Power and Privilege in Research:
Using Feminist Methodologies to Review Furchtgott-Roth’s book on America’s Gender Policies
To examine power and privilege as a feminist is essential to effect change. A feminist lens can be employed in most fields of study. With consideration toward research in those fields, feminism can bring balance through a holistic approach to fieldwork, data collection, and an analysis of both. For advocacy work, feminism serves to uncover oppressive behaviors and ideologies within the space (i.e., community, city, nation) being analyzed. To be an advocate and a researcher can go hand-in-hand, but this is not always the case. Individuals are disposed to divide into one of two camps as they handle the results of their research. While the aim of feminist research and advocates is the removal of oppressive power structures, the ethical question of how and when to release the information gained within the course of research remains. Advocacy groups might be inclined to withhold their findings if that information would have the potential for a negative effect (Spalter-Roth & Hartmann 1996). Frances Cancian states that of the two, theoretical researchers are “more effective in challenging inequality in so far as they emphasize major changes in equalizing power” (1996 p. 187). This is perhaps because they are more inclined to release all findings they may uncover. The possibility of negative results is still present, but theoretical researchers can call out hidden oppressions that might not otherwise be recognized.
Regardless of the research method chosen, whether its sole purpose be theoretical or done for advocacy work, the investigator will need to contend with postmodernist ideologies and methodologies. Though a shift to postmodernism, and away from the enlightenment ideologies, took place, Nancy Hartsock finds that little has changed in the way of “[t]he axes of dominion” (1996 p. 256). Shifts in ideologies can result in the same oppressive behaviors, or new behaviors that hold to the oppressive standards of the previous ideology. An example of what Hartsock discusses is seen within the book, How Obama’s Gender Policies Undermine America, by Diana Furchtgott-Roth, wherein she writes about how the wage gap is close enough to non-existent, and claims that by fabricating inequalities within the lives of America’s women, it makes them appear weak while undermining good, productive employers’ efforts to provide jobs. Hartsock makes mention of how the present power structure is based on “Eurocentric, masculinist, capitalist” ideologies, which shape much of what is typical or deemed normal within society (1996 p. 259). Furchtgott-Roth ignores that her observations come from a privileged position based upon her economic and professional standing. She also stands in support of the rights of corporations over the rights of women, which might be argued that her stance undermines the empowered position she insists women hold.
Feminist Research: Approaches and Guidelines
To conduct fair and balanced feminist research, we need to be wary of power and privilege within the research process. With education comes privilege; when looking at the university system privileges belong to the researchers and those that oversee the funding (Smith 1996). Furchtgott-Roth serves as a good example of why feminist guidelines are developed and integral to the research progress. As Acker, Barry, and Esseveld state, “the best we can do is to guard against our research being used against women” (1996 p. 74). It is telling that the research which Furchtgott-Roth cites within her book are all statistics. For the sweeping generalization about women’s lives or even the remarks about “professional feminists,” she does not cite any research to back up such statements. Though it helps to see how a non-feminist author sees gender policies within the United States, a few statements within her book make it clear she lacks facts to substantiate her claims. Ultimately, Furchtgott-Roth’s research methodologies are poor in quality regardless of her personal opinions on gender equality.
Additionally what is problematic within Furchtgott-Roth’s book is she speaks from a place of privilege, yet ignores her status. She speaks for other women in a manner that suggests all women experience life in the same way — her way. “If the ruling class and gender have the power to structure ideology, reality, and perception, then everyday materials will obscure the causes of oppression” (Gorelick 1996 p. 28). Furchtgott-Roth argues that women’s health is taking over the attentions that should be given in an equal amount to men’s health, yet she overlooks the fact that the history of medicine is based on the research of the male body and the exclusion of women from experimental studies and research. Even when women became participants in medical research studies, the bodies of impoverished women and women of color serve as fodder for medical knowledge; the experimentation done makes sure techniques are safe or effective before being used to treat white and/or wealthy patients (Schwartz 2009). “Some forms of cancer, such as prostate cancer, are unique to men” (Furchtgott-Roth 2010 p. 39), just as cervical cancer is unique to women. “To solve the problem of different conditions of oppression by focusing on different ‘truths,’ however, is to equalize what is not equal, to spread a patina of equivalence over brutal realities and their inverse insights” (Gorelick 1996 p. 35). Furchtgott-Roth neglects it is important to give attention to health concerns of men, but not at the expense of women’s healthcare options and availability. Her stance suggests women’s health is also unaffected by gender disparity and bias. By choosing one over the other it perpetuates the gender disparities in health.
While Furchtgott-Roth states that feminism doesn’t account for the everyday woman, Hartsock addresses a difference between viewing daily life as a woman and as a feminist. “Identity is not something that is formed unproblematically by existing in a particular social location and therefore seeing the world in a particular way. [Her] effort to develop the idea of a feminist standpoint, in contrast to ‘women’s viewpoint,’” was Furchtgott-Roth’s way of trying to move towards a better understanding of identity politics. This means understanding that a woman might not identify as a feminist, or that a man might identify as a feminist. Feminist as a chosen title disproves Furchtgott-Roth’s theory that feminists think only of themselves and consider all women to be in need of saving. Furchtgott-Roth overlooks feminism as a series as ideologies adopted by a group of people, regardless of gender. This belittling is Furchtgott-Roth’s efforts to undermine feminist research and its results.
