Feminist scholarship is a tricky term. The qualifier “feminist” invokes provocative connotations, both good and bad, that can make discussions about feminism and feminist work treacherous terrain to navigate. Reflecting on this theme for the upcoming graduate panel for the 7th annual Women’s and Gender Studies Symposium at Rutgers, it is clear that what is new in feminist scholarship is incredibly broad and consuming. The idea of a frontier invokes stories of exploration. I think about US migration west, the hunt for adventure and fortune is the land that was just beyond the horizon. Perhaps that is the place to start for this topic: what is just beyond the horizon?
Newark, NJ is a fascinating place to be considering this question from. As one of the oldest cities in the country, there is a sense of excitement about change coming to the city. While it is true that Newark has been poised for this idea of renaissance since the rebellions of the late 1960s, I find that Newarkers are less concerned with the idea of ‘re-birth’ and more concerned with solutions that can blaze a new frontier for the post-industrial city. People I meet everyday are taking their passions for art, housing policy reform, women’s rights, etc. and asking what can be done differently? There is an ethos of being proactive, rather than reactive, which is a challenge that I believe resonates with the current situation of feminist scholarship.
Feminist scholarship was born as a reaction to a void. Something was missing in academia and, indeed, the world at large. Feminism, at its broadest interpretation, was about addressing those gaps and re-framing how we told our stories. Once addressing the incorporation of female voice into larger narratives of society and history, feminist studies took an outward turn. Taking this new way of thinking “to the streets,” so to speak, feminist scholarship opened into other disciplines and took-up new questions that pushed on the initial limitations of the field. While always drawing from the past, feminist methods and theories began encompassing more of critical scholarship permeating an array of fields and methods of study.
When I think of feminist scholarship, particularly in 2010, I wonder if we have not conquered the frontier. Have we arrived at the cliffs of Monterrey, California, looking out at the vast limitation of the Pacific Ocean, with all our accomplishments behind us? If everything can now be incorporated into a feminist perspective, has feminist scholarship, in a sense, lost its salience? The original fire and innovation that sparked a revolution in the academy and the public sphere? Where are the voids now?
To be quite honest, I feel that academics are thoroughly reflective and self-conscious of their progress and limitations within their respective worlds. To that end, my question (really my challenge), to feminist scholarship is less about meditating on what we can do next, but rather a call to action. The progress of women’s studies has been central to opening up new avenues and possibilities of identity for people. The extension into gender and sexuality studies is proof of this. Yet I wonder if we, as scholars, are making the necessary contact needed to create progress (dare I say revolution?). We need to be relentlessly asking the question, why does it matter? But beyond that, I think it is our responsibility to make it matter.
For me, the new frontier in feminist scholarship must be about extending beyond our limits both intellectually and physically. Taking our theories and conclusions and applying to the groups we study, the neighborhoods we live in, and the governments we participate in–the institutions and people we are responsible to. How does our research effect and change us? Does all this work, all these conversations, translate into progress for the communities we study? How do we assess the impact of our work? Who, beyond our peers, is our research in conversation with?
What is our responsibility to our research? What do we do for our work, not just what our work does for us. I think some of the perks of doing “research” is that is it safe, for the most part. It is safe because, unlike with personal relationships, our work cannot always talk back. One of the new frontiers in feminist scholarship, at least for me, is about interrogating what a reciprocal relationship between scholar and scholarship. The progress to be made will only happen in new contexts and environments–on the new horizons.
Where are these new spaces exactly? I think one place in particular is here, in the places we inhabit. Engaging with and inviting the public into our work in new ways, as well as about our work, will guide feminist scholarship into the new frontiers. Participation in communities beyond our own, outside the limits of our comfort zones, will expose us to new ideas and ways of thinking that can revolutionize–or at least significantly influence–the direction of the field.
I hope that the panelists, speakers, and performers that Rutgers will be hosting this upcoming week will lead to thoughtful discussions on how we will embark on a new journey into women’s, gender, and sexuality studies drawing from new voices, experiences, and publics that our work will encounter.
Monica Barra is a student in the American Studies doctoral program at Rutgers University in Newark. Her research explores the relationships between the built environment and its social communities through the intersections of urban arts production, cultural geography, sociology, and urban ethnography. She is currently working on projects in Los Angeles, California and Newark, New Jersey. She is the graduate research assistant for the Women’s and Gender Studies program.