[Scheduling note: There will be daily posts through the Nifong contempt hearing on July 26, which I plan on live-blogging; and then twice- or thrice-weekly posts until the blog closes in late September, when I leave for Israel. A new feature will be a Friday profile of selected Group of 88 members, building off earlier posts on Wahneema Lubiano and Grant Farred. The posts will examine the scholarship and teaching of Group members, trying to show the mindset of professors who last spring abandoned both the tenets of Duke’s Faculty Handbook and the academy’s traditional fidelity to due process.
An item to keep in mind: in higher education, professors control new hires. So the people profiled in this series will craft future job descriptions for Duke professors; and then, for positions assigned to their departments, vote for new hires.]
Group of 88 member Kathy Rudy teaches in the Women’s Studies Department; she received both her Ph.D. (1993) and her M.Div. (1989) from Duke.
Rudy has published two books (the most recent appeared in 1997) attacking the ideas of the religious right and embracing a vague “community” ideal to gender issues that she has spelled out more directly in her published articles. She currently is working on a project “critiquing animal rights from speciesist perspective.” Speciesism, explained Rudy, “refers to the growing discourse in humanities which challenges the human/animal distinction around issues of language, memory, representation, and interpretation.”
It’s not easy to criticize the animal rights movement from the left, but Rudy has managed to do so.
In the classroom, Rudy has offered several courses dealing with her animal rights/speciesist critique. A class on “feminism and other animals,” for instance, explores such themes as, “The body has been central to feminist thinking in a variety of national contexts and across various historical periods, in part because of the way that forms of discrimination have often taken the body as both evidence of and alibi for social hierarchies; can this interest in embodiment be extended to, for example, great apes? To all non-human animals? What do we mean when we speak of having a human body, when, genetically speaking, our human body is closer to the genome of all great apes than the genome of the African elephant is to that of the Indian elephant?” Her other offerings are ideologically standard fare for most Women’s Studies Departments.
Rudy has published extensively in feminist journals. Many of her peer-reviewed articles use her own life experience as a template to examine strands within radical feminism.
For instance, in a 2001 essay in Feminist Studies, Rudy championed a “feminist version of queer theory,” in which the radical feminism that brought her to Durham in the early 1980s would be blended with the queer theory popular in some contemporary academic circles.
Upon first coming to Durham, Rudy recalled that she “moved quickly into the lesbian community because there was a growing sentiment in feminist discourse that lesbianism was the most legitimate way to act out our politics.” Within this “progressive” neighborhood in west Durham, “Many of us thought that by avoiding men and building a parallel, alternative culture, we were changing the world . . . I managed to live most of my daily life avoiding men all together, and spent most of my social time reading, dreaming, planning, talking, and writing about the beauty of a world run only by women, . . . free of [men’s] patronizing dominance.” Rudy and her fellow radical feminists oriented their activities around “the ideas that women were superior and that a new world could be built on that superiority.”
But problems soon emerged.
Durham’s radical feminists were white and middle-class, but Rudy’s social group had two “Black women.” The duo “began to use race as a category of political analysis, when they declared that they—as Black lesbian women—were more oppressed than the rest of us.” The two women exposed an uncomfortable truth: “If one identity-based oppression was bad, two or three or more was worse.”
Their action, Rudy reminisced, challenged the founding principle of radical lesbians in Durham and elsewhere: “That we—as women—were oppressed, so much so that identification as the oppressor then seemed impossible. For us at that point, the equation was simple; men dominated and oppressed women . . . Complexifying this equation to include race meant identifying ourselves as white oppressors; it meant, therefore that our politics were now less absolute, we ourselves less pure.” This development produced uncomfortable questions, such as “Could we stand to see ourselves as oppressors and still exist in such an ideologically pure community? Could we purge ourselves of racism by loving Black women but not Black men?”
Eventually, the community collapsed, and Rudy entered graduate school. In her essay, she sympathetically pointed to theorists who reasoned that “radical feminist ideology was just as oppressive to Black women as Western philosophy had been to women in general.”
As a Duke graduate student--taught, it’s worth noting, by figures whose ideology would guide the Group of 88’s approach to the lacrosse case--Rudy came to understand “that social oppressions were usually much more complex than identity politics made them appear.” She engaged with the newly-emerging queer theory, which contended that gender is a social construct, since “there are no fool-proof scientific tests for gender; there is no hormonal, chromosomal, or anatomical test that can be administered which in every case guarantees that the subject being tested is either a woman or a man.”
