An Incomplete Herstory

When Women Ask the Questions is a provocative, yet deeply flawed publication that purports to annotate the creation of women’s studies programs within the American academy. Noted as “the first comprehensive account of women’s studies,” Marilyn Jacoby Boxer presents an incomplete history of the discipline in its maneuverings through the patriarchal elitism of institutionalized discourse.
While it may stand as a healthy exposition of a movement whose confrontations and challenges of societal gender norms, attitudes, and practices changed global consciousness forever, sadly — although pertinent insights do abound — When Women Ask the Questions is inextricably mired in White supremacist dogmatic conventions and philosophies.
Certainly, When Women Ask the Questions has several strengths. First, Boxer clearly establishes that women’s studies’ greatest contribution to intellectual process is its deployment of women, and therefore gender, as a posited and constructed category. Its establishment demanded a realignment and re-designation of intellectual modalities and actualization. This “revisionism” challenged canonical paradigms via an inclusion of experientialism, intuition, and emotionalism, which had ripple effects in curriculum development and implementation, language inclusion, research methodologies, empowerment initiatives, cooperative mentoring models, and paradigmatic conceptualizations.
Most potently, women’s studies advanced the notion of “gender” as category, which dissected systems of socialized power constructions explicit “and” implicit within “all” American institutions.
Nevertheless, Boxer’s book lovingly recounts the early efforts and struggles of institutionalization. Numerous agonizing debates and conflicts occurred as women’s studies sought self-definition as “a department, interdisciplinary program, or a discipline.” These theoretical dilemmas of placement and application divided the movement as several factions espoused the fear that inclusion within the academy would lead to a subversion of the feminist agenda by its traditionalist critics. Boxer articulates these dilemmas with extreme clarity and thoughtfulness.
However, the book truly reaches its zenith with Boxer’s constant explication of the internal collision arenas within the discipline itself. Indeed, the central conflict involving the creation of women’s studies existed in the philosophical differentiation inherent within “feminism” and its multi-various applications. The author readily recounts the, sometimes, vitriolic dialogues between “radical feminists and cultural feminists, essentialists and social constructionists, cultural feminists and poststructuralists, motherists and feminists.”
But alas, the book’s illuminating strengths cannot outweigh its debilitating weaknesses. There is but cursory acknowledgment that women’s studies is not “the first new, interdisciplinary field of studies” and “the linking of academic inquiry to activist goals in American higher education did not commence with the introduction of women’s studies.”
For many years hence, Black studies (now African American studies) and ethnic studies engaged in these type of challenges to academic institutions. However, Boxer only mentions these movements in passing, conspicuosly consigning Spelman College and its contributions to race and gender paradigms as a token afterthought. These racialized omissions are particularly jarring in light of recent studies of affirmative action, which indicate that “White women” were the prime beneficiaries of programs that were primarily advocated by people of color.
Undoubtedly, the most egregious flaw of When Women Ask the Questions is Boxer’s blatant ghettoization of feminists of color and their contribution to the field. While she acknowledges that “the founders of women’s studies were largely White women,” Boxer proceeds to relegate women of color to supportive roles. This occurs despite her own chronology which indicates intellectual feminist activity by women of color occurring simultaneous with — and at times “preceding” — that of White women. For instance, in the chapter entitled “Embracing Diversity,” a title which itself implies a hegemonic maternalism, she recounts the numerous “obligatory excoriations” by women of color during the constitutive years and the near implausibility of a “universal sisterhood.”
To be sure, this book illuminates the shifts and changes, which have occurred in American culture in the confrontation of its institutionalized misogyny and patriarchal practice.
Yet conversely, Marilyn Jacoby Boxer replicates many of the patterns of White patriarchal status quo rhetoric and process — a process that consistently enslaves and undermines women of color while claiming to liberate them.  A sprinkling of Toni Cade Bambara there, a pinch of Alice Walker here, and dashes of bell hooks throughout does not create a palatable buffet of diversity and inclusion.
Undoubtedly, Boxer would have served her interests more honestly by re-titling the book, “When Certain Women Ask Certain Questions.”

— Kerry Lee Riley
is a graduate student at the
 University of Califonia-Berkeley.

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