The R-Word: Why “Rigorous” is the New Black

National Women’s Studies Association Conference (NWSA) 2010: Final Thoughts

Since last year, the NWSA has been a magically inclusive space for the CFC. It has been like an oasis, a thirst quenching dose of amazing women of color from every possible place you could imagine. This intentionality around inclusivity is undoubtedly attributable in no small part to the work of pioneering Black feminist scholar Beverly Guy-Sheftall. The many CFs who are students of hers are proud of her and we want to say a personal crunk thank you for the transformative work she and her colleagues have done for NWSA. This year, was somewhat less magical, but perhaps because diversity was no longer a novelty, but rather an expectation. We think that’s absolutely a move in the right direction. We were reminded over and over again this weekend that even five years ago NWSA was not the kind of space that it is today.

The achievement of a diverse and inclusive community has not come without struggle. And it will not be maintained without struggle. In fact, we fully anticipate the sadly inevitable forthcoming snarky comments from our colleagues who no longer attend or enjoy NWSA , because it’s not as “um, rigorous” as it used to be.   In the last few years, I’ve heard or heard of white feminist scholars declaring a “lack of rigor” in the work of everyone from Chandra Mohanty to Patricia Hill Collins. While no one’s work is above critique, to summarily dismiss the work of these groundbreaking feminists of color often bespeaks something much more insidious. So rather than defending the folks who are the intellectual anchors of our work, we instead to choose to call out the folks who find such specious assertions reasonable.

Rigorous or Rigor Mortis:

Ideally, a call for rigor is a call to maintain the high academic standards that govern our professional interactions and intellectual production. This is legitimate. What is illegitimate is the notion that focusing on the concerns of women-of-color in some way threatens the production of quality intellectual work. Such thinking is racist at its core, however benevolent and well-meaning it may sound on the surface to those invested in a post-race framework.

When our (white) colleagues call for work that is “rigorous,” often what they really mean is that feminism, particularly the kind of feminism that focuses explicitly on calling out white supremacy in all its guises, is in state of rigor mortis. In other words, if feminism is gonna do all that, it’s better off dead. In fact, given the way that some folks lament the past, you would think that something precious had died.

Certainly, the premature death of so many of our feminist foremothers— Gloria Anzaldúa, Barbara Christian, Audre Lorde, Nellie McKay, and too many others—is a cautionary tale about how deadly this work can be.

This is why we give the side eye to all the mumbling and grumbling about the so-called lack of rigor going on at the NWSA conference and in other spaces where women of color come together unapologetically. We know what those folks really mean. It means they’re tired of talking about us and want to return to talking about themselves. It means they want us to be silent, to be invisible, to, in fact, disappear. Well, we’ve got news for them: we’re here to stay.

This is also why the move among some of our colleagues to subordinate the body (politics) to the mind (theory) is especially troubling. Such thinking is a product both of historical amnesia and willful ignorance. Surely our feminist foremothers exposed the fallacy of those kinds of practices forty years ago. And yet, there were calls at one plenary to move “beyond the body.”  So when did feminism climb back into bed with Descartes?

Interestingly, those of us whose feminism foregrounds people of color and queer folk find ourselves always enmeshed in a larger debate in which the move from politics to theory demands an abstract move away from the body. So queer theory can be used to read anything that is merely “indeterminate.” Or intersectional theory can be used to read anything, as long as multiple identities are apart of the equation. Queer theory without queer bodies ain’t queer. Intersectionality without women of color is a train wreck.  Call us parochial if you want to, but we should remember that in the case of both these theories, they grew out of the lived political realities of marginalized people. If the material conditions of the people haven’t been transformed, then the theory can only go so far.  Theoretical movement is not synonymous with social or political movement, and while the two are linked, academics often arrogantly assume that a will necessarily lead to b, when the history of theory suggests, more often than not, the converse.  We are cautioned here by Catherine MacKinnon:  “Under current historical conditions, appropriating the approach while abstracting away the content is one of power’s adaptations to challenge by transformative theory.”

Unfortunately, marginalized folks still find themselves always having to fight the power by proving that their concepts are not merely political, but that they also have broad theoretical use, and, hence, should be granted academic legitimacy. To the extent that queer theory is connected to queer bodies it remains political, and therefore subordinate. If it can become a form of reading, then it becomes theoretically legitimate. To the extent that intersectionality talks about poor women of color, it remains merely political. To the extent that it becomes a larger analytical tool, then it, too, becomes theoretically legitimate. Yes, queer theory and intersectionality are useful theoretical and analytical tools. But if they become only this or primarily this, then they run the risk of relegating their communities of origin back to the margins.  And any person who demands such a move has suspect feminist politics. Real talk.

If feminism has taught us nothing else, it has taught us to reject false binaries.

It’s not: rigor or us.

Rigor is us.

Crunktastic & Susiemaye

27 thoughts on “The R-Word: Why “Rigorous” is the New Black

  1. Really, Really, Really Powerful!!!!!!!! Thank you for this Susiemaye!

    I would have to say that some feminisms never really got out bed with Descartes. If anything, they piled on the covers to keep it nice and toasty in there! Most white academic feminist theory has always tried to secure its rightful place in the academy and, unfortunately, that’s had less to do with disrupting the binary than it has with just making sure you are on the right side of it. So, I’ll take my cue from Sister Sonia and evaluate theoretical endeavors by asking a simple “Uh huh, But How do it Free Us?”

