Forged in Fire: Constructing Women’s Studies Knowledge for Social Engagement, 1979-2019
At this time of global upheaval from a seemingly endless syndemic of cascading social, political, environmental, and viral threats that exacerbate one another, I am reminded that the field of women’s studies got its start in a similarly charged atmosphere of social unrest and uncertainty. As the field developed over more than four decades, women’s studies continued to evolve as various forms of social tumult shaped its mission(s) and academic pursuits.
Several founders of women’s studies emphasized the field’s connections with social action by declaring in the 1970s that women’s studies is the academic arm of the women’s movement. Although that statement is dated on several levels and would fail to resonate with many scholars today, at the time it signaled the intention that women’s studies’ pedagogical and scholarly work should intersect with and possibly promote progressive gender-related causes. Put more broadly, it signaled that the field should be socially engaged. So, even though the “academic arm” statement provoked debates at the time and over the years, many practitioners echo that early commitment by conceptualizing and utilizing their work to advance social and cultural equity, inclusion, and justice. As a result, women’s studies academic programs and research ventures often characterize or position themselves as socially engaged.
Today, as threats to social justice, the environment, and democracy itself escalate to near-crisis levels in the US and around the world, the time is right to revisit the field’s intention for social engagement: What has the concept of social engagement meant over the years, and how has it shaped scholars’ work? Has that work been primarily reactive to emerging issues or proactive in defining those issues or promoting social action? Has the social engagement agenda changed over time? Has women’s studies scholarship usefully illuminated or addressed compelling issues confronting the US and the world? Or, as some critics argue, has women’s studies scholarship become too granular, self-referencing, or esoteric in focus to fruitfully engage with social crises?
The collaborative study on which this article is based began with similar questions. As both Signs and the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) celebrated their fortieth anniversaries a few years ago, some of us with long histories in the field started looking back on women’s studies’ field formation over time. Was it correct to think of the field as progressing or regressing by some measure or other, we wondered? Could we tell whether women’s studies had influenced social structures or lived experience, or whether its impact was limited to academia? How had the NWSA conference and journals changed over time? Had scholars become more or less concerned with major political or social issues or events? Did women’s studies deserve its ill repute as “grievance studies”? Or, conversely, did it take too long for women’s studies to engage with grievances based on racial or sexual identity and distinctions?
In those conversations, we realized that addressing such questions could not rely solely on the conceptual and theoretical takes scholars have provided since the 1990s, based on their perspectives about the field’s composition and mission. As provocative as they are, such works do not account for field formation in the fullest sense, nor do they intend to. Our questions required a more systematic approach to what scholars have actually produced over the years. For that reason, a few of us at Arizona State University decided to conduct the first empirical investigation of research output in the field of women’s studies. We decided to focus on research outlets that best reflected women’s studies’ most autonomous and independent form and its identity as an interdiscipline. Therefore, we included scholarly presentations at the NWSA conference since its inception in 1979, as well as publications in the field’s major interdisciplinary journals during a parallel period (recognizing that journals started at different times) where that interdiscipline would be on the clearest display over the longest time.
My investigation within that study focused on knowledge construction— the approaches that founders and practitioners (in any field or discipline) take to creating and validating knowledge over time. Knowledge construction has been a compelling interest in women’s studies since its founding, as women’s studies scholars initially tried to compensate for past omissions by conventional academic disciplines. Over subsequent years they created new frameworks for understanding gendered, racialized, and sexualized experiences and hierarchies and analyzed the alienation, discrimination, stereotyping, dismissal, and rejection of women and other marginalized groups that stormy social contexts both revealed and exacerbated. Early on, scholars discussed the importance of interdisciplinarity and later examined, defined, and utilized the heuristic of intersectionality. They debated the role of experience and identity in generating and validating knowledge. These concerns and others I will discuss remained constants, as new and lingering challenges and obstacles to justice, inclusion, and equity emerged locally, nationally, and globally over the years.
By examining knowledge construction, it is possible not only to detect what constitutes knowledge in a field and how that knowledge is justified but also to determine whose knowledge is trusted, on what grounds, and regarding which areas of inquiry. Those determinations, in turn, suggest the questions and concerns that occupy scholars’ attention. They also indicate the contributions of those concerns to the field’s mission and identity. Investigations of knowledge construction in a field thereby provide an entry point into scholars’ responses to and interventions in evolving social challenges, not issue by issue necessarily but through the cumulative weight of collective focus.
While tracing those varied and phased elements of knowledge construction in women’s studies from 1979-2014 (as discussed in section 1), I concluded something surprising about the meaning of social engagement in the field. Although scholars continually addressed specific issues, such as incarceration, political persecution, or reproductive justice, and studied and supported forms of activism across the years, promoting direct social action and movement participation did not dominate the scholarship overall. Rather, scholars more consistently focused on mechanisms of, and harms inflicted by, stereotyping and discrimination based on gendered, racialized, and sexualized intersectional identities and social locations. As I approached the knowledge-construction data from varied perspectives, I came to understand that the predominant strain of this scholarship entailed expanding the social realities considered significant in framing and addressing any social or cultural issue, problem, or challenge. At the same time, scholars identified constraints on knowledge expansion within women’s studies or definitions of feminism that must be addressed. In other words, scholars understood knowledge construction as a key location for social engagement because it empowers previously silenced voices and unrecognized realities that have political significance. Knowledge construction in women’s studies has effectively inserted those realities into the socially transformative processes necessary to create more just, equitable, and inclusive societies. Thus, women’s studies scholarship that might appear from the outside as “grievance studies” or self-indulgent naval gazing can be seen as a political act, shored up by addressing restrictions on knowledge construction that hinder social transformation
During subsequent years, from 2015-2019 (as discussed in section 2), the emphasis on expanding social realities remained salient in the field, but there were also significant changes. A new strain of knowledge production gained greater traction, especially after the political cataclysm of 2016. Attention to activism increased in certain ways, but so did support for what I discuss as love or affective politics. Scholars, especially scholars of color, became increasingly interested in affective knowledge, community building, self-care, embodied knowledge, and self-knowledge as political acts. Many addressed a similar theme: knowledge construction leading to social action depends on body, heart, and (inter)personal introspection as well as on the mind and political acts.
The analysis that follows reflects my journey through the record of knowledge construction scholarship in women’s studies over four decades. It maps the relationship between identity- and experience-based knowledge in women’s studies and the field’s engagement with political and social unrest.
Born in flames: The politics of knowledge construction
Women’s studies was born amid activism that targeted higher education’s androcentric, white-dominated organizational structures and curricula. Universities in the 1960s exemplified societies’ disregard, suppression, and deprecation of women’s contributions to intellectual and social life. Indeed, ignoring or disparaging women’s accomplishments across sexualities, races, and social strata, as well as obscuring their life experiences and cultural creations in disciplinary canons, from English and history to computer science and biology, had begun to seem like founding tenets of higher education.
While culturally transformative, commissions on the status of women and laws like Title VII and Title IX from the 1960s and early 70s did not quite capture the transformation of academia that activists had in mind. Racist and patriarchal university structures and androcentric curricula demanded an epistemological overhaul that the presence of more women alone could not accomplish. Creating meaningful change required new knowledge to transform curricula and research agendas. Change had to include knowledge produced by women that focused on women’s lives, struggles, and triumphs; challenged sexism and misogyny; and empowered all women to claim their rights and attain social and economic access. Importantly, program founders also wanted to ensure that scholars and practitioners in the emerging field were getting their knowledge-making right.
Constructing new knowledge required transcending the barriers erected by conventional disciplinary divisions that limited analysis of the gendered world. Thus, even as most early women’s studies programs emerged from conventional disciplines and departments, such as history and English, it was important to many from the start and throughout the years that the pursuit of knowledge in the field and resulting programs should be interdisciplinary .
The early days of women’s studies were heady. As one of many cofounders of early women’s studies’ programs, I clearly remember the first classes I taught (through an English department). The students’ hunger for whatever knowledge we could construct or discover together meant that every class we offered in those days was overflowing, with students sitting on backpacks or folded coats on the floor at the edges of the room. Because available reading materials were just then being published, everyone in the room contributed books, articles, and life stories to help address the many questions we finally had permission to ask. (Robust enrollment numbers persuaded the English department to embrace these classes until a separate department was created.) As my own specializations in the field evolved, I remained devoted to constructing knowledge about women and gender that could impact people’s lives and perspectives and challenge and change social narratives and practices. Feminist theory and epistemology remain important pillars of my teaching and scholarship.
As my ASU colleagues and I began the study on which this article is based, we were familiar with the many analyses proffered over the years by the field’s institutional theorists from their vantage points. We had also developed our own perspectives, based on observation and experience. My perspective had been honed through almost three decades of writing and giving presentations about the field’s organization, epistemological foundations, and development (including the addition of master’s and doctoral programs and the production of dissertations), as well as through publishing theoretical and historical books and articles, chairing two women’s studies departments, playing leadership roles in national organizations, and working to construct and get approval for PhD programs at two universities.
A deeper understanding of field formation in women’s studies required much more than our personal histories and familiarity with scholarly assessments of the field, however. We were committed to a systematic study of the field’s formation, which typically denotes implicit shared meanings emerging from social as well as intellectual interactions that can vary according to local dynamics (Leibel, Hallett, and Bechky 2017). In women’s studies, the quest for shared meanings is largely unstructured but occurs through the development of programs and curricula as well as scholars’ research foci and purpose. Unlike some academic areas, women’s studies has not created or supported a standard canon and/or list of guiding precepts and probably never will, as the field by definition rejects conventional disciplinary or methodological strictures and continually responds to changing social impacts. Knowledge making in women’s studies is an expansive and ongoing process in which the definition of core knowledge continually evolves and degree requirements vary across programs. Nevertheless, the field somehow hangs together even without a canon or uniform guidelines and despite the variations among programs and the wide scope of interdisciplinary and discipline-based research women’s studies encompasses. Moreover, it grows year by year.
