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Theorizing Feminist Transformation in Higher Education

by Lynn Safarik - 2002

Over the past several decades, academic feminisms, like other emancipatory knowledges that have gained legitimacy in the academy, have contributed to a transformation on American campuses that is challenging traditional norms, values, and assumptions across the disciplines in an effort to build communities centered on differences. As a new paradigm for inquiry, feminist scholarship has addressed the relationship between knowledge and its social uses and how patriarchal values have shaped the content and structure of knowledge. Through an in-depth exploration of nine feminists’ worldviews and approaches to teaching and research, this study examined the meaning of transformation for diverse feminists in the setting of a large, urban research institution. Three types of feminism were identified: liberal, critical, and dialogic. Beyond providing rich descriptions of how these different feminists enact a feminist culture, insights about the process of institutional transformation are revealed. The transformative role of internal differentiation and the dialogic process in this feminist community and the significance of an emerging dialogic, feminist discourse have important theoretical implications for understanding how the transformation of an institution is sustained over time.

Over the past several decades, academic feminisms, like other emancipatory knowledges (Bensimon, 1994) that have gained legitimacy in the academy have contributed to a transformation on American campuses that is challenging traditional norms, values, and assumptions across the disciplines in an effort to build communities centered on differences. As a new paradigm for inquiry, feminist scholarship has addressed the relationship between knowledge and its social uses and how patriarchal values have shaped the content and structure of knowledge. Through an in-depth exploration of nine feminists’ worldviews and approaches to teaching and research, this study examined the meaning of transformation for diverse feminists in the setting of a large, urban research institution. Three types of feminism were identified: liberal, critical, and dialogic. Beyond providing rich descriptions of how these different feminists enact a feminist culture, insights about the process of institutional transformation are revealed. The transformative role of internal differentiation and the dialogic process in this feminist community and the significance of an emerging dialogic, feminist discourse have important theoretical implications for understanding how the transformation of an institution is sustained over time.

Of all the pressures facing our colleges and universities in the 21st century, perhaps the most critical one is the need to define an ethical purpose that emphasizes building pluralistic communities in which multiple worldviews and cultures are understood and valued (Tierney, 1991). Transforming the structures and processes through which knowledge is produced and distributed is central to the purpose of creating more emancipatory environments for learning and, therefore, for social change. Academic feminists, in addressing the relationship between knowledge and its social uses and how patriarchal values have shaped the content and structure of knowledge, have had an important role in transforming institutions of higher education. This study is an analysis of the role of feminist scholarship in institutional transformation. Through an exploration of the personal and professional development of feminist scholars and the cultural and structural conditions within which they live and work in higher education, this study investigated the meaning of transformation for individuals and institutions.

Over the past several decades, academic feminisms, like other “emancipatory knowledges” that have gained legitimacy in the academy (e.g., critical and postcolonial discourses), have contributed to a transformation on American campuses that is challenging traditional norms, values, and assumptions across the disciplines in an effort to build communities centered on differences (Bensimon, 1994; Lather, 1992). These new epistemologies provide contradiction and conflict in academic organizations that serve to reveal structures that marginalize certain members of the community. Beyond their additive value, these different constructions of reality challenge the basic theoretical and structural foundations of our institutions, offering new insights for how we might reshape them.

This study examines academic feminism as a transformative force. It enters into a dialogue about the process of transformation, asking how feminist scholarship is transformative. Prior research in this area has suggested that we learn more about how academic feminism is shaped by and shapes specific institutional contexts (Gumport, 1987; Stanton & Stewart, 1995); this study examined transformation in the context of a large, urban research university. Whereas feminist transformation involves multiple aspects of the organization (e.g., curriculum, pedagogy, service, and policy) the focus here is the role of feminist scholarship in reforming organizational life. At research universities, resource allocation and faculty reward structures are driven by the conduct of research, and their primary mission is to produce knowledge through research and to train researchers. Ostensibly, at such institutions, the impact of a cultural shift at the level of assumptions, values, and beliefs surrounding the conduct of research is widely and deeply felt.

Recent scholarship on the history of academic feminism has provided ample evidence that the advent of women’s studies has made an indelible mark on the academy (Boxer, 1998). In characteristic reflexivity, feminist scholars themselves have pondered the paradoxical meaning of the successful institutionalization of women’s studies and the proliferation of other emancipatory studies, such as ethnic, postcolonial, queer, and critical race theories. In a retrospective analysis of women’s studies, Wendy Brown (1995) considered the present moment an opportunity for a collective self-reflection:

Am I, in the end, suggesting that we never should have developed and institutionalized women’s studies programs? Absolutely not. Without doubt, women’s studies constituted one of the most vibrant and exciting contributions to the American academy in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Moreover, I believe there are large and complex lessons to be developed—about institutionalizing identitarian political struggles, about conflating the political with the academic, and about late modern forms of disciplinarity—from the process of watching women’s studies falter in the 1990’s. The story of women’s studies suggests that our current and future contests over meaning and knowledge, and for freedom and equality, should probably avoid consolidating victories in the form of new degree-granting programs in the university. But it does not tell us what to do instead. Perhaps the present moment is one for considering where we have been so that we might, in a Nietzschean vein, affirm our errors. Perhaps it is a moment for thinking. (p. 15)

The historical moment appears ripe for harvesting the fruits of this intellectual revolution; several comprehensive historical works have recently been completed (Boxer, 1998; Howe, 2000; Mandle, 2000). Yet little attention has been paid to academic feminism as a source of insight about the process of institutional transformation. Some have studied the feminist organizations that have propelled the second wave of the women’s movement (Ferree & Marn, 1995). Although the gendered analyses of organizations have developed since the earlier work of Ferguson (1984) and Hearn, Sheppard, Tancred-Sheriff, and Burrell (1989), organizational theory has been relatively underdeveloped by feminist scholars (Reed & Hughes, 1992). Building on the women in management literature, Reed and Hughes suggested that bringing a poststructuralist perspective to the study of organizations “may render organization theory as we know it unrecognizable” (p. 228).

A central question guiding organizational analyses of academic feminism as a transformative force has been focused on the relationship of women’s studies to the disciplines. Most scholars have noted both the benefits and disadvantages of feminism’s location either as a separate, interdisciplinary entity or integrated within disciplines or departments in academe. Stanton and Stewart (1995) observed that such a paradox of marginality (i.e., there is political leverage in both remaining outside and within the disciplinary structure) begs for a “model of relations that is properly dialogic” (p. 6):

This model would not simply feature conversations that engage with another’s discourse, it would highlight, with Bakhtin, various kinds of intersections, including confirmation, supplementations, and contradiction, which he terms the “collision of voices.” . . . Such a model would recognize that both the disciplines and women’s studies have multiple and contradictory voices that have changed over time and may be changed as a result of their interactions or affiliations. The interactions between women’s studies and any single discipline are thus also marked by differences . . . Differences among disciplines exist not only over the meaning and implications of the phrase “about women” but also what can be learned “about women,” which derives from different traditions of learning and, through particular research tools, different ways and kinds of knowing. (p. 7)

Schuster and Van Dyne (1984) recognized a pattern of stages associated with the curricular transformation process encompassing various degrees of challenge to the dominant, androcentric paradigm. In the optimum stage of transformation, teachers’ and students’ relation to the curriculum and to each other are radically changed. Recognition of gender as a central theoretical dimension, the social construction of reality, skepticism of universalisms and essentialism, and awareness of how invisible paradigms and culture are produced and reproduced in the knowledge production process are indicative of such transformation.

Building on previous cross-generational studies of academic feminism (Astin & Leland, 1991; Gumport, 1987), this research was an attempt to understand how academic feminism has transformed one large, urban research university. Recognizing the complexity of institutional transformation as an historical process, a cross-generational perspective was elicited through sampling and review of historical documents. Poststructuralist and cultural theory guided the research design; a conceptual framework of organizational life as a multidimensional phenomenon was developed to conduct a holistic, in-depth case study of institutional transformation. The outcomes of the larger study, primarily based on the career/life stories of nine feminist scholars, were a grounded theory and model of feminist institutional transformation (Safarik, 2000).

The narrower focus of this article is an analysis of the transformative role of difference among feminists (i.e., related to feminist identity, worldviews, teaching and research approaches). Three feminisms were identified from among the nine individuals studied: liberal, critical, and dialogic feminists, who brought unique perspectives to their transformative work. The ways in which these forms of feminism interact on individual and institutional levels in the process of transformation is explored.


Cultural theory helps us to understand how the underlying ideology, values, beliefs, assumptions, norms, and social practices are revealed in the structures, processes, and practices of an institution (Tierney, 1988, 1991, 1993). A constructivist perspective on organizations emphasizes the importance of individual and social meaning making in the creation of culture (Drath & Palus, 1994; Morgan, 1997; Weick, 1995). Through examining the individual and collective sense-making processes of these feminist scholars, this research enhanced understanding of how a feminist culture has been created and sustained over time.

A critical perspective on institutional transformation, which accounts for both individual agency and the constraints imposed by cultural, social, and historical processes and norms, is concerned with the effect of culture and ideology on knowledge production roles and structures (Tierney, 1991). Feminist poststructuralism, as a specific critical perspective, explains women’s marginalization and resistance as the interaction of individual consciousness, discourse, social practices, and institutions (Weedon, 1987). Conceiving the transformative process as one in which change agents are shaped and shapers of the institution, with its discourses and social practices, this research examined the historical contexts within which each of these individuals developed as feminist scholars as a way to understand their transformative roles.

In the poststructuralist view, the self is always in process and constituted by multiple, competing discourses. Different modes of subjectivity, constrained and made possible through historically and socially constructed discourses, are open to individuals, and these have different political implications. Academic feminism is a set of discourses that allows for an understanding of and resistance to institutionalized sexism. Therefore, poststructuralism locates the potential for individual consciousness raising and, ultimately, social change in this conception of a transitory self. Feminist poststructuralism is a powerful theoretical tool for acknowledging that subjects are indeed constituted by history and discourse but can actively reconstruct that subjectivity through the process of reflective practice (de Lauretis, 1984).

