Policy Analysis for Postsecondary Education: Feminist and Critical Perspectives
Estela Mara Bensimon and Catherine Marshall
Rummaging through a long-forgotten manila folder labeled Feminism, Sexism, Women we came across headlines such as: ‘Citing Sexism, Stanford Doctor Quits’ (Leatherman, 1991), ‘Walking Out on the Boys’ (Leatherman, 1992), ‘ZRage in a Tenured Position’, ‘A Leading Feminist Literary Critic Quits Post at Columbia, Citing “Impossible” Atmosphere’ (Heller, 1992), ‘Woman who took on Harvard Law School over Tenure Denial sees “Vindication”’ (Leatherman, 1993). These were stories about three female professors and their experiences in institutions and departments that are predominantly male in their faculty composition. The three professors are Frances Conley, the brain surgeon who quit her tenured professorship at Stanford Medical School after 25 years there because she wanted to protest what she described as a ‘hostile environment’ for women;1
Carolyn Heilbrun, the holder of an endowed chair, past president of the Modern Language Association, a leading feminist literary critic, who unexpectedly submitted her resignation after 32 years in Columbia University’s English department; and Clara Dalton who received a settlement of $260,000 after filing a complaint of sex-discrimination when she was denied tenure by Harvard Law School (Heller, 1992; Leatherman, 1991; Leatherman, 1993).
The cases of Conley and Heilbrun, both of whom were tenured full professors with long academic careers, call attention to the particular ways in which universities can be unwelcoming to women, even after they have successfully completed the rites of the tenure passage. The experience of Dalton, whose work is in critical legal theories, calls attention to the difficulties women academics have in being accepted by mostly male peers as scholars, particularly when their work falls into a school of thought considered controversial. Dalton was denied tenure despite positive evaluations of her work by 12 external reviewers and only two negative reviews. Heilbrun’s comments about her decision to leave Columbia University describe academic life in a masculinist culture. ‘It’s like a marriage ending, sad, exhausting-and infuriating because Columbia will continue to be run by male professors who behave like little boys saying this is our secret treehouse club, no girls allowed”’ (Leatherman, 1993). Heilbrun’s comments were met with disbelief by her male colleagues, which is not surprising because the hostile environment she perceived is not a concrete thing or act but rather the cumulative effect of inequities which by themselves might appear insignificant but in combination can make women academics feel alien, exhausted and defeated. Among the inequities that Heilbrun experienced were denial of tenure to feminist scholars she supported and denial of admission to graduate applicants who specifically applied to study with Heilbrun. Several of Heilbrun’s colleagues interviewed by a New York Times reporter were unsure of her first name, referring to her as Carol, Karla, and Caroline; several of her colleagues pointed out that she is married to a highly successful man and thus never needed to work, meaning that unlike theirs her career was a hobby; that she violated collegial norms by revealing confidential information about tenure committees; and the chair of the department, a much younger man, said of her, ‘I truly respect Carolyn… I found her a very maternal figure…’ (Matthews, 1992).
The premise of this book is that the theories and methods of conventional policy analysis are biased and therefore incapable of understanding the cases of the Heilbrun’s, Conley’s, and Dalton’s and the other thousands of women professors, students and staff as resulting from structures, norms, practices, values and culture that are gendered. Conventional policy studies in postsecondary education assume that academic structures, processes and practices are gender blind. The lack of attention to gender, both as conceptual category and analytical lens, means that the differential experience of women and male academics is attributed to individual differences rather than to the consequences of a male ordered world (Scott, 1988).
From a conventional view, the stories of these three women would appear as unconnected individual cases; whereas from a feminist perspective they represent a pattern of institutionalized sexism. From a conventional policy view, the specific situations creating Heilbrun’s, Conley’s and Dalton’s problems can be identified and corrected. In contrast, from a feminist perspective, policy solutions are sought from a focus on transforming the organizational context, not just remediating the individual case.
Women’s Place in Postsecondary Education: An Invisible Majority
Even though women have constituted a majority of students in postsecondary education since 1979, earning more than half of all associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees, and more than one-third of all doctorates (Touchton and Davis, 1991), higher education as a field of study has overlooked almost entirely women’s roles as shapers and interpreters of the academy (Glazer, Bensimon and Townsend, 1993). Despite the strong presence of women in the student body, men outnumber women in positions of power, making the academy a world run by men. Nationally, about 88 per cent of presidents, provosts and chancellors are male, as are 87 per cent of full professors and 77 per cent of the trustees (Kolodny, 1993). Women who want to ‘join the procession of educated men’ (Woolf, 1966) continue to face a variety of obstacles related to their gender, yet, with the exception of the work of women scholars, in the great majority of research studies women are either invisible or they exist only in comparison to men. Despite a substantial policy-oriented literature on such topics as student retention, faculty productivity, leadership and administration of higher education, faculty careers, organizational change, resource allocation, teaching and learning and student outcomes, gender is not only rarely treated as a conceptual or analytical category, frequently it is completely overlooked.
