More on Why Feminists Hate “Biological Determinism”

For those of you who would like to know more about the theory of “biological determinism.”

In short, this theory posits that “biological factors such as an organism’s individual genes (as opposed to social or environmental factors) completely determine how a system behaves or changes over time.” Such a theory completely ignores the influence of a person’s culture, racial, ethnic, or gender identity, and even the basic socialization that we all go through as children as we are taught by parents and grandparents, teachers, even by the cartoons we watch and the games we play. Also, there’s not a shred of scientific support for it.

As you’ve no doubt determined by now, feminism is deeply interested in the ways in which our behaviors and identites are socially constructed.

Now, one could argue that having a womb and the ability to have children would change the way you make decisions in your life, and feminists would argue that being born with a female body (or a male body, or a queer or disabled body) is absolutely part of our lived reality and therefore shapes our experience. But it’s equally impossible to ignore that the messages we receive about who should or shouldn’t have children, the value of mothering, and how and when we should choose to use our reproductive abilites (or what it means if we can’t reproduce) probably have a great, if not greater, impact on the decisions we make than the simple biological fact of having a womb.



Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich: Recognizing Difference

audre lorde 1

AUDRE LORDE: “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference” (from Sister Outsider, 1984) Lorde is a crucial figure in second-wave feminism. The title of her book Sister Outsider was a criticism of the feminist movement’s definition of “sisterhood” (and a dialogue with Robin Morgan’s landmark book Sisterhood is Powerful. In this essay, she exposes the tendency of white feminists to “ignore their built-in privilege of whiteness and define woman in terms of their own experience alone.”

  1. According to Lorde, why are Black lesbians (or “women-identified” Black women) interpreted as a particular threat to Black nationhood?
  2. Lorde reminds us that “white women face the pitfall of being seduced into joining the oppressor under the pretense of sharing power. This possibility does not exist in the same way for women of Color…for white women there is a wider range of pretended choices and rewards for identifying with patriarchal power and its tools.” What does Lorde mean by “pretended choices”?
  3. How might Black men also be vulnerable to a similar pitfall? Consider the following quote from Hurston in your answer.

In Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, the main character’s grandmother gives Janie the following speech about relationships between Black women and Black men:

“Honey, de white man is de ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able tuh find out. Maybe it’s some place way off in de ocean where de black man is in power, but we don’t know nothin’ but what we see. So de white man throw down de load and tell de n_____ man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he don’t tote it. He hand it to his womenfolks. De n______ woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see. Ah been prayin’ fur it tuh be different wid you”(Hurston, 14).

A photograph of (from left to right) Audre Lorde, Meridel LeSueur, and Adrienne Rich at a writer's workshop in 1980.

A photograph of (from left to right) Audre Lorde, Meridel LeSueur, and Adrienne Rich at a writer’s workshop in 1980.

ADRIENNE RICH: “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” (1980) Rich’s essay argues that we need to see and understand heterosexuality, marriage, and motherhood as political institutions and not simply as a life path that women are “innately oriented” to.

Like Lorde, Rich is also concerned with the ways that we may participate in our own oppression. Think back to Lorde’s “pretended choices – ” Rich quotes Kathleen Barry, who explains that identifying with patriarchy means “internalizing the values of the colonizer and actively participating in carrying out the colonization of one’s self and one’s sex” (Rich 646).

  1. What stereotypes of lesbians does Rich identify in her article? Can you think of examples of any other inaccurate or harmful images of lesbians in our contemporary culture?
  2. What does Rich mean by “compulsory heterosexuality”?
  3. How are unmarried women, “spinsters” and widows also harmed by the ideology of compulsory heterosexuality?
  4. Rich names and defines 8 characteristics of male power in a patriarchy. What are some of the methods used to maintain these powers?
  5. How does the myth of the “all-conquering male sex drive” harm women? How is it a product of the ideology of compulsory heterosexuality?

Consider this recent example of “compulsory heterosexuality” from the President’s second inauguration:


Now think back to this section of Judith Lorber’s article, “Night to His Day”:

“At a rock and roll dance at West Point in 1976…the schools administrators ‘were reportedly perturbed by the sight of mirror-image couples dancing in short hair and dress gray trousers,’ and a rule was established that women cadets could dance at these events only if they wore skirts (Barkalow and Raab, 1990, 53)…This feminization  is part of a deliberate policy of making them clearly distinguishable from men Marines.”

Question: Can you think of other examples of “compulsory heterosexuality”?

Women on the Frontlines of Combat: Lifting the Ban in the Name of Equality?

As some of you have no doubt heard, our current administration is planning to officially lift the ban on military women serving on the frontlines of combat. While thousands of women have already served in direct combat despite the ban, lifting the ban would also give women in the military access to the same awards, honors, and recognition for their service as their male counterparts. And of course, women have been actively drafted into militaries around the world in countries like Israel and Vietnam (during the Vietnam War, Ho Chi Minh had a “long-haired army,” women guerilla soldiers fighting for North Vietnam).

Read “Panetta Opens Combat Roles to Women.”

So is the U.S. military and our current administration really committed to gender equality? Or after a decade of war in the Middle East and unprecedented numbers of active duty suicides, did the military simply need more “manpower” [sic]? (Yes, your instructor probably sounds rather cynical; however, it’s also true that the most trying times historically have often been moments when barriers to equality have been relaxed – do intentions matter in the long run?)


