New PhD theses on the struggles of women’s studies

2016-04-26 11:03

A lot remains to be told about the history of gender research, according to Daniel Nyström, a scholar in the field of history of ideas. ‘The early women’s historians and their work have been marginalised by their very own field,’ he says.

Whenever the history of gender research is told, we like to begin in the 1970s and the radical tendencies that flourished around that time. While it is true that the research field grew rapidly during that period, the first PhD theses in the field of women’s history were presented already in the early 1960s, Daniel Nyström points out. Daniel Nyström recently finished his PhD at Umeå University after successfully presenting his thesis titled Before Research Became Radical: A Historiographical Study of Labour History and Women’s History, which offers a review of the very first PhD theses in the field of women’s history and how they were received in the academic community. He has looked at the reviews that were written about the theses, and also at how the texts and researchers have been treated in the years that have passed since the publishing of the works.

‘Often when the history of gender research is described, there is a strong focus on the co-emergence of the field and the political movements of the 1970s, but that view is a simplification,’ he says.

In his thesis, he gives particular attention to Gunnar Qvist, Karin Westman Berg and Eva Åsbrink, all of whom stirred up strong reactions when they presented their PhD theses in the early 1960s.

‘Their works described an unjust and exploiting system that grants men privileges. It is obvious that their choice of topics drew a lot of attention,’ says Daniel Nyström.

Especially Eva Åsbrink was heavily criticised for her thesis on the view of women in the Swedish church.

‘Some people didn’t consider her work serious research but rather a feminist, political stunt. That’s a common way to undermine scholarly work,’ says Daniel Nyström.

Dual purposes with the forums

The early women’s historians stretched the limits in academia but were at the same time forced to comply with scholarly norms in order to gain legitimacy. Jakob Winther Forsbäck, PhD student in history at the University of Gothenburg, is interested in this balancing act. His PhD project focuses on the forums for women’s studies that were formed at all large Swedish universities in the late 1970s. The forums are often described as the predecessors of the university departments of gender studies and Jakob Winther Forsbäck has reviewed the archives from the groups in Stockholm and Gothenburg. He is in the middle of his thesis project and aims at completing his PhD next summer.

‘The forums clearly had a dual purpose,’ he says.

He explains that the objective was to both improve the conditions for women in academia and establish a women’s perspective in research.

‘Today many gender researchers are frustrated about policy makers’ lack of understanding concerning the difference between gender research and gender equality policy, but it really isn’t so strange since in the beginning there was some muddling from below.’

‘The researchers scored points in the academic community by portraying masculinity and femininity as meritocratic traits.’

Jakob Winther Forsbäck describes the dual purpose as a consequence of the situation in academia in the early 1970s.

‘A vast majority of the researchers at the higher levels were men, and policy makers didn’t do much to change it. The forums emerged as a reaction to this. There was a need for something new,’ he says.

Paradoxes in the work for impact

In order to understand the difficulties that the researchers had to face when getting settled in the academic community, Jakob Winther Forsbäck focuses on paradoxes in the work of the forums. One such paradox is that the researchers emphasised the need for a women’s perspective at the same time as they questioned the notion of differences between women and men. As the academic branch of the women’s movement, the forums took advantage of certain academic norms in order to reach an impact,’ says Jakob Winther Forsbäck.

‘Instead of arguing for women’s access to the academic world from a justice perspective, female scholars were held to be a prerequisite for quality in research,’ he says.

He describes it as if the researchers scored points in the academic community by portraying masculinity and femininity as meritocratic traits.

‘The forums stressed the importance of giving women and their experiences access to academia, but this argumentation also helped reinforce the idea that women can be expected to produce a particular type of research,’ he says.

Researchers and activists are still struggling with paradoxes of this type, Jakob Winther Forsbäck continues.

‘In order to formulate a political campaign focusing on women, it is necessary to identify women as a group, and at that very moment the making of gender has begun,’ he says.

Let us revisit Daniel Nyström and the early PhD theses in the field of women’s history. By describing gender research as an effect of the radical movements of the 1970s, a self-image is created where gender researchers position themselves in the present, he explains.

‘Any writing of history is a practice of power and when a certain story becomes the dominant account, it risks losing its link to the past. If the story is repeated enough times, it no longer needs to be backed up in any way since everybody believes they know what happened.’

Author Charlie Olofsson, translated by Debbie Axlid
Photo Universitetsplatsen, Lund. A forum for female researchers and women's studies was formed in Lund in 1978. It was one of the several centres/forums for women's studies that were established across Sweden in the same year and that are the predecessors of today’s university departments of gender studies. Photo: Colourbox
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