Misplaced Subjects? Women’s Studies and Gender in the Portuguese Context

Teresa Joaquim, Universidade Aberta, Lisboa, Portugal

Keywords: gender, women’s studies, (misplaced) subject

Our proposal concerns a questioning and a reflection on Women’s Studies trajectories in Portugal connected with genealogical and critical feminist work about the category ‘women’ (in Butler’s 1990 turn of the phrase) and deconstruction /problematisation of gender as a concept. To this critical work and to precipitate the eventual appearance of new concepts we will add the question: ‘What does it mean to be a woman?’ that is related to the original idea of Women’s Studies and which Rosi Braidotti (1994) refers to, when she questions the epistemological value of the referent ‘woman’ within an area called ‘Women’s Studies’.

This reflection on the impact of Women’s Studies within Portuguese scientific production requires that we pay special attention to two factors: on the one hand the context and the evolution of social sciences in Portugal, and on the other, the possibility of connection with the feminist movement. It will be useful to reflect upon scientific research history in Portugal, its omissions and openness to ‘new’ subjects like youth, daily practices, body, family and ‘women’. Another matter will be to find out if there has been (or if there is) any articulation between the feminist movement and the appearance of graduations, seminars, Master’s degrees and courses in Women’s Studies (1). This question must also be linked to the affirmation of several points of views on the existence or not of a feminist movement after April 1974 (Magalhães, 1998; Tavares, 2000; Amâncio, 1998; Ferreira, 1999; Joaquim, 1999) and its eventual impact on Women’s Studies.

When in 1987, I completed my research on ‘feminist education and/about women’, (financed by the European Commission and coordinated by the Cahiers du Grif included in the GRACE European project, about Women’s Studies), the majority of researchers’ answers to the questionnaire indicated that they worked in Women’s Studies, and not in feminist or ‘feminine’ studies. In the report I realized that there was a broad acceptance of the questionnaire from the institutions as well as from researchers, even if not every researcher working in this area answered. This latter fact implies that there is a chance that these researchers don’t want their university image to be linked to Women’s Studies as an area, which is easily understandable, taking note of the weak institutional implantation of Women’s Studies within the University and of its lack of credibility within the Portuguese scientific community.

While some researchers assumed the choice of a research object linked to women, there was always someone who had worked in this area without totally assuming this choice in terms of his/her academic trajectory. This kind of hazardous participation may not mean a change of theoretical perspective between the accomplished research and the other type of research, leaving no kind of contamination between them, namely, from the epistemological questions brought to the fore by Women’s Studies. This parallelism in terms of theoretical trajectories and the absence of contamination is also meaningful in terms of what it reveals about the variety of ways of joining, and different opportunities within, Women’s Studies. It must be said that these ways and opportunities are not exclusive to this study area, bearing in mind that surface, or temporal effects are strongly linked to power ones (2). What Beauvoir (1949), Le Doeuff(1989) or Deleuze/Guattari(1991) say about the inherent suffering in the thought and creation of a work, cannot be forgotten. This also pertains to our study area here, namely those who have to confront themselves with the academic institutions when presenting their PhD thesis in this area. It seems that the concept of ‘misplaced subject’ by T. Herbert (in Nunes, 2001) is useful to understand the fact that a subject can see and understand, abruptly, a different thing from that which has been given to her. To question and to dislocate the core of the questions that have so far always been asked the same way is central to our inquiry.

I think that today, in spite of the years, the same question remains: whether the place of Women’s Studies in the scientific production will still be one of a ‘misplaced subject’ or whether it has been integrated without having provoked any dislocation.

In Portugal there have been a increasing number of communications about ‘gender issues’ and communications dealing with ‘gender’ as an analytical category, but in spite of the enthusiasm for and strong interest in this area, the issue raised by Irene Ramalho and António Sousa Ribeiro concerning the epistemological debate on the Human and Social Sciences in this country must still be addressed:
The debate over the epistemology of the Humanities and the Social Sciences has always been shallow among us (…) the result being one of the most shocking aspects of the Portuguese academic production: changing or simply accepting new paradigms or any theoretical or methodological model is conducted under an undisputed logic, generally the one that simply follows the last trend (1998: 80).

This is a crucial issue for the whole scientific community, with severe implications not only as to the legitimation of the production of knowledge, but also in the extent to which new concepts or new theoretical models are critically accepted. This question is even more crucial for fields of knowledge developing under new perspectives that, paradoxically, are being taken as a matter of fact and almost without any theoretical discussion among us. In such cases, the transition of status – from enunciation (a text produced by someone) to a dialogical product (object of dialogue) – has to be accomplished by means of a discussion between theoretical perspectives.

The problem of a feminist and critical genealogy must be considered in the Portuguese context as well as within the discussion about whether there was a feminist movement in Portugal. All the more when feminism seems to have always acted more at the phantasmal level than as a real movement within Portuguese society. Following Deleuze’s generative assumption that we are always in the middle of something since nothing comes of nowhere, another textual landscape is always appearing. In this sense we are always in the process of leaving behind an accomplished world of disciplinary areas, with its limits, and its borders. Therefore, in order to produce new theoretical articulations, we will always be working simultaneously within and outside a specific scientific field because the epistemological knowledge and the theoretical tools of a particular field no longer allow, and sometimes they even hinder, the production of enunciations for further analysis.

