I recently read an article by Mary Eagleton called “Nice Work? Representations of the Intellectual Woman Worker.” While the article elided many of my concerns about the struggles ethnic minority women face as aspiring or developing intellectuals (a topic I hope to explore in a future post focusing on black women intellectuals), there were a few points that helped me to reflect critically on the ways in which manifestations of gender and gendering within the higher education system can stymie women’s efforts to become intellectuals.

Eagleton references Joan Riviere’s essay, “Womanliness as Masquerade” and Riviere’s theory that some intellectual  women who exhibit the traditionally masculine traits of  being “clever, educated, [and] highly competent” (Eagleton 205) resort to masks of femininity to cope with the anxiety that accompanies facing a potentially critical or hostile male audience. Paraphrasing Riviere, Eagleton writes that “One [woman] is inappropriately flirtatious, another hides her expertise and suggests that all her correct comments are just ‘lucky guesses’, [and] a third becomes ‘flippant and joking'” (qtd. in Eagleton 205).

***Note: See Riviere, Joan. “Womanliness as Masquerade.” Formations of Fantasy. Eds. Victor Burgin, James Donald, and Cora Kaplan. London: Methuen, 1929. 34-44.

While I find some of the particulars of Riviere’s mask of femininity outdated, I was surprised by the relevance of her general ideas about the anxiety women intellectuals can face in front of male audiences. I think it is telling that some of the gender dynamics Riviere explored about 85 years ago are so visible in today’s institutions of higher education. As an example, I would like to relay my subjective observations of one of my undergraduate courses in international security.

The tutorial for my international security class was made up of about twenty five people, with a roughly even split between women and men. We were encouraged to use international relations theory as a framework to discuss strategies for international security. I noticed a trend at the time that reflectivist international relations theories, such as constructivism, feminism, critical theory, and postcolonialism, were feminized and devalued compared to rationalist and positivist schools of thought like realism and liberalism, which are the most mainstream theories for the study of international politics and institutions. It was normal in my tutorial for men to dominate the discussion and stress rational choice and game theory as a way of understanding international security, and for women, speaking less often and less assertively, to draw attention to the ways in which security interests and threats are socially constructed. The male teaching assistant for the tutorial, along with much of the male cohort, consistently favoured the former perspective with more credence than the latter, while the female cohort tended to lend a more equal weight to both perspectives.

The idea of such a classroom as a site that reproduces gendered patterns of power, privilege, and hierarchy was not a new insight for me on reading Eagleton’s article. What was more interesting to me was the insight that intellectual women struggle in large part due to the lack of cultural history of the woman intellectual. Eagleton writes,

Though there are many biographies of individual intellectual women, usually couched in terms of the exceptional genius, studies which problematise women’s relation to intellectualism and to an intellectual history are, even today, not thick on the ground. It is the male intellectual who is named or, when commentators speak abstractly of ‘the intellectual’, the figure is conceived in masculine terms. Moreover, women are not the implied readers in texts about the role of the intellectual and they have to struggle to find a position which might include their experience. (211)

Going back to my international security tutorial, I believe that a significant part of the dynamic, particularly the difficulty women faced in asserting their views, was rooted not just in the general manifestation of male privilege, but more specifically in the fact that women had a relatively very small background of women’s political intellectual history to draw on to bolster confidence in their claims. It is easy to understand why women would have anxieties presenting their views in such a context.

It is important to note that the classroom dynamic I described above was something of an outlier during my undergraduate degree. Gender dynamics in my classes were not usually so fraught. However, across all disciplines and levels of higher education, such a dynamic is all too common. I wonder how many women will be able to emerge from these institutions confident that their voices will be heard, that their perspectives are valid and valued, and that they have something unique and meaningful to add to the analysis of current issues as potential public intellectuals? I venture to say, not nearly enough.


Eagleton, Mary. “Nice Work? Representations Of The Intellectual Woman Worker.” Women’s History Review 14.2 (2005): 203-222. Web.


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