Gender and feminist studies has, for many years, flown a bit under the radar. In both the ivory towers of academe and out in the rough and tumble world of politics, economics and political science were long deemed “important” while gender studies was mostly overlooked. But with the global rise of highly masculinist and misogynist—not to mention homophobic, white supremacist and just plain scary—regimes, gender studies is getting a lot of attention. After all, it is gender studies that destroys our youth and will bring down civilization itself.
I should know. I teach gender studies in the U.S. at Middlebury College and in Russia at the European University at St. Petersburg—and boy, oh boy, do all the misogynists have their knickers in a twist.
In the fall of 2015, I taught a course on theories of intersectionality to graduate students in Russia. They were mostly getting their degrees in the Gender Studies program at the European University, the very last one that exists in an age of Putinism. Back in 2015, the University was a thriving intellectual hub. Today, not so much. After all, gender studies is too dangerous a field to ignore. St. Petersburg’s homophobe-in-chief, Vitaly Milonov, thinks gender studies is a “fake science” that will corrupt Russia’s youth and turn them into rainbow revolutionaries. Milonov “personally finds gender studies disgusting” in the same way that homosexuality is “a threat to children.” And so, he started to lodge complaints.
Besides being a hotbed of gender theory, the University, which has been lodged in a beautiful if slightly dilapidated 18th century palace, didn’t have a proper gymnasium or a place to display the state’s anti-alcohol campaign posters. In any case, Milonov seems to have started a process of death by bureaucracy. After years of producing mountains of documentation, it appears as if the European University is about to disappear into the dustbin of history.
Why would Milonov hate gender studies so much? For starters, he made a career by preaching and screeching about the dangers of the homosexual, an external threat to traditional Russian sexual values that will pervert Russia into Gayropa. (There’s even a parody song on YouTube called “Milonov battles the gays!”) Most press accounts have thusly said that Milonov hates gender studies because it is intimately connected to LGBTQ studies—but I think the answer is deeper than that. It all comes down to the centrality of a binary and hierarchal notion of gender within patriarchy. Without “man” and “woman” as the only categories and heterosexuality as the only possible outcome, man over woman begins to break down. That system is radically challenged by feminism—and its academic manifestation in gender studies.
The only way “traditional values”—also known as “the patriarchy”—can survive is if men are men and women are women and the former controls the latter. Furthermore, if man and women are not highly differentiated, then they are degenerate—they are either sexually degenerate as “manly women” or “girlie men” or they are racially degenerate, as in masculinized Black women or feminized Asian men. To step outside the central roles of patriarchy is to posit that another world is possible where racial, gender and sexual hierarchies are not drawn through “traditional sexual roles.” The reality of that possibility threatens the social power and control white men have wielded for so long—and men like Milinov plan to fight for that which they never really earned, at every cost to those who are marginalized.
Milonov and the Russian Right’s “disgust” remind me of a much less serious attack on gender studies at my home institution. In the peaceful hills of Vermont, a small riot took place last year when political science Charles Murray came to give a talk at Middlebury College. Murray is best known for his work in the Bell Curve, which argued that there is a racial basis to intelligence. (I bet you can guess where Black Americans fell on the curve.) Long story short, this conservosaur showed up, things got out of hand and the newly Trumpified right-wing blamed—drum roll please—gender studies!
Within 24 hours of Charles Murray’s talk being shut down, his colleague at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, Christina Hoff Sommers, began pointing a finger at my program. Her first tweet about the mess? “The Gender Studies program at Middlebury College. Oy vey.” Her next tweet was that my course, Feminist Blogging, was her favorite course—but I think she was being sarcastic. And in a talk the next day, she actually located gender studies as part of an “axis of intolerance” that uses intersectionality to create an atmosphere of intolerance.
All this tweeting resulted in a lot of unpleasant emails to me and anyone else who has ever taught in the program. The Daily Wire even called our courses “categorically insane.” At first it seemed like one more gratuitous attack on gender studies, but the more I thought about it, the more the phrase “categorically insane” sounded completely spot-on. Gender studies and feminism more broadly destabilize the categories that prop up not just patriarchy, but regimes of racial and national supremacy. To speak outside and against those categories, to speak outside the logic of patriarchy and racial supremacy that prop up the likes of Putin and Trump, is to be incomprehensible. That’s what all good critical knowledge does, whether it’s sociology or literary criticism: it puts the way things are into historical and economic contexts rather than seeing the way things are as “natural” or “god-given.”
Under Trumpism and Putinism, critical knowledge is dangerous. According to men like them and those who support them, gender studies will destroy the world as we know it. Which is, of course, another way of saying that gender studies will actually save it.