The field’s indeterminant core was both understandable and a challenge for our study, as we needed to decide what to examine. We wanted to identify the ideas, rhetoric, commitments, and passions that had occupied women’s studies scholars as they wrote about and publicly presented their work over the field’s history. Obviously, this was a daunting task. Not only was there no central database of women’s studies scholarship, but it was also impossible for the faculty/graduate student team we assembled to read or even scan all the scholarship produced in the field in the previous year or two, let alone since the 1980s.
Our interest in women’s (sexuality, gender, intersectionality, feminist) studies as an autonomous interdiscipline in the US narrowed our purview somewhat. We chose prominent US-based interdisciplinary venues for women’s studies scholarship, including three major interdisciplinary journals–Signs, NWSA Journal/Feminist Formations, and Feminist Studies—as well as presentations at the annual NWSA conference. That choice would necessarily exclude hundreds of books, thousands of journal articles, and recent social media sources. We concluded, however, that it would nevertheless produce rich empirical evidence of the field’s development over time and allow us to map women’s studies scholarship in a significant way.
Second, we enlisted the help of computer scientists at Arizona State University (ASU) who, quite conveniently for us, were interested in shaping their existing software to our unusual needs. Together with our savvy ASU gender studies graduate students, they created a searchable digital database of all NWSA paper presentations since the first conference. Our study of journals was aided by online resources but required much painstaking assemblage of journal article titles and abstracts (when they existed), as well as links to full articles.
Study methods and limitations
It took our collaborative team two years to develop the digital database of NWSA presentations and journal articles from 1979 through 2016, and an additional two years to bring the data up to 2019 (in part because our computer science collaborators moved on to other projects). What resulted was an impressive body of data for us to sort through and analyze. At the beginning, we did not know what needles to look for in that enormous haystack. There were few organizing principles to go by, apart from the official conference and journal themes. It soon became clear, however, that those frameworks could be as effective at masking scholars’ actual research interests, which could be massaged to meet conference or journal thematic guidelines, as they were at generating them. We needed our own entry points into the data.
We ultimately decided on three such entry points that represented what we considered important categories of field formation: knowledge construction (including epistemology), methodology, and pedagogy. We found these three categories particularly relevant for women’s studies as a field that challenges existing knowledge and undertakes to create knowledge anew, that has had to adapt or develop new methodologies in order to overcome past biases in research, and that sees the classroom as its laboratory for testing and developing theories and praxis in the pursuit of social change. Seeing what happened as those categories intersected with prominent and recurrent themes and key words (related to ideas about race, sexuality, and feminism, for example) produced much better hooks on which to hang our interpretation of the data than conference and journal themes alone.
One complication in the study resulted from inconsistencies in the available information about the NWSA conference and journal contents over time. In the early years, NWSA panel titles were often vague, such as “Women in Education,” so there was not much to analyze. Even more limiting was the absence of presentation abstracts in the NWSA conference programs and the lack of electronically searchable conference programs until 2014, and then only sporadically. To accommodate this inconsistency, I discuss NWSA conference presentations in two batches, those from 1979 through 2014 in section 1 and those from 2015 through 2019 in section 2, with more detail and a slightly different focus that additional information made possible. There was good electronic data about journal contents, but article abstracts were not consistently available. Given the much smaller data bank of journal articles from both time periods I am covering, I use them primarily as points of comparison with NWSA data.
Constructing knowledge construction
As it turned out, knowledge/epistemology, was the largest of the three entry points into the NWSA data that we collected, far outnumbering references to methodology and pedagogy. Of course, a portion of presentations and articles overlapped two or all the categories. That’s because the lines in our field between knowledge produced and methods for producing it, as well as approaches to teaching and research, are not rigid. Many questions and concepts simultaneously belong to both research and teaching, as scholars writing about ways to teach about race, for example, may simultaneously be developing theories of cross-racial analysis. To ameliorate the overlap problem, we looked for explicit references to our categories (knowledge, pedagogy, methodology) or their cognates in titles and abstracts rather than just ferreting out which category was applicable. When a work referred to two or all the categories, we consulted with each other as much as we could about where we would classify the presentation or article. But given the thousands of examples in our databases, some repetition in our selection of objects of study and analytical focus was bound to occur.
For the knowledge/epistemology category, the task was complicated by the fact that almost every presentation and article in our databases in some sense produced new knowledge. But I was looking for a self-conscious focus on the construction and validation of knowledge about women, gender and gender politics, sexuality, and intersecting identities and social locations. I was interested in explicit claims about how knowledge is discovered, created, or justified. I hoped to find discussions of the impact of knowledge on individuals, groups, communities, nations, politics, subjectivity, or other aspects of lived experience and social controversies or structures.
To trace knowledge construction, I initially searched for presentations and papers with knowledge or epistemology in titles or abstracts. The epistemology search was quite fruitful, but knowledge did not always refer to the construction or production of knowledge and sometimes appeared within irrelevant words like acknowledge. Initial passes at the data revealed relatively small numbers of papers utilizing knowledge in titles, even though they did discuss knowledge construction, and none before 1981. Even self-conscious knowledge construction presentations and articles might not employ that term. Thus, I expanded my search through decades worth of data with new categories in mind, such as “looking at old information or assumptions in new ways,” “creating or critiquing theory,” “designing or improving women’s studies,” and “expanding what constitutes feminist knowledge or feminism.” History, narrative, (feminist) theory, story, studies, and related terms turned out to be good guides to discovering a fuller range of knowledge construction scholarship.
I also examined the list of NWSA conference themes to see if they provided another guide to knowledge construction in the field. While these were not entirely representative of scholars’ actual concerns, I thought they might still be instructive. And indeed they were. The succession of themes over the years definitely told a story about the organization’s changing priorities and foci, and the direction those themes provided for the conference’s contents.
Between 1982 and 1992, conference themes highlighted topics related to feminist education, program design, and field development in women’s studies. Although not specifically about knowledge construction, most themes allowed for presentations on that topic. The 1986, 1987, 1988, and 1989 conferences, for example, included questions about women’s empowerment, leadership, and diversity—all of which related to knowledge construction. But only the 1989 theme description explicitly mentioned that topic. The organization’s internal struggles with racism inflected themes in the early 1990s, especially in 1993, as race-based discord had threatened to sink the organization after 1989. Expanding social realities through race-based knowledge construction was more an implicit than an explicit invitation in those years, as were themes focusing on theory and action, contested borders and barriers, women’s movements, and feminist social change in 1994, 1996, and 1997. (For no stated reason, themes died out in 1998 and 1999.)
After 2000, some themes became more directedly focused on social and political activism and engagement, as in that year’s “Subversions Through Women’s Studies,” although themes that interrogated the field and, implicitly, knowledge production therein followed in 2001, 2002, 2006, and 2007. The Difficult Dialogues themes of 2009 and 2010 suggested the important role of knowledge construction in addressing and reducing racial tensions, a goal that reflected the leadership missions of NWSA’s first women of color presidents during those years.
Conference themes from 2005-2014 did not explicitly prioritize knowledge construction, with the exception of the 2012 theme, “Feminism Unbound: Imagining a Feminist Future,” which included decolonizing knowledge as a subtheme. But the potential sites of social engagement through new knowledge increased in those years, such as “Women and the Environment” in 2005. Sites of social engagement characterized more themes from 2011-14, including those related to gender equity, racial justice, social accord, social upheavals, and democratic ideals. “Feminist Transformations” in 2011; “Negotiating Points of Encounter” in 2013 (which explored feminist engagements in the world); “Feminist Transgressions” in 2014 (which celebrated feminist insubordinations) are specific examples that also attracted presentations focusing on knowledge construction.
As intended, themes shaped presentations at the annual conferences, but regardless of the theme, scholars paid attention to the process of knowledge construction, especially when themes focused on the field’s development. At first the contrast between women’s studies epistemology and androcentric disciplines was a primary target. Critiques of philosophy, the history of science, English, history, medicine, and library science appeared at NWSA conferences and in journals. Simultaneously and continuously, scholars also targeted biases and omissions within women’s studies itself. In both journal articles and NWSA presentations, scholars identified the American- and Eurocentric tendencies in the field and in feminist theory, as well as white bias, antisemitism, ageism, ableism, and discrimination against sexual variance–from the so-called “lavender menace” of lesbians, to heteronormativity, to transphobia. They analyzed the impact of those biases on worldviews and epistemic values in the field. Hidden and not-so-hidden racism was a special focus at NWSA, hazards the organization recognized as early as 1981 in its conference theme, “Women Respond to Racism.” Later, in 2009-10, as women of color began leading the organization, targeting racism dominated the annual conference, as it did again in 2017, when the theme celebrated the fortieth anniversary of the Combahee River Collective Statement (1977).
Regardless of the conference theme, however, NWSA presentations focusing on knowledge construction throughout the years told their own story about the deeper occupations of women’s studies scholars, which revealed a key definition of social engagement in the field. I discovered an important part of that story as I did an initial pass at our data, based only on the terms knowledge and epistemology, through 2016. I wanted to define categories related to epistemology and the construction of knowledge evident in both NWSA presentations and the three journals. I identified 26 categories, but I discovered that a single category of knowledge construction dominated NWSA presentations and journal articles during that time period—the construction and validation of knowledge and epistemology on the basis of personal or collective experience, identity, and social location. Across all the scholarly outlets, I found over 50 papers with that basic theme (38 from NWSA), whereas no other category exceeded 26 (the politics of knowledge production; 16 of those from Signs). Most others were below 20. (Some articles and papers overlapped categories, so were counted more than once).
In short, when it came to constructing and validating knowledge in women’s studies, regardless of the conference theme or journal topic, scholars rallied around experience as a dominant criterion. This was not a huge surprise, since the importance of identity and experience in constructing knowledge can be seen as a foundational principle of women’s studies. It could hardly have been otherwise, given early practitioners’ and theorists’ objections to the (white) androcentric epistemic biases that had dominated academia. So, recognizing women’s identities and experience—especially those of marginalized women—as a legitimate foundation for and source of valid knowledge was an essential first step.
