Female public intellectuals

Female public intellectuals refers to female intellectuals active within the public sphere. Although the term "public intellectual" has traditionally remained non gender specific, it historically continues to be a role predominantly occupied by men.[1] There are a number of explanations for the lack of female public intellectuals as compared to their male counterparts. These explanations address issues such as institutionalized discrimination within the academy, the problems which arise from female intellectuals who strongly advocate feminist ideology and theory and the impact of the media and academy in the conceptualization of "woman as her body".

Women and the Academy

The traditional exclusion of women from the public sphere and from contributing to or initiating discourse as public intellectuals stems from the exclusion and discrimination of women within the academic field.

The origin of this discrimination lies in the power relations existing both in universities and other higher education establishments that have facilitated the institutionalization of hegemonic masculinity concepts. This means that it is possible to identify the language, concepts, codes and conventions of academia as recognizably “a man’s world”,[2] something which poses serious restrictions on women eager to establish both a professional and intellectual identity. Because universities essentially originated from all-male communities which for six hundred years sought specifically to exclude women from participation, the initial identification of knowledge was with men, a notion which still remains powerful and destructive for women academics today.[3]

This association of men with knowledge is also an important consideration when explaining the absence of female public intellectuals. Women who struggle to establish a career in academia, (because their approach to and accumulation of knowledge may be viewed as less credible than that of their male counterparts) also inevitably struggle to carve out a career as a public intellectual for the same reason. This is because the process of being identified as intellectually able, making a reputation, mentoring and networking tends to provide cumulative advantages to men and disadvantages to women.[4] The continuous privileging of men and hegemonic masculinities and devaluation of women and feminists has had cumulative effects on those who have succeeded in becoming senior academics and/or public intellectuals.

Considering that many public intellectuals also tend to emerge from an esteemed background in academia, such as Noam Chomsky and Richard Dawkins, it is clear to see why women continue to struggle within the public intellectual sphere. In the academic profession, ‘The main currency….is reputation’ (Becher 1989, p. 52). Peer evaluation of intellectual work, theses, publications, conference papers and research applications is the basis of academic careers. Thus if men, in senior academic positions are judging the work of women who occupy less prestigious roles, it could be argued that the intellectual contributions of women to the academy may be subject to discrimination and male standards of approval, leading the work of women to be devalued.

This scenario is also applicable to public intellectuals, the most senior of whom have both the power and duty to evaluate and make judgement upon the work of their peers. Essentially, the most successful public intellectuals, most commonly men, possess the power to control the careers of aspirants (often women) by evaluating their intellectual output, theses, papers, books and research applications. However, if the same principles of hegemonic masculinity apply to the world of the public intellectual as they do to the academy, then there is usually only a limited opportunity for women to use either their academic background as a springboard for establishing themselves as public intellectuals, or outside of the academy, to be recognised as a credible individual, with important things to say.

Female public intellectuals and feminist ideology

One theory put forward by Charlotte Allen in a 2005 commentary for the Los Angeles Times as to why there is a notable lack of female public intellectuals is that by approaching their work from a distinctly feminist perspective many women intellectuals tend to alienate themselves from the wider public. In this case, female intellectuals arguing from an ideological feminist perspective fail to embody a primary characteristic of the public intellectual; synthesizing disparate areas of knowledge for a broader lay audience.[5]

The commentary alleges that arguing from a strictly feminist standpoint can lead female intellectuals to neglect engaging in debate upon a broad spectrum of topics; science, politics, high and low art, literature, evolution, the Iraq War and the origins of the universe are some examples.[6] However, women intellectuals can offer valuable perspective as they are able to offer a different examination of public discourse. Women's perspectives and histories are valuable contributions to not just women, but all whom are only acquainted with a bias cultural hegemony. Despite the odds, female intellectuals, such as Germaine Greer, Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Barbara Ehrenreich, Naomi Wolf, Susan Faludi, Deborah Tannen, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Natalie Angier, though this is hardly an exhaustive list, offer a different viewpoint and draw from their lived experiences as women.


  1. Article by Laura Barton for the Guardian 2004
  2. Walsh, V:"Transgression and the Academy:Feminists and Institutionalization", in "Feminist Academics: Creative Agents for Change, Taylor and Francis, 1995, p.86
  3. Walsh, V:"Transgression and the Academy:Feminists and Institutionalization", in "Feminist Academics: Creative Agents for Change, Taylor and Francis, 1995, p.88.
  4. Heward, C: "Women and Careers in Higher Education", in "Breaking Boundaries:Women in Higher Education, Taylor and Francis, 1996, p.21.
  5. Parsi, K.P and K.E. Geraghty, (2004) "The Bioethicist as Public Intellectual." The American Journal of Bioethics 4(1):W17–W23.
  6. Archived 2007-10-21 at the Wayback Machine. Article by Charlotte Allen for the Independent Women's Forum

See also

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