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What Does the Lens of Gender Reveal?

What Does the Lens of Gender Reveal?

© Pixabay

In June, faculty members from HSE’s School of Cultural Studies, the School of Philosophy, and the Poletayev Institute for Theoretical and Historical Studies in the Humanities met with colleagues from the University of Pittsburgh (USA) and a Russian art historian to participate in a round table on the importance of gender studies in the humanities. The researchers discussed questions such as what historians, philosophers, and historians can achieve when approaching their fields of study from the standpoint of gender studies, and what the state of gender studies is in contemporary Russia and abroad.

Ella Rossman, a guest lecturer in HSE’s School of Cultural Studies, organised and moderated the roundtable, which took place as a special meeting of the "Cultures of Critique" series organised by Dr. Jan Surman, Research Fellow of the Poletayev Institute for Theoretical and Historical Studies in the Humanities at HSE University. Other round table participants included Frank G. Karioris, Visiting Lecturer of Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies at the University of Pittsburgh (USA); Alisa Klots, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh (USA); Tatiana Levina, Associate Professor at the School of Philosophy at HSE University; and Nadia Plungian, Russian art historian, curator, and independent scholar.

Why Gender Studies?

‘Gender is omnipresent whether one likes it or not, and not taking it into account in the humanities is tantamount to an urban planner charged with designing a new city choosing to ignore the fact that people are going to be living in there,’ says HSE Research Fellow Jan Surman. ‘You can do it, of course, but you will be missing something that is essentially important.’

HSE Professor Tatiana Levina agrees. ‘If we as scholars want to describe the contemporary world, we cannot operate on the concept of a ‘universal man’, since a universal man does not exist.

 The world is composed of both men and women, and for an adequate description of the world, scholars need to specify exactly what and whose experience they are describing

Tatiana Levina
Associate Professor at the School of Philosophy, HSE University

‘Gender,’ adds Ella Rossman, ‘is one of the aspects that determine social life and human relations; people identify themselves on the basis of gender. For centuries, there were different ideas about gender and they were implemented in different ways in art, literature, traditions, and people’s everyday lives. To ignore all this is to ignore a large part of the reality. That is why I really think that the situation with gender studies needs to change. To discuss this problem we organized a round table.’

The Problem

‘The main problem today (and we discussed it a lot at our round table) is that the lens of gender is not included in courses and educational programmes, not to mention research centers and laboratories that focus on gender issues, of which there are only a handful throughout Russia,’ says Ella Rossman. ‘For example, we at the Faculty of Humanities at HSE do not have a single course on gender in the humanities—even as an elective. Historians do not discuss gender history—a whole area of research discipline that has existed for decades. Philologists do not talk about gender relations in literature. There are individual researchers who deal with these issues and mention them, and that’s all. In the Faculty of Social Sciences, our colleagues are going to launch a minor in gender studies, which is really great, but this is in sociology.

 The humanities need courses with a certain specificity, where professors can tell students how an art historian or a cultural studies specialist can use a gender approach

Ella Rossman 
Guest Lecturer at the School of Cultural Stides, HSE University

‘The most contentious topic we discussed,’ says Tatiana Levina, ‘is the unwillingness of the Russian academia to embrace gender studies in various disciplines. Art historian Nadia Plungian spoke of the skepticism of the researchers from the Russian Academy of Sciences towards the potential of gender in art. They insist on the idea that 'a depiction of a woman is just that, a depiction', without any political or social implications. I would add that for philosophers in Russia, the stereotype that a woman can’t be a philosopher still persists. And this fact is clearly illustrated by the absence of female philosophers in  curriculum, while male philosophers are included - with a rare exception of Hannah Arendt (and I am not speaking about historians of philosophy here).’

Studying Gender History in Russia

‘As a gender historian who has taught at Perm State University and the European University at Saint Petersburg, I spoke about two issues: the importance of gender optics in historical scholarship and the state of gender studies outside of Moscow,’ says Alissa Klots. ‘After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Marxist-Leninist dogmatism, Russian historians were disenchanted with theory. While their colleagues in the "West" were engaging with post-structuralism and/or Marxism, Russian historians went to the archives to find "objective facts" that would allow to reveal the "truth" about the past. Traumatized by the Soviet experience, they rejected anything that looked like politization of their work. As a result, most Russian historians ignored new conceptual frameworks such as gender or postcolonial theory. Most, but not all.

