In the last few weeks, I've gotten a resurgence in the "hate e-mails." You know, the expletive-filled rants that attack me, feminism, and the on-going work to raise anti-sexist consciousness among men. One fellow wrote me yesterday:
Apparently you prefer to browbeat those poor young bastards who end up forced to sit in your indoctrination sessions without the benefit of knowing that your "edification" is a pure crock of something which will soon be defecated from our society. Maybe you should switch to teaching spelling. That would be much less destructive than your current "discipline." By the way, in what field was your doctorate awarded? Or are you too embarrassed to say?
Because I write primarily about feminism, folks tend to assume that my Ph.D. is in women's studies. As I've written before in a brief academic autobiography, my doctoral degree is in English Medieval History. My disssertation was on the most "masculine" and conservative subject imaginable: the role of the northeastern English episcopate (the archbishops of York and the bishops of Durham) in defending England from Scottish invasion during the reign of the three Edwards (1272-1377). With the exception of Queen Isabella (wife of Edward II), not a single woman is mentioned in the entire 300+ pages of a very dry monograph.
In my reply to the e-mail quoted above, I answered the fellow's question. I told him, suspecting it would surprise him, that my degree was in a very traditional, male-dominated field. At least at UCLA in my day, the medievalists were famous as being the most conservative of all of the sub-divisions of the history department; the early modernists were all Marxists, the classicists were all (naturally) suspected of terrible debauchery, and the Americanists were, well, just that. (Let's be honest: those of us who had to learn three or more languages to get our doctorates tend to be unfairly snobby towards those who need at most one foreign tongue, and that includes most of my colleagues who did degrees in American studies. It reminds me of the famous and no-doubt apocryphal story of the Oxbridge don who, upon learning that a visiting scholar did American history, said to him "How delightful. And tell me, what do you do with your afternoons?")
But here's the point: I realize it's deeply sexist of me to point out to everyone that my degree is, in fact, not in women's studies. Over and over and over again, as I wrote a year and a half ago, anti-feminists question the intellectual and academic legitimacy of gender studies. There's a widespread presumption (indescribably wrong-headed and false) that women's studies degrees are not as difficult to earn as those in more traditional disciplines. And when I hasten to announce that no, my degree is actually in medieval ecclesiastical and military history, and I had to master all of this Latin and Anglo-Norman French, what I end up doing is reinforcing that spurious notion that women's studies degrees don't require as much scholarly exertion as my own. ((For the record, many of the folks I knew at UCLA who were grad students in women's studies could run intellectual circles around me -- though that may say more about my abilities than anything else!)
Of course, there's nothing wrong with correcting people's false assumptions. If pressed, I ought to tell the curious and the scornful that I hold a doctorate in a field far removed from the study of gender and sexuality in contemporary society. (My reasons for not getting the Ph.D. in women's history are explained in the linked post). There's nothing inherently wrong with setting the record straight! At the same time, I must do a better job, I realize of checking my motives. So often, I enjoy the reaction I get from men's rights activists (MRAs) and other anti-feminists when I tell them that I hold a degree in a classically conservative field. Most of 'em simply shut up, or change the subject. Since their goal was to make me defensive, I tend to enjoy showing the lads that they are mistaken.
But by saying "No, my degree is actually in medieval military and ecclesiastical history", I end up partially making the MRA case. By being so quick to "correct the record", perhaps I imply that I would be ashamed if my doctorate actually were in women's studies. It might also appear, I worry, that my haste in setting things straight reflects a desire to gain legitimacy in the eyes of anti-feminist critics. I worry that my protestations about my academic background end up coming across like this: "See, I have a 'real Ph.D.'! My feminism is important to me, but I want you to know I have a 'serious and scholarly' background." It's almost as if I'm seeking approval from those who are unlikely to give it.
Still, in all the years that I've had this conversation with anti-feminists, none of them have said "Oh, a Ph.D. in English medieval military history is no better." No, most MRAs (I say most, not all) tend to have a reverence for all things martial. Though some are suspicious of all humanities and social sciences degrees, our masculine culture tends to see military history as perhaps the most acceptable of sub-fields within the discipline. (I know lots of very conservative men who are positively addicted to the History Channel, especially when it shows its umpteenth war documentary of the week.)
So yes, I'm only telling the truth when I tell 'em I wrote more about the battles of Falkirk and Bannockburn and Neville's Cross than about feminism and the patriarchy -- but I'm also perhaps trying to establish some kind of intellectual bona fides with my critics. It's probably a losing effort in the long run, and it certainly ought not to be done in a way that offers even an implied criticism of feminism and gender studies. So while I won't pretend to have a degree that I don't have, I will be more careful not to flaunt the degree I do -- particularly if when doing so, I give the impression that I consider the field in which my doctorate was earned to be more scholarly and legitimate than the one in which I now teach.