Documentary filmmakers have been paying greater attention to women in the U.S. military over the last two years. These landmark films, Lioness (2011), which documents the experiences of the Army women of Team Lioness, who served in combat in the Iraq War, and The Invisible War (2012), which reveals the systemic problem of sexual assault in the military, highlight to struggles of service women to gain recognition for their combat service and seek justice for the gender-based violence still rampant at all levels of the military hierarchy.

Watch trailers for the films below:

LIONESS (2011)





Service Learning Grant: Practical Grassroots Organizing Experience

For those of you who attended the planning meeting for the March in March this afternoon, you know that our director, TJ, mentioned that creating banners, sashes, etc. for delegations (i.e., organizations) in the march will cost some money. Refreshments and supplies for your symposium will also cost some money. So how can you get money without dipping into your own poor student pockets?

Enter grant writing skills!

Purdue awards up to $1,500 to an organization, class, etc. working on a service learning project, and our class project is a shoe-in. If you’re interested in working on the grant, I am looking for two motivated student volunteers from class to work on the grant application. The deadline is February 7th, so it’s coming up quickly. I will, of course, work closely with the two of you on this process (especially, for example, on things like the budget).

In addition to possibly winning grant money for the class and all their community partners (imagine them tossing you in the air and cheering), you will also get to put the award on your resume, and you’ll gain grant-writing skills for your own future.

Check out the service learning grant from Purdue.

Social Construction of Gender: Judith Lorber and “Roseanne”

After reading Judith Lorber and visiting a toy store over the weekend, watch this episode of the TV show Roseanne. Note where you see characters reinforcing or challenging traditional notions of gender performance. For example, how does Jackie do femininity at the Lobo bar? How does Roseanne, in her Halloween costume, perform masculinity? What behaviors does she get right? Which threaten to expose her?





Events and Extra Credit

Every semester, I offer 5 points of extra credit to any student who attends a community or campus event I announce in class – usually an event that is sponsored by the Women’s Studies program or otherwise connects with materials in class – and who writes and submits a one-page reflection of that event (like a reading response). While I encourage students to attend as many of these events as possible, I award up to 10 extra credit points (or two events @ 5 points each).

Here are some of the upcoming evens I hope you will attend:

1. “The Fierce Urgency of Now: A Celebration of the Life & Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” by Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry of MSNBC.

harris perry


2. First of the Women’s Studies Noon Lecture series: Dr. Joyce Main and Ms. Beth Holloway, 12:30-1:30pm, STEW 322

3. Film: showing of the acclaimed documentary Miss Representation, Feb. 14th, in Lawson 1142, from 6:00-8:00pm. While I’m not offering extra credit for this film, since it’s already on our class schedule for March, I will allow any student who sees it on Feb. 14th to miss class the days I show the film in class; however, you will still need to be present on the day we discuss the film in class, and you will need to contribute to the discussion. If the entire class is able to attend that evening (I know, I know, it’s Valentine’s Day…bring a date), we can use those class days as work days for your service learning work!

Watch the trailer:


Potential Community Partners for Your Service Learning

Below is a short video by Emily May, the founder of Hollaback!, from TEDx Women (2012). As the handout mentions, Hollaback! is one of our potential community parterns for service learning this semester. A local chapter of Hollaback! is launching at the end of this month, and you could be involved in its start-up.


As you consider which organizations you might be most interested in working with over the weekend, you might consider 1) what issues you’d like to learn more about, and 2) which issues have impacted your own life the most. For example, if issues of domestic violence have impacted your life or someone you know, you might want to work with the YWCA. If you’re interested in issues of homelessness and poverty – or perhaps if you’ve never considered these issues – you might want to sign up for the Lafayette Urban Ministries. Sometimes the most meaningful learning takes place outside of our comfort zone.

Who’s Afraid of the “F-Word”?: What is Feminism?

“I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute.”   -Rebecca West, Nov. 14, 1913


When you hear the word “feminist,” what comes to mind? It might be a positive image, but…well, maybe not. There are any number of troubling connotations associated with that word, especially for people not familiar with it.



It’s easy to see from the video why so many people are confused about what it means to be a feminist. According to the dictionary, a feminist is someone who advocates for social, political, legal, and economic rights for women equal to those of men.

Given that definition, maybe more of you are feminists than you thought. But that definition’s also a little overly simplistic. One of the most common misperceptions is that feminism is only for women, or that it’s only about women. That it’s about gender…which only women have, right? Not really.

Here’s my favorite definition of feminism, by African American feminist scholar and writer bell hooks:

“Feminism is a commitment to eradicating the ideology of domination that permeates Western culture on various levels -sex, race, and class, to name a few – and a commitment to reorganizing U.S. society, so that the self-development of people can take precedence over imperialism, economic expansion, and material desires.”  (1981)

In addition to equal rights for women, feminists advocate bringing an end to structural inequalities based on gender, race and ethnicity, class and sexuality that affect us all. And they take action based on their commitment to this advocacy – this is where the service learning part of our class comes in: it’s the action half of your intellectual (or classroom) engagement with feminism.

Of course, feminism isn’t a dogma; while feminists are united in their advocacy of equal rights, they don’t always agree with each other about what the best way is to go about obtaining equal rights or ending prejudice, or about which issues are the most pressing at any given moment, or about what equal rights and change should even look like from culture to culture.

Just like the rest of us, feminists come from a broad range of nations, cultures, and experiences, and speak an array of languages, all of which influence how they define themselves as feminists and what they see as the most important goals of the ongoing global Feminist Movement. This doesn’t mean they don’t work to find common ground.