Within this theoretical perspective, the processes through which individuals singularly and jointly construct meaning-making systems that enable them to resist marginalization become central to understanding institutional transformation. Viewed as a collective meaning-making system, academic feminism works within the institution by using the power it affords, while simultaneously subverting it by making resistant discourses (feminisms) more widely available.

Inquiry into the transformation process, when it is conceived as a cultural shift in which the dominant culture is dislodged, begins with the examination of divergent values and belief systems. To understand why feminist inquiry is transformative, then, it is necessary to compare it to the values, assumptions, and beliefs that it contests and how it departs from conventional scholarship as a method of inquiry. To this end, an analysis and synthesis of the literature on feminist epistemology and methodology was conducted. The basic assumptions that gender is socially constructed and a central category of analysis, underlie feminist epistemology. Core feminist goals include the emancipation of women and the transformation of society (Boxer, 1998; Collins, 1990; Cook & Fonow, 1990; Harding, 1986, 1987; Lather, 1992; Paludi & Steuernagel, 1990; Stanton & Stewart, 1995).

Characteristics of feminist methodology, which reflect feminist culture, include a) reflexivity, b) consciousness raising, c) reconceptualization of the relationship between subject and object, d) concern for ethical issues, e) emphasis on empowerment and transformation of institutions through research, f) attention to the affective components of the research, g) use of the situation at hand, h) openness to transdisciplinarity, and i) recognition of diversity (Cook & Fonow, 1990; Nielsen, 1990; Reinharz, 1992).

Whereas these features of feminist research methodology have been identified through an examination of prior syntheses of research, they comprise a collection of methods used, not a prescription for how to conduct feminist research. Rather than recognize these distinctively feminist research practices as the standard for all feminist research or to present them as an ideal for transformation, they are presented here to describe how they contrast with the traditional research paradigm and for the possibilities they offer for transforming the knowledge production process. For the purpose of contrast, a set of conventional academic values was identified. These include a) implicit conservatism, b) objectivity, c) the value of cumulative scholarship, d) the association of power with expertise, e) the superiority of pure knowledge over applied knowledge, f) the value of specialist knowledge, and g) the value of individuality and competition (Paludi & Steuernagel, 1990).

Applying these theoretical frameworks and conceptions of the dominant (traditional) and resistant (feminist) scholarly cultures, institutional transformation was conceptualized as a process of enacting culture (Morgan, 1997) through the institutionalization of a new paradigm for inquiry. The focus of the research was to understand the individual and collective processes through which transformation has occurred over time in this particular setting.


Ethnographic approaches to understanding change in higher education have viewed organizational transformation as a dialectical process between the objective, historical structures and the individual consciousness that interprets those structures (Tierney, 1988). In the tradition of oral history, which examines narratives for the cultural construction of self, life/career stories were elicited to determine how participants assigned meaning to their personal and professional identities as feminist scholars (Josselson & Lieblich, 1995; Mishler, 1986; Riessman, 1993; Yow, 1994). This approach to understanding organizational transformation through the life stories of individuals whose lives intersect in a specific institutional context and blend institutional history and personal biography has been referred to as prosopography (Smith, 1994).


Data were collected primarily through open-ended, autobiographical interviews in which participants traced their academic careers and development as feminist scholars. These were followed by semistructured interviews that focused on the participants’ experiences within their academic department, the feminist community at UCLA, and at UCLA in general. Follow-up questions, based on emergent themes and prior interviews were posed in a third interview or through e-mail, in some cases. Each interview lasted from 1 to 3 hours. All interviews were tape recorded and transcribed by the researcher. Curriculum vitae and other relevant documents, such as the scholars’ publications and biographical sketches and documents published by the Center for the Study of Women, were used to triangulate interview data.

Interview protocols were developed based on a conceptual framework that was adapted from Wilber’s (1988) model of social reality. Figure 1 displays this model of organizational life in four dimensions: individual/interior (I/I); individual/exterior (I/E); group/interior (G/I); and group/exterior (G/E). Tentative topical areas and tensions to be investigated were associated with each dimension. This framework was used to guide data collection and analysis and facilitate data reduction and management (Miles & Huberman, 1994). A preliminary coding scheme and matrixes were developed for each of the four broad categories.

This framework initially appeared to be consistent with theoretical underpinnings of the research and served as a useful tool for the preliminary data analysis. However, it soon became evident that the discrete boundaries between dimensions of this heuristic device limited analysis at a deeper level. Through realization of the impossibility of separating individual/interior data (worldviews) from individual/exterior data (individual agency) was gained (e.g., insight into the sense-making processes of the individual scholars). Strings of codes, (e.g., I/I, G/I, G/E) were assigned to data segments or stories; these multiply coded segments became visible as rich examples of how an individual makes sense of her or his own feminist worldview (I/I) in relation to the collective consciousness (G/I) and, in turn, contributes to structural change at the institutional level (G/E).

Narrative analysis was used to understand how the participants used language to structure their values and worldviews and to discover patterns relative to their sense-making processes (Josselson & Lieblich, 1995; Riessman, 1993; Weick, 1995). Through iterative cycles of open and axial coding, and subsequent data collection to confirm and disconfirm emerging themes, a grounded theory was developed (Strauss & Corbin, 1994).

Throughout data collection and analysis, extensive memoing was used to document the emergent theory and issues related to the researcher’s role (Emerson, Fretz, & Shaw, 1995). These memos, the matrixes, and the evolving coding system comprise an audit trail for ensuring credibility. A member check, in which all participants had the opportunity to review the analysis at interim and final stages, served the dual purposes of protecting the participants’ right to confidentiality and maintaining authenticity (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). Five of the nine participants responded and made minor editorial changes, mostly to clarify their responses. All of the participants who responded supported my interpretations; however, ultimately, I accept full responsibility for interpretation of the data.



Active involvement with the Center for the Study of Women (CSW), the feminist research unit on campus, was a primary criterion for participant selection. Primary discipline, professional age, generational cohort in relation to the sociohistoric emergence of feminist discourse, and personal identity with regard to race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation were other bases from which the sample was varied. Participants were selected from among the disciplines that have most consistently and actively participated in the work of the CSW, based on the assumption that the experiences of scholars from these areas would most likely reflect transformation at UCLA. These included English, history, psychology, anthropology, sociology, art history, communications studies, and the professional schools of urban planning and law.

In an effort to examine generational differences, and to incorporate the sociohistoric dimensions of the transformation process, the sample was varied according to age, rank, and length of tenure at UCLA. Five of the 9 participants were full professors, 1 was an associate professor, and 3 were assistant professors. Their ages ranged from 32 to 61; four were older than 50, three were between the ages of 39 and 48, and two were in their early 30s. They also varied with respect to when they came to UCLA and, therefore, in affiliation with the CSW. This information located the experience of the scholar within the historical development of the institutionalization of academic scholarship at UCLA. Two predated the CSW (1973 and 1982); three others came between 1986 and 1988; and the remaining four came to UCLA after 1994.

Significant personal aspects of the participant profile included a high frequency of academic couples and low representation of women of color. Of the seven who were married or in committed partnerships, all had academic partners. All, except one Latina, were White. One participant was male; the majority (six) were from middle-class backgrounds; and three were from self-reported working-class families of origin.


In a cultural view, academic feminism is transformative because it has introduced a new paradigm for inquiry—a radically different way of knowing. As a broad intellectual framework it includes diverse priorities, perspectives, activities, and methodologies. Still, a cohesive feminist culture has developed within the academy that rests on a set of assumptions about the nature of social reality and social inquiry that distinguishes it from traditional academic culture (Boxer, 1998; Cook & Fonow, 1990; Fonow & Cook, 1991; Harding, 1987, 1991; Paludi & Steuernagel, 1990; Reinharz, 1992; Stanton & Stewart, 1995). Understanding feminist epistemology is critical for understanding how feminist knowledge production can transform an institution; the basic assumptions about the nature of reality and truth and how we come to know shape our worldviews, how we interact with others, and our conceptions of morality (Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, & Tarule, 1986).

The set of values, beliefs, and assumptions that comprise feminist culture and the set of traditions inscribed in the structure of the academy that feminism contests have been explicated earlier in this article. In a cultural conception of organizational transformation, feminist scholarship decenters these traditional norms and, therefore, creates a more emancipatory institution.

Differences in generational cohort, career trajectory, disciplinary orientation, and class and ethnic identity provided a context from which each of these individuals acquired a feminist consciousness and brought that consciousness to their scholarship. From these unique background constellations, different feminist worldviews were constructed by the participants, and, in turn, these worldviews structure the particular ways these individuals think about their teaching and research.

In a poststructuralist view, the self is always in process; this fluidity of self accounts for the capacity of feminism to accommodate evolving and competing discourses from within and outside of its cultural realm. Individual feminists construct a feminist worldview, drawing on discourses from various disciplines, the broader sociocultural environment, and from a particular social location with which they identify. The transformation process is made visible, in part, through understanding how individual scholars interpret and reinterpret feminist values in new frameworks created by evolving feminist discourse and shifting conditions that are the outcomes of transformation.

Three general feminist perspectives were identified among the nine participants; I have called them liberal feminism, critical feminism, and dialogic feminism. These groupings reflect shadings of value orientations rather than mutually exclusive viewpoints. All participants expressed appreciation for, understanding of, and even identification with the other feminist belief systems. These categories were constructed based on the relative degree to which each subscribing group aligned their feminist values with traditional academic values. Different feminisms have been categorized in the literature by lenses through which they view women’s subordination, (e.g., sex, gender, class, and race; Jaggar & Rothenberg, 1993); however, the three perspectives identified here are intended to describe a pattern of values orientation that is unique to this particular setting. Of the three, dialogic feminism is an original conception of this research. By examining the worldviews of these feminist scholars, and the specific ways their teaching and research are conducted based on these worldviews, we are able to see how a dialogic self, in the process of meaning making, constructs a narrative of self that has coherence, yet “resists being reduced to a single voice” (Josselson & Lieblich, 1995, p. 35).

