The Glasgow Review Issue 2

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A Letter from New York

Sarah Schulman


Here in America Black Studies and Women's Studies started to appear on campuses in the early seventies after being part of the demands of these freedom movements for ten years previous. Because the motivation for Black Studies and Women's Studies came from poliotical movements they initially had community orientation. For example, Women's Studies Departments often had accompanying women's centres or libraries or self-defense classes or other programs open to the larger geographical community. Black Studies had a long history of activism, since some of the most important strategies of the Civil Rights Movement (such as sit-ins at segregated lunch counters) originated in classrooms at Black colleges.

During the nineteen eighties and Reaganism, the entire country moved to the right and this affected academic programs as well. By the end of Reagan's first term in office (1984) the activist women's movement had profoundly de-mobilized. This occured for a number of reasons. Primarily, Reagan slashed all social programs which had the greatest impact on women and children. Also, women's groups had become dependent on government money to run things like job programs and women's shelters and so the dramatic budget cuts forced many programs to close. There was also debilitating in-fighting within the feminist movement over issues of sexual imagery and saexual practice. And, finally, the trend towards cultural feminism, personal growth (12-step programs proliferated at this point), and identity politics (where people are grouped by social identity like Jewish-Feminist, instead of issues, like abortion) all contributed to the end of the grass-roots activist women's movement as we knew it in the seventies.

This impacted dramatically on women's studies, which was no longer in dialogue with activists and so the programs became more theoretical. Around this time Gay and Lesbian studies were beginning to appear, but unlike Women's Studies and Black Studies (now called African-American Studies) the demand came primarily from inside the academy by gay and lesbian academics who wanted legitimacy for doing overtly homosexual research. Because of the origin of the demand and it coinciding with increasingly theoretical directions in women's studies, the emerging Queer Theory movement has never had an organizing base. Especially since Post-Modernism replaced Marxism as the primary point of reference for progressive intellectuals, Queer Theory became focused on the categorization of identity instread of on the political empowerment of its constituency. The word "gender", in the American context, first became a more acceptable euphemism for the study of women and of lesbians and gays. It is now the most frequently used buzz-word in the great "category" debate.

In ACT-UP there were constantly academics coming to meetings and writing and delivering papers, Masters' Theses and Doctoral Dissertations, but few of them ever did any work. In the recently founded Lesbian Avenger Movement (the next wave Queer Nation) a student was sent by her professor at Columbia University to write a paper on us, but we insisted that she be a participant observer, She ended up getting arrested with the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organisation when we protested their exclusion from the Saint Patrick's Day Parade. I'm sure her paper will be a lot better informed now.

I hope that including this brief summary in your Gender Studies Issue will be informative for those interested in both the study of history as well as the creation of a viable future.

All the Best,

Sarah Schulman.

July 13, 1993.