Why can’t we just be People in German Studies?

The WIGS committee, doing our best to dispel the clichés of humourless feminism

In 1988 women were scarcely visible in German studies in the UK. In 1988 there was only one woman chair-holder in the whole of the British Isles and that was Eda Sagarra, Professor of Germanic Languages at Trinity College Dublin. The CUTG (Conference of University Teachers of German of Great Britain and Ireland) published a listing of members which showed that in 1988 exactly a third of all university German departments had no woman on their  staff at all, though the student body was then, as now, largely female.

I was lucky enough to be taught by Eda Sagarra all the way through my TCD German degree. As well as being an impressive intellectual with a daunting understanding of the social roots of German and Austrian literature, Professor Sagarra had a breezy, steely attitude to the world at large, and modelled a fantastic feminism for her students. ‘Wir sind ja alle FeministInnen, nicht wahr?’ she would beam at a class of shy eighteen-year-olds, making feminism seem like the obvious position for anyone as intelligent as we nervous undergrads.

I started my studies in 1993, only five years after the dismal situation described by Helen Watanabe-O’Kelly in the history of WiGS linked above. As she says herself in her twenty-year celebratory post, the situation for women in German studies is considerably better now (although the situation for German studies as a whole may not be). In a situation where brilliant female professors are leading German Studies in the UK and Ireland, from Henrike Lähnemann to WiGS founder member Margaret Littler to Anne Fuchs to Sarah Colvin to Erica Carter to Karen Leeder to Eve Rosenhaft to Susanne Kord and many more, where part-time women are accepted as part of the mainstream German Studies community, where gender studies are taken seriously as part of the academic German Studies mainstream, why do we still need Women in German Studies? Why do we need WiGS at all, when we could all be PIGS?

The question as to whether feminism is needed any more, and indeed whether a particular gender-segregated kind of feminism in fact damaged the cause in the 1980s, echo far beyond the tiny world of German Studies. WiGS postgraduate representative Emily Spiers is doing research into these very feminism wars in Germany, in her thesis on pop German feminism. In the classroom, when approaching topics that focus on gender issues – from women in World War One to genderqueer cinema – students sometimes ask, ‘Why ghettoise women’s issues? Why don’t we just study people as people?’ And there have been Germanists who, during the past twenty-five years, have also regarded WiGS as a ghetto, a pointless self-marginalising clique. Germanists study the humanities; surely we should be humanists, not feminists?

The WIGS committee meeting was on Saturday, and we planned our fantastic conference programme for November in Sheffield. The number of papers offered for WiGS has dramatically increased in the past five years, from nine in 2006 to nineteen for Sheffield 2013. That in itself is proof, I think, that WIGS is doing something right! We’ve been able to offer themed panels for the past few years now, as  well as needing parallel panels.

As well as the papers, though, WiGS also offers a postgraduate training session, something unique to us in the German Studies community. In the past, we’ve offered talks on academic careers and on translation. Our thoughts for the training session this year could easily have taken up another full day. What about academic mentoring for female colleagues? we thought. How about a talk on the academic career path for women, from an experienced WiG? How is the academic career path different for women, who are still more likely to be working part time, have caring responsibilities, or be less mobile throughout their careers? How is the current crisis in modern languages in particular, and higher education in general, affecting women? How are LBTQ women faring in German Studies, and how is WiGS supporting them?

Very practical questions. Very important questions. Questions that will take thought, and research, but that need to be followed up. ‘That’s what feminism is about!’ we agreed. Of course there are culture wars within feminism, about issues from make-up to porn to parenting, and that’s absolutely right – every movement needs debate and diversity to make sure that it’s intellectually alive. But for me, talking about practical questions that affect women in my own profession – that is the heart of what feminism is about. And as long as WiGS addresses these questions, I think, the future of feminism is safe.


7 thoughts on “Why can’t we just be People in German Studies?

  1. It’s somehow odd how society in general tends to “label” people, especially the ones that vary from the stereotype of the male, heterosexual, white, middle-class specimens of our species. And in a way it’s rather sad and upsetting that anybody should feel that an institution such as WiGS should have any justification in a modern society, but of course it does. As long as structural, institutionalised differences remain, minorities – or even less-privileged majorities – will have reasons/needs to create their own subcategories to create safe spaces. Self-chosen ghettoes, one might call them.

    I would like to see the day when the world at large would be a safe space for everybody, and where one’s sexual, religious or heritage identification would not be an issue. But… I guess that won’t happen any time soon; as a species, we humans tend to be very keen on compartimentalising everything, putting each individual in some suitable box or other. Perhaps the utopian vision should just be to let everybody have their safe spaces and accept the differences – and where you yourself might not be able to be a helpful contributor, simply by virtue of genetics or demographics or religion.

    • Søren, you put it perfectly. A utopian vision for me is about diversity, and that includes safe spaces, difference and heated debate.

      Quite apart from providing a safe space, mind, WiGS has its very own variety of fantastic intellectual debate and support. We do need ‘ghettos’ of a kind for safety, but WiGS also produces lively debate and incisive thought that reaches far beyond the questions I raise above. WiGS may be a space for a less-privileged majority (nice phrase!), but it also does its bit to change criticism and culture beyond the world of women who work in German Studies.

  2. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Why can’t we just be People in German Studies?

  3. Reblogged this on Women in German Studies and commented:

    ‘In a situation where brilliant female professors are leading German Studies in the UK and Ireland, where part-time women are accepted as part of the mainstream German Studies community, where gender studies are taken seriously as part of the academic German Studies mainstream, why do we still need Women in German Studies? Why do we need WiGS at all, when we could all be PIGS?’
    I posted my thoughts on the 2013 WIGS committee meeting to my personal blog. These are my own reflections on why WIGS is important – not the official WIGS view!

  4. I remember meeting Professor Sagarra, she was most impressive! Do you know what became of her daughter, she may have been a colleague of yours?

    • She’s marvellous, and gets more so with every year! I don’t know what her daughter is doing now; I remember that Professor Sagarra always spoke of her with enormous pride, but more than that I couldn’t tell you.

  5. Pingback: FWSA Blog » Women in German Studies

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