The Gender of Knowledge

by Dr. Sarah C. Dunstan

Middlemarch, Public Domain.

Rereading George Eliot’s Middlemarch recently, I was struck by the following line: ‘Young ladies don’t understand political economy, you know,’ said Mr Brook, smiling towards Mr. Casaubon. ‘I remember when we were all reading Adam Smith. There is a book now.’[1] The context has certainly changed – we are no longer in 19th century England – but these attitudes persisted well into the twentieth century, with significant consequences. Through the research for the current Leverhulme Women and the History of International Thought project, it has become very clear to me that attitudes like this have profoundly shaped how we understand the intellectual genealogies of political economy as well as all kinds of thought in and outside of the academy. As the activist historian Berenice Carroll put it: ‘the class system of the intellect has a long history’ and ‘its relative exclusion of women dates back to ancient times.’[2]

As all of our project members have noted in their respective blog posts, as well as in their publications, women are notably absent from histories of international thought and the discipline of IR. This does not reflect the influence that many women had on international thought in their own time through published scholarship as well as teaching and public commentary. Eliot’s own intellectual legacy, although not in the domain of international thought, is symptomatic of this kind of forgetting. At her death, the historian Lord Action wrote that ‘[i]n problems of life and thought, which baffled Shakespeare disgracefully, her touch was unfailing.’[3] She quickly fell out of favour thereafter, however, remembered for many decades only in terms of what one critic dismissively referred to as her ‘ponderous moral aphorisms and …didactic ethical influence.’[4] Such exclusion was very explicitly gendered – the same critic opened his essay with a reflection on Eliot’s apparently unfortunate looks. It should go without saying that it is crucial that we undo this kind of exclusion and dismissal by recovering the work and historical impact of women’s work. Equally significant, however, is understanding how the process of forgetting women’s contributions has influenced how we understand knowledge formation and dissemination. As a number of scholars have noted in the case of IR, canon construction within the discipline has been so entwined with questions of gender and race that it can quite literally be described as an exercise in mapping ‘relations of descent and influence between [white] men.’[5] 

The quote from Middlemarch struck a particular chord with me because it was so reminiscent of the experiences of three women scholars I had just interviewed for our project’s oral history archive: Janice Gross Stein, the Canadian political scientist and security expert, Karen Mingst, the American political scientist of global governance and Margaret Hermann, the American political psychologist. The first, Stein, told me about her experiences doing field work in the late 1970s whilst she was working on the Egyptian-Israeli war of 1973. As part of this research, she interviewed a number of military officials in Cairo.  The first hurdle that she had to overcome was that she was a ‘Jewish woman… working in international relations’ at a time when there were few women working in the field of security.  She recalled that it took some effort for her interview subjects to ‘get over the fact that I was a woman and they were generals and they’d never had this kind of conversation with a woman before.’[6] When they did, Stein uncovered some brilliant material that overwhelmed ‘whatever discomforts’ she experienced.

In telling me this story, Stein noted that this attitude – the surprise at a woman being interested in and knowledgeable about security issues – was not particular to Cairo. To the contrary, one of her favourite examples of this kind of behaviour came from an interview with a senior Canadian General who asked her ‘What’s a nice little girl like you doing asking these questions?’[7] Karen Mingst met with similar incredulity during her graduate work at Wisconsin in the early 1970s. In the interview, Mingst told me that she still has clear memories of attending one of the core IR classes, Security, only to have the Professor turn to her and say, ‘Why are you taking this class? Women don’t study this.’[8] The Professor in question was male: Mingst herself was one of only three women students in the international relations (IR) programme and there were no women on faculty during her time there.

It is clear that a hundred years after Middlemarch was published, the notion that a woman might not understand political issues still required dismantling. The default assumption was that this kind of knowledge was ‘men’s business’. It is an assumption that Stein also met with when she started appearing as an expert commentator on Canadian national television. This again was ‘a myth busting experience for lots of people’ because it surprised them that the public face of knowledge around war could be a woman.