Even when knowledge construction was not an explicit conference concern, NWSA scholars argued in favor of incorporating life experience into the world of academic knowledge-making. These arguments were also supported (with more detail) in the journals. In 1990, Ruth Behar promoted the idea of “life history as a cultural text” through an “interplay between theory and narrative” (223). Marilyn Boxer posited the value of experience as a source of knowledge when she noted in 2000 (referencing Karl Mannheim) that “new forms of knowledge . . . grow out of the conditions of collective life and do not depend for their emergence upon the prior demonstration by a theory of knowledge that they are possible” (124). Michelle Murphy reinforced that idea four years later. In constructing the epistemology of vaginal self-examination, Murphy argued, “Experience . . . provided a kind of evidence that was used to critique science, especially biomedicine, by providing a different knowledge of the world” (2004, 118). Alice Dan considered how women’s embodied experiences of menstruation “illuminate and counteract the social and political forces that broadly affect women’s lives and women’s health,” especially because “medical practice . . . remain[s] largely in the hands of men and reflect[s] powerful financial and political interests” (2004, 45). Some of this knowledge, rooted in the primary experiences of the body and in “early socialization processes and ongoing interpretations of identity and selfhood,” exists below the level of consciousness, according to Evelyn Blackwood (2009, 461).
Not everyone was convinced, however. Scholars also recognized problems with accepting identity-based experience as major sources of knowledge. Historian Joan Scott famously asked in 1991, isn’t experience “that which we seek to explain” rather than itself an explanation for knowledge? (780). Some women’s studies scholars agreed. Might it not be better to produce knowledge through a dialectic between experience and theory as between disciplines and interdisciplinarity? asked Eloise Buker (2003). Literary scholars questioned whether a fictional character’s experience might not also be an important source of knowledge for readers who identify with it (Sweeney 2004). Others recognized that gendered, sexual, and racialized experience—the purview of women’s studies–is typically constructed by cultural knowledge rather than a priori to that knowledge. Even Murphy ultimately modified her claim that “all knowledge production should begin with women’s experiences” (2004, 117) by concluding that claims made on the basis of experience should be accompanied by legitimate external evidence, such as historical texts (120).
Critiques of experience as the foundation of knowledge also included Gloria Anzaldúa’s concerns about identity politics. Anzaldúa was interested in forming alliances across identity categories rather than in defining knowledge as emanating from a particular experience or identity. She promoted pan-human ideas and discovered unexpected spiritual affinities across identity lines as ways to discover commonalities that can lead to new knowledge and collective social action (Keating 2008).
Despite these concerns and caveats, however, our data suggest that integrating experiential and identity- or social-location-based knowledge into the academy has remained an ongoing challenge, as well as an acceptable, even valued, basis for knowledge construction and validation in NWSA presentations and in women’s studies journals. Marginalized identities, experience, and social location remained important sources of knowledge over the years, starting with the NWSA presentation “Indian Women: Tribal Identity as Status and Constraint” in 1980. Throughout the years, key experiential knowledge sources have included racial/ethnic marginalization, indigeneity, alterity, colonization, disability, and incarceration (Fili 2013). At the same time, scholars argued that the overrepresentation of some identities and social locations, such as whiteness and Western or settler mores and attitudes, required curtailment.
Our data reveal that scholars sought epistemologies in surprising places precisely to stretch notions about conventional knowledge and to explore knowledge from antihegemonic locations, including from acts of hospitality (Hamington 2010), for example, or from a postcolonial consciousness (NWSA 2000). Vodou was credited with “performing black feminist intellectual work” via stories about and possession by feminine Iwa spirits, according to Omise’Eke Natasha Tinsley. Indeed, such experiences and narratives act as “an expansive archive” and help “[theorize] Caribbean genders in a way that elucidates a way of knowing sex, bodies, and personhood” (2011, 419).
That searches for terms connected with activism, meaning participation in specific movements or other forms of direct social action, produced a much smaller corpus than we expected was another indicator that the field’s ideas about social engagement could lie elsewhere. That absence helped me to realize that field practitioners not only welcomed and celebrated the perspectives and knowledge contributions of previously overlooked or silenced individuals and communities; they also saw those perspectives as expanded sites of social engagement.
Section 1. A Deeper dive into experience- and identity-based knowledge and its constraints, 1979-2014
Analyzing women’s studies scholarship focused on knowledge construction from 1979-2014 provided the first major clue about what social engagement in women’s studies included. Whether deliberately or not, women’s studies scholars were responding to the silencing and ridiculing of women’s voices as “emotional, intuitive, and personalized,” over centuries and to ideas about men’s exclusive capacity to reason and produce legitimate knowledge (Belenky et al., 1983, 5). Men’s alleged epistemic capacity stemmed from their reliance on “abstract laws and universal principles” (8) and their ability to adjudicate conflicting claims “impersonally, impartially, and fairly” (8). Women’s alleged incapacity to produce legitimate knowledge resulted not only from their (supposed) mental inferiority but also from their (forced) immersion in the immanent, personal, and messy side of life. They were, therefore, embedded in a universe where knowledge construction depended on negotiating relationships and varying cultural demands and did not necessarily obey abstract principles (Bowles and Klein 1997, 8).
Feminist scholars like Sandra Harding and Mary Belenky refused to see any such contrast as a disqualification for constructing or validating knowledge. Instead, they recognized alternative contexts for knowledge construction as ultimately more reliable epistemological forms than those touted as objective. They argued that acknowledging the role of subjective knowledge rather than suppressing it led to stronger objectivity. Harding adopted the phrase “situated knowledge” to denote the situational perspectives, even biases, which inevitably shape knowers’ worldviews and ways of validating knowledge. She argued that recognizing rather than ignoring knowers’ political, social, ethnic, gender, class, and other identities and social locations produces better knowledge (1992, 1995).
Although situated knowledge appeared only occasionally as a key term in the scholarship produced throughout the years, some premise of the sort seemed to drive knowledge construction scholarship in the field. Rather than generalizing or amalgamating women’s perspectives, scholars emphasized from the earliest days the intersection of gender with other factors, especially sexuality and racial marginalization, as key life experiences and identities that generated new knowledge. By the same token, rather than addressing race in the abstract, scholars tended to probe gendered knowledge production by specific racial groups.
Black was the most frequently mentioned racial identity (and social category) in the knowledge construction scholarship. Indigeneity (and related terms) and Latina/Chicana/Hispanic were basically tied for second place. Asian and related terms appeared so infrequently that they are not covered in this analysis. Sexuality was also a dominant category, with an emphasis on LGBT identities and social locations. Queer was a less utilized but still robust term. Heterosexual(ity) and heteronormativity appeared much less frequently than other sexuality terms through 2014. In fact, we discovered only two NWSA presentations and sixteen journal articles that utilized those terms during the same period.
Table 1 provides the relevant numbers that we discovered for each experience/identity category, both in general NWSA presentations and journal articles and in those focused on knowledge construction, utilizing the expanded categories discussed above.
Table 1, Numbers of NWSA Presentations and Journal Articles by Marginalized Identity/Experience
|NWSA – Knowledge-focused|| 93
|Journals – Knowledge-focused||88||15||14||49||15|
Scholars expressed their concerns about constraints on expanding the social realities revealed by marginalized perspectives via two major categories: discussions of white perspectives and analyses of transnational (international, third world, global) women’s lives and relationships to Western feminism. (For numbers connected with those terms and their relationship to knowledge-construction scholarship, see table 2.) Whiteness or white appeared in a significant number of NWSA presentations and journal articles overall between 1979 and 2014, although scholarship connecting knowledge construction with whiteness and white feminism was less evident. What did appear mostly critiqued white identities and social locations ipso facto, including disapprobation for the impact of those identities on what is considered mainstream feminism. We found no celebrations of white identities and little direct articulation of the exact meaning of whiteness for knowledge construction. But we did find scholarship expressing concerns about the disproportionate influence of whiteness on knowledge construction because of its connection to systems of power (as well as discussing techniques for countering that influence in teaching). Thus, scholars investigated white women’s view of mental health (NWSA 1983), analyzed the social construction of whiteness (NWSA 1986), and identified the limitations of white women’s readings of Black women’s texts (NWSA 1987, 1995, 2001; Gwin 1988; Mane 2012; Palacios 2014).  In short, scholars characterized whiteness as a potential obstacle to and restriction on the expansion of knowledge and social realities and, therefore, as a potential constraint on the field’s capacity for social engagement.
Presentations and articles utilizing the terms third world, global South, international, and transnational appeared even more often in women’s studies scholarship, especially at NWSA, throughout this period (even more so after 2015). But even though those terms reflected a variety of cultural, religious, and social practices, they were not connected with knowledge production as often as other marginalized social locations. The knowledge-related scholarship that did exist focused less on the identities and experience of transnational women as sources of knowledge than on the need to exchange feminist ideas across borders and to develop transnational literacy (NWSA 2013) and dialogue, which scholars suggested could become a transformative practice (NWSA 2013). The scholarship also addressed the impact of Western-imposed ideologies and practices, such as neocolonialism and neoliberalism, on feminism around the globe and explained why using nations as categories for gendered experiences is problematic.  That a conflict might exist between marginalized women in the US and non-US groups surfaced in Kelly Coogan-Gehr’s 2011 article examining “the inverse relationship between discussions of third world women in developing countries and scholarship on black women in the United States” (83). She suggested that attention to the former was displacing attention to the latter.
In short, knowledge-focused scholarship using cross-cultural terms presented dreams of and prescriptions for a globally integrated feminism and descriptions of feminist thought around the world alongside critiques of Western and Euro-American ideologies, including Western feminism, as limitations on expanding women’s studies and feminist knowledge both within and beyond the West. Chandra Mohanty’s excoriation of Western feminists represents a key argument in the latter category. She faulted feminists’ “Western Eyes” for distorting their vision and characterizing third-world women as victims rather than agents in their own lives and destinies (Mohanty 1988, 2003).
Table 2, Numbers of Knowledge-Construction NWSA Presentations and Journal Articles utilizing whiteness and cross-cultural terms, 1979-2014
|International||Transnational||Third World/ Global|
The following analysis returns to knowledge-construction scholarship based on marginalized identities and experience within the US, in which the field’s intention for social engagement via expanding social realities is most evident.