Three participants articulated their feminism in terms of social equality; they perceived feminist scholarship as a tool for elevating the knowledge-production enterprise to a level at which human beings, in all their diversity, are equally valued and empowered. These liberal feminists did not see feminist methods for teaching or research as being different from the traditional academic standards. Three critical feminists understood feminism as a critical tool for uncovering power relations in institutions and used scholarship as a strategy for restructuring the processes and conceptualizations that undergird knowledge production. Three also comprised the third group, who were the most dialogic in espousing a feminist worldview; they sought to integrate critical strategies for challenging normative understandings but were pragmatic in their attempts to make social change through their scholarship. The saliency of dialogism, as a dialectical process for meaning making, in the narratives of this youngest generation of academic feminists, was interpreted as an emerging feminist discourse.


Three feminists expressed the classic equal rights viewpoint that is widely understood as liberal feminism. This perspective is “grounded in Enlightenment thought and ‘natural rights’ philosophy, demand[s] and anticipate[s] an ever-expanding circumference of democracy, within a contract-based society in which all individuals are treated equally” (Boxer, 1998, p. 128). Three participants, one from English, one from social psychology, and one whose work straddles social psychology and communications studies shared viewpoints that were predominantly liberal. All three were among the earlier generations represented in this group: The first was the most senior member, having completed her Ph.D. in 1966, the other two in 1973 and 1975. In this statement, a professor of English literature described the classic equal rights ideology that guides her thinking:

I may be simple minded about this but I always tell my students that what feminism means or what I think it means is that women are of equal value to men, in any society, any time, any place, and that doesn’t mean that they are the same as men, or should be, [that] we should play the same social roles necessarily—there can be divisions of responsibility, but what women do is to be valued equally. And in many ways that does mean that women should be allowed to do, more or less what men do and show whether or not they’re good at it. That’s what we call liberal feminism, of course, from Wollstonecraft, who I teach all the time. She’s my key figure in my period. But I’m also interested in another thinker in that period, Hannah Moore, who insisted that women are different, essentially different, and her argument was that women were superior in terms of morality–they were more virtuous, more pure, more spiritual, had more refined sensibilities, emotions. Men might be mentally more broad in their interests and experiences but she also said that they are gross and crude, (laughs) so women have to, in effect, refine men and teach them good manners. But for Hanna Moore, too, that means that women ought to be running the nation, because they actually do a better job of it than men do, they actually don’t squabble (laughs). In fact her theory is that the sexual difference actually empowers women to make claims about how a Christian, moral nation will be governed. So, you know it goes both ways—whether you do the sameness, liberal feminism, or whether you do the sexual difference feminism, they’re ways in which both kinds of feminism can empower women, that’s what I’ve been studying.

In equally valuing “sameness” and “difference” approaches to feminist theory, her statement revealed the pragmatism that pervades feminist discourse. Hirsch and Keller (1990) pointed out that this “doubleness” is characteristic within each of the political and theoretical positions within feminism and constitutes the “unresolved tension on which feminism continues to be built” (p. 19). Despite her intentions to convey a simple feminist worldview, she deliberately infuses contradiction into her explanation of strategies for social change and is comfortable with this ambiguity.

Another liberal feminist reflected on the compatibility of her home discipline of psychology and the world of feminist scholarship.1 She described why she was attracted to feminism:

Feminist perspectives helped me understand my own life experiences and relationships in new and more insightful ways. Feminist analyses challenged traditional ideas and showed how patriarchal social arrangements constrain the life choices of women and men. Feminist activism sought to improve the lives of women and to work toward a more just society that places a high value on women as well as men. Feminist values have added a sense of passion and purpose to my research. I have found feminist scholarship nourishing when it has inspired me by examples of creative studies, raised new research questions, and offered provocative analyses and interpretations.

Her feminist worldview emphasized the equal valuing of women and men, a desire for a personally meaningful and integrative approach to scholarship, and an attraction to the critical edge provided by feminist inquiry. Providing “insight,” “passion and purpose,” and “nourishing” her with “inspiration” are what feminist values “add” to her research. There are elements of this definition that nonfeminists might also offer to describe their scholarship; however, the notion of value-driven scholarship is, in and of itself, arguably an outcome of feminist transformation. In this sense, this statement of liberal feminism can be interpreted as a marker of progress; it appears almost to be indistinguishable from contemporary academic culture.

Articulating a similar liberal perspective, this professor in communications studies referred to his chapter in a social psychology text published in 1983:

I would definitely consider myself a feminist. . . . But there’s a chapter I wrote years ago in a book on human sexuality in which I address that question and it was some time ago–what is feminism and am I a feminist? . . . I used a social issues focus on it [he reads the definition] “a feminist is a person who believes that men and women should have equal opportunity for individual development and for power.” So with that kind of definition, yes, I would definitely consider myself a feminist and clearly, my work has been strongly influenced by feminist ideas. In more recent years have tried to integrate some of that work with work or theory that is often perceived as being diametrically opposed—I don’t believe it is—in evolutionary psychology and looking at how the two approaches are often concerned with similar questions [although] often . . . their perceived ideological bent is very different.2

Although he also refers to an ideology of “equal opportunity” for men and women, his admission of taking a somewhat different tack in his scholarship more recently—one that is “often perceived as being diametrically opposed” to feminist principles—indicates that he experiences conflict and contradiction within his feminist worldview. His scholarly approach is grounded in a liberal feminist belief in gender equality but is driven by his research question more than an ideological commitment. He, too, is dialogic in moving between theoretical positions in pursuit of knowledge; however, unlike feminists whose dialogism is politically driven, he is conventional in having less concern for immediate political gains for women than for pursuing what he perceives as truth. As a male feminist who studies male sexual aggression and media images, and in light of his positivistic training in psychology, his feminist worldview is illustrative of the concept of “border zones” or “cultural areas infused with difference” posited by Tierney (1993, p. 7). These fluid sites are conceptualized as the spaces between the dominant and marginal discourses, where, through struggle, understanding and change are possible.

All three of these liberal feminists, despite their commitment to emancipatory goals and an inherently critical and dialogic orientations, present perspectives on scholarship that seem to be closely aligned with traditional academic culture. This observation can be interpreted as evidence of the transformative effects of feminism and other emancipatory discourses, which are part of the general epistemological shift commonly known as the “legitimation of knowledge crisis” (Guba, 1990; Lather, 1990; Stanton & Stewart, 1995). Few academics, particularly from the humanities or social sciences, would argue about the social construction of reality or challenge the belief that women and men should have equal rights and opportunities. Because these scholars were trained as traditional academics, both in terms of their career trajectories (uninterrupted) and paradigmatic approaches to scholarship (positivist), their role in transformation has been to merge these competing discourses from within their disciplines and feminism.


Liberal feminists similarly merged feminist and traditional approaches to teaching:

Well certainly it influences the content of what I teach, obviously. . . . As for style—I’m not so sure, really. I never really believed in feminist process or feminist pedagogy if what it meant was that the student voice should be heard as often as the professor’s, because I felt that I’d spent an enormous amount of work, time, effort, energy learning stuff that my students didn’t know. And there was no way they could know it. And I was being paid to give it to them. And these were not courses in life experiences, shared or not shared, and especially since at the undergraduate level my students were no older than 20–21–22, and how many life experiences did they have? So, I tend to lecture and I try to encourage conversation . . . but I deliver, I have ideas, I’ve done a lot of research and I know a lot and I’m here to tell you what I know. So that’s how I do it–in lecture courses anyway.

Now in graduate seminars—even undergraduate seminars, it’s a completely different ballgame and there I really do expect students to contribute and I assign them things they should prepare and bring to class to talk to everyone else about. So I’d say in seminars I never really talk more than a third of the time. I’m not sure that’s any different from anyone else. I’m not sure that’s particularly feminist.

Another liberal feminist shared power in the classroom, but he was unsure of whether or not that is a feminist approach:

I try to give people very much a style that they feel comfortable interrupting and comfortable in challenging, but it’s hard to know how much of that comes from [being] brought up in a home where there was this notion of speaking out . . . without being hesitant to challenge and how much of that is from being involved in feminist circles and reading about institutions [where] the hierarchy is seen as something that is detrimental rather than helpful.

In expressing difficulty with assigning his views on teaching to feminist ideology or a broader intellectual and moral concern for critical thinking and respectful dialogue, this scholar’s views, once again, reflect the effects of feminist transformation; feminist culture is now less distinguishable from predominant discourse about what is good teaching. In fact, “having a political perspective” makes his classes more successful, and he readily acknowledges that students from women’s studies have “been some of the best students.”


These liberal feminists were also “traditional” in their methodological approaches to scholarship; feminist tenets, such as centralizing gender as a theoretical dimension of the research, the social construction of gender, and the impossibility of value-free research, were taken for granted. In this sense, this professor of English did not discern a particularly feminist method at the level of practice. In fact, she was critical of some feminist methodological approaches that insist on the researcher’s positioning herself in an attempt to situate the value basis for the inquiry:

[Feminism affects my research] only at the theoretical, philosophical level. Not in terms of practical . . . I go and sit in the same library (laughs) arrange thoughts according to the same models of logical thinking that I always did. I’m not, for instance, a feminist who believes that you have to situate yourself before you start talking about the other. You know I try to acknowledge that every perspective is limited, but my work is, in a sense, so militantly feminist that I assume that my readers know right off the bat that I’m coming from a particular standpoint position.—And although I’ve written a couple of articles on race issues, it’s really been about say in the abolitionist movement back in the 18th century, I haven’t felt that I had to start by saying, I’m white, Christian, Protestant, middle class, bourgeois, whatever, I’m assuming that the content in a way makes that clear and that’s not something that I have to foreground. And I’m actually sick to death of feminist autobiography. . . . I’m just fed up with it, as both an approach to research and as a shared writing experience. I don’t want to keep hearing about people’s personal life experiences. I want something a little broader, and intellectually a little more abstract? (laughs) you know just a little bit up from the single unique example to sort of generalized knowledge that might be transferable?

