Debating Women’s Studies with Jennifer Roback Morse

Amy Richards

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.

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.

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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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