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Feminist Civic Engagement: A Complex Choreography

Article found, and written by: Association of American Colleges and Universities

Second-wave feminists brought feminism into the academy with the aim of transforming higher education. Since that time, feminism has engaged in a complicated waltz with its institutional hosts and scholarly admirers. Its move from the periphery toward the center has been characterized by what Robyn Wiegman describes as a “tension” between “knowing and doing” (41), with some scholars suggesting that “doing” occurs best on the borders. Yet feminist educators (including but not limited to those in women’s studies) succeeded in transforming the academy’s “guest lists” and conversations. Once admitted to the party, could feminism reveal the hiking boots hidden under its ball gown? Or would acceptance require it to honor its host’s request that it ditch its comfortable shoes at the door?

Just as feminist principles have spread through the academy, so too have the tensions between other ways of knowing and doing. As Eric Dey and his associates reported in research conducted for AAC&U, while 73 percent of faculty and student affairs professionals think contributing to the larger community “should be a major focus” of higher education, only 44 percent think that it “currently is a major focus” (11). And as organizations like Imagining America have pointed out, tenure and promotion guidelines fail to recognize the important civically engaged projects that many faculty—feminists and non-feminists alike—are now pursuing (Ellison and Eatman 2008, xi). Yet Allison Kimmich claims in this issue that women’s studies is now in a position to ease tensions like these, working with its sister disciplines to nurture new and productive connections between academic and civic engagement.

Kimmich and her cocontributors draw from old choreography to chart a new dance for classroom learning and community involvement. While Kimmich describes the National Women’s Studies Association’s efforts in this arena, Allyson Lowe and Margaret McLaughlin explore how civic engagement practices common to women’s colleges can provide models for enhancing all students’ civic identity formation. Andrea Wood shares her work to create a service-learning-based writing seminar, and Nghana Lewis describes her attempts to connect classroom learning about black women’s health with HIV/AIDS education in a New Orleans community. Shirley Tang explains her efforts to teach media literacy in ways that encourage feminist advocacy on behalf of Boston's Asian American communities. Finally, Beth Evans sends lessons from across the Atlantic, where she and her peers have organized a student activist group at the University of London.

Action, whether couched as activism or as civic engagement, may be a natural consequence of embodied feminist values. But it is also a burgeoning movement in the academy, which is finally recognizing service learning and other engaged pedagogies as high-impact teaching strategies that improve student learning (even if their value is not always acknowledged in tenure reviews). In teaching students the skills to act on their principles, educators can join in exciting work that embraces the social justice values feminism has always claimed. Boots or no boots, feminist activism is poised to be the belle of the ball.

Kathryn Peltier Campbell, editor


Dey, E. 2009. Another inconvenient truth: Capturing campus climate and its consequences. Diversity & Democracy 12(1): 10-11. (See also Dey, E. and Associates. 2009. Civic Responsibility: What is the Campus Climate for Learning? Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.)

Ellison, J., and T.K. Eatman. 2008. Scholarship in public: Knowledge creation and tenure policy in the engaged university. Syracuse, NY: Imagining America.

Weigman, R. 2008. Feminism, institutionalism, and the idiom of failure. In Women’s Studies on the Edge, ed. Joan Wallach Scott, 39-66. Durham: Duke University Press.

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Last updated or reviewed on 1/30/09

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