She qualified this critique with an acknowledgment of the assumed limitations of personal bias and an appreciation for certain types of autobiographical writing:

I was interested in extremely well written autobiographies that I might in fact teach and I did teach some female autobiographies. . . . For instance the first narrative by a black woman in the history of English literature. So, I’m always responding to specific autobiographical writing in my field of research, but I don’t think I was ever interested in reading what my bourgeois, white female academic peers wanted to write about what it meant to grow up Italian or Jewish [laughs].

Another, with a liberal feminist orientation, aligned herself with the traditional view of scholarship in valuing empirical research and scientific methods. For her, understanding of the limits of objectivity is part of a more generalized trend in the reconceptualization of the nature of science:

And I think the earlier version of science that I learned . . . was description and prediction and control and control was a big theme, and that’s not the way we teach science in social psychology, or I think, in any of psychology. The whole view of the field has changed to recognize that it’s a human enterprise, that we’re influenced by our personal values and our biases and that we ought to do everything in our power to be aware of that and to try to work around that. So, I think that certainly that one of the things that feminism has done is to challenge that image of science as objective and neutral. And I think it has done that simultaneously with scientists themselves doing that same critique. So those have never really felt incompatible to me. It just sort of felt like two strands of thinking about science that in some ways were in agreement.

This perspective further supports the conclusion that for these senior scholars, whose careers have paralleled the feminist critique of science, it is now difficult to distinguish a feminist view of scholarship from the mainstream view. This point is illustrated in the following comment about the label feminist scholar, which suggests that the progress made by academic feminism has almost made this term redundant:

I really kind of waffle on this issue of “feminist scholar.” I think I started thinking of myself as a feminist person in graduate school, and continue to think of myself that way. When I teach undergraduate courses on the psychology of gender, part of the way I introduce myself is as a feminist. . . . What it means to be a feminist scholar seemed clearer to me in the 70’s than it does to me today. So I’m not so sure that I would use those two terms together with the same enthusiasm that I used to because I think that they’re open to more interpretation.

But whereas the predominant academic culture has shifted to some extent, blurring the boundaries between the two for these senior, liberal feminists, so has the definition of what it means to be a feminist scholar. These scholars are less in conflict about their feminist view as it relates to the broader academic culture and more concerned with the conflicts within feminism. Like the professor who was “sick to death of feminist autobiography” as a methodological approach, this psychologist disassociated herself from feminists who engage in a more radical critique of the scientific enterprise:

The place I think where I have really departed from some feminist scholars . . . is to view science as so profoundly male or masculine or biased or something, that we ought to throw it out and develop an entirely new set of methods that would now be feminist methods and that has never made sense to me.

Finding greater support within social psychology for her feminist work, she described how she and her students had felt increasingly alienated by what she perceived as a feminist tendency to dictate “proper thinking or methods.” She recalled a pivotal moment in her teaching career in which this issue came to the fore:

One of the bizarre experiences I had many years ago was of teaching a graduate seminar on the psychology of gender and deciding, because many of them had not had background in women’s studies, that they should read some of the women’s studies critiques of science, thinking this would be a good, broadening experience. And the impact that it had on many psychology students was to make them question whether they were really feminists or whether they were really scientists because they were so committed to doing quantitative research using more or less traditional methods. . . . I had thought this would be expanding—it was totally demoralizing. So I wound up writing a paper . . . arguing that at least for psychology, that there is no such thing as a feminist method, and that all methods are vulnerable to value problems and biases. And that no method comes with a guarantee that if you only use qualitative methods then you’re sure you avoid problems–that we need to be very thoughtful about all kinds of methods. . . . But the science question has certainly been one that has been greatly debated and discussed and one of my frustrations with women’s studies scholars, is what seems to be a lack of appreciation in which people following in more conventional research traditions have actually done a great deal of good for women and for men as well.

Similarly, another liberal scholar in this group was skeptical about and even hostile toward the “extreme social constructionist positions of some academic feminists.” Although he acknowledged that “feminist methodological work” has made him “more sensitive to the use of multiple methods and . . . with generating ideas and examining . . . assumptions” he described how it has also “had this kind of almost boomerang effect.”

Despite his identification as a feminist, he continues to struggle to make sense of the multiple competing discourse of postmodernism, positivism within social psychology, and liberal feminism. His understanding of feminism acknowledges social construction as an influence on reality but has not “radically changed” his epistemological ideas or approach to research. He is offended by what he perceives to be oppressive practices among feminists who exert their power to exclude feminists with more mainstream views, and he is highly critical of their “inadequate” scholarship. His somewhat hostile position underscores the importance of dialogism in a highly diverse feminist community and illustrates the exclusionary effects of perceived lack of respectful dialogue.

The similar stance of these three liberal feminists is rooted in their disciplinary orientation (positivisitic), generational cohort (they are older—their feminist consciousness coincided with emergence of second-wave feminism), and their career trajectories in academia (uninterrupted, traditional). In a sense, the academic world is all they have ever known. Their liberal feminist views reflect internalization of the deeply engrained positivistic beliefs that inhere traditional academic culture. They have assimilated feminist values as an extension, rather than a disruption, of that culture.


For the three critical feminists, feminist scholarship was articulated as a project designed to undermine normative academic culture through deconstruction of the power relations embedded in institutions, including higher education. Those in this subgroup were sensitive about ethnocentric and colonizing practices in the research process and their feminist worldviews centered on deconstructing concepts such as masculinity, femininity, and rationality. The critical perspectives of two of the three critical scholars in the group were gained, in part, through their nontraditional career trajectories. They incorporated the leftist political strategies and Marxist analysis learned through their experiences outside of the academy into their feminist worldviews.

One spoke of her initial conception of feminism as a radically transformative project:

I was kind of . . . an interesting combination of socialist feminist and radical feminist and the radical feminist part of me, talked about how we had to completely redo the culture . . . to change society—I now thought that we had to annihilate it. And that meant redoing the way in which we write, redoing the way we think and redoing the way in which we interact with each other as scholars and the way in which we conduct the classroom, obviously, in the relationship between the so-called student and the so-called professor. And we had to redo everything, we had to redo the entire world, that was exciting, you know, unrealistic, but anyway very exciting.

Her retrospective understanding of the “unrealistic” nature of her initial vision for transformation illustrates how the dialogic self is constantly shifting, not only “existing on multiple planes of present experience,” but “poised in complex relation to the past and to the future” (Josselson & Lieblich, 1995, p. 37). Despite her more tempered, present-day stance, challenging basic assumptions remains central in her belief system; in fact, she regards deconstructionism as a crucial practice:

Now just in terms of my overall philosophy of life and my politics, I don’t know where deconstructing everything leads us ultimately. I just know that it’s got to be better than unquestioning. And I think that even though Americans have a really questioning society, that we challenge our politicians and our political structure and that we speak out and so on, when I go other places, and look at the way other people think about their government, (not all other places, but a number of places), and the way in which they’re able to critique what’s going on, I see us as these lambs–maybe lambs is not the right word, maybe sheep is actually a better word–very unquestioning about our political structure. And I think most students at UCLA, think that we have the best system on the face of the earth and so why criticize it? Well maybe it is the best system on the face of the earth, but I still want to challenge it and pick it apart and deconstruct every aspect of it.

This tenacious value of revisionist thinking is accompanied by a commitment to promoting activism in students:

One of the things that I would like to accomplish is to get people to question these sacred truths in society. And in fact the sacred truths of twentieth century western society. And that’s a big undertaking, but you know, if I can just whittle away . . . these assumptions, that’s all I want to do, not our confidence, just our assumptions. And then I will have accomplished something. And I also want to get people to realize that doing is really important. And it doesn’t matter what political cause, in a sense, that they choose or what community service aspect they choose, the important thing is that they’re doing. Just to get them out of the classroom and get them out of the university campus, and out and working with people in some way. Or working on the campus for that matter. I want to, in that sense, make some contribution to producing activists.

In describing her own transformation through feminism, two insights were prominent. First, she remarked on her realization that “transforming the world” starts with individuals changing the way they live their own lives and that for her, feminism, even more so than Marxism, was revolutionary in that it provided a way for scholars to integrate their intellectual and personal selves. In this respect, feminist scholarship was “something new under the sun.” Second, she questioned her own prior statement about integrating the parts of self. In a “dialogic moment” (Josselson & Lieblich, 1995, p. 37), she considered the creative possibilities of “disjunctures and contradictions” within the self:

What was appealing to me about feminism was what was appealing to me about Marxism, even more so, it was even more personal—that I could integrate my personal and professional and political lives—which so badly needed to be integrated—back then anyway. Now I rather like that there are these disjunctures and contradictions.

Her discussion about “the politics of scholarship” evidences the and/both perspective that is characteristic of feminist thinking. As a White woman, she acknowledged the limitations of identity politics and was self-critical about her own limitations as a scholar; at the same time she emphasized a lack of tolerance for the denigration of race-conscious scholarship:

on one hand I know we all have partial politics. . . . We have our strengths in terms of where our consciousness is, I mean . . . some people may have a consciousness raised more about issues of sexuality than I do, or the disabled, (which I rarely ever think about, which is one of my great weaknesses), or age, which I’ve only had to start thinking about since I’ve started to get older. . . . So that’s all to give people their due . . . but having said that, I have a certain impatience with people’s not thinking about race, and worse than that, saying that if your scholarship relates to race, then you have a political agenda and if you have a political agenda then your scholarship is not, you know, real scholarship, not objective, whatever. I have no patience for that and I do know that that’s the content of the thinking of a number of my colleagues.