‘I was fortunate to study and later work at Perm State University where several history professors tried to incorporate gender in their research and teaching. Even though they were sometimes criticized and even harassed by conservative students, the department supported their work.

 Perm’s example shows that a provincial university can serve as a space of academic freedom and intellectual growth

Alissa Klots 
Assistant Professor of History, the University of Pittsburgh

‘It is not surprising that three current and former faculty members at Perm State University (including me) made the core of the team that organized one of the few feminist festivals in the Russia We-Fest: A Festival for Women Open to All. The goal of the festival is to bring together women and men interested in improving women's lives. Every year we choose a theme and discuss a wide variety of topics from the impact of pension reform on women to representations of gender roles in popular TV series.’

Bringing Gender to Central Asia

Frank Karioris spoke about his experience helping establish a Centre for Critical Gender Studies and the first academic programme in gender studies in Central Asia. ‘I believe studying gender is an important component of all studies,’ he said. ‘This is even truer in the humanities, where we are looking at both people and the byproducts of people; and, to say it clearly, people are gendered.

‘My specific thoughts that I brought to the roundtable lie in my experience in both Kyrgyzstan and, more recently, at the University of Pittsburgh,’ Frank Karioris continued. ‘In both of these places I have had the great experience of working in programmes and on projects that address not only gender as a category, but as a field of study and as an important lens towards looking at the world.’

Managing Disciplinary Boundaries

‘When we discussed what problems arise for those who are engaged in gender studies, it was interesting to hear about the experiences of colleagues from the United States,’ says Ella Rossman. ‘There, you may also have problems doing gender studies because of the interdisciplinary nature of this area: you simply do not fit into the existing disciplines and categories. At the Faculty of History, you are told that you are dealing with a sociological topic, at sociology - that this is a philosophy. And so on...'

‘Universities and individual researchers advocate interdisciplinarity and talk a lot about it, but they themselves do not know how to create the conditions for it and sometimes are afraid of new approaches and formats. This is also a problem. Although, in the long run,’ Ella Rossman notes, ‘this is probably less of a problem than when a respected professor is terrified by the very word gender. But the comparison is probably unproductive. The main thing is that we must unite and develop our agenda together. We need to help each other and support each other all over the world.’

The Work Ahead

‘Aside from the field’s interdisciplinary nature, it is mostly the conservatism of single scholars or groups of scholars, which prevents the institutionalization of stable research and teaching programmes in gender studies or gender history,’ observes Jan Surman.

In terms of applying the lens of gender to the contemporary Russian context, Frank Karioris identifies many possible starting points. ‘Like any other country, Russia faces huge gender issues, so there are many possible starting points: the material, structural, social, and representational disparities of women; the criminalization of homosexuality; men’s drinking and health care; HIV; consent and discussions of sex and sexual education; and sexual and ethnic minorities, to name a few.’

 It is the interest and perseverance of a few scholars that makes the existence of gender studies in Russia possible

Jan Surman 
Research Fellow at Poletayev Institute for Theoretical and Historical Studies in the Humanities

Something that may be key to the growth of gender studies in Russia, in Jan Surman’s view, are today’s students. ‘Students' interest in the discussion clearly showed that gender studies is perceived by more and more of them as a relevant and integral part of academia,’ he says. ‘And it is well possible, that bottom-up initiatives will then translate into institutionalized programmes—this has happened, as Frank Karioris illustrated, at other institutions, which struggled with constraints similar to our local ones.’

Final Thoughts

‘I was extremely impressed by the level of discussion amongst all the participants,’ says Frank Karioris. ‘They each came with their own unique perspective and provided important information from their vantage. Whether that was in art, in history, in philosophy; everyone at the roundtable was firmly of the position that studying gender was not simply useful but necessary for the humanities.’



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