Disciplining Feminism

From Social Activism to Academic Discourse

Disciplining Feminism

Book Pages: 424 Illustrations: Published: January 2002

American Studies, Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies, Pedagogy and Higher Education

How was academic feminism formed by the very institutions it originally set out to transform? This is the question Ellen Messer-Davidow seeks to answer in Disciplining Feminism. Launched thirty years ago as a bold venture to cut across disciplines and bridge the gap between scholarly knowledge and social activism, feminism in the academy, the author argues, is now entrenched in its institutional structures and separated from national political struggle.
Working within a firm theoretical framework and drawing on years of both personal involvement and fieldwork in and outside of academe, Messer-Davidow traces the metamorphosis of a once insurgent project in three steps. After illustrating how early feminists meshed their activism with institutional processes to gain footholds on campuses and in disciplinary associations, she turns to the relay between institutionalization and intellectualization, examining the way feminist studies coalesced into an academic field beginning in the mid-1970s. Without denying the successes of this feminist passage into the established system of higher learning, Messer-Davidow nonetheless insists that the process of institutionalization itself necessarily alters all new entrants—no matter how radical. Her final chapters look to the future of feminism in an increasingly conservative environment and to the possibilities for social change in general.
Disciplining Feminism’s interdisciplinary scope and cross-sector analysis will attract a broad range of readers interested in women’s studies, American higher education, and the dynamics of social transformation.


Disciplining Feminism provides an insightful and sometimes sobering view of one of the most highly-regarded exemplars of an interdisciplinary field. . . . This book is about much more than women’s studies, with detailed discussions of efforts to create broader social and political change beyond the academy.” — Julie Thompson Klein, Association for Integrative Studies Newsletter

“[An] impressively detailed history of the emergence of women’s studies in higher education in the U.S. . . . [Messer-Davidow] illustrates her claims with effective first-person narratives of intellectual struggle and personal transformation. Her discussion of the influence of the antiwar and civil rights movements on the later development of women’s studies, and the dubious results of early sex-discrimination suits in academe are particularly thought-inspiring from historical and social standpoints. Messer-Davidow’s thorough research into the origins and development of intellectual feminism will serve as a useful resource for feminist scholars wishing to track the developments of their discipline.” — Publishers Weekly

“[Messer Davidow] offers a keen analysis of what went wrong for women’s studies—that is, of how academic feminism came to forget real women.” — Arianne J. Chernock, TLS

“Messer Davidow’s . . . analysis of how universities shape faculty conduct is trenchant. Similarly, her look at what it takes to prove intellectual rigor is startling, and readers will be unable to close the text without understanding why most feminists, people of color, and working-class teachers remain on the lowest rungs of college life. What’s more, the split between theory and practice—a casualty of the integration of women’s studies’ into the academic canon—has created a rift between activists and the scholastically inclined. Messer-Davidow’s call for an end to the separation is well placed. Should university folk heed her plea and join social change movements, who knows what revolutionary havoc will be wrought. Recommended for all feminist collections and academic libraries.” — Library Journal

"[A] large, well-researched study . . . . Disciplining Feminism is 'political autobiography’ and it has much to recommend it . . . . [Messer-Davidow] uses the history she traces to prove a bold and devastating claim . . . . [H]er book stimulated me to think about the question of social transformation in democratic societies. . . . Her wake-up call is timely . . . . I recommend that feminists of whatever stripe read Disciplining Feminism and take to heart its proposals for building a liberal community to confront increasing conservatism." — E. Ann Kaplan, Women's Review of Books

"[A]n important examination of feminist studies relevant to all interested in the field’s future and those seeking to find ways to connect, or reconnect, to community activism. . . . This study is a thought-provoking read for any scholar engaged in feminist studies or university administration. Messer-Davidow’s effective cross-disciplinary study includes a useful theoretical framework for understanding the development and organization of women’s studies. . . . Messer-Davidow’s book provides a starting point to think and debate the future of women’s studies." — Susan Stein-Roggenbuck, H-Net Reviews

"[P]rovocative and productive." — Carmen Faymonville, Feminist Collections

"[T]hose seeking to understand the development of feminist scholarship must read this book and those seeking to understand disciplinary and institutional effects upon scholarly areas born from social activism should read this book. It is well worth the effort." — Barbara Townsend, Journal of Higher Education