Issues of the relationship of power, knowledge, and institutions are central to the critical feminist worldview. One critical feminist had become committed to “science for the people” early in her academic career and saw research as a way to “ameliorate the human condition.” As one of few women to study mathematics in the 1950s, she wondered why math, science, and technology were exotic and intimidating areas of knowledge for many people, particularly women and minorities:

I was really interested in how people colluded in that at the receiving end, sort of agreeing to feel awed and intimidated and . . . it was tacitly going on from the delivery side. Because I didn’t think that the knowledge itself was that, maybe because I had some facility for it, that I didn’t understand why it had to be presented in a way that seemed so exotic and alienating. I felt pretty strongly about that, still do actually.

These questions grew into larger questions about the sociology of knowledge, leading her to investigate how rationality is constructed as masculine:

I felt that understanding . . . what was satisfying to the men about working in a single sex work environment, what came to be called homosocial environments, it would help, I think, in a very practical way and conceptually . . . to get at how rationality is figured as masculine, by society in general, not just certain kinds of men.

These questions about the nature of knowledge are central to her feminist worldview. Unlike her liberal counterparts, who acknowledge the limits of objectivity but who nonetheless strive to achieve it through traditional scientific practices, she contests the very conceptualization of binaries, such as subjectivity and objectivity. Her questioning of the notion of bias-free research is concerned more with the cognitive structures we use to understand knowledge and the power relations embedded within them than with personally situated perspectives. Citing the “profound questions about epistemology and knowledge” raised by “people like Sandra [Harding], and Donna Haraway and Evelyn Fox Keller” as key influences on her own and others’ work in “difference studies,” she is interested in studying “How social difference get constructed and justified, . . . how intellectual difference get constructed and justified,” and “who’s got access to becoming a knowledge transmitter and knowledge maker in these most privileged forms of knowledge, mathematics, and science and engineering and medicine?”

The third critical feminist shared a similar fast-track academic career trajectory with her more liberally oriented colleagues. But she differed from them in expressing her feminist perspective on art criticism in poststructuralist terms. She remarked that her formal education in feminism did not fit the “standard stereotype of the intellectual development of American scholars,” whose typical education starts with American feminism and then “deals with French feminism.” Over time “she has engaged with different facets of feminism” but has always been about “asking questions about how gender changes canonical understandings”:

Now, what I’m particularly interested in is how representation, visual representation, is involved in the construction of femininity and understanding that those two categories are always in relation to one another and a variety of other categories, like race, ethnicity, class, whatever—and embedding that study say within institutional history, whether it’s a museum, the academy or art history as a discipline, criticism and how criticism is written and actually the visual and representations of the body and so forth.

Her feminism is integrated with her perspective as a revisionist historian:

For me scholarship has to do with, generally in both my teaching and my research, with thinking critically about the past and how the past is part of the way that we construct our present understanding of ourselves. And in terms of the visual—you know since I am an art historian, I am particularly interested in . . . not taking the visual for granted.

In defining herself as a feminist scholar, she emphasized inquiry into how categories of masculinity, femininity and modernism, for example, are constructed historically and culturally. As a critical feminist, she challenges the paradigmatic foundations of her discipline, locating herself epistemologically in postmodern terms. Beyond expanding the canon to include female artists, her work is concerned with deconstructing social categories and the power relations that structure those categories:

And so at the same time I’m interested in how, by asking those questions about gender, one can change certain canonical understandings, of say, certain canonical areas of study. For example, in my area, that would be modernism, which has often times been associated with a series of individual creators who are accomplishing certain kinds of stylistic breakthroughs or whatever and if you think about women’s engagement with modernism, how does that change our definition of modernism? . . . So I . . . have written on various women artists, and . . . I’m also interested in . . . constructions of masculinity—I’m looking at . . . how images, and criticism, and institutions, create those categories or contest those categories.


It is not surprising that these critical feminists, who question the structures and processes of knowledge production, would view their own teaching and research processes with the same critical eye. One described her pedagogical strategies as a process of self-subversion:

I’m a Freirian and we can start with that. . . . But anyway there are several things I try to do and they’re risky for me–they’re risky for me because I’m attempting processes of deauthoritarianizing the professor. Now that’s risky for a woman, it’s risky psychologically for someone like me from working class. So you finally reach this stature of professor and then you proceed to try to subvert it. But I do go through a process of self-subversion. . . . What I try to do is to get the ideas to come from students. . . . But I try really hard to validate what people say. Because I don’t believe that there’s a right and wrong answer, although . . . a whole contradiction to these pedagogical strategies is that, in the end, I am the one who gives the grade. But like lots of people who have this philosophy of teaching, we’ve had to come to terms with that contradiction.

Within this critical stance on pedagogy, in which she attempts to subvert the traditional classroom discourse and power relations between students and professors, the internal process of dialogism is revealed. In negotiating the competing value systems, she simultaneously resists and conforms to the dominant culture of academe.

Expectedly, critical thinking is a primary value in these feminists’ approach to teaching. Rather than viewing their students as receptacles for knowledge, they create situations where students can be knowledge producers:

Anyway what I want from my students, is—I don’t care if they’re comfortable or not—I’m not into comfort, I want them to be able to leave my classes with a lot of questions, questions that they didn’t have when they entered . . . which is, to go back to the riskiness of these pedagogies. Sometimes if you deconstruct ad nauseum, which I do . . . students sometimes get, really confused about whether or not there is anything they can really hold on to that is good, or excuse the term, sacred. Is there anything that is untouchable? . . . And for certain students, who are not very mature, it’s very important for them, first of all to get your number, what are you saying, so that they can spew it back at you on the exams, but also it’s important for many students to have a subject matter that they can, of course, memorize, and it’s important for them to find the truth. And here is somebody in true postmodern fashion, trying to undermine truth with a capital T.

In providing tools for her students to become knowledge producers, another critical scholar imparts a value of discovery and creativity in the process of research. She considers research essential for undergraduate students as a way to empower them and resists an authoritative stance as the professor. She described feminism’s affect on her teaching this way (for both graduates and undergraduates):

I encourage all of my students to take on some kind of research project and tell them that finding questions and finding ways to collect information about your questions is really hard. And that almost all classes tell you what the questions are and tell you what to write your papers on, tell you what to write your exams on, where to go get the information, tell you what to read. . . . But the fact that I don’t tell students what to write on, that part of the test is coming up with what to write on, that part of the test is coming up with a bibliography, (I supply them with a whole wide range of bibliographies) but I tell them that they’re going to have to come up with the ones they’re going to use. . . . And I tell them what the current debates are, what the previous current debates are, how things change from the previous current debates to the present current debates. But it’s rather different from telling students, without saying the word “canon,” that this is what you must know. . . . I always situate those remarks, I always encourage the students to do research.

Regardless of student discomfort, she is committed to offering an alternative to the “consuming” model of pedagogy. She described her passion for small, seminar-type classes in which students become deeply engaged in the learning process. In negotiating her values with those reflected by the structures of the institution, she finds a space where she can enact change as an individual: “So I have a kind of missionary zeal about this stuff and I’ve also come to learn that I can change the things that I do before there’s a general change in policy.”

Another critical feminist was acutely aware of the power dynamics in the classroom. She strived to create a safe atmosphere in which learners felt free to express themselves:

I think that certainly feminism has made me think of the dynamics of the classroom. First, the relationship between the professor and the students, but then also the women in the classroom and who speaks and who gets attention . . . and should the professor be the authority figure? And how do you get a student to gain his or her own voice in the classroom? And, of course, conventionally women tend to be more quiet in the classroom. How do you encourage women to have more voice and participate as well?

She uses historical examples of sexism to raise consciousness in her classroom about present-day assumptions about the female professor to counter possible negative effects of feminist pedagogy:

For example, I teach a course on 19th century American art and that’s a period that women began to come into the teaching profession in the United States and that happens after the Civil War and there are various reasons for that, and some of them have to do with assumptions about gender—that women would have certain qualities that would be desirable to have as teachers, that they would be more caring, understanding. I try to talk about how that continues to this day—how certain assumptions about the female professor . . . unspoken assumptions about what she might be like as opposed to the male professor. And that also raises another issue, of how at the same time you’re trying to rethink your role as the authority, you also want to be taken seriously. And so you can use opportunities to reflect upon that and to think about that in the classroom, even when it’s in the big lecture. It’s harder really to undercut the role of the voice authority than it is in seminar. So you know I think that definitely feminism impacts the way one teaches, what one teaches, but also how one teaches.

These approaches to teaching are a radical departure from the traditional culture’s adherence to a model in which expertise, power, and authority define what Paulo Friere termed “banking.” These critical feminists reject the banking model in which the teacher’s role is to “make deposits of information which the teacher considers true knowledge” in favor of “partner teachers” and “mid-wife teachers” (Belenky et al., 1986, p. 218). In these reconceptualizations of pedagogy, the process of thinking, teaching and learning is an open dialogue.


In articulating their perspectives on scholarship and pedagogy, two of these critical feminists—the historian of science and the art historian—did not expound on methodological issues. Given their disciplinary orientations, it is implicit that a critical feminist perspective impacts the way they conduct their research at the level of assumption and in the nature of their research questions. The sociocultural anthropologist in this group focused on methodological issues also at the level of practice. Like her liberal colleagues, she was wary of “slipping into essentialism” in articulating her views on a “feminist” methodology:

Well I used to think there was a feminist methodology, but I’m not so sure. That’s a subject that I have some ambivalence about. . . . I have some questions about us talking about “feminist” anything really in terms of the ways in which we so easily slip over into essentialism. . . . But it may be that we have some strategies that are different. I’m not sure that we have strategies that are different, that they necessarily lead us to a different place. I’m still working on that. I like to consider that the interviews I conduct are feminist interviews.

