Feminism and Critical Consciousness


Veena Poonacha


        A product of the political upsurges of the 1970s, women’s studies developed as an academic statement of a political ideal of education. It has its nascent roots in the   various consciousness raising sessions organized by the autonomous women’s groups that emerged in the 1960s. It was introduced in the Indian University system in order break the academic isolation and to make university education relevant to the prevailing social realities. From a commitment to gender equality and secular values, women’s studies has subscribed to non-hierarchical modes of knowledge generation. At the core of its theories and methodologies is critical consciousness. For the impetus for its growth is the realization that mainstream theories do not reflect the realities of women’s lives. Aimed at maintaining male power within the academia and outside, mainstream theories and institutionalized practices tend to maintain inequalities. Developed as a correction to this lopsided worldview, women’s studies may be defined as an interdisciplinary study of society from the standpoint of women’s experiences. Women’s studies points to the power equation in the creation and propagation of knowledge and helps to develop a more complete picture of social reality.


        This presentation briefly recapitulates some of the early milestones in the growth of women’s studies in the university system. Subsequently elaborating on the compulsions that women’s studies scholarship faces in the university system, the presentation will elaborate on the pedagogical challenges that confront women’s studies teaching in the classrooms and locate these challenges in the context of the current trends in education.  


Women’s Studies in the University System


          Very briefly, women’s studies entered the university system as the political arm of the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1960s.  As mentioned earlier, women’s studies grew out of the various consciousness-raising sessions organized by the autonomous women’s groups to question the prevailing gender based inequalities. Therefore it has a political purpose of transforming the existing inequalities in society. It entered the university system as a tool of raising this critical consciousness and creating awareness of the lived experiences of women.  Its entry into the University System of India was through the establishment of the Research Centre for Women’s Studies (RCWS) at the SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai. Looking back it seem only natural that women’s studies should develop in the SNDT Women’s University, for the political and cultural ethos of the university is rooted in the social reform and nationalist ideals of the early-20th century.  The RCWS was established at a point of time when the relevance of separate institutions higher education for women was questioned. The introduction of women’s studies was a means of providing women with space to conceptualize and to build a database on women. More importantly, the experiment was expected to break the academic isolation of university education and make it a means of social transformation. Therefore the mandate given to the RCWS required that it went beyond research to incorporate teaching and community development activities.


         Needless to say these first bold steps taken by the SNDT Women’s University was made possible by the overall optimism that permeated the 1970s. In response to the demands of the women’s liberation movement, the United Nations had declared 1975 as the International Women’s Year and held the historic World Conference of Women in Mexico. The United Nations Plan of Action drawn up that year had called for worldwide research on women to enquire into the adverse impact of development on women in the various parts of the World. In India, as is well known, the findings of the Towards Equality Report (1974) resulted in research initiatives being taken up by the Indian Council of Social Sciences. But what must not be forgotten is that the national and international sanction for the establishment of women’s studies was in response to the pressures from the women’s movement. This point is crucial in understanding women’s studies pedagogical compulsions and some of the current concerns. It was at the first National Conference held in 1981 in SNDT Women’s University that women activists, teachers and professionals called for the establishment of women’s studies centers/cells in the University System.   


           The support provided by the UGC to the establishment of women’s studies centers/cells since the Seventh Plan and the incorporation of women’s studies courses in the university system seem to imply its acceptance by the academic community. This, however, serves to hide the subtle ways in which feminist thought and actions are sabotaged. For, apart from the perennial shortage of funds and bureaucratic tangles, women’s studies teaching and research programmes seem to depend upon the goodwill of the predominantly male managements in the university system.


Development of Women’s Studies Theory and Praxis


       Insights into women’s studies theory and praxis, however, did not entirely develop within these institutional structures. It developed within the politics of the autonomous women’s movements through its consciousness-raising sessions and attempts to establish non-hierarchical modes of communication and action. The most scathing criticisms of mainstream theories emerged out of women’s attempts to conceptualize and validate women’s experiences. Their criticism of ‘grand’ theories demonstrated that the universal claims underlying mainstream theories were deceptive and based on false abstractions. It also translated itself (from an understanding of the experiential basis of knowledge) to an emphasis on political action, avoidance of abstract theorizing (Barrett and Philips 1992: 1-9). These experiments in breaking structures and power concentrations led to the emergence of some of the pedagogical principles that underlie women’s studies. These are as follows:  


  1. The personal is political;
  2. Demystification of knowledge, so as to create inclusive spaces for all women in the processes of knowledge generation;  
  3. The emphasis on the experiential basis of knowing;
  4. The process of knowledge creation should be non-hierarchical and that the process of learning should break the barriers between the teacher and the taught;
  5. Canonical texts and the received wisdom should be critically examined;
  6. The power of knowledge generation rests with each one and the process should be potentially empowering; and finally,
  7. women’s studies praxis and theory is political and must challenge the status quo;


         A critical component of women’s studies theory and praxis is its self-reflexivity. Women’s studies praxis requires a personal commitment to change and a conscious attempt to recognize and address some of the deeply embedded prejudices within each one of us. Recognizing the complex intersections of caste/class and gender identities in each one of us, women’s studies must enable us to address how these multiple identities are played out in our lives. 