"All stripes of feminists need to read this book, which is written lucidly, compellingly, and in a narrative style that accomodates intellectual analysis. Whether readers agree or disagree with her arguments, they will have to acknowledge that Messer-Davidow writes with feminist passion." — Dorothy O. Helly, Women's Studies Quarterly

"Disciplining Feminism is a valuable testament to the monumental struggle feminists undertook in the last half century to establish the study of women and gender as a social and academic phenomenon." — Sonita Sarker, Cultural Critique

"I found Messer-Davidow’s discussion of the roots of academic feminism far-reaching, clearly articulated, and instructive as to how we arrived at this point. Disciplining Feminism would be particularly useful for an introductory level course in women’s studies, as it provides a nuanced, careful study of how feminism moved from the grassroots movement of the 1960s to a bona fide field of scholarly study, research, and teaching by the end of the century. Messer-Davidow presents a masterful interweaving of multiple sources of data. . . . She paints a vibrant, complex narrative of the transformation of feminism with simultaneous attention to both the micro and macrolevel." — Karla Erickson, Contemporary Sociology

"In her analysis of academic feminism, Ellen Messer-Davidow’s interdisciplinary lens has a wide, illuminating range. It spans the feminist history of not only higher education but also judicial, political, and private sectors; it combines fieldwork with a theoretical account of disciplines and an extensive knowledge of feminism’s early organizations. The book moves deftly from ‘the personal’ out to the academic and political, closing with a call for renewed personal-political engagement today. Disciplining Feminims’s tremendous breadth of critical method is its strong achievement. . . . [E]xcellent. . . ." — Jill Rappoport, Iris

"Part of the value of Ellen Messer-Davidow’s Disciplining Feminism is the author’s location as a participant in the very beginning of women’s studies, and active role in her home discipline in bringing feminist studies into mainstream organizations. . . . The story of the beginning of feminism in the American Sociological Association (ASA) and the MLA . . . is a fascinating read." — Jyl Josephson, Public Eye

"What I found probably most useful in the book were the highly articulated political strategies Messer-Davidow suggests women use to maintain their position. Her concluding recommendations for building social change sound familiar to women activists-networking, training in advocacy and media, forging multiple alliances and the like. . . . This is a timely book given the inroads conservative thinking is making into education." — Wendy Harcourt, International Feminist Journal of Politics

Disciplining Feminism is the first study to offer a historical account and a theoretically informed explanation of how feminism became eviscerated from its originating political and community roots as it gained legitimacy within the key institutions of academia. It thus untangles three of the most crucial problems facing the academy today. First, it explodes the simpleminded truism that feminism naïvely got coopted by the awards and perks of academic success. Second, it makes clear how the ‘disciplining’ of feminist inquiry made academic feminism vulnerable to the escalating organized attacks from the conservative Right. And, finally, it offers a compelling set of strategies for making social change.” — Annette Kolodny, author of Failing the Future: A Dean Looks at Higher Education in the Twenty-first Century

“Here is a scholar of texts who has been a social activist doing ethnography and combining it all seamlessly. The way in which the material merges into a single argument makes this an outstanding contribution on many fronts.” — Jean O'Barr, Duke University


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Ellen Messer-Davidow is Professor of English at the University of Minnesota, as well as on the faculty of the Women’s Studies Department, the Center for Advanced Feminist Studies, the Program in American Studies, and the Department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature. She is the coeditor of several books, including (En)Gendering Knowledge: Feminists in Academe and Knowledges: Historical and Critical Studies in Disciplinarity.

Table of Contents Back to Top

Introduction: Knowing and Doing

Part 1. Confronting the Institutional Disciplinary Order

1. Disciplining Women

2. Constructing Sex Discrimination

Part 2. Institutionalizing and Intellectualizing Feminist Studies

3. Articulating Projects

4. Formatting Feminist Studies

5. Proliferating the Discourse

Part 3. Crystallizing the Future

6. Remaking Change Agency

7. Playing by the New Rules


Works Cited

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2843-8 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2829-2
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