Updated: Aug 30
Earlier today, Points Contributing Editor Michelle McClellan used her experience in a near-empty room at a Women’s Studies conference to explore the difficulty of crossing disciplinary borders to do meaningful research on addiction. This was a very mature thing for her to do. Let me lower the tone of discussion a bit by drawing attention to her mention of the absurd ratio of panelists (4) to audience members (1) at her presentation. I had a similar experience at the National Women’s Studies Association annual meeting in 2009 with a roundtable I organized on Gender and Campus Drinking Cultures.
Co-presenters Ada Gregory, Director of the Duke University Women’s Center; Elizabeth Broughton, Professor of Leadership and Counseling at Eastern Michigan University; and Patty O’Toole, Dean of Students at Hollins University; and I wanted to discuss “how and to what extent the insights of feminist scholars and activists have been incorporated into college and university administrations’ approaches to campus drinking cultures, [and to discuss] the role we as feminists can and should play in shaping campus alcohol cultures and policies” (that’s from the conference program).
You’d think that an opportunity to discuss the real effects that several decades of feminist struggle have had (or failed to have) on the environment in which we earn our livings would be warmly welcomed at a Women’s Studies conference. We, too, however, presented to a near-empty room. Given the high correlation between undergraduate drinking practices and ever-increasing rates of depression, body dysmorphia, and sexual violence on campus (issues that, when last I checked, feminist scholars and activists at least pretended to care about), feminist alcohol and drugs studies seems like it should be a no-brainer. But it’s not.
It would be interesting to know what’s responsible for the near-total lack of interest in this topic within the Women’s Studies community. In 1995, Laura Schmidt and Constance Weisner speculated that “wet” and “dry” perspectives coexisted uncomfortably within organized feminism: the wets (or libertarians) saw increased access to drink/drugs and the reduction in stigma of female drinking/drugging as signs of women’s freedom, leaving them fundamentally at odds with dry (or reformist) calls for moderation, self-care, and treatment regimes that attended to gender and sexuality. The result was a studied lack of interest among self-proclaimed feminists in the feminist innovations in research and treatment that had begun in the late 1970s.
This clash of wet and dry cultures aligns pretty neatly, it seems to me, with the much ballyhooed “theory” vs. “activism” split in academic Women’s Studies: the former privileges performativity, transgression, and pleasure, while the latter focuses on concrete change-making and harm-reduction. These overweening binaries, combined with an institutional mandate to non-judgementalism (Colleague 1: A student at my exam this morning came straight from a party and was drunk as a sailor. Colleague 2: don’t you see that as a profound act of resistance to the corporate university’s mandate for docile bodies?!) make doing meaningful feminist alcohol and drugs scholarship extremely difficult. A grudging acknowledgment by the conference program committee that, yeah, this is kind of an issue, might get your panel on the program, but feminist uneasiness with the topic of over-consumption itself, coupled with chagrin at our own impoverished tools for thinking about it, will mean that the room will be pretty empty when you come to deliver your paper.