When gender is acknowledged it is usually treated as a demographic characteristic, thus, when reference is made to women, it is in comparison to men. From such studies we have learned that female academics are less productive than male academics, that females move up the academic career ladder much more slowly than males, that women have heavier teaching loads than males, that women earn less than their male colleagues, etc. What is missing from postsecondary education is women-centered policy analysis. This chapter provides the theoretical and methodological tools to produce policy analysis that redresses this absence.
In order to provide a stage for the rest of the book, our purpose in this chapter is to answer two questions we anticipate will be in the minds of readers: 1) How do you read policy studies from a feminist perspective? And 2) How do you conduct feminist policy studies? The remainder of this chapter introduces the theoretical foundations underpinning feminist and critical theories, followed by a feminist critique of conventional policy analysis. Next we discuss selected studies whose conceptual design, analysis and interpretive methods exemplify feminist critical policy studies.2
What Makes a Theory Feminist and Critical?
Even though we often speak of feminist analysis or feminist theory in the singular the reality is that just as there is not a single theory of policy analysis there is also not a single theory of feminist analysis. To engage in critical feminist analysis it is necessary to have an understanding of the many feminisms, particularly the ideological positions that inform the questions they pose, the decisions made about research design, and most importantly the conclusions they derive and the recommendations they make for change. We wish to make clear that there is considerable variation among the various strands of feminism and we also want to make clear which of these strands represent our definition of feminist critical policy analysis.
Liberal feminism. Liberal feminism is a gentle, more politically/socially acceptable perspective, grounded in conceptions of individuals’ civil rights, emphasizing women’s equal access to domains where men dominate, chipping at the glass ceiling, relying on extant structures to make small changes to increase women’s access to schools, professions, legislatures and presidencies (Hawksworth, 1994; Marshall, 1996).
The dominant ideology of liberal feminism is the attainment of equality. This perspective is commonly found in studies concerned with the status and achievement of women in positions and fields from which they have been traditionally excluded. The concern is more with equality in the sense of access and opportunity based on merit or credentials as opposed to equality of outcomes.
Liberal feminists focus on public and professional life and want to assimilate women into all the levels of higher education and societal structures occupied by men. They seek the opportunity for women to compete for positions without being blocked by sex discrimination, and see higher education as the way for women to obtain the skills and credentials necessary for career success. The justification liberal feminists give for the education of women is based heavily on arguments of social utility (for example material productivity) and freedom of choice for individuals (Glazer, Bensimon and Townsend, 1993:4).
Cultural feminism. Cultural feminist scholarship comprises works that posit women as different from men because from an early age they are socialized to take on roles associated with the female as mother, caretaker, nurturer, peacemaker, etc. This scholarship posits that women develop differently from men and therefore make judgments and decisions based on principles that give primacy to relationships and that are consistent with an ethic of caring (Belenky et al., 1986; Gilligan, 1982; Noddings, 1984).
Even though liberal and cultural feminisms have contributed to the development of feminist studies and have inspired institutional initiatives to improve the conditions of women in the academy, they also suffer shortcomings that limit the possibilities for social transformation. The liberal stance naively accepts token changes, expecting individual women to persevere in male domains (Marshall, 1996). Cultural feminism ignores that caring and nurturance have been relegated to the private sphere where they are rendered invisible because they are viewed as instinctual to women. In contrast, men’s work has always been associated with the public sphere and, regardless of whether it was manual or mindwork, it has always been viewed as labor that is materially compensated. Thus even though cultural feminism has attempted to elevate ‘women’s ways’ as valuable in the marketplace, (for example, women’s ways of leading are touted as more consultative) it is still the case that in the context of a masculinist organizational culture the emphasis on women’s ways legitimates stereotyping.
Power and politics feminisms.3
Power and politics feminisms identify the range of structural, overt and subtle mechanisms through which men retain the power to define and control institutions, policy and women’s activities, options and even their identity. The power of men to manage the social construction of identity, with man at the center, makes women Other;
what and who women are can be molded to work in support, for example, of patriarchy in family life and capitalism in the gendered hierarchies of work and professions.