Sharing Our Two Cents: Why Ethnographic Methodologies Support “Everyday Women”
When speaking of the wage gap between men and women in the United States, Furchtgott-Roth claims that no inequalities remain. The Fair Pay Act is misnamed “because it responds to a false problem” (Furchtgott-Roth 2010 p. 10). When talking about the five percent difference between men and women’s salaries, she states, “they earn essentially [emphasis added] the same salary” (Furchtgott-Roth 2010 p. 6). Yet, when you use that percentage to evaluate salaries, a difference that can affect quality of life is present. This means that a position that pays men $35,000 per year has a woman in that same position making $146 less per month. Money which could be used to cover a car insurance payment, a month’s worth of gas, or a week’s worth of groceries — to Furchtgott-Roth a $1700 per year is essentially the same. If the woman in question made a six-figure income, such as $100,000 per year, her male colleague with comparable experience would make $105,236 per year. Thus, the amount increases as the salary tiers increase, since five percent is relative to the salary amount. Simple math makes it seen that wages are being effected across the class spectrum. However, Furchtgott-Roth maintains the five percent disparity has no real effect on women’s lives, again speaking for all women without support for her statements. More women’s voices need to be taken into consideration, as “the dialectic of how the subjects negotiate the larger society, the strategies they apply to survive, how they resist oppression while at the same time being victimized by it” (Carty 1996 p. 127) is lost within Furchtgott-Roth’s rhetoric. She relies too much on the statistics without taking into consideration the daily lives of women. The research, if conducted as feminist research, is “[a] radical critique speaking from the experience of women,” which “has been integral to the politics of the women’s movement” (Smith 1996 p. 48). Thus, the voices of women outside of politics and academia are included — this debunks another claim of Furchtgott-Roth, where she states feminists care nothing about “everyday women.”
An example of how the political structure can affect the outcome of research can be seen within the studies shared by Ronnie J. Steinberg in Advocacy Research for Feminist Policy Objectives: Experiences with Comparable Worth. Steinberg examines her time with the Center for Women in Government (CWG) and the policy and advocacy work that took place during her tenure. As they uncovered the pay disparity within the state offices, with concurrent employment by the state, they needed to be sure that the data they gained was indisputable. The state had hired a second firm to make sure that no gender bias was present on account of the CWG being a known feminist organization. “This weak political base constrained the outcome of the New York State Comparable Pay Study as well and limited [their] advocacy. Part of the problem lay in changing the role of the CWG from advocate to researcher” (Steinberg 1996 p. 234). Steinberg’s research highlights an important issue: opinion can sway research data. Researchers should be wary of interjecting their own beliefs, in particular beliefs which might undermine the efficacy of the research being conducted.
Interjection of opinion is precisely what Furchtgott-Roth does throughout her book. She takes data from employment statistics and couples them with opinion. Though they pair well to aid in making her statement read as true, Furchtgott-Roth does so in a way that undermines the lives of those who are oppressed. Her opinion negates the validity of their struggles and presumes that all oppressions are visible and addressed. Sherry Gorelick quotes Adrienne Rich within her essay saying, “[f]eelings are useless without fact” (1996 p. 34). Taking that a needed step further, facts should be interpreted from a balanced perspective. Rather than short-changing the women’s movement by calling upon stereotypes, Furchtgott-Roth should have learned more about the movement. More research could have been conducted or accessed which looked at how women viewed themselves within the present political climate. Had data been present to support that women’s lives were suffering from feminism’s presence, it would have improved the thesis of Furchtgott-Roth’s argument. Not all women would have needed to be in complete agreement either as long as a majority felt that their quality of life suffered under the Obama administration. As the book is devoid of these facts, the validity of her statements should be questioned by readers.
It is not oppression of men through the elevation of women’s status as Furchtgott-Roth implies. The mission, instead, is working towards betterment of the human race through providing justice, which is a deeper resolve than equality. Feminism — and I say this as one who is a “professional feminist” in the making — is there to make sure that women have choices within their lives: choices that are not paired with fear, or preparing themselves for the ridicule and sexual harassment that is still present. For men, by making sexual harassment towards women unacceptable, it does the same for men. It says that as a human being, it is not acceptable to pressure or abuse another individual for your own personal gain or pleasure. “Feminism as method sees the representation of women’s experiences as the beginning of and often the end of the production of knowledge claims” (Gottfried 1996 p. 5). With this justice comes positive change for both men and women.
To revisit the original thoughts about power and research, we look back at advocates and researchers. The two groups can benefit from working with each other. It allows for advocates and researchers to gain access to resources they might not have access to un-partnered. Researcher and activists can both “be described as passionate scholars”; researchers “distinguished between disinterested science and passionate politics” and activists criticism of “the methodologies that emphasize their separation” (Spalter-Roth & Hartmann 1996 p.210). Both acknowledge the importance of bridging theory and practice is within their methodologies. When speaking about research participants, we need to be careful about speaking for others. Furchtgott-Roth made sweeping generalizations about both feminism and women, which ended up leaving the truth of the situation on the sidelines in favor of shock and awe. This is why it is so important to establish partnerships, be wary and aware of external and internal politics, and make sure you know of your own privilege. Last, but not least, remember the advice of Adrienne Rich: “[f]eelings are useless without facts” (Gorelick 1996 p. 34).
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