movement and identity, Palin said, "[For] far too long, when people heard the word 'feminist,' they thought of the faculty lounge at some East Coast women's college, right? And no offense to them, they have their opinions and their voice, and God bless them; they're just great.  But that's not the only voice of women in America.”

Elam argued that these kinds of anti-intellectual and casual approaches to addressing social justice issues (i.e. water cooler chats instead of academic symposia) direct people to suspend critical thought in lieu of uniformed, ahistorical, and emotionally based understandings of race and gender.  In doing so, race and gender become casualized and thus delegitimized as proper fields of inquiry.  As opposed, then, to subjects like math or physics, race and gender are not seen as serious academic disciplines in their own right that need to be studied in an in-depth and informed way.  Rather, Elam said, they are often seen as “harboring an activism at odds with disinterested intellectual inquiry.”  Politically, this type of thinking has led some state legislatures, like in Arizona, to go after ethnic studies departments and try to shut them down.

As a race and gender scholar, Elam uses ethnic and feminist studies to better illuminate the power relations she seeks to investigate in her own research.  In the classroom she uses this scholarship to provide her students with a rigorous analytic framework through which they can better examine, understand, and thus discuss how race and gender operate in the social world.  By doing so, Elam’s students are more able to talk about such topics and issues, making race and gender speakable and consequently teachable in the classroom.

While the recent cultural pushback against critical race and gender studies has made sharing her insights with her students more challenging, it has also made Elam more committed than ever to teaching these subjects. “Race and gender,” Elam said, “cannot be confined to private conversations around the kitchen table.  There also needs to be passionate, committed academic study.  And students need to see how race and gender function as critical intellectual tools for social and literary analysis.”

Michele Elam is a Faculty Affiliate of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research.


Originally Published in Gender News, a publication of The Clayman Institute for Gender Research on Monday, February 28, 2011