Defining social engagement through expanded social realities, 1979-2014
Patterns that emerged from experience- and identity-based knowledge-construction scholarship over these thirty-five years reveal the parameters of what turned out to be an enticing variation on the field’s concept of social engagement. Within that variation, knowledge construction was both a deliberate project, undertaken explicitly by members of marginalized groups, and an endemic product of their lived experience and embodiment. In the latter sense, individual and collective epistemological agents comprehend and/or act from identity- and experience-based knowledge and epistemologies, which inflect their social actions and interventions, in the ways that Harding described as situated knowledge. Thus, the personal styles and social interactions of marginalized individuals and groups often reflect and convey alternative perspectives and histories that expand and challenge social realities and received wisdom wherever they go. In exposing and empowering that epistemological role, scholars generated a field-specific form of social engagement.
Race and ethnicity-based knowledge construction
In the early days of women’s studies, some scholars claimed that knowledge construction for all women shared characteristics and interests because of shared “modes of learning, knowing, and valuing that may be specific to, or at least common in, women,” simply because all women have been silenced, ignored, and belittled as knowers (Belenky et al. 1983, 5-6). But that generalized understanding was quickly particularized in women’s studies scholarship to embrace distinctions among women, especially in the US, and to counteract the likelihood that distinctions would be masked by dominant paradigms of race and sexuality. Gail Lewis articulated the significance of valuing such distinctions in 2013: “Black women and other women of color produce knowledge and . . . this knowledge can be applied to social and cultural research . . . that . . . can become part of a more generalizable theoretical, methodological, and conceptual tool kit” (871). Her point built on the work of other scholars who made the same argument (see, e.g., Hancock 2007; Weldon 2008; Nash 2009).
Our data demonstrated Lewis’s point, as many scholars emphasized knowledge construction based on race and ethnicity. Black women’s knowledge construction was the largest category represented in our data, and scholars discussed its role in a variety of social arenas. One NWSA presentation in 1989, for example, applied perspectives of Black working-class women to issues connected with schooling. Another in 2005 advocated utilizing Black women’s knowledge in the environmental justice movement, and one in 2008 touted the importance of Black feminism “to understand[ing] political economy in the global south.” Nikol Alexander-Floyd (2010) characterized critical race Black feminism as a “jurisprudence of resistance” to transform higher education.
Indigenous knowledge construction was the second most prominent category in our knowledge construction data. Scholars emphasized the importance of Indigenous women’s knowledge to correcting erroneous, biased, misinterpreted, or invisible histories. Examples included an NWSA presentation in 2010 offering Native “feminist interpolations of Miami history.” Some scholarship in this category also advanced Native cultures’ positive contributions to history. An NWSA presentation in 1996, for example, supported integrating Indigenous knowledge with Western science, and one in 2000 articulated the significance to sustainability of Indigenous epistemologies based on embodying the land. Presentations also expressed the importance of Indigenous epistemologies for decolonizing knowledge and for reenvisioning citizenship (in 2012). They supported the use of Indigenous women’s life stories to transgress both colonial and indigenous patriarchy (in 2014). Susan Hawthorne (2007) similarly promoted expanding social realities by connecting Native knowledge of the land with the epistemologies of disabled people.
NWSA scholarship and journals also supported the use of Latina (Chicana/Hispanic) knowledge construction to expand the social realities supported in the field. Relevant presentations defined the role of Latina knowledge in reconceptualizing literary theory (1988), in writing about men (Latina, NWSA 2010), and even in revising small business practices (Chicana, 2014). Knowledge generated through sexuality was a more dominant theme for Latinas than for other racialized identities. Scholars discussed the role of Latina/Chicana sexuality in analyzing both specific literary works, such as a Chicana historical novel (2003), and Latina literature itself (2004). Denise Segura and Jennifer Pierce (1993) also posited a role for Latina embodiment and sexuality in expanding psychoanalytic sociology in terms of Chicana/o family structure and gender personality. Alicia Gaspar de Alba (1993) emphasized the cultural importance of work by Chicana lesbians. A special NWSA Journal issue in 2009 featured several articles about knowledge construction connected with Chicana/Latina sexuality. Prime examples from that issue included Xuan Santos’ article identifying Latina sexuality as a site of female resistance to male tattoo artists’ claims that they were the gatekeepers of Chicano/a cultural authenticity. In addition, Rosario Carillo articulated the role of Latina sexuality and sexual expression in developing a “living filosofia,” and Marysol Ascencio connected Latina lesbian identities with the very definition of Puerto Rican ethnonationality.
Sexuality-based knowledge construction
Knowledge constructed on marginalized sexual identities and experiences (sometimes, as in the case of Latinas, as those identities intersect with race or ethnicity) also expanded the social realities necessary for understanding and addressing a wide range of questions and issues. Sexuality and knowledge construction were so strongly connected that a 2000 NWSA presentation defined gay communities as knowledge communities. NWSA presentations also featured lesbian epistemologies in 1988 and 2001. In addition, scholars explored the role of sexuality-based knowledge in the world. In a 2011 NWSA presentation, queer feminist epistemology was called upon to analyze abortion. M.V. Lee Badgett and Rhonda M. Williams discussed the economics of sexual orientation in 1992. In 2013, Leila Rupp discussed the sexuality-based heuristic of Lesbian history that expanded the very concept of history. As if to demonstrate the validity of Rupp’s analysis, several scholars introduced and analyzed epistemologies embedded in historical sexual practices over the years, as well as in transsexuality. Trans epistemology was also featured in NWSA presentations in 2008, 2010, 2012, 2013, and 2014. The term butch appeared in approximately twenty NWSA presentations from 1983 to 2014, but it was less associated with knowledge construction or epistemology than were other sexuality terms. One exception was an NWSA presentation in 2014 that addressed the impact of butch genealogies on the formation of feminist kinship narratives.
Evelyn Blackwood’s 2009 article about Indonesian tombois’ sexuality discussed the social impact of sexuality-based knowledge on ideas about the relationship between physical bodies and gender identities. That tombois’ bodies were identified as female, but they dressed and acted as men were “supposed to,” upended assumptions about gender identity and gendered social roles in Indonesian society. In 2011, Yolanda Martinez-San Miguel identified sexuality-based knowledge as a new heuristic, which she called the queer sexile. It was useful, Miguel said, in explaining “the intersections of race and gender in the regulation of minor sexualities” (813).
The 2012 NWSA conference, whose theme was “Feminism Unbound: Imagining a Feminist Future,” epitomized interest in embodiment and sexuality as sources of knowledge that expand the social realities supported in the field. Notes about the theme explained that it recognized the ways in which feminist scholarship “is transgressing such boundaries as . . . sexuality,” and thereby reconceptualizing disability, race, ethnicity, class, and culture. The guidelines reinforced the idea that inhabiting—embodying—nondominant sexual identity categories creates both social pain and alternative ways of understanding human experience. What one presentation called “odd bodies and bodies at odds” had the capacity to queer “the object of knowledge,” as another presentation noted, thereby redefining sexuality but also creating new perspectives on practices such as live sex acts in Haiti.
Signs also published a special issue in 2012 titled “Sex: A Thematic Issue,” which featured several articles linking sexuality with knowledge construction and asserting the impact of that knowledge on historical understanding. For example, Michael McKeon (2012) identified men’s and women’s roles in the heterosexual act as the source of modern definitions of gender difference, an origin made visible thanks to homosexual epistemologies. Thus, McKeon argued that contemporary ideas about sex roles date back to the eighteenth century, when interest in classification and empirical knowledge made that period’s dominant ideas about sexual congress seem like universal truth. Tim Hitchcock furthered a similar argument in the same issue.
Expanding and critiquing feminism and women’s studies
Across the categories of race and ethnicity, scholars also discussed the role of experience and identity-based knowledge construction in expanding and critiquing both women’s studies and feminism. As for whiteness, white feminism, and Western feminism, this segment of knowledge-construction scholarship monitored concepts, practices, and ideas that curtailed the expansion of social realities central to the field’s social and political engagement. A rare Asian-focused NWSA presentation provides an illustration of this connection, as it credited Asian American feminism with decolonizing (white) feminist epistemologies.
The concept of Black women’s studies was an early entry into this dual process, as scholars both expanded the knowledge base of women’s studies and feminism via Black perspectives and noted where other forms of feminism fell short. The idea first appeared in NWSA knowledge-construction data with a presentation titled “The Significant Role of Black Women’s Studies” in 1981. At least another dozen or so presentations used the term through 2013, including presentations that discussed the importance of Black women’s studies to the self-concept and careers of Black college women (1984) and to the role of Black lesbians in lesbian and gay studies (1997). South African women’s studies was the subject of a presentation in 2006, as was the creation of a discipline of Black feminist transgender studies in 2013. Patricia Bell-Scott, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, and Jacqueline Jones Royster wrote about the promise and challenge of Black women’s studies (based on a conference at Spelman College) in 1991. Rebecca Reviere and Anita Nahal outlined the parameters of race-inflected women’s studies at Howard University in 2005, and Erica Lorraine Williams did the same in her report on the Audre Lorde Project in women’s studies at Spelman College in 2013.
Black feminism was an even more prevalent focus of both NWSA presentations and journal articles. The first NWSA conference in 1979 included a presentation titled “Black Feminism,” and that term appeared in approximately eighty additional presentations through 2014. In addition to presentations articulating the precepts of Black feminist theory, such as “Researching Black Feminist Thought: Issues and Implications” in 1990, “Feminism in Black and White” in 2008, and “Black Canadian Feminisms: Problems, Prospects and Possibilities” in 2011, scholars discussed the impact of Black feminist knowledge on a multitude of social domains, including jazz (2001); resistance to militarism (2009); forming and transforming agency (2011); Black male and female relationships (2011); anthropology (2011); racism, sexism, sexuality, and the body (2012); homeschooling (2012); and mental health awareness (2013).
