the contradictions of feminists writing within the ivory tower


Katie Bryant

Carleton University, 2005


The notion of genre becomes an important issue when discussing the activity of writing, especially within academia.  Janet Giltrow (2002) illustrates in her text Academic Writing that genres can be defined as the combination of both the form and content of a piece of writing.  The piece of writing that is produced depends not only on the way the writing is done but also the situation and context for which the writing is produced.  The similarities that appear in certain academic disciplines are “not rules but signs of common ground amongst communities of readers and writers: shared attitudes, practices, positions in the world, habits of being” (Giltrow, 2002, p. 24).  Yet writing and the notion of genre is not neutral.  Clark and Ivanic discuss in their text The Politics of Writing that “writing is at the center of political struggle … [and] is located within the wider socio-political context … [meaning] the issues concerning writing, the values attached to it and its distribution in society, are all essentially political and bound up with the way in which a social formation operates”(1997, p. 20). Clark and Ivanic illustrate through Kress’ theories how genres “co-opt children into dominant values and contribute towards their socialization into the dominant ideology”(1997, p. 50). Yet, genres are “‘ideological constructs and the conventions associated with them are never monolithic but the object of struggle’”(Kress cited in Clark & Ivanic, 1997, p. 51).  This paper will examine how, one group involved in the academy, feminists, negotiate their identities as they engage in various genres of academic writing. 

Although I hesitate to define feminism, it is required to help my audience understand what issues I am attempting to address in my research.  Feminism is often difficult to define because contexts, subjectivities and many other issues often lead to many different definitions of the concept.  Yet for the purpose of this paper I need to define feminism.  I would define the concept as a movement that attempts to deconstruct unequal and often damaging power relations in society that are based upon gender, race, class, ethnicity, sexuality and ability.  I would suggest that one of the main foci of feminism is to deconstruct the often limited notions of masculinity and femininity in society.  My main question or my statement of purpose is to examine the writing women/feminists are doing within academia.  I want to attempt to discover ways in which academic writing both empowers and disempowers women in the academy.  As well, I want to examine the ways in which feminists attempt to challenge mainstream power structures in society and use academic writing as a source of activism.


This issue will be analyzed through a small-scale research project.  I received ethics clearance to conduct my research and my participants were asked to participate in the study on a voluntary basis.  I interviewed five female university students in open-ended interview sessions.  I tape recorded these interviews and asked the participants eleven different questions (Appendix A).   I also conducted text analyses of written work they have produced for academia.  The text analyses were based upon use of the personal voice and narrative styles and the various types of topics and issues reviewed in the participants’ papers.  The participants for my study were from many different departments across academia.  Some participants wanted to remain anonymous; therefore I gave these individuals pseudonyms and other participants chose to keep their real names.  Two of my participants were faculty members: Dr. Katherine Arnup, head of Interdisciplinary Studies at Carleton University and cross-appointed to Canadian studies; and the other participant was Jane Smith, a graduate from Carleton University’s Masters Program in Applied Language Studies, who is an instructor and administrator at the same University.  I interviewed three students, all undergraduates at Carleton University, from a wide variety of disciplines.  Sasha, is a third year student, who is majoring in Women’s Studies and has a minor in Spanish; Keisha is a graduate of the Finance program at Carleton University and is about to begin another undergraduate degree in Political Science at Carleton.  Anne is a third year student, completing a double major at the same university in Political Science and Human Rights.  All of the participants in my study identify themselves as feminists.























Appendix A




1)      What discipline do you belong to in academia?


2)   What types of writing assignments or projects do you usually encounter in your academic writing?


3)   a)         How comfortable do you feel when you write academic papers?

b)         Do you enjoy academic writing?


4)   a)         What aspects of academic writing do you enjoy? Why?

b)         What aspects of academic writing do you feel comfortable with? Why?

c)         What aspects of academic writing do you not enjoy? Why not?

d)         What aspects of academic writing do you not feel comfortable with? Why not?


5)   Would you identify yourself as a feminist? If your answer is ‘yes’ how do you identify with feminism? If the answer is ‘no’ why do not identify with feminism?


6)      Have you encountered any types of academic writing that did not fit your subjectivity as a woman or your feminist politics?  Did you challenge these rules in some way? 


7)      Can you remember any time(s) when a piece of your academic writing was rejected or given a ‘poor’ mark because you tried to challenge a rule of academic writing that you were supposed to follow?  i.e. using ‘y’ to spell ‘woman’


8)      Do you think your feminist politics or your subjectivity as a woman translates into your academic writing in any ways?


9)      Do you find there are aspects of academic writing that silence your subjective voice as a woman or your voice as a feminist?


10)  Do you ever feel that it is paradoxical to write academically and be involved in the academy while at the same time identifying as a feminist?  If yes, what do you do about this paradoxical situation? If no, why not?


11)  Do you think academic writing can be a form of feminist activism? How and in what ways?








Clark, R. & R. Ivanic. (1997). The Politics of Writing. London: Routledge


Giltrow, J. (2002). Academic Writing: Writing and Reading in the Discipline (3rd Ed.). 

Peterborough, ON.: Broadview Press.