The subjects of security and war were not the only realms in which women faced stereotypes about appropriate areas of expertise for their gender. During my interview with Margaret Hermann, she recounted a similarly illustrative experience. As an adjunct at Princeton University in 1979, Hermann was charged with coaxing thirty undergraduate students into honing their critical thinking and debating skills through Princeton’s precept system. She began the semester prepared for intellectual and pedagogical challenges but was unprepared for the shocked silence that would greet her first overtures to the all-male class. None of the students in the room had ever been taught by a woman. The categories of “Teacher” and “Professor” and, by extension, the realm of serious knowledge, were therefore implicitly masculine to their minds.  Many of these students would later confide to Hermann that they had never even met a woman in their social circles who worked outside the home. This shock was compounded by the fact that Hermann was also visibly pregnant with her first child. If her students were confounded by the notion that a woman could also be a scholar, they were doubly surprised to discover that a scholar could also be a mother.[9]

Obviously Hermann’s students occupied a very particular elite sphere. Nevertheless, it is worth remembering that for much of the twentieth century – until the late 1960s and 1970s – female students were not admitted to the most prestigious universities in the United States, Ivy League institutions such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Dartmouth. Women attended separate or parallel, all-female institutions for their undergraduate degrees.[10] Oxford and Cambridge in the United Kingdom were similarly constituted by single-sex colleges that demarcated gendered boundaries in knowledge acquisition. Likewise, many postgraduate programmes were reluctant to offer women bursaries if they were married, on the basis that they were unlikely to pursue work other than motherhood. In such a context, it is not hard to see how beliefs around authority and the relationship between expertise and gender come into being.

Thus far I have interviewed eighteen women scholars for the Leverhulme Women and the History of International Thought oral history archive. The women come from throughout the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom and each have very different scholarly trajectories contingent upon multiplicity factors that intersected with their gender. (These include national and ethnic identity, religion, class and sexuality, amongst others.) Their graduate school experiences range temporally from the 1940s through to the 1970s and their chosen areas of specialisation encompass diverse fields. Some have chosen to adopt explicitly feminist analyses to counter and work through obstacles they have encountered by virtue of expectations around their gender and their work. Others have pursued different methodological routes. All have been very successful scholars, latterly recognised as leaders in their respective areas. Without exception, however, they have all had to contend with the relationship between their expertise and their gendered identity as women. We need to take this into account when we read their intellectual work and when we think about the development of the field over the course of the twentieth century. The idea that ‘young ladies don’t understand political economy’ is hopefully a relic of the past. We should not neglect, however, to weigh its impact upon knowledge production within histories of international thought and beyond.

[1] George Eliot, Middlemarch (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 1994), 13.

[2] Berenice A. Carroll, ‘The Politics of “Originality”: Women and the Class System of the Intellect,’ Journal of Women’s History, Volume 2, Number 2, Fall 1990, Q137.

[3] Quoted in Roland Hill, Lord Acton (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 303.

[4] On the resurgence of Eliot studies in the 1960s see Ken Newton, ‘Review of Middlemarch: Critical Approaches to the Novel,’ The George Eliot Review 46 (2015): 65-66.

[5] Andrea Nye, Philosophia: The Thought of Rosa Luxemburg, Simone Weil, and Hannah Arendt (London: Routledge, 1994): xiv

[6] Janice Gross Stein, Interview with Sarah C. Dunstan, 19 March, 2019, 13.

[7] Janice Gross Stein, Interview, 14.

[8] Karen Mingst, Interview with Sarah C. Dunstan, 20 March, 2019, 7.

[9] Margaret Hermann, Interview with Sarah C. Dunstan, 17-18.

[10] See Nancy Weiss Malkiel, “Keep the Damned Women Out”: The Struggle for Coeducation (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2016).

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