Black feminism was also well represented in journal articles, starting in 1984. Patricia Hill Collins discussed “The Social Construction of Black Feminist Thought” in 1989. Ann duCille explored Black feminist studies in 1994, and Barbara Ransby celebrated the twenty-first anniversary of Black feminism in 2000. Sharon Holland reviewed recent Black feminist criticism in the same year. The title of Premilla Nadasen’s “Expanding the Boundaries of the Women’s Movement: Black Feminism and the Struggle for Welfare Rights” from 2002 made explicit the intersection of identity-based knowledge construction and social engagement. By 2012, Nikol G. Alexander-Floyd was hoping to reclaim intersectionality for the social sciences in a so-called post-Black feminist era, but Black feminism was still quite alive—expanded to hip-hop feminism—in a “New Directions Essay” (Durham, Cooper, and Morris 2013).
Native American scholars also paid significant attention to expanding knowledge in women’s studies through experience- and identity-based knowledge to expand the field’s social engagement. These scholars sought to correct erroneous, biased, misinterpreted, or invisible Indigenous histories, including the absence of Native perspectives in women’s studies and feminism. Filling in that gap may have been the intent of an NWSA presentation in 1979 for which we only have the title: “The Relationship of Women’s Studies to Native American Studies in the University Setting.” A 1997 NWSA presentation focused on claiming Indigenous identities and deconstructing stereotypes to build a discipline—presumably women’s studies—in higher education. Indigenous scholars also emphasized the importance of Native cultures, practices, and wisdom, as well as Native women’s narratives and stories, to feminist thought and theorizing, including the development of Native or indigenous feminism and its impact on women’s studies. Devon Mihesuah warned against merging feminist studies with American Indian women’s studies in 2000, and Andrea Smith articulated the specificity of Native American Feminism in 2005. A decade later, however, Ángela Ixkic Bastian Duarte saw linkages between Indigenous and lesbian feminisms (2012), and Maile Arvin, Eve Tuck, and Angie Morrill discussed ways of engaging Native feminisms with “whitestream” feminism, albeit via what they called critical suggestions.
Latina knowledge construction scholars were less engaged with expanding and critiquing women’s studies than other marginalized groups. An exception was Maria Gonzalez’s 2002 article, “This Bridge Called NWSA,” which critiqued that organization (and by extension women’s studies) via a Latina lesbian graduate student’s experience as a member of the NWSA’s founding steering committee. Latina scholars more often expressed interest in influencing the definition of feminism, starting with a 1979 NWSA dialogue about whether a Chicana can be a feminist. Subsequent Latina scholars at NWSA conferences probed the hidden histories of Latina feminism (Latina 2000) and the relationship of Latina/Chicana feminism to international feminisms (Chicana, 1994 and 1998; Latina 2010). Scholars like Lorena García and Lourdes Torres (2009) were interested in developing Latina sexuality studies and investigating Latinas’ relationship to the academy. One NWSA presentation in 2014 (without an abstract), credited Chicana lives and “railway visions” with helping to “realize” the feminist interdisciplinary archive.
Knowledge-focused scholars of sexuality also posited the important role of identity and experience in expanding the foundations of feminism and women’s studies and eliminating heterosexism in both. A key NWSA example was “What Sexuality, Whose Knowledge: Transnational Feminisms and the Mapping of Heterosexuality and Homosexuality in Kenya” (2013). A smaller but still robust number of presentations during the same period (starting in the 1990s) featured the terms queer and or queering in relation to knowledge construction. The majority of those focused on queering knowledge, such as “Teaching Mao: Queering Narratives of Women’s Progress Within Transnational Studies” (2010) or the relationship between queer studies and other subjects, such as “Queer Feminist Science Studies: Rethinking Embodiment at the Nexus of Biomedicine and Activism” (2013).
Throughout the years covered in this section, women’s studies scholars identified knowledge construction as a crucial site for expanding the social realities comprising a social engagement agenda for the field. The examples considered here represent that determination and demonstrate that exposing and analyzing those social realities—across races, ethnicities, and sexualities—has been part of the women’s studies profile since the field’s beginnings. As the years went by, the social realities revealed became increasingly nuanced and particularized, as the diversity of field practitioners and the purview of their scholarship increased over time. Simultaneously, in seeking to guide their own knowledge construction, women’s studies scholars remained vigilant in identifying and addressing constraints on this form of social engagement. Of particular concern were the constraints represented by the assumptions and tacit knowledge related to white and Western identities, practices, and social locations.
A sea change: Love, self- and community care in feminist knowledge production
Winds driving the social conflagrations that engaged women’s studies scholars’ attention began to shift markedly in the mid-2010s, as the United States—and parts of Europe and South America—moved sharply to the right of the political spectrum. The once-unthinkable presidency of Donald Trump suddenly became a reality in the US in 2016, resulting in a bizarre new normality, in which racial and ethnic identities, foreigners and immigrants, alternative sexualities, and womanhood itself became increasingly unwelcome, untolerated, and blatantly revilified.
Starting in 2015, the field began engaging with the worsening political situation and increasing evidence of social injustice in some new ways. Scholarship directly addressing social actions and activism increased, although only a handful of knowledge construction or activism presentations and articles contained the words “Trump” or “election” from 2016-19. They include NWSA presentations that took on the shock and dismay of Trumpian politics head on, such as one in 2017 that criticized Black Lives Matter as “evidence of liberalism’s failure” and “too little too late,” given Trump’s election, and another in 2018 that eschewed the “mastery masculinity” linking Donald Trump and Xi Jinping as nationalist leaders of globalization. Other knowledge construction scholarship advocated for activist-training classrooms, studied activist and resistance movements (particularly outside the US), defined feminist activist research, and critiqued the activism of feminists, including within academic disciplines. One of the largest categories of this scholarship entailed defining knowledge production itself as feminist activism. (See table 3 for a numerical breakdown of activist focused knowledge-based scholarship.) Once again, scholars’ understanding of effective social engagement in the field included the ability of knowledge produced in women’s studies to expand and define social and political realities.
Table 3, Activism knowledge construction scholarship at NWSA, 2015-2019.
|Activism Scholarship at NWSA||2015||2016||2017||2018||2019|
|Transforming/Constructing Knowledge as Activism||1||5||6||3||3|
|Activism as Affective Politics||1||4||4||7||9|
|Promoting Activism as a Function of Teaching||1||4||2||4||3|
|Promoting Direct Social Action||0||1||2||1||0|
|Critiques of Feminist Activism||1||3||0||2||1|
|Studying Activist Movements||2||7||5||4||15|
|U.S. & Canada||2||2||1||0||5|
Other symptoms of the political shift included NWSA themes in 2015-19, which were dominated by terms like transgressions, precarity, and decoloniality. The 2017 conference theme, “Remembering the Movement for Black Lives, 40 Years after Combahee,” invited presentations about violence, trauma, agency, and resilience, as well as about sexualities and sexual politics. The 2018 theme, “Imagining Justice,” nodded toward the future of knowledge production, with attention to the future of disciplines and interdisciplines, and to revolutions and utopian projects. “Protest, Justice, and Transnational Organizing,” the 2019 theme, invited speculative work about human and nonhuman worlds, as well as the politics of knowledge and body politics.
Among these new directions we discovered a significant cluster of NWSA presentations about knowledge construction from 2015-19 that persuaded me of a noteworthy shift in the field’s approach to the relationship between knowledge construction and social engagement. The nature of that shift also persuaded me that section 2 of “Forged in Fire” should not only partake of the more specific NWSA data available but also emphasize this new reality. In addition, the exponential increase in the number of presentations given at the conference during those years, reflecting attendance of up to two thousand every year, made comparative counts with previous years less meaningful. Finally, so much NWSA presentation information is now available and searchable electronically that readers can sort through to find gendered and raced identity- and experience-based knowledge expansion material quite easily.
So instead of continuing the tally of gendered identity- and experience-based knowledge categories begun in section 1, section 2 discusses the 2015-19 material from the new thematic perspective, which I will call affective politics.  Section 2 also focuses more on NWSA data, which increasingly dwarfs journal content and necessarily reflects evolving social conditions more quickly than journals do.
Section 2: New politics, new knowledge, 2015-19
In retrospect, signs of the change we noticed from 2015-19 were detectable earlier. Given the timing, this change likely emerged from Black feminist theory, as expressed over the years by bell hooks, Alice Walker, June Jordan, and Audre Lorde, among others, as well as in the nonviolent civil rights politics of Martin Luther King Jr. Although more apparent in our data related to Black identities and feminist theory, it was also evident in discussions of sexuality and other identities and politics.
In articulating this change and claiming it for the present, Jennifer Nash (2013) called it “love-politics.” She claimed love-politics as an antidote to identity politics and even intersectionality, which in her view at the time represented a “cruel attachment” to a politics in which race and gender are perceived as fixed identities “that interact in particular and knowable ways” (18) By contrast, love promotes a politics based on shared visions rather than “a wounded, shared identity that demands recognition of the wound” (15). It is characterized by a “’communal affect,’ a utopian, visionary, future-oriented community held together by affiliation and ‘public feeling’ rather than an imagined—or enforced—sameness” (19).
In discussing how love can translate into politics, other theorists explained that the love they’re referring to is not “some sentimental and weak response,” as King wrote (1963, 43-44). Rather, immersed as modern societies are in the pain of lovelessness, the concept of love facilitates what bell hooks (2018) described as “the possibility of conversion, of having a change of heart” (234). The politics that love initiates are aimed at healing and compassion rather than rancor and based on expansive rather than essentialized affinities. For that reason, perhaps, the politics of love celebrates and reveres difference and otherness and does not obscure the differences within categories that identity politics sometimes does. Love-politics further recognizes the psychic toll of direct action and activism and their inability to soothe the wounds of injustice. Something else is needed, such as the “radical possibility” of an unknown future (Nash 2013, 16). Affective politics also evokes the power exerted by love in motivating actions on behalf of the beloved, as well as the redefinition of power itself as “power with” and “power for” rather than “power over.”
According to our data, NWSA presentations about love-politics began around 2011, with “Extra-terrestrial Queers Fly over the Equality Rainbow: Reflections on the Politics of Queerness, Immigration Reform, and Radical Love.” Other presentations, reflecting the Black feminist roots of love-politics, followed through 2014, Including “Queering Black History Month: Canadian Racial Spectacle or The Greatest Love of All” in 2012 and a presentation on “Black Autoerotic Performance and Self Love as Feminist Transgression” in 2014. Another in the same year touted the role of love in improving Black women’s health. Love politics also featured in 2014 presentations about Latinas and love, including one that identified Latina studies with “Feminist Solidarity, Labor, and Love.” 
