collaboration · community · equity · faster feminism · women

What does it mean to be a woman and a public intellectual?

I have been noticing a trend here at Hook & Eye.  Whether we are writing about the challenges and cruelties of the turgid job market, acknowledging the difficulties as well as possibilities in service work, or reflecting on making life changing decisions the general theme this fall has centred around striking a balance between life inside and outside the academy. This has me thinking about the role we take on — wittingly or un- — when writing for a feminist academic blog. On my most positive days I imagine this space as one that is both generative and space-making. I think of it as a place for advice, for honesty, and for performing vulnerabilities in a public fashion in an attempt to acknowledge that there are in fact humans in the Humanities, Social Sciences, Sciences, and heck, the whole darned endeavour that is the Academy. On my worst days, I fear that the space I take here is merely navel-gazingLess navel-gazingly, thinking about the role of writing for a feminist academic blog has me thinking about public intellectualism and the possibilities that generating conversation both inside and outside one’s sphere might allow.  

So, what is a public intellectual? Alan Lightman describes the public intellectual as someone who has been trained in a particular discipline (he names linguistics, biology, history, economics, and literary criticism as examples) and who has decided to “write and speak  to a larger audience than their professional colleagues.” For Lightman, the move from closed to open discourse — from specialized audience to general audience — is what moves an individual into the realm of a public intellectual (you can read the rest of Lightman’s essay here). Lightman draws particular attention to Edward Said’s understanding of the intellectual’s role in society. He writes

According to Said, an intellectual’s mission in life is to advance human freedom and knowledge. This mission often means standing outside of society and its institutions and actively disturbing the status quo. At the same time, Said’s intellectual is a part of society and should address his concerns to as wide a public as possible. Thus Said’s intellectual is constantly balancing the private and the public. His or her private, personal commitment to an ideal provides necessary force. Yet, the ideal must have relevance for society.

I love this notion that the role of the public intellectual is to instigate and facilitate discourse amongst a wide public. But who gets to be a public intellectual? How are individuals selected? And, really, how egalitarian is that process? For, in addition to thinking about the definition and function of a public intellectual, I have been wondering for a while now what it means to be a woman and a public intellectual. It should come as no surprise that gender, race, ethnicity, and class affect who — and how — public intellectuals are received. While Foreign Policy‘s 2012 Top 100 Global Thinkers has far more women that even five years ago, the fact remains that the position of public intellectualism is still resoundingly male and white. The only way to diversify the voices we hear from is to demand those changes, and to make them ourselves.

Here’s a recent example of a group of extremely busy-yet-dedicated people doing just that. Remember CWILA? Well, yesterday, CWILA announced our first critic-in-residence. Montreal-based writer and scholar Sue Sinclair is taking up this important inaugural position, which means that in addition to her own creative and scholarly practice she will also be occupying a far more public role. Part of the job of the critic-in-residence is to “foster vital criticism that promotes public awareness of women’s literary and critical presence in Canadian letters” to quote the original call for applications. How exciting is this? Yet, Sue can’t, shouldn’t, and indeed is not doing this all on her own. Spaces like Lemon Hound foster a variety of emergent and established voices. Public intellectuals like the indefatigable El Jones here in Halifax continue to lead by example and never shies away from telling it like it is. So tell me, readers: who are some women public intellectuals in your sphere who we should know? How can we support them?