  2. What the heck is NWSA?? I cant keep reading w/o knowing what Im reading about and whats so cool about it! Can we be as inclusive as possible with our jargon?

  3. If Im understanding this article, you are objecting to academia thats trying to make a theory more universal and therefore inclusive.

    In science, we have many theories, and the goal is to come up with a grand equation that explains everything, it seems that u oppose this notion for feminist theory.

    Academia is known to be rife with the majority people of means, so, I think its your perogative to help them understand marginalized minority people w/o getting overly defensive. In America, “poor” is not the norm, in developing nations, it is, so if you could expand your theory to them, maybe, then they can be more understanding.

    Otherwise, your critique of the majority also applies to yourself, you’re participating in an exercise in naricissism is you can’t expand the theory to include as many people as possible.

    Of course, you should be rigorous and include people that fit w/in the theory… but… if Im reading this correctly, you oppose that nation for fear that the voice u gave to a marginalized people will be usurped by the majority once again.

    I’m an engineer, and familiar with feminist theory in practice not in theory… so this is a layman speaking, meaning, I dont know the history

    1. MB the article is more about how NWSA was a historically overwhelmingly white space, and now has become more inclusive…but now that it is more “diverse/inclusive” there has been a critique of the scholarship of those “diverse” folks as not rigorous enough. NWSA (or members of it)is accusing the “diverse” folks of doing work that is not theoretical enough and located too much in the body/lives/lived experiences of people of color. This article is saying that without those experiences/bodies/lives the theory would not exist – specifically queer theory and intersectionality.

  4. Bravo for pointing out and putting these accusations on front street. As academics there is always the temptation to be “legitimated” while as community identified women of color we must deal with the “real” (the lived conditions of our people/selves). While we can easily see that we MUST deal with the real, those who are sheltered by academic safety and disconnected from community will continually run to theory in more and more elite “rigorous” and isolating ways (even though it means neglecting the whole history of the feminist MOVEment). I challenge the call to rigor with a call to returning to the roots of the movement, action.

  5. Damn susiemaye you wear sabbatical well. This post must be part of an anthology cause it needs to be widely circulated in print. In twenty years when I am teaching it, I’ll be able to say I was at that 2010 NWSA and I had dinner with the author, who I know personally.

    1. Thanks for your kind words, but I cannot take all the credit. This post arose out of several conversations Crunktastic and I had since returning from the NWSA conference. She also did a large amount of the writing. Shout outs, Crunktastic!

      That being said, I do think I wear sabbatical well! LOL! And this definitely needed to be said.

      1. Hard to capture how much this means to all of us at NWSA who’ve worked hard to make NWSA the best inclusive feminist organization on the planet that is also rigorous and represents the best in the field of women’s studies. Thanks for your running summary of the Denver conference and for these “final remarks.”

        Beverly Guy-Sheftall, outgoing president, NWSA

  6. Enjoyed the comments.
    I know all these ideas seem so new to you, but to me they feel like a continuation of the 60s. I wondered where the 60s had gone!

  7. This is deep.

    All these things said are so true. It’s almost as if being racially conscious is overrated and nobody respects the discourse anymore. There seems to me, to be a huge push towards a more “we are the world” model of dealing with race, and rejecting our lived experiences that distinguishes us as well as brings us together. You are right, the activism for these issues must remain consistent and dynamic. After all, academia does not dictate life. Life rather, should dictate academia.

  8. So, I was thinking about this more last night and I find it really disheartening. I recalled some of my own critiques of past NWSA conferences and at no point do I recall thinking that any particular body of work lacked rigor.

    I think intellectually white (and otherwise privileged) feminists will admit that we still need to confront our race and other privileges but when confronted by the stories of women of color we become very uncomfortable. We want social justice. We don’t want unearned privileges. We all want the same thing. And it would be so much easier if, as you discuss your lived experiences, you would just tell us what we need to do so we can feel good about moving forth instead of uncomfortable in our own privileged skin.


    I mean, that’s messed up, no? Who is doing the work here? Whose work is less than rigorous now?

    Head meet desk.

    I’m getting tired of privileged people claiming to want radical change and real social justice while doing whatever they can to avoid feeling uncomfortable about their own privilege.

    Something as important and as difficult as the work needed to move toward the eradication of white supremacy (and all the inequities along all the axes of power) is bound to feel uncomfortable for those of us with privilege. And it should.


  9. Oh, and I should probably mention that I am a white, middle class feminist. I don’t identify as straight but I am in a legally sanctioned, heterosexual marriage.

  10. “Queer theory without queer bodies ain’t queer. Intersectionality without women of color is a train wreck.” Yes, yes, yes!

    This move “beyond the body” is simply moving us towards ways of reading and away from ways of confronting oppression in its multiple forms. More pointedly, its an invitation to academics to say something “clever” about those “others” without having any real commitment to the eradication of racism, heterosexism, and homophobia.

    Hipster academics.

    Thank you so much for this post!

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