Among the journals, Signs offered the earliest articulations of love-politics we could find: Wini Breines’s “What’s Love Got to Do with It? White Women, Black Women, and Feminism in the Movement Years” in 2002. Signs continued the trend with Meena Khandelwal’s “Arranging Love: Interrogating the Vantage Point in Cross‐Border Feminism” (2009). Amira Jarmakani’s “’The Sheik Who Loved Me’: Romancing the War on Terror” (2010) might seem representative of a different kind of love politics, but Jarmakani associated the resurgence of the sheik character in romance novels with “productive fantasies of transnational capitalism and global sisterhood, both of which imagine global unity while disavowing differential relations of power” (993). Similarly, Mimi limuro Van Ausdall’s “’Loving Her’ Without Class: The Politics of Feminist Love in Ann Allen Shockley’s Lesbian Novel” (2010) in Feminist Formations conceptualized sexual love as a way to “further theorize the relationship between love and power” (57).
Affective politics and political precarity at NWSA: 2015-2019
As the potential for political crisis worsened in 2015, with Donald Trump’s dramatic descent into politics on his gold escalator in June, women’s studies scholarship presented at NWSA increasingly connected the field’s social engagement mandate with affective politics. The prescient NWSA theme that year was “Precarity,” which invited presentations about structured inequality, threats, suffering, and embodied “injury, violence, and death.” In the face of that dire catalogue of harms, a fair number of presentations focused on affective knowledge–based responses to those conditions. Although love politics per se were not as visible as in previous years, interest in affective knowledge, self-care, embodied knowledge, compassion, and self-knowledge as political acts took up a similar theme—knowledge construction leading to social action depends on body, heart, community relationships, and (inter)personal introspection as well as on conscious thought.
By 2019, Jennifer Nash would summarize this change for Black feminism in terms of “black care—self-care, collective care”; that is, concepts and acts that show respect and love for “black women’s intellectual production and . . . black women as knowledge producers, as subjects” (80). Among those concepts was Nash’s revised understanding of intersectionality. At NWSA, these care concepts had wide application from 2015 to 2019, sometimes detached from or transcendent of racial, sexual, or ethnic identities. As political threats to inclusion and social justice grew more ominous, care concepts became increasingly evident.
Starting in 2015, knowledge-construction scholarship increasingly linked affective knowledge with political engagement. Channeling Audre Lorde’s admonition that “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and . . . an act of political warfare” (1988, 130), two presentations focused on self-care in graduate school as a way to discover “alternative and transformative ways of knowing” and to add “bodily intelligence” to the catalogue of knowledge necessary for the field. Another explicitly discussed the importance of self-care in graduate school as a conduit to new knowledge, academic success, and social activism. A few other presentations highlighted caregiving—including mothering disabled children—as a means of better comprehending and combatting neoliberal politics. Yet another supported transdisciplinarity to “improve the transparency of knowledge production and aid in self-reflective efforts.”
The trend continued in 2016, as scholars focusing on various parts of the world and a variety of cultures identified self-care, community care, healing, or bodies as the basis of new anti- or counter-knowledge and as political acts, either directly or indirectly. Love politics based in Black feminist theory remained a focus, as in the 2016 NWSA presentation, subtitled “A Continuation of Love, Collective Action, and Genius” about a “critical arts-based public practice for Black girlhood celebration” that “serves as a commitment to collective action, Black (queer) love, and social justice.” It explored “the potential of . . . knowledge produced between two Black queer people, and the necessity of healing rooted in the self in relationship to a collective.”
But scholars also looked beyond Black communities for care politics. Cooking and care work that bolsters identities and communities appeared in several NWSA presentations that year as alternative forms of knowledge production for social engagement in Black and other communities. An NWSA presentation in 2016 argued for “for understanding cooking and recipe transference [in general] as sites of feminist knowledge production that destabilize hegemonic, patriarchal ways of knowing.” Another identified migrant caregivers from the Philippines and Nepal as sources rather than just objects of political knowledge in Israel/Palestine where they work. Yet another examined “the politics of care and compassion” that many human rights platforms eschew, using the case of Malaysian Muslim women activists as an example.
One NWSA presentation neatly summed up the darkening political mood in 2017 by seeking to subvert “supremacist epistemologies in an environment that is increasingly suspicious and polarized.” Responding to that world, presentations in 2017 advocated community healing and affective politics, including one that linked “strategies for self-care and self-love” to the Black Lives Matter movement and another in which such activism provided access “spiritual space and metaphysical knowledge for qptpoc” by “showing unconditional respect.” Honoring others’ knowledge through “friendship-love” was the focus of another presentation that year on the embodied epistemologies confirmed by Black feminist theory. Yet another discussed strategies of survival deployed by Black queer people through “radical counterhegemonic epistemologies of Black gay sex, pleasure, desire, and love.” Still another discussed womanist theology and indigenous epistemology in terms of Afro-Native fiction that promotes “community and self-care.” Other presentations that year explored the “four epistemologically significant features of friendship (trust, care, shared activity, and love)” in creating “communities of resistance” and discussed a “community ethic of care” as the foundation of “queer safer sex epistemologies and technologies.”
Care themes continued in NWSA presentations through 2018 and 2019, including a 2018 presentation that emphasized the relationship between “caretaking responsibilities with the Earth and all of its life forces” as a political and social imperative that can be realized by breaking away from “traditional forms of knowledge creation.” Another 2018 presentation explored the Black spatial negotiations of the annual Caribbean carnival parade in Toronto, Caribana, “as an embodied decolonial practice that centers the counterhegemonic epistemologies of Afro-Caribbean women who continuously reimagine/conceptualize liberation within the whitened nation-state.” A presentation in 2019 touted an “epistemology of the maternal trace” in which women are urged to mother one another and to create “co-mother communities of care” as strategies for countering “institutional deprivation” caused by capitalist and colonial violence. Another presentation that year, based on nineteenth-century advice literature written by women, revisits that era’s admonition for women to “ground their knowledge in their bodies rather than in science” as a still-relevant strategy for countering men’s constructions of women and seeking more reliable truths. Such advice brings us back to the field’s early years, where facts about gender and sexuality were notably thin on the ground and the emergence of women’s truths was the original form of academic social engagement.
These and many other examples of affective politics via knowledge construction constituted striking elements of women’s studies scholars’ commitments to social engagement and political activism in the late twenty-teens. These same elements of self-care and community building as activist forms of social engagement may still characterize the field. NWSA’s 2021 conference theme was “We Are Family: Feminist Community Formations across Borders and Experiences.” The 2022 call for conference submissions—after two-plus years of pandemic threats and continual social violence and confrontational politics—asked women’s studies scholars to gather as a community, “to separate what is needed for our survival from what must be discarded,” to look inward, and to share stories about “who we are and who we are going to be.” A major theme of the conference is reclaiming OurVoices and OurSelves.
Section 3. Closing thoughts
Tracing gendered identity- and experience-based knowledge construction in women’s studies scholarship over more than four decades sheds light on what social engagement means in the field. Based on our data, it means expanding the social realties on which valid ideas about social transformation should be based and countering knowledge systems that constrain that expansion, even (or especially) those evident in the field itself. That form of social engagement entails recognizing the wide spectrum of gendered and sexualized human experience too often omitted from the vision of American or other national identities and ignored in the formulation of democratic values and social justice. It also entails relying on previously silenced voices to help rethink old assumptions and address continual forces of stereotyping, deprecation, and disregard for individuals and groups, including within feminism. Increasingly, social engagement in women’s studies has meant strengthening communities; taking care of allies; loving, caring for, and respecting oneself; and advocating and pursuing embodied methodologies for political and social change.
In approaching social engagement this way, our field offers a counterargument to critics who consider women’s studies and related academic areas simply “grievance studies.” Our data supports a different view of women’s studies and related fields as studies in expansive ways of seeing and knowing, of facing challenges and resisting forces of oppression through knowledge construction rooted in underrepresented realities and alternative knowledge systems. That the field also monitors its own limitations and constraints on expansive knowledge production further underpins the intellectual foundations of women’s studies.
This form of social engagement requires a commitment not to become stagnant. Obligations to self-define and self-regulate require an obligation to evolve, to expand the purview of scholarship, and to continually examine and revise perspectives and to challenge past practices and established wisdom. With that obligation in mind, I would like to conclude by raising a few questions about the future of women’s studies knowledge construction and social engagement that this work has inspired in me. Perhaps such questions can help shape future directions in the field.
First, this study has revealed some absences and gaps in women’s studies knowledge-production scholarship. Why, for example, is there so little scholarship on Asian American women’s identity- and experience-based knowledge production? By the same token, why aren’t there more studies or articulations of white feminism as a knowledge system, albeit an often oppressive one to be overcome? What does it mean for the field that Black identities and marginalized sexualities are represented as perhaps the richest sources of new knowledge in the field? Does this reflect the overuse of “Black women as the field’s key sign,” as Jennifer Nash has cautioned (2019, 138)? Is this a sign of disregard for other emergent sources of knowledge construction? Might the abundance of knowledge based on sexuality reflect women’s studies’ rarity as an academic field where sexuality scholarship is welcome? Conversely, why does the transnational scholarship that is otherwise abundant in the field constitute only a small part of scholarship outlining the contributions to women’s studies and feminist knowledge of non-US knowledge communities? Attention to such questions could help advance the field and expose hidden constraints on our mission to expand social realities as a premise for social engagement.
Second, even though women’s studies scholarship has expertly and persistently advanced the precept that identity, social location, and life experience are and must be seen as significant and valid sources of knowledge, why have scholars in the field not continued to debate that precept or, alternatively, to publicly claim its validity? Does Joan Scott’s (1991) question remain? Is experience what requires rather than offers explanation? Is life experience more self- or more socially constructed? Can individuals reliably assess its meaning? By the same token, why haven’t scholars continued to interrogate or articulate the relationship between (social, ethnic, racial, gender, sexual) identity in relationship to knowledge? We found only a handful of NWSA presentations and journal articles doing that work (e.g., Kitch 2002). They included an article that analyzed the impact of cookbooks’ cultural knowledge on community members’ identities (Ferguson 2012). Articulating and justifying these foundations for knowledge in women’s studies, as well as their relationship to social engagement, could become one of the field’s signature epistemic characteristics. Might the four-decade-long record of women’s studies scholarship be mined to demonstrate how scholars have created and justified this unique approach to knowledge construction and social engagement?