Control of legitimation processes determines what is viewed as valid and valuable in language, behavior, life and work goals, and the construction of knowledge. Accordingly, women’s talk is marginalized, women’s art is off-center, women’s sports insignificant. Power and politics feminist scholars view men’s power as pervasive and enduring because it is so solidly entrenched in the rules, activities and language of organized systems such as religion, education, health and law that we are not able to notice its workings. These scholars take Audre Lorde’s sharp pronouncement, ‘The Master’s Tools will Never Dismantle the Master’s House’ (1984:110) very seriously. For power and politics feminists the challenge is to construct alternative ways of problem-finding and policy analysis in order to transform organized systems to be responsive to differences. In contrast, for liberal feminists the challenge is to help women assimilate into the structures, values and norms of these systems.
The major difference between the liberal and power and politics feminist stand-point is that the former is a strategy of accommodation whereas the latter is a strategy of transformation. The authors in this volume write from a variety of perspectives, including standpoint theory (see Chapter 8
by Estela Mara Bensimon), poststructuralist theory (see Chapter 12
by Carmen Luke), black feminist theory (see Chapter 10
by bell hooks). However, despite having different preferences for conceptual frameworks the common thread across these works is that they share the intellectual and political agenda of power and politics feminism: to conduct rigorous research on women and the academy in order to transform it.
Postpositivist feminisms. Postpositivist feminisms, such as poststructuralism, post colonial, focus on the tremendous power men have derived by having always controlled language and the meaning system. Male dominance of language and meaning has enabled them to construct reality—history, knowledge and laws—from their vantage point and make it look as if theirs were the view from everywhere. Postpositivist feminists reject the concept of universals and posit instead a theory based on the analysis of differences, local context, specificity, for example, gender and race, and historicity (Barrett and Phillips, 1992). Postpositivist feminists use theories of ‘language, subjectivity, social processes and institutions to understand existing power relations and to identify areas and strategies for change’ (Weedon, 1987:40–1). The theories that make up postpositivism ‘can analyze the workings of patriarchy in all its manifestations—ideological, institutional, organizational, subjective—accounting not only for continuities but also for change over time’ (Scott, 1988:33).
By illuminating the relationship between power and culture and the ideologies, knowledges and language, critical theorists have demonstrated how education, despite professing liberal values such as equal opportunity, nevertheless maintains systems, such as pedagogical approaches and curriculum content, that marginalize people, primarily on the basis of race and social class. (Ironically, critical theorists often ignore the intermix of class oppressions with sexism and racism.)4
Feminists have appropriated the analytical lenses of critical theory to understand how domination occurs in the intersection along lines of sex, race, sexual orientation and class. hooks notes ‘sexism has always been a political stance’ which ‘informs the construction of masculinity for men of all races and classes’ (1990:59). As important, critical feminists reject Marxist determinism and explore how individuals resist oppression and negotiate their identities actively.
Combining Feminist, Critical and Policy Analysis
Power and politics as well as postpositivist feminist analyses are critical, but they add the focus on women. Accordingly, in feminist critical analysis there is a recognition of how patriarchy is manifest in the control of women’s identities, including the identification of women with the private sphere, for example, portrayals of women academics as terrific teachers and unproductive researchers, and men with the public sphere. Feminist critical analysts view conventional policy studies methods as the products of disciplinary traditions that are androcentric and therefore reject them as the master’s tools. Consistent with the feminist project of reconstructing the disciplines to include the missing voices of the Other(s), critical feminist analysts consciously incorporate into their studies gender as well as race, class, sexual orientation or other signifiers that are implicated in the construction of identities.
What, then, is feminist critical policy analysis? Borrowing from Patti Lather, we would say, ‘very simply, to do feminist research is to put the social construction of gender at the center of one’s inquiry…feminist researchers see gender as a basic organizing principle which profoundly shapes/mediates the conditions of our lives’ (1991:71). We see the project of feminist critical analysis as being twofold: 1) to critique or deconstruct conventional theories and explanations and reveal the gender biases (as well as racial, sexual, social class biases) inherent in commonly accepted theories, constructs, methodologies and concepts; and 2) to conduct analysis that is feminist both in its theoretical and methodological orientations. It involves reading policy studies with a critical awareness of how androcentrism is embedded in the disciplines, theories of knowledge and research designs that are foundational to conventional policy analysis and which ostensibly are neutral and neutered. Accordingly, feminist policy analysis involves the critique of knowledge gained from mainstream educational policy studies as well as the design of feminist educational policy studies.
In this chapter we discuss both aspects of feminist policy analysis—critique and design—and provide examples drawn from pos...