Therefore, our critically questioning of the trajectories of Women’s Studies in Portugal cross-cuts the above mentioned issues: a discussion on the genealogy of feminism in the Portuguese context both via a critical analysis of the category ‘women’ (in Butler’s line) and the deconstruction/problematization of the concept of ‘gender’; and the particular state of an uncritical acceptance of new epistemological trends in the Humanities and Social Sciences among Portuguese researchers.

Since ‘fashion effects are strongly linked to power effects’(Ramalho e Sousa Ribeiro, 1998:80) the researchers involved in this project committed themselves to the analysis of gender as a category and how it has been used in:

· Official political documents (government programs concerning equality of opportunity, plans for equality, and political programs produced by the different parties in election periods);

· The two main Social Science Portuguese reviews (monthly reviews).

The analysis of different kinds of material – political and scientific - will allow us to understand the plurivocity of the uses of ‘gender’ (generally a mere substitute of ‘sex’); or in Päivi Korvajärvi words in her position paper, explore ‘how concepts travel from texts to the research tools of analysing the activities of concrete people, or cultural phenomena, in society’, or ‘(…) how gender is done in different contexts’.

While on the one hand, Gender Studies is a useful framework to foreground a critical feminist agenda that does not reduce feminist inquiry to ‘women’ as an object, the implications of the term ‘Gender Studies’ can also have the material effect of casting suspicion on a feminist approach at the levels of both the curriculum and pedagogy. A new generation of ‘gender researchers’ does not necessarily see feminist inquiry as central to its ethos, and frequently stereotypes feminism itself in order to separate gender from politics. Again my concern here will be with questions of ethical accountability in teaching ‘Gender Studies’ (as a feminist) in this context and also with understanding the eventual (de)-politisation of the issues put to the fore by feminist groups or movements, even if, in the Portuguese case, these show particular features produced by the transition to a democratic political context (1974).

The analysis of the two sets of texts mentioned above, i.e. government and party discourses, and scientific reviews (3), would also be a clear way of understanding how the concepts travel (travelling concepts) and the way in which they are affected (in the Deleuzian sense) by the discourse contexts of those who produce them and those whom they are addressed to (for example the political discourse of a party leader with the electoral objective of ‘modernizing’ the scientific environment).

Also the discussion about the interplay of ‘contamination’ and the ‘misplaced subject’ referred to by Elena Pulcini in her position paper must be scrutinised in any analysis of these kinds of discourses. According to Elena Pulcini, contamination can be seen as ‘positivity’ in the sense that, as well as a wound, an open subject exposed to otherness is contaminated and affected by it and develops its own internal difference as a subject. By introducing the notion of ‘contamination’ into the discussion over the ‘misplaced subject’ that has tended to be regarded as a negative issue in the discussion about the place of Women’s Studies in Portugal, considering its need for integration and recognition both in the academic and scientific environments, we intend to shed some light on the idea of ‘misappropriation’ of the field by the Portuguese academy and its weak institutionalisation.

Actually, if we consider simultaneously their travelling and contaminating condition, irreducible concepts acquire another feature: their ability to drawing other maps, moving borders and opening onto the emergence of other concepts and contexts (4).

Instead of a posing a weakening epistemological challenge, the works in the field of Women’s Studies in Portugal and the problematization of the category ‘women’ (Butler) need to be re-conceptualised as uncovering the multiple situated and localized subject of knowledge through the deconstruction of the discursive regimen (Foucault), as will the answer to the question we address: ‘how is the category “woman” built into the political and scientific discourse‘ (5).

We therefore propose that the epistemological and methodological approach to the field of Women’s Studies in Portugal must have a point of departure: from the concept of the inappropriate character and the misplaced subject, similar to the one of Antigone as defined by Butler: ‘she is out of the polis, but in a way she is a foreigner without whom the polis couldn’t have existed’ (2000: 19).

1. Cf. Enriko Denémy’s paper, in which she asks: ‘What difference does it make teaching gender in countries where there is/there was a feminist movement and where there is/was not?’
2. These fashion and power effects can be understood not without some sense of irony from the five categories, which, according to Rosi Braidotti, are present in the researchers relations with Feminist Studies.
3. In Enikő Demény’s sense: ‘There is a well defined concept ‘gender’ which constitutes a bridge across various disciplines/theories or (…) each discipline/theory [has] its own concept of gender with different meanings.’
4. And in the same movement they can create in Soula Pavlidou’s words in her position paper: ‘a shared knowledge [and] common ground (...) This involves more than using the same words when talking about things, but also acknowledging the rooting of the meaning in a specific context.’
5. Or to cite Eva Skaerbaek in her position paper, how might we ‘create a curriculum that stengthen(s) the link between epistemological and ethical thinking’.

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