Third, how can the trend toward self- and community care and affective politics in recent years advance the frequently stated feminist aim of dismantling systems that perpetuate intolerance and injustice toward marginalized people and communities? Marginalized communities rightly seek recovery from the burdens and physical risks entailed in living marginalized lives. They also rightly seek protection from the dangers of pursuing confrontational political modes. But if women’s studies scholarship hopes to effect the large-scale systemic transformation field founders envisioned, and many current practitioners seek, how can affective politics best be utilized in that pursuit?
Finally, some scholars have identified utopian thinking as a political aim of affective knowledge-based politics. Nash (2013), for example, postulated that affective politics logically rests on the knowledge produced by shared utopian visions. NWSA reinforced that idea with its 2018 and 2019 themes, discussed above, as did several NWSA presentations and journal articles that explicitly promoted utopian approaches. In 2017, for example, one presentation touted anticarceral feminist views as a “utopian vision of the world” that strengthens liberation frameworks. Another in 2018 used utopian positively in connection with queer politics—imagining what’s next “after de-exceptionalizing queer.” Still another that year touted possibilities for Black lives through the “worlds/otherwise, practices, and knowledges” offered by Afro-Latinx writers. At the same time, however, at least two NWSA presentations in 2019 disparaged utopian thinking. One critiqued visions of “mobility justice and ‘no borders’ futures” and offered instead the immigration experience of the scholar’s parents, who came from Rhodesia (today Zimbabwe) in 1971, as a better source of a queer feminist theories of “mobility justice.” Another dismissed utopian claims to “infinite knowledge” by the founders of digital culture, when the reality has been “epistemic violence, increase[d] assimilation, . . . and scientific racism.”
I take this as a divided judgment about the role of utopian thought among women’s studies’ scholars. Perhaps it would be useful now to examine the possibilities and difficulties of “utopian world-making work [in] our still unfolding political dreaming” in women’s studies (Nash 2019, 138). My own work on utopianism in feminist theory and utopian designs around gender and social change recognizes the value of utopian visions for inspiration, but it has also made me somewhat skeptical about such visions as precursors to actual practices. In particular, I recognize the utopian paradox of a continuum between an envisioned heaven (for some) and an actual hell (for others) (Kitch 2000, 2014). Nevertheless, as current politics offer increasingly frightening glimpses of looming dystopias on many fronts—from a game-changing war in Europe to environmental catastrophe—it seems an opportune moment to revisit utopianism as an alternative visioning praxis and knowledge base for feminist thought. The time is right to collect and contemplate the imaginings of our field’s world-making dreamers.
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Allen, Judith A. and Sally L. Kitch. 1998. “Disciplined by Disciplines: The Need for an Interdisciplinary Research Mission in/and for Women’s Studies.” Feminist Studies 24(2):275-99.
Anzaldúa, Gloria, and AnaLouise Keating. 2002. This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation. New York: Routledge.
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———. 2002. “Claiming Success: From Adversity to Responsibility in Women’s Studies.” NWSA Journal 14(1):160-81.
———. 2014. “Utopia.” In Critical Terms for the Study of Gender, edited by Catharine R. Stimpson and Gilbert Herdt, 487-526. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Leibel, Esther, Tim Hallett, and Beth Bechky. 2017. “Meaning at the Source: The Dynamics of Field Formation in Institutional Research.” Annals of Management 12(1): https://journals.aom.org/doi/10.5465/annals.2016.0035.
Leidner, Robin. 1994. “Response to Gerber’s ‘Reshaping Democracy’ and Sirianni’s ‘Feminist Pluralism and Democratic Learning.’” NWSA Journal 6(1):103-6.
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Luft, Rachel E. 2008. “Looking for Common Ground: Relief Work in Post-Katrina New Orleans as an American Parable of Race and Gender Violence.” NWSA Journal 20(3): 5-31.
Mane, Rebecca L. Clark. 2012. “Transmuting Grammars of Whiteness in Third-Wave Feminism: Interrogating Postrace Histories, Postmodern Abstraction, and the Proliferation of Difference in Third-Wave Texts.” Signs 38(1):71–98.
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May, Vivian M. 2002. “Disciplinary Desires and Undisciplined Daughters: Negotiating the Politics of a Women’s Studies Doctoral Education.” NWSA Journal 14(1): 134-159.
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——-. 1988. “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses.” Feminist Review 30(1):61–88.
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———. 2013. “Practicing Love: Black Feminism, Love-Politics, and Post-Intersectionality.” Meridians 11(2):1-24.
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Appendix A: Cited NWSA Presentation Titles
“Indian Women: Tribal Identity as Status and Constraint”
“Shaking the Dead Hand of American Indian History, or How I Create Authentic Background in My Short Stories”
“The Significant Role of Black Women’s Studies”
“White Lesbian Women Define Mental Health for Themselves”
“The Effects of Black Studies and Women’s Studies on the Self Concept of Black College Women”
“In Our Own Words: Black Women Produce Knowledge about Race, Class, and Gender”
“Women’s Studies Materials in Cross-cultural Application: Cooperative Models for International Feminism”
“White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness”
“Indigenous views on Feminism: Western Pacific Women Speak Out”
“Marginality and Liminality: White Women Reading Black Women’s Texts”
“Thinking and Unthinking History: The Generative Difference of Black Women’s Narrative”
“An Evolving Chicana Feminist Literary Theory and Its Application”
“Narratives of Schooling: Black and White Working-Class Women Claiming Knowledge”
“Knowledge Is Made for Cutting: The Insurrection of Working-Class Experience in the Academy”
“Researching Black Feminist Thought: Issues and Implications”
“Chicana Feminism in an International Frame: Gloria Anzaldúa’s Mestizaje Ecriture”
“Clamor and Glare Negotiating a White and Feminist Reading of Toni Morrison”
“First Environment: Integrating Indigenous Knowledge and Science to Create Woman Centered Models for Respect Equity and Empowerment of Indigenous Women”
“American Indian Women and the Academy: Claiming Identity, Building a Discipline, Deconstructing Stereotypes”
“Locating Lesbians in Women’s Studies and Black Lesbians in Lesbian and Gay Studies”
“Divergent Histories of Gender: Native and White Women’s Feminisms”
“Is Sexuality a Luxury in the Geographic Third World?: Decolonization Modernity and Obligatory Heterosexuality”
“Australian Indigenous Epistemologies Embodying the Land”
“Experience, Knowledge, and Authority in Incest Survivor Narratives”
“Gay Communities as Knowledge Communities: Applying Feminist Theories of Knowledge”
“Third World Subjugated Knowledge Other Spaces and the Role of the Postcolonial Intellectual”
“Hidden Histories of Latina Feminisms”
“Black Feminist Perspectives on Jazz”
“Integrating international Feminisms”
“Novel Gazing: Vision as Lesbian Epistemology”
“Sit Sister Silence: Contemporary White Women Poets Read an American Colonial Past”
“Sexuality and the Chicana Historical Novel Sor Juanas’ Other Dream”
“Conflicting Gender Expectations Surrounding Female Sexuality in Latina Literature”
“Black Women’s Activism and Knowledge Construction in the Environmental Justice Movement”
“Black Women’s Resistance in Apartheid South Africa: Towards an Indigenous Understanding of Gender Struggles in South African Women’s Studies”
“Power and Resistance: The Intellectual Traditions of Black Feminist Political Theory”
“Toward an Ethics of Exemplarity: Transgender Critiques and the Ambivalence of Anti Representation in Queer Theory”
“Using Black Feminism to Understand Political Economy in the Global South”
“Feminism in Black and White”
“Difficult Dialogues: Critical Race Theory and Feminist Disability Studies”
“Women in Black Transnational Feminist Resistance to Militarism”
“Black Native Feminist Formations at Colonial Collision Sites”
“Decolonial Feminist Critique and Narratives of Indigeneity: Intelligible Indigeneity and Feminist Interpolations of Miami History”
“Gender Faith, Transgender Epistemology”
“Teaching Mao: Queering Narratives of Women’s Progress Within Transnational Studies”
“Wilma Mankiller: American Indian Feminist Thought”
“Writing About Men: A Latina Feminist Approach”
“Problematizing Latina Feminisms as Transnational Feminisms”
“Anthropology, Bourdieu, and Black Lesbian Social Networks”
“Black Canadian Feminisms: Problems, Prospects and Possibilities”
“Extra-terrestrial Queers Fly Over the Equality Rainbow: Reflections on the Politics of Queerness, Immigration Reform, and Radical Love.”
“Housewives, Divorcees, and Professionals: Zora Neal Hurston, Feminist Ethnography, and Black Male Female Relationships”
“Towards a Queer Feminist Epistemology: Abortion and Gay Media in the Age of AIDS”
“Who is Right: Black Feminist Forming and Transforming Agency”
“Asian American Feminism as Part of Global and American Multiethnic Feminist Decolonizing Epistemologies”
“Decolonizing Knowledge: The International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers”
“Feministing Identity: Queering Race, Racialized Sexuality, and Latina/o Queer Studies”
“Live Sex Acts Revisited: Decolonizing Knowledges about Sexuality in Haiti.”