This more flexible approach to gender, according to Rudy, illustrated “the complexities of oppression,” drawing a line not between women and men but “between those who espouse progressive politics, especially around the issues of sexuality, and those who don’t,” opening the way for “coalitions across a wide variety of social issues, especially around concerns of race and class.” (The race/class/gender trinity, again.) The new theories, according to Rudy, also helped explain the “whole phenomenon [that] exists in queer communities, for example, of lesbians who sleep with men.” (Apparently the term bisexual was too limiting.)
Rudy worried, however, that queer theory overemphasizes male attributes, such as confrontation. Therefore, “contemporary lesbians associated with queer theory must maintain associations with a revitalized feminism in order to correct these problems.”
It’s not easy to criticize queer theory from the left, but Rudy has managed to do so.
Rudy’s scholarship also has celebrated non-traditional sexual communities. In a 1999 Journal of Lesbian Studies essay that was assigned in fellow Group member Anne Allison’s spring 2007 course, Group of 88 for Credit, Rudy criticized gays and lesbians for having “become experts at impersonating straight nuclear families; the only thing that’s different is that one of us is the wrong gender.”
Rudy pointed instead to “progressive communities [that] organize their sexual and social lives very differently. Urban-based gay male, lesbian, and mixed-gender sexually radical communities (such as leather and/or S/M groups) portray their interests in sexuality in terms of arousal and pleasure. These activities, often described as ‘anonymous,’ ‘promiscuous,’ or ‘non-relational’ sex, have been widely criticized as dangerous, immature, or immoral.”
Such people, the Group of 88 member argued, should be not condemned but praised, since they “have organized their sexual-social lives on a different model, a model that is fundamentally communal. In many of these worlds, allegiance to the entire community is often more vital and meaningful than any particular coupling within that community.” In fact, she reasoned, such sexual behaviors could “help shed light on new ways to think about progressive politics.” She never said how.
Rudy conceded that some might call her vision “utopic,” but, she contended, in urban-based gay male, lesbian, and mixed-gender sexually radical communities, “each sexual encounter shores up membership in the community and each person’s participation makes the community she finds stronger for others. Although she may not know the names of each of her sex partners, each encounter resignifies her belonging . . . Intimacy and faithfulness in sex are played out on the community rather than individual level.”
Commentators need a new language to describe such behavior: “not anonymous, promiscuous, or non-relational sex, but ‘communal.’”
Rudy, however, detected one key drawback with the communities she otherwise glorified. Most such groups contended that as long as both or all parties consented, any sexual relationship is moral. But “many women have so thoroughly absorbed the male gender codes that they have no idea what they really want, but have learned to want only what pleases men.” This approach, of course, is also a convenient way for Rudy and like-minded colleagues to explain why women disagree with their viewpoint.
Otherwise, however, Rudy had nothing but kind words for the urban sex groups, who “decide together what counts as good and bad [and] practice these activities with each other in ways that transcend individual identity and monogamy. They are functioning, it seems to me, as a participatory democracy that stands as a model for the postmodern.” As such, they provide a guide to “how we [Rudy assumes, of course, that all who read her scholarship agree with her politics] can oppose oppressive frameworks with locally-based communities,” such as the “right’s family values campaign.” Indeed, the Group of 88’er concluded, “Sex radical cultures stand as a model for all progressive Americans, testifying to the importance of belonging to a worthwhile cooperative as a way of making meaning in life.”
If this political analysis seems a little peculiar, consider Rudy’s perspective on the 2000 presidential campaign. “Progressives from all backgrounds,” she wrote in a fall 1999 essay, needed to unite to “plan their defeat” of a common enemy. George W. Bush? Not exactly. Elizabeth Dole(!).
What made Dole such a threat? She was a woman who embodied the ideals of “post-feminist” authors such as Christina Hoff Sommers, whose intellectual plan “is to make staying at home a viable attractive option for women.” Accordingly, declared Rudy, “Only by working together to combat every aspect and formulation of [Dole’s] campaign will we stand a chance against the rising hegemony of the Christian right.”
Dole, by the way, withdrew from the 2000 presidential campaign before the first primary vote was cast, short of funds and popular support--from the Christian right, which had overwhelmingly backed George W. Bush, or anyone else.
Rudy, a tenured associate professor, will teach two fall 2007 classes: “Interpreting Bodies” and “Gender and Everyday Life.” She also serves on the steering committee for Duke's Kenan Ethics Program.