Compulsions of Women’s Studies Teaching/Research within Institutional Spaces


        Against this backdrop, this paper elaborates on some of the compulsions of “doing” women’s studies in the University system. Women’s studies scholarship, whether located in the women’s studies centres/cells or in other mainstream departments, is under compulsion to research and publish. Its acceptance by the academic community is necessary for the recognition of the work. Women’s studies scholarship to meet this requirement is increasingly addressing their works to their academic peers. The language of women’s studies discourses is increasingly becoming obscure and unavailable to other women. Does this suggest the mystification of knowledge and an acceptance of some of the exclusionary practices that have, through the ages, characterized male scholarship? Does this suggest that in trying to meet these standards, the political aims of women’s studies scholarship often gets overlooked?  Women’s Studies has become another discipline – an avenue for career growth rather than a potentially explosive political agenda. This suggestion is not an attempt to limit women’s studies and suggest that there should be no critical analysis of some of our taken for granted positions. Women’s studies theorizing will have to develop complex, diverse and multi-layered analysis to accurately reflect women’s experiences of social reality from the standpoint of women. The suggestion is only that that attempts to structure women’s studies scholarship within mainstream paradigms might dilute the some of the subtleties of women’s studies theorizing.    


         The mainstreaming of women’s studies has also created a market for certain kinds of research. As funds are currently available for developmental research with a gender component, certain kinds of research gain currency. In meeting the research agenda of the funding agencies, we are often required to adopt some of the reductionist models of mainstream research. In refusing to conform to the standards of objectivity set by the research agenda, feminist research gets dismissed as polemical. These standards of objectivity are often in variance with the feminist commitment to research that would also empower the local communities and those that are undertaken from a standpoint epistemology.  Therefore what are the contours of women’s studies scholarships? Can all studies on women be classified as women’s studies?  If not, what are the markers? And who determines these boundaries?     


There were also other pitfalls of introducing women’s studies through official decrees. Many women’s studies departments as well as courses are introduced into the university system to reflect the politically correct positions of the University authorities. These additional responsibilities are thrust upon women willing to shoulder them. Indubitably, these women accept the additional charge out of a commitment to women, but they are often unable to appreciate the political content of the discipline; or even if they do, they are not able to draw upon the rich experience of feminist activism to gain insights and creatively enrich their teaching/research programmes. Women’s studies research and teaching programmes increasingly become a study of women without reflecting on the feminist underpinnings or from the critical consciousness required to do feminist research. This is not to imply that all the existing women’s studies centers or teachers are unable to creatively handle women’s studies teaching but rather to emphasis the difficulties they encounter. Therefore the teaching/learning experiences in the University structure are unable to communicate the rich diversity of women’s studies scholarship.


Further, the parallel development of women’s studies as a critique and correction of the bias within mainstream disciplines and as a distinct discipline with a recognizable disciplinary grid poses questions for the future direction of women’s studies: As a separate discipline, it is easier for mainstream disciplines to ignore women’s studies research and theoretical perspectives. At the same time, attempts to integrate women’s studies into mainstream studies have also not met with success. Offered as an optional paper within mainstream papers, the insights gained by feminist scholarship are not addressed. Many faculty members within the university system feel that the multi-dimensional, inter-disciplinary and intra-disciplinary approach of women’s studies has little relevance to their particular discipline. To them women’s studies is an unnecessary appendage.  For instance the critical insights of feminist politics are ignored by the dominant discourses on politics. Women’s claim ‘the personal is political’ is not seen in the purview of political enquiry. A similar resistance to women’s studies is seen in psychology, history and other social science and humanities disciplines. The teachers of these disciplines often feel threatened by the critical questions posed by women’s studies.  Within the University System there is a lack of awareness among teachers and students about the aims and methodology of teaching women’s studies courses.   Students also experience the disjuncture between professed theoretical positions and the ground realities of their lives. This places an additional burden on class-room practices. The teacher is forced to confront her own inability to cope with the multi-varied experiences of women and to provide support. The emphasis within women’s studies that the personal is political poses a serious existential crisis to the students on needing to challenge and rectify

the prevailing inequalities.