“Queering Black History Month: Canadian Racial Spectacle or The Greatest Love of All”
“Queering the Object of Knowledge: How Modernist Epistemology Makes Strange Bedfellow of Transgender Premodern and Non-Westerns”
“Schooling Resistance: A Black Feminist Analysis of Homeschooling”
“Surrounding First Nations Girls in an Indigenous Feminist Intellectual Movement”
“Taboo Subjects: Conversations Between a Black Trans Man and a White Trans Man on Feminism, Racism, Sexism, Sexuality, and the Body”
“Textual Odd Bodies and Bodies at Odds: Releasing the Subjugated Knowledges of Trans Bodies Through Contemporary Trans Autobiographies”
“Transnational Testimonio Challenges US Knowledge”
“Implications in Black Feminism: Critical Race Theory and Feminist Disability Theory”
“Motherhood, Madness, and Mental Illness: Bebe Moore Campbell and Mental Health Awareness in Black Communities”
“Queer Feminist Science Studies: Rethinking Embodiment at the Nexus of Biomedicine and Activism”
“Rooted in the Land: Re imagining Digital Spaces to Account for Indigenous Women’s Histories”
“Taking Up Space” Indigenous Feminist Storying Practices as Historiography”
“Toward a Transnational Feminist Literacy”
“Toward a Discipline of Black Feminist Transgender Studies”
“Trans Erotics: Thinking Sex, Gender, Sexuality and Embodiment”
“Transformative Storytelling: The International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers”
“Transnational Feminist Dialogue as Transformative Practice”
“What Sexuality, Whose Knowledge: Transnational Feminisms and the Mapping of Heterosexuality and Homosexuality in Kenya”
“Black Autoerotic Performance and Self Love as Feminist Transgression”
“Butch Genealogies Troubling Progressive Narratives of Feminist Kinship”
“Chicana Feminist Alteration to Fashion: Small Business Practices”
“Feminist Solidarity, Labor, and Love”
“Locating Latina Studies through Feminist Solidarity, Labor, and Love”
“Racial Epistemologies in Twenty-First Century Trans* Life Writing”
“Railway Visions and Chicana Lives Realizing the Feminist Interdisciplinary Archive”
“Tactical Love: Latina Feminists as Embodied Figures, Affective Costs, and Sustainable Fatigue”
“Womanist Interventions: The Role of Love in Improving Black Women’s Health Status”
“Embodying Compassionate Listening as a Form of Self-Care in Graduate School”
“Engaging the Body and Senses in the Graduate-School Experience”
“Mothering, Care Practices, and Autism: Stories of Precarity”
“Reimaginings of Disability, Identity, and Relationality in Mothers’ Memoirs”
“Transdisciplinary Bodies: Interfacing WGS and New Materialisms through Anzaldúan Theory”
“An Epistemology of Migration: Migrant Domestic Workers in Israel/Palestine”
“Gendering ‘Public Sin,’ Islam, and Human Rights”
“On Being Black, Queer, and a Student of SOLHOT: Reflections on Hill L. Waters a Continuation of Love, Collective Action and Genius”
“Re-Imagining the Mental Health of Black Women in Baltimore”
“Spreading the Joy of Making and Eating Delicious Food: Maternal Recipe Transference and Alternative Knowledge Production”
“Abolition Dis-Epistemologies: Against Carceral Feminism and Ableism”
“Black Queer Ethnographies and Radical Epistemologies of Sex,”
“Friendship, Anti-Racism, and Complex Communication”
“Friendship-Love Moves Us from an Individual Here to a Shared There: Witnessing, Trusting, and Honoring the Other’s Knowledge as Our Own”
“From Sanctuary to Harboring: An Interrogation of Protection Policies and Knowledge Production on University Campuses”
“Gloves and Revolution: The Limits of Queer Safer Sex as a Political Problem”
“Queering the Circle: Love Language Through Inclusiveness in the Movement for Black Lives,”
“Radical Honesty: A Black Feminist Politic of Teaching and Organizing with Emotion”
“Rural Queer Ecohistories as Movement Building and Freedom-Making”
“Teaching Transformation in Turbulent Times”
“Toward Complicity: Queer Left Activist and Academic Knowledge Making”
“Ancestral Eyes: Bodies of Knowledge, Consciousness and Spirit”
“Between the National and Global—Mastery Masculinity as the Bridge”
“Ma(r)king Space, Selling Place: Afro-Caribbean Women’s Spatial Negotiations at Caribana”
“Queering Transgenderism in Southwest China”
“Mother Knows Best: Nineteenth-Century Women’s Health Writing’s Complex Epistemology and the Post-Truth Problem”
“Queering Intergenerational Trauma Thinking and Unsettling the Mobile Intimacies of Colonial Violence”
“The Other and The One: Afro-Latinx Spirituality and Worlds/Otherwise”
“Theorizing the Dialectic of Digital Culture”
“Towards an Epistemology of the Maternal Trace: Embodied Knowledges, Enfleshed Pedagogies”
 Although the field is no longer known exclusively as women’s studies, for ease of description I will use “women’s studies” to represent all the incarnations of the field over time, including sexuality, feminist, intersectionality and gender studies.
 See for example Florence Howe (1979).
 I participated in those debates myself, arguing for seeing women’s studies as a place to consider and strategize about activism. See Kitch (2002).
 Tools for supporting and advancing activists’ claims in higher education included universities’ newly opened doors to female faculty and students. The latter was fueled in part by the diversion of 2.2 million young men to the military draft between 1964 and 1973. In addition, the economics of continued discrimination persuaded most universities, including all-male ones, to diversify personnel, student bodies, and sports rather than face Title IX lawsuits.
 President John F. Kennedy convened a Commission on the Status of Women in 1961, and subsequently states and cities developed them too. The Civil Rights Act, passed by Congress in 1964, prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, and sex. Title VII of that Act focused on nondiscrimination on the basis of sex and other factors in employment. The Title IX amendments to the act, which guaranteed equal access to education and protection from educational discrimination on the basis of sex, would come along in 1972.
 See Allen and Kitch (1998), Shohat (2001), May (2002), Luft (2008), Garcia (2009), Hawkesworth (2011), and Pérez-Bustos (2014).
 Faculty team members included ASU professors Mary Margaret Fonow, Michelle McGibney, and myself. ASU gender studies PhD and MA students who assisted in the project included (in chronological order): Samantha Vandermeade; Wallace Hudson; Elisabeth (Zöe) Lacey Fry; Monica Hernandez; Erica Berejnoi Bejarano; Meredith Clark. Representative examples of these approaches to field formation include Boxer (1982), Siranni (1993), Leidner (1994), Brown (1997), Scott (1997), Kitch (2002), Wiegman (2002, 2012, 2020), Zimmerman (2002), Kennedy and Beins (2005), Hemmings (2011), Orr, Braithwaite, and Lichtenstein (2012), Wood (2012), and Cho, Crenshaw, and McCall (2013).
 The name of NWSA Journal was changed to Feminist Formations in Spring 2010.
 Computer science professor Ross Maciejewski and PhD student Hong Wang constructed the NWSA database (based on scans of NWSA programs by Samantha and Wallace).
 Keyword searches were not initially very revealing. Understandably, “women” was the most frequent word on titles and abstracts. In addition, key terms, themes, and topics were fairly evenly represented throughout the years, so they were not the best guideposts. The key words approach did reveal a few things we hadn’t expected, though. For example, there was a fairly consistent distribution of themes, including racial terms and non-US topics (what we now call transnationalism), throughout the field’s history.
 Mary Margaret’s focus was methodology; Michelle’s was pedagogy.
 In constructing those hooks, we discovered that searching for abstract terms, such as race or racism, disability, and intersectionality produced limited results. (One exception was sexuality, which was a prominently used abstract term.) Thus, we identified cognate terms that acted as proxies for the abstractions. Regarding race, for example, it turned out that Black was the most frequently used cognate term over many years. Although we found approximately 283 NWSA presentations using race in their titles through 2014, we found approximately 630 that used Black without using race during the same period. Similarly, most of the approximately 253 NWSA presentations we found that discussed Latina, Hispanic, or Chicana identities and most of the approximately 230 focused on indigenous/indigeneity, native, or American Indian during the same years also did not use the word race in their titles.
 In the early years, programs might list only panels without naming the specific papers constituting them. In 1983, for example, there were 242 panels at the conference but only 40 paper titles listed in the program. Although a few presentation abstracts became available in 2009, our database software could only accommodate presentation titles at that point, so we couldn’t really search abstracts until 2015. (The data base could not accommodate presenters’ names either, so titles will be cited as NWSA plus the conference year.) The inconsistent data from each of those time periods will produce somewhat incomparable results.
 The identification of NWSA presentations about knowledge, epistemology, and interdisciplinarity—another key feature of knowledge production in the field—are based in period 1 (1979-2014) on searches of NWSA presentation titles alone, while those in period 2 (2015-2019) are based on searches of titles and abstracts which were available on-line but not added to our database. Even journals did not include abstracts all along.
 Articles about methodology and pedagogy are planned in the near future.
 We found 35 NWSA epistemology presentations between the 1980s and 2014, and 127 presentations from 2015 to 2019. Interdisciplinarity was even less well-represented, and many papers that discussed interdisciplinarity focused on pedagogy or program design. We did find 37 papers that discussed interdisciplinarity in research from 1979 through 2014, however, and another 63 from 2015 through 2019. Epistemology papers have been included in my discussion of knowledge throughout this analysis.
 Of the approximately 145 NWSA presentations we initially discovered using that term between the 1980s and 2014, most were produced in the 2000s (23) and the first four years of the 2010s (54). The availability of abstracts after 2014 allowed us to see even more knowledge construction presentations from 2015 through 2019, but the conference itself also continued to grow during that period. We found 242 explicitly knowledge-construction presentations during those five years.
 For a complete list of NWSA conference themes, please see Appendix A.
 For more detail, see Albrecht (1990), Ruby, Elliott, and Douglas (1990), and Carroll and Mansfield (1993).
 Examples include: “Challenging Bodies of Knowledge: Intersexuality as Subverting Medical Reductionism” (NWSA 2004) and Angela Willey’s “Biopossibility: A Queer Feminist Materialist Science Studies Manifesto, with Special Reference to the Question of Monogamous Behavior” (2014).
 See Signs articles: Shohat (2001); Grabowska (2012); Lewis (2013), as well as several 2013 NWSA presentations discussing Euro-American bias in the field. See Romero (2000) for a journal example analyzing white bias.
 My test knowledge construction categories (for which I found at least a few examples) included feminist knowledge as/vs. feminist activism, knowledge production in PhD programs, definitions of feminist knowledge, university-based and non-university-based feminist knowledge production, the politics of knowledge production, literary or narