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What Relevance Does Feminist Theory Have In

Academic Geography? Essay, Research Paper

Traditionally, geography has recognised the existence of women but has made little effort to investigate the role they have played in society other than in terms of an adjustment to a male-dominated and male-determined order. In 1978 however, Tivers wrote a paper that suggested geography dropped this patronising attitude and began to study how “the other half lives” (cited in Women and Geography Study Group of the I.B.G., 1984). The momentum caused by this paper, and the movement in general, thrust feminist analysis into the forefront of geographical (and many other disciplines) research in the 1980s, signalling its emergence as a social, political and academic force to be reckoned with. As with all other subdisciplines there are a number of different approaches within feminist geography, but broadly speaking it is “a geography which explicitly takes into account the socially created gender structure of society; and tries to alleviate this gender inequality in the short and long-term” (Women and Geography Study Group of the I.B.G., 1984). Its emergence as a distinct form of analysis owes much to the appearance of the postmodern epistemology. Postmodernism “seeks to recover that which has been excluded” (Bondi, 1990) and hence has resulted in women and ethnic minorities etc. being ‘recovered’ from the academic wastelands. This ‘recovery’ has been effected on the basis that one ‘universal’ (predominantly male) perspective cannot accommodate the myriad of perspectives offered by different genders, races and ethnicities. It is for this reason that some intellectuals have suggested that postmodernism entails a shift “from the masculine to the androgenous” (Bondi, 1990). Feminist geographers (in particular the Women in Geography Study Group of the Institute of British Geographers; established in 1984), latched on to this postmodern principal, commenting that most geography studies ‘mans relationship with the environment’ and ‘man as an agent of change’ and therefore portrays humanity as being entirely male. They saw academic geography as denying the existence of women in the spatial world, arguing that ‘contemporary’ analysis and teaching centred on male activities; for example, three-quarters of geography students were taught about industry, focusing on the declining secondary industries that involved full-time, full-waged male labour, with little or no mention of the expanding part-time service sector that involved women (Williams, 1993). They concluded that if geographers were only willing to study the male half of the world’s population, then their theories and analysis of past and present issues were going to be incomplete. It was for this reason that feminist geographers decided to produce a new body of literature, specifically orientated around women and women’s activities in a wholehearted attempt to “make women visible” and “re-value their domestic labour” (Foord and Gregson, 1986). This literature, as well as stressing the value of women and the part they have to play in society, also pointed out the important differences between men and womens interpretation and use of space. In making this concern one of their key issues, feminist geographers were hoping to highlight the validity and usefulness of fragmenting standard theory to allow an open and widespread study of women that may accentuate their plight, force people to reconsider and add an extra dimension to current geographic enquiry that would make it more holistic. Whereas traditional studies focused on men and the ‘public’ sphere (waged work and political activity etc.), feminist geographers were focusing their attention on ‘promoting’ the contrasting ‘private’ sphere of women (home, family and domestic concerns etc.). This can be seen as an attempt by feminist geographers to realign the differing social positions of the sexes, caused by the importance placed on the ‘breadwinner’ by capitalist society , by increasing the image of women on a par with men. In addition to this, feminist geographers have also questioned supposedly ‘innate’ masculine or feminine characteristics, that are in fact socially rather than biologically constructed, since these have also affected the positions held by women in society and industry. The gender role theory specifically “examines the gender specific activities and forms of behavior which constitute the social roles accorded to women and men” (Foord and Gregson, 1986). These roles are manifested in assumed characteristics (women are assumed to be intuitive, passive and dextrous) that have lead to the construction of inequalities since it is assumed that women would be unable to cope with jobs that demand leadership skills or toughness, missing qualities that have been used to justify unequal pay and few promotion opportunities. This misconception may also explain why some women have had to maintain their “dual role” within the public and private spheres (women’s place is still assumed to be the home) and also why so many of them are concentrated in certain low-skilled sectors of the economy. However, although some feminist geographers have used this gender role theory to demonstrate the constraints ideologies place on women, others have criticised its use. Foord and Gregson (1986) criticised the theory saying that it; isolates womens inequality (failing to analyse the structures and processes that manifest themselves in male advantage and female disadvantage); identifies specific instances of womens inequality (which means that research is only done on the production and maintenance of womens inequality); and stresses women as victims (a negative characteristic that does nothing to further the feminist cause). Feminist geographers exploration down the path of teaching and analysis bias has led them to a discovery within geographic academia; not only are students being taught about ‘man’, the majority are also being taught by men (either teachers/lecturers or authors). In a study by Jane Connolly (1993), thirteen contemporary geography textbooks were examined in an attempt to establish whether or not a sexual bias existed. Her results showed that there was a significant polarisation between authors, only 23 per cent being women, and a similar polarisation within illustrations, only 20 per cent depicting women. These results suggested that once again, only the male perspective was being read (and hence learnt) by students, whilst the textbooks used by teachers were actually reinforcing the inequalities faced by women (Williams, 1993). A similar study, this time focusing on employment within American Geography Departments, was carried out by David Lee in 1990. His results, from analysis of 1988-89 data, showed the inequalities faced by women within higher education; out of 2,059 individuals employed in some professional form by Geography Departments, only 200 were women (9.7 per cent of the total), the remaining 1,859 being men (Lee, 1990). However, for an historical perspective Lee compared the sexual division of doctorates for two periods, finding that in the 1950s and 1960s the ratio was sixteen to one in favour of males, but by 1986-87 this ratio had reduced to three to one. This last set of data shows a considerable, although not total, improvement in opportunities awarded to women in the last few years that may be attributed to the efforts of the feminist movement and feminist geographers. Their partial success is paradoxically shown by Zelinsky (1973, cited Lee, 1990) who wrote before the feminist movement had gathered momentum; “By every objective measure that can be mustered, the lot of female geographers is, and always has been, a discouraging one; and there is little assurance of substantial improvement during the foreseeable future”. Zelinsky’s negative (although realistic at the time) approach to womens future prospects, underlines the dramatic impact feminist geographers have had in pushing their cause for equality within their discipline and society. In short, the undisputed emergence of the feminist subdiscipline into academia is categorical evidence in itself that feministic geography is relevant. By introducing gender into an analysis of space, the feminists have gone some way towards making the study of geography all encompassing; at the same time diminishing some of societies ingrained inequalities.Bibliography Bondi, L (1990) “Feminism, Postmodernism and Geography: Space For Women?”, in Antipode 22(2) pp156-167 Foord, J & Gregson, N (1986) “Patriarchy: towards a reconceptualisation”, in Antipode 18(2) pp186-211 Hooks, B (1984) “Feminist Theory: From margin to center”, South End Press Johnston, Gregory & Smith (eds.) (1994) “Dictionary of Human Geography”, 3rd edition, Blackwell Lee, D (1990) “The Status of Women in Geography: Things change, things remain the same” in Professional Geographer 42(2) pp202-211 Sanders, R (1990) “Integrating Race and Ethnicity into Geographic Gender Studies” in Professional Geographer 42(2) pp228-231 Williams, J (1993) Lecture delivered at The University of Liverpool Women and Geography Study Group of the I.B.G. (1984) “Geography and Gender”, Hutchinson