Content of Women’s Studies


          An equally important issue is the content of women’s studies teaching/ research programmes. The question is how do we communicate the complexities and subtleties of women’s studies positions? Students often ask for pat answers and quick-fix solutions. Women studies does not necessarily have these solutions.  Women ’s Studies is essentially a set of open-ended questions about women and society. There are divergent and contradictory responses to the same set of questions. Since it has no pat answers, it generates a rich varied scholarship and calls upon each woman to reflect upon her life. Therefore how best can these discourses be communicated in the classroom? Further, over the years, women’s studies scholarship has also developed in increasingly complex trajectories. How best can the continuity and the shifts in women’s studies thought be communicated without diluting its political potential?  For instance, even while critiquing male centred disciplines, feminist scholarship of the 1970s, sought overarching explanations for the roots of women’s subordination. The questions they asked were, was it biologically ordained or rooted in the process of gender socialization? What was the economic basis of women’s subordination and sexual division of work? Could women’s subordination be traced to production or reproduction systems? The emerging feminist voices, because of their different ideological and theoretical underpinnings, came up with different explanations. Broadly it identified the prevailing production, reproduction and sexual relationships as the foundational basis of women’s inequalities.


Subsequently, the feminist theories have increasingly questioned the androgynous model of human nature; it has aimed at recovering women’s culture and critiqued masculine ideology of domination by pointing to the interconnections between women’s subordination, destruction of the environment and the arms race. This rich variety of feminist thought percolated into art, culture, religion and literature to resonate in multiple voices. Women of colour and from developing countries pointed to the ways in which race, class and gender intersected in complex ways to modify their lives. These ideas breached the private/public, mind/body, nature/culture divide in western theorizing (Lamphere 1987: 11-33). It indicated that the habit of thinking in hierarchical binary opposites was responsible for the ‘othering’ of women, races and ethnic minorities. Women’s studies scholarship has reached new theoretical heights. It has problematized the concepts of sex, gender, power, identity, agency, etc.


         Women’s studies scholarship has also questioned the previously held definitions of power/powerless, sexuality and fixed gender identities. The challenge to `grand’ theories has developed a rich understanding of the heterogeneity of human experiences. Nonetheless the fear is, whether this legitimate critiquing of the shortfalls of the theories of the 1970s undermined the political vision of feminism’s original project? Has the relativist and experiential basis of knowledge undermined the goal of accurate and systematic knowledge? And has the focus on historical heterogeneity obscured the traditional male privilege in the construction of knowledge? Furthermore, can feminist politics survive the theoretical onslaught on the assumption of a fixed female identity? And without a shared vision of political change, can the movement oppose the current backlash against women? Thus by failing to acknowledge the legacy of the earlier feminist struggles, are the feminists of the present generation doomed to reinvent their battles? And how far have women’s studies teaching/research programmes fulfilled their roles as the repository of women’s knowledge? 


         Further, the growing legitimacy of women’s studies scholarship attracts women scholars with different ideological orientation. It is thus becoming difficult to demarcate women’s studies from studies on women. The richness of women’s studies theories is precisely because it has sought to accommodate diversity. The danger however arises when a conservative worldview is propagated as women’s studies. Yet any attempt at gate keeping could also stifle the discipline and prevent wholesome debate on controversial issues. 


Implications of the Current Changes on Women’s Studies


The need to engage in political discourse is precisely because of the insidious ways in which political conservatism has permeated educational institutions, policies and ideologies, resulting in non–secular elements in education. Apart from undermining the secular fabric of the country, the outreach of right winged ideologies has serious implications for women’s studies as a discipline. Given that the discipline is inter-disciplinary and draws its theories from many sources, how do we ensure that it remains secular and does not succumb to right winged propaganda? The resolution of this question is not as easy as it appears, neither strategically nor theoretically. The strategic difficulty of spearheading a homogenous feminist position comes about because women from diverse political, affiliations have entered the women’s studies and are divided by their class/caste/religious identities. Additionally, the Hindutva forces have carefully placed right-winged women in key decision-making positions even in institutions that came into being due to the struggles of the women’s movement. Theoretically, feminist commitment to a secular and progressive ideology aimed at establishing women’s equality is weakened by its recognition of a relativist position of truth. If no truth is non-negotiable, how can we claim the falsity of non-secular ideologies? Today they are confronted with ideological fragmentation and the interpolation of identity politics. If women are not a homogenous group, is there no possibility of coming together? How do we accommodate these differences so that there is also a possibility of solidarity among women? What is meant by the early feminist claims of sisterhood? Would it be possible to negotiate the




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