Although she considered her interviewing techniques to be feminist, it appeared to be reflexivity that characterized her approach as feminist, rather than any fixed set of defining characteristics. In a story of a failed interview with Fatma, leader of the Sudanese Woman’s Union for 45 years, she described how she reconsidered her expectations about feminist-principled methodology:

So I went equipped to use all of my well-developed, feminist techniques for interviewing. It was going to be a dialogue. She was going to ask me questions about American feminism and I was going to ask her questions . . . but it was a disaster of an interview. She talked at me, she talked down to me, she wasn’t at all curious about me as a person and there were many other things too. I didn’t like the content of the things she said. She put down other people, she put down other women, other women leaders–she just dismissed everyone. . . . But once the interview started she gave me this party line interpretation of her organization and never swayed from it. . . . That was another thing as two women we would be able to be self-critical. I would be self-critical of American feminism and she would talk about the mistakes the organization had made. She didn’t do any of that. I came back to the States so angry with her.

This experience prompted her to write an article to be published in what would become a well-known book on feminist methodology. In it, she told how this incident affected her thinking:

it was an important, a very, very important breakthrough for me in terms of challenging my notion that the feminist pedagogy and feminist methodologies and so on were somehow or another noble and unselfish and giving and receiving and egalitarian. . . . And I had to, once again—you think one might learn—but once again coming up against another culture, with a very different notion of everything—even how two women might interact with each other—it really caused me to go back to the drawing board.

The critical feminists in the group differed from their liberal colleagues in the degree to which they perceive feminist values, beliefs, and assumptions to be different from those that constitute traditional academic culture. Whereas the liberal feminists shared a post-positivist view of knowledge production, the critical feminists’ basis for scholarship emanated from postmodern, poststructuralist approaches to inquiry, such as critical theory and constructivism (Denzin & Lincoln, 1994). These differences seem to be attributable to disciplinary orientations and the location of the scholars’ development as academics in relation to the evolution of feminist discourse. Those trained in more positivistic paradigms (e.g., social psychology), and who received their PhDs before 1975, had more liberal feminist perspectives and post-positivist views on teaching and research. Those trained in more interpretive disciplines of history, art history, and sociocultural anthropology, and who received their graduate training in the late 1970s and 1980s, had more radical feminist orientations, critical views on scholarship, and defined feminist approaches to pedagogy. Those with traditional career trajectories tended to be in the former group; those with nontraditional career paths, in the later. The art historian was the exception to this pattern. Despite her traditional academic career trajectory, she described her formal feminist education as nontraditional in that her scholarship was influenced most strongly by French feminist theory, from which poststructuralist feminist perspectives derive.


The meaning of feminism for the three assistant professors in this group of dialogic feminists had several features that distinguished it from the feminisms articulated by their liberal and critical senior colleagues. Whereas these scholars identified with a generalized assumption of women’s subordination in society, they were quick to more broadly extend their worldview to encompass a concern for social injustice. They conveyed a sense of appreciation for the complexity inherent in feminist scholarship. Whereas both the liberal and critical feminists demonstrated a dialogic mode of articulating their views on research and teaching, they did so within the parameters of their respective ideological and epistemological frames. The dialogic feminists were categorized with this label because they moved between liberal and critical frames in constructing their identity as feminist scholars. Their dialogism, as a strategy for integrating the different feminisms that coexist among their senior colleagues and between generations, was identified as more than a feminist process; it was identified as an emerging feminist discourse.

The first characteristic of the dialogic feminist perspective is illustrated in the way this professor moves between general issues of inequality, to gender inequality, to racial inequality and then back to general inequality. She did not privilege one or the other in defining her feminist perspective:

I think it has to do with social justice at the very basic level. And redressing inequality or inequities which are reproduced. So when you think about the reproduction of inequality, in general, you can’t really think about that without thinking about gender, really, and families. Because that’s the basic unit where we reproduce gender inequalities in the family and then we do it in all these other social policy ways. I think that’s probably [true] with race . . . you know, how do we teach white kids to have white privilege? That probably happens at home—by cultural . . . apparatus, so I think that my commitment to feminism is about my commitment to social justice.

Her common ground for simultaneously addressing multiple forms of oppression in her scholarship is the family unit. Whereas all of the scholars interpret feminism in terms of their own discipline and specific research area, the dialogic feminists tended to organize their broad ideology of difference in terms of specific social issues and practical problems.

This same dialogic feminist simulated a dialogue between herself and her feminist parents of an earlier generation to describe her perspective. In doing this, she revealed an important aspect of the evolution and progress of feminism. She does not perceive the disagreements that have emerged over time within feminist discourse as divisive; instead, she accepts these differing perspective as natural and intellectually necessary. She observed that she “takes for granted the fact that there are these different feminist movements” and, as a Latina, she appreciates the “talk of race in the feminist movement” that distinguishes the contemporary feminism of the past fifteen years. However, she,

never felt excluded from the agenda of other feminists because of coming from that background where I knew people were going to disagree about certain things. But it never was about fundamental things. So the disagreements . . . weren’t about things like equal pay for equal work, we all would have thought, “yea, of course.” It was more about psychological things, like how young women become anorexic, the role of body image, that sort of thing.

For another dialogic feminist, commitment to the emancipation of women weighed in equally with a commitment to social justice in general. In this statement of personal identity and purpose, she expressed an equal appreciation for academic and activist approaches:

Being a feminist in the world, I think that the bottom line for me, is this understanding of male dominance over women. . . . So for me that sort of analysis colors how I think of solving problems, personal dynamics between men and women, the way I approach policy issues and planning issues—this understanding of male domination of men over women. But to be honest I think that a lot of who I am has to do with issues of equality, in general, I mean that’s my mission in life. It’s less important that I do it in an academic setting or I do it elsewhere. I look at what I have done as an adult—almost all the activities I’m engaged in have to do with issues of inequality.

She struggled, however, with how the clarity of her role as a feminist activist contrasted with the more complicated, stilted position she finds herself in as a feminist scholar:

I was more of an activist when I was younger, now I’m more of an academic. . . . The lines were a lot clearer in my activist years—I don’t know if it has to do with feminist consciousness—I think it’s part and parcel of being an activist, you see things in really clear cut ways and you act on things in those ways. But as a scholar, I think that things are a lot more complicated. Your ideas of what drives some of these inequalities is much more complex than men dominating women. That’s not the whole story. So I don’t know whether that’s a better change or not. In some ways it’s easier to act on sort of simple understandings of the way things are and more can be accomplished. I think that’s part of the problem with being an academic. I’m situated in a public policy school, so my goal is to make change, which is very different say that if you’re talking to someone whose in . . . the music department.

Her statement implied that she has become more sophisticated in her understandings of feminism as an academic, but it seems that for new scholars like herself, the evolution of feminist discourse from women’s studies to gender studies to intersectionality studies has exacerbated the tension between action and theory that has always troubled academic feminists.

Another young professor spoke of “problematizing gender” in describing how she expressed her feminist perspective as a scholar. Like her liberal colleagues, she conceives feminism as an equal rights issue and the pragmatic use of difference and sameness as a theoretical strategy:

It [feminism] means problematizing gender. It means looking for inequalities—but in my research, I’m looking for similarities, as well. I think it’s important not to reify or point out only the differences, but also similarities. Also, basically, I like to play around with men and tell them that they’re feminist, and they say, “No I’m not,” and I say, “don’t you think women are equal to men?” and they say, “yes,” and I say, “don’t you think women have gotten the short end of the stick?” [they say,] “In most cases, “yes.” [I say,] “You’re a feminist!” “Whoo!” But yea I guess that’s it. As a political belief, just mostly that there are inequalities and in a disproportionate number of cases, the disadvantages go to women, but that’s somehow wrong and it should be rectified.

But in describing her fascination with research on women in the military, she was distinctively dialogic in her predilection for considering conflicting perspectives and challenging her own assumptions:

I had a lot of stereotypes that were immediately blown away and the military is a fascinating site to look at gender because that’s where some of the really hard issues about biology versus social construction are really confronted.

Having received her PhD in 1995, she has had access to a more inclusive feminist literature. On a personal level, it was the work of feminists of color that has resonance for her:

the courses that I took in graduate school [in which we] were mostly reading work by black feminist theorists or feminists of color, were the stuff that really touched me deeply, moved me, made me cry. Partly because the stuff they were talking about had to do with race and class and the intersection of gender really tapped into my deepest feelings about class. Really for me, captured the shame, the humiliation, just so many things that I had never read, that captured before. So that’s probably the most influential stuff I’ve ever read in understanding my own personal life, and understanding the things that I’m researching.

All three dialogic scholars were interested in dialogue with colleagues from an earlier generation. Here one assistant professor talks about how she integrates a wide range of feminist (and antifeminist) perspectives into her teaching:

That’s part of it also asking . . . colleagues I have around here from an earlier generation, for clarification on how things were, and I feel like things are different now for the people I’m teaching, so one of the things that I’m trying to follow is changes in feminist thought, and popular reaction to them, and third-wave feminism and . . . conversations about their feminism then, where it is, where is it going? . . . in feminist theory I had a section about third wave feminists, and antifeminist feminists and even some of the readings that are queer theory or postmodern works.

In true dialogic form, she views her feminism as both integral to her identity and as one of many parts of her professional identity:

It’s partly about how to live my life, partly research questions, partly curiosity . . . I think of myself as a sociologist. I am a feminist, but . . . [feminism’s] a part of being a sociologist. Just like my methods, or my training, or my background. It’s my angle. Some people are comparative historical, some people are economic, . . . I guess I’m a military sociologist and I’m also a feminist sociologist.


In describing their views on teaching, these dialogic feminists shared a concern for balancing power in the classroom and for engaging all students in the learning process. One in particular seemed to be agonizing over her effectiveness in facilitating egalitarian classroom dynamics:

I’m self-conscious about making sure that I don’t call on men more often or let them have the floor, I try to balance some of the classroom conversation. There was a bit of a dilemma in that course that I had on race, class, and gender, this honors course, I had one guy that just really like to talk a lot.

She debates whether or not to draw out the participation of the more quiet students (mostly women) or to honor their choice to listen rather than to speak in class. She is troubled by one statement made in a course evaluation that she played favorites. In the end, she decides to give students the option of contributing by e-mail but does so reluctantly, believing that “part of a college education, part of getting along in life, should be being able to express your views orally.”

In her struggle to remain conscious of gender dynamics in the classroom while simultaneously recognizing individual differences, she is dialogic. Her efforts to resist socially conditioned norms that reinforce male dominance in the classroom are complicated by high standards for all students. In another dialogic discussion about pedagogy, a law professor discussed at great length how she “spent a lot of energy” teaching rape. Unlike some of her senior colleagues, who were discouraged by the political difficulties surrounding this topic, she embraced this opportunity to facilitate a respectful dialogue in the classroom:

At the time I started teaching here, the one faculty member who had consistently taught it was a black woman who no longer teaches criminal law because she got sort of pissed off at the students and the politics of teaching it. . . . The excuses that male professors give for not teaching it are well, “it’s too sensitive, the students get too touchy, I don’t know how to handle it,” those kinds of things. . . . So one might think that the answer to that would be to have some kind of workshop so that faculty who are going to teach it would know how to teach it, but that’s never happened. People would feel like that was too much of an infringement on their autonomy I think.

Through self-reflection, she has modified her approach to teaching this emotionally charged subject over the years. She is now less likely to announce her position as a feminist and less likely to project a knee-jerk feminist stance on “hard” rape cases. Her goal, instead, is to make “students with various views more comfortable”:

So I for me I guess it’s also become more complicated in the sense that a lot of the rape cases that we teach, the way that the law is developing, is that a lot of the most interesting cases of the legal rules apply in very difficult date rape cases. Basically, that’s the William Kennedy-Smith case, right? Where you have two people who are giving opposite versions of the story and you don’t have any other witnesses and it just depends a lot on whose story the jury believes and how much character attack they can do on each other. I think when I started teaching, I was probably a lot more closed-minded about hearing the men’s side of the story in those cases than I am now. . . . After years of teaching it and listening to students . . . my own opinion has come from being a sort of knee jerk feminist reaction to it. . . . And I think that still I believe overall there are so many problems with the system of bringing rape charges, that often the right cases don’t even get into the system, so there are those kinds of critiques to be made. But in the cases themselves, I think that there are hard cases, you know? And so I think I have I have developed a better way of teaching that subject. And I where I can make students of various views more comfortable. This year I only had one progressive feminist student complain in it. And I don’t think I had anyone from the right. Usually I have more people from the left or more people from the right complaining and they just feel like I was one way or the other.

Rather than shy away from the hard questions implicit in understanding rape law, she was open to critical examination of gender issues as they present themselves for this specific student body. In this comment, she observed how young students might be conflicted about being a feminist, given the persistent normative culture that dictates how they should act in sexual relationships. For these students, the classroom is a consciousness-raising experience:

It’s a very touchy topic and I think it’s interesting because I think that you can’t talk about rape laws without talking about juries or without talking about sexual mores and it’s really interesting because these students are young, they’re just out of college and so they are at the peak of when they’ve been socialized and what you would have to conclude at some level, is that things haven’t changed that much. . . . That as much as you have some women who have been educated in a certain way about their autonomy, you still have a lot of women who probably would say that they’re liberal feminists or who might be liberal feminists, but not say they are, who’ve really been socialized into a passive sexual role. And a role in which they are supposed to say no when they mean yes. And where the male is supposed to be the sexual aggressor and when you have all those things in play it makes these date rape cases more complicated. Cause the guy says, “I understood this or I meant that,” so you have to get into some heavy discussions that really implicate them here, the here and now, because they’re mostly single, they’re young, they’re sexually active and they’re mostly heterosexual.

Without discounting her own political goals, she strives to raise the consciousness of her students by creating a learning environment in which multiple views are valued:

It’s really very intense. So I think teaching this subject as a feminist, it’s just really loaded with issues. Because you know you want to be true to your political goals. You don’t want to betray those values that you have but you also know that you have to create an environment where students who have opinions different from yours must be able to feel free to talk. And you know there’s just a lot that you’re trying to accomplish. But I definitely consider that part of the consciousness-raising. I’m teaching the death penalty this week. And in the same way I don’t think you can teach the death penalty without thinking about it as consciousness-raising for students, right? Now that doesn’t mean that you’re going to teach that the death penalty is not good, it doesn’t mean that you should! It just means that you have a certain amount of social responsibility in how you present the material, in how you foster an environment where students who disagree with each other can talk about these things.


All three dialogic feminists expressed a pragmatic view regarding research methodology. They believed that they chose among various methods according to the appropriateness of the method for their research question. Each was adamant about avoiding a doctrinaire approach to methodology, but they each had a particular preference about which they seemed defensive. One, who preferred traditional methods, seemed perturbed by students who let a preference for method influence their choice of research topic:

I think that often times we have students who come to this program with sort of a fixed methodological approach in mind and I actually don’t like to approach my research like that. I like to think about what I want to do, what I want to accomplish, and then choose a methodology that is sort of appropriate to answering those questions. Other scholars do it in different ways. I think that methodology sort of influences what they do, right? If they’re an ethnographer, whatever. And I kind of approach my work sort of the other way around. And I think that there’s a lot of tools to work with and a lot of scholars using different kinds of tools to understand different kinds of problems, and we all can offer something interesting. And it’s not a “this is better than that,” it’s just a “this is different from that” and I think that there’s a lot that can be gleaned from numbers and statistics and that’s what I use. Do I think that it’s the only thing? Do I think that it provides answers to sort of all the questions, all aspects of the questions that I ask? No, I do not. I don’t pretend to say that it does. Do I think that it can provide some insight into the questions? Yea, I do.

Another, who works in “a different paradigm,” spoke of typical “slams” about qualitative research. In a characteristically dialogic manner, she relates to others by “agreeing to disagree.” She doesn’t attempt to convert those with different perspectives on research, although her qualitative approaches have influenced military sociologists who typically do quantitative research:

Well there are different paradigms. I choose to be around and work with and listen to the opinions of people who believe in the same paradigm as I do and I don’t try to convert census data analysts to take my opinion into account. But . . . I can say that it’s been more influential in the policy military arena. They usually consider “anecdotal,” when people just go out and—that’s sort of the slam, the regular slam for qualitative data. But they’ve gotten really important and interesting stuff from my research and now it’s pretty much standard in the military and the policy studies to include now focus groups or to include a page now at the end of a questionnaire, at least one page for people to write comments. And they didn’t do that before I came onto the scene so you know I’ve gotten them to see the value in what can come out of you know, talking to people.

She described how her research lends itself to interviews, surveys with open-ended questions, and participant observation because these methods seem suited to the military setting. She suggested that, in part, her choice of methodology is rooted in certain values that she finds are consistent with feminist principles:

I guess the beliefs that I have about research are also a lot of feminist beliefs about research. But I didn’t adopt them because they were feminist. That’s just the way I thought about things. I think you should get to the real world to real people and look at everyday experiences and that the day-to-day way that social life is carried out is important–all these things I always have found fascinating and interesting and important. And it’s partly been the history of ethnography, but it’s also been the history of feminist methods. Because the idea that if you just look at political leaders or business men I think you’re missing out, and that what women do is often the more mundane, daily routine things and they’re more invisible in history because of that. It [my choice of methodology] coincided with a feminist belief.

Although she “very strongly believe[s] in questioning categories, and questioning duality and questioning positivism and questioning that there’s an objective viewpoint—one objective truth or social scientific laws that can be discovered,” she expressed a strong disfavor of highly abstract, inaccessible discourse of the postmodern scholarship of some feminists:

For me that’s sort of violates some fundamental feminist principles which are (well I guess I have a bit of a bias) . . . about everyday life and everyday experience and people. And if you’re talking about different race and class backgrounds, why make up a new abstract, obscure language where most people, unless they’ve had specific training in postmodern theory, cannot even understand it. Why mimic the earlier exclusionist, elitist, ivory tower practices? You know originally I understood writing in the way of the canon at the time, to prove to the old boys that you could do it or to get some respect–but now they’re writing not for them, they’re just creating their own, very elitist, obscure world. It’s not the ideas that I oppose, it’s the way that they’re written and communicated and conveyed which I think are very alienating and elitist and blurring the message and I do think it’s a waste of time to spend writing all that.

Another dialogic feminist found it difficult to categorize her approach to research as explicitly feminist. However, she was aware of, and receptive to more innovative feminist research techniques, such as “give[ing] the transcript back to the person they interviewed as sort of a real . . . [collaboration] and giving the subject the equal voice,” and she doesn’t feel that she has “in a deep way . . . incorporated feminist methodology.” She described her methodology as being “weakly feminist” in that she structures an interview so that it is “cognizant of power dynamics and mak[es] spaces where your interview subjects can have some control.”

Her understanding of social scientists’ thoughts about how the research process is changing provided further evidence that elements of a feminist culture have permeated traditional academic culture. However, it was difficult for her, given her recent training as a feminist academic, to clearly distinguish between what is different about feminist culture and traditional academic culture. This generation of feminists has not experienced an institution in which interdisciplinarity was devalued and positivistic approaches reigned:

I think a traditional social scientist doesn’t think in those terms, [of power dynamics in the research process] although that’s changing too, right? . . . People who have been exposed to other fields, other than feminism, are thinking about these things. I wonder if there is a connection between a kind of open-mindedness to different disciplines and different methods [and feminism]. I don’t feel doctrinaire about any methodology. I can’t imagine myself feeling doctrinaire about survey research or about quantitative research or even about interviews. . . . I have a resistance to those doctrinaire approaches and even to disciplinary boundaries, which may be related to the fact that, the first dissertation and the book that I published, just given the nature of it, was very interdisciplinary. You had to encounter research in different fields. So you had to be kind of eclectic in really reading the literature and even in the methods so, maybe that is related to feminism. I don’t know. It certainly is more consistent to people who are explicitly doing feminist research than other places, but I’m sure it’s not the only place that it occurs either.

These dialogic feminists, who are younger in age or younger professionally, are forging a new kind of feminist scholarship that is responding to a new set of conditions and discourses that the ongoing process of transformation generates. These dialogic scholars seek a way of merging the lessons and strategies of their foremothers, while simultaneously integrating the realities of the new world they are inheriting. They expressed a feminist worldview that is concerned with difference in the broadest sense, although they did not minimize gender oppression. They have incorporated an enormously complex body of feminist knowledge into their own work but tend to ground their positions in action-oriented research agendas. They are critical but pragmatic. They have a distinctively tentative posture and seem to be comfortable with the ambiguity they find in their lives as academic feminists.


The purpose of classifying the participants into three groups according to the various meanings they ascribe to feminism and how that relates to their understanding of scholarship is to underscore the notion that academic feminism is not a monolithic culture, although it inheres some strikingly similar features for all participants. By examining the common values, beliefs, and assumptions of these feminist scholars, and by identifying subtle differences in the way they articulate these beliefs through narrative strategies, the interactive role of history and of individual background characteristics sheds light on the nature of the transformative process. The stories of these feminists from different generations, different backgrounds, working from different disciplinary perspectives provided a context from which the progress made in shifting the culture of academia to be more aligned with feminist values becomes evident. Diverse feminist positions, rather than signifying fragmentation, can be interpreted as signs of advancement in the transformation process.

It becomes clear through these presentations of the meaning of feminism that for most of the participants the commitment to social justice extends beyond women’s emancipation. They express an appreciation for difference in the human experience, and though they may identify personally with religious, racial, or class differences and the marginal statuses these differences inhere, they have integrated these personal experiences into a feminist worldview. In their scholarly work, they express feminism as a critical tool for inquiry into their disciplines. They value freedom of expression, are sensitive to power dynamics in the classroom, and are intent on actively engaging students in the learning process by facilitating environments that empower students as knowledge producers.

There were differences, however, in the extent to which these scholars aligned these values with feminist culture. Some could not easily distinguish their approaches to pedagogy and research from conventional approaches. They considered the content of their scholarly work to be feminist but ascribed to traditional methods and teaching strategies. Others, were deeply committed to challenging foundational assumptions of the academic culture and were conscientious about critically examining their own practices and scholarship, as well as others’. Among the younger scholars, there was a distinct openness to hearing multiple versions of feminism. In articulating their views, these dialogic feminists were tentative and felt most comfortable with fluid belief systems. Drawing on a rich set of discourses from the body of feminist theory and scholarship that has developed over the past 30 years, these feminists’ stories conveyed the complexity of contemporary academic feminism.

Like third wave feminists in general, these young feminist scholars have grown up: . . . transgender, bisexual, interracial, and knowing and loving people who are racist, sexist, and otherwise afflicted. . . . and therefore find [themselves] seeking to create identities that accommodate ambiguity and . . . multiple positionalities: including more than excluding, exploring more than defining, searching more than arriving. (Walker, 1995, p. xxxiii)

But by virtue of being academics, young feminist scholars are likely to be more inclined than nonacademics of their generation to assert a feminist identity because they have had more access to knowledge of women’s history and a range of feminist discourse and are less likely to be influenced by negative stereotypes generated by the media. In part, their dialogic stance may be attributable to their young professional age; they may become more entrenched in views about teaching and research with more experience, and it behooves them to remain open to the perspectives of their senior colleagues as nontenured professors. Also, their pragmatism may be explained by their location in applied, interdisciplinary fields or engagement in research that has very real world applications (e.g., urban planning, law, military sociology). But the proposed thesis of an emerging dialogic feminist discourse is further substantiated in the larger study (Safarik, in press) where a similar pattern was identified in the sense-making processes these individuals used to formulate a vision for a future feminist agenda and in the practices they used to shift the culture, practices, and policies in their work environments and disciplines.

As is characteristic in qualitative methodology, the original purpose of this investigation (i.e., to understand how feminism has been a transformative force in academe) shifted in focus from the differences between traditional and academic culture to the differences within the feminist community. This is not unexpected or surprising given the cultural, poststructuralist framework that guided the research. However, beyond providing vivid examples of how feminists enact the transformative culture through their research, teaching, and worldviews, these findings offer insights about the process of transformation itself.

It is the differentiation within the feminist culture, rather than the difference between academic feminism and traditional academic culture, that is most revealing in terms of understanding transformation. Different feminist perspectives and concomitant approaches to scholarship serve to support, rather than detract from, the transformative effort. Because individuals bring diverse visions to their work as academic feminists and relate more or less closely with different disciplinary traditions or specific discourses within feminism, a flexibility is generated within the culture that strengthens it. The transformative role of internal differentiation within an innovative culture such as academic feminism, the dialogic processes used to manage the tension of unity and diversity within this feminist community, and the significance of an emerging dialogic feminist discourse have important theoretical implications for understanding how the transformation of institutions is sustained over time.

What does this story of internal differentiation within this feminist community mean in terms of understanding transformation? This portrait of feminism at UCLA heightens our awareness of the complexity of understanding an institution from a cultural perspective. Even within a subculture such as academic feminism, the myriad and shifting value systems constitute a seemingly coherent community. And when a feminist transformation is conceived as a cultural shift—that is, an innovative (feminist) culture dislodges the dominant (traditional) culture—then fragmentation within the innovative culture would seem to diminish its effectiveness in achieving that purpose.

However, the concept of dialogism as a distinctively feminist way of making sense at the individual and collective levels of consciousness explains how a unique form of community within the academy, one that is captured in Gina Dent’s (1995) description of “a free-form nexus of ideas” (p. 71), has been created and sustained over time. Defined as a reflexive pattern of thought and practice that favors both/and modes of knowing in contrast to binary, either/or thinking, dialogism emerged as a salient feature of this feminist culture. As an intra- and interpersonal process of organizational sense making in which difference is accepted and valued, the dialogic perspective prevailed within and across diverse feminist perspectives. Through individual sense making and group-level processes of enacting culture that is dialogic, the feminist community has thrived in a constant state of tension between unity and diversity.

However, for the newest generation of feminists, dialogism emerged as a distinctive feminist discourse. Their pronounced dialogic stance suggests that these young academic feminists have inherited dialogism as a sense-making process and have adopted it as an effective transformative strategy. The transformative value of dialogism has been recognized as a reflexive practice of thought and practice that characterizes academic feminism (Hirsch & Keller, 1990; Nielsen, 1990; Stanton & Stewart, 1995). The saliency of dialogism in this historical, cross-generational study suggests that this is a critical process for sustaining transformation. The broader theoretical implication is that advanced stages of transformation are evidenced by the degree to which dialogism permeates the discourse of the newest generation of change agents.

Understanding institutional transformation in terms of difference, dialogism, and vitality helps us to understand that academic feminism is transformative because through forging a “community of difference” (Tierney, 1993) within feminism it aims to create a community of difference. Dialogism, as a process that occurs in the “border zones” (Tierney, 1993) of individual consciousness and between the consciousnesses of individuals within the feminist culture, is critical for sustaining transformation. A vital community, one that has the capacity to sustain a transformative effort over time, is one that fosters an awareness and appreciation of difference and seeks to engage in open and respectful dialogue about these differences. Conflict, in a vital community, is conceptualized as a natural and productive reality of the transformative process but is used as a tool for generating understanding rather than as a power struggle.

Perhaps the complexities that surface through this contextual and highly personal account of feminist culture, then, portend a different way of thinking about what sustains a change effort over time. The effectiveness of the effort can be understood more in terms of its vitality than in terms of its measurable outcomes. The process, rather than any fixed criteria for what constitutes a transformed institution, becomes the more important focus of investigation. It is better, then, to think of institutions as transforming rather than as transformed. Because of the evolutionary nature of transformation (i.e., the playing field changes as progress is made, so goals seem perpetually unrealized) it is more productive to see the success of the transformative effort in terms of its vitality. This study suggests that vitality, defined as the extent to which the community is dialogic, is a more appropriate focus of assessing and understanding institutional transformation. This theoretical point can be used to investigate other cases of feminist transformation in higher education, other transformative efforts in higher education, or organizational transformation in general.


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LYNN SAFARIK is an assistant professor and chair of the Educational Leadership Program in the School of Education at Colorado State University. Her research interests include women in higher education, leadership and organizational change, and qualitative research methodology. A recent related publication is “Feminist Transformation in Higher Education: Disciplinary, Structural, and Institutional Contexts,” Review of Higher Education (in press).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 104 Number 8, 2002, p. 1718-1759
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11039, Date Accessed: 1/20/2022 12:19:10 PM

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  • Lynn Safarik
    Colorado State University
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    LYNN SAFARIK is an assistant professor and chair of the Educational Leadership Program in the School of Education at Colorado State University. Her research interests include women in higher education, leadership and organizational change, and qualitative research methodology. A recent related publication is “Feminist Transformation in Higher Education: Disciplinary, Structural, and Institutional Contexts,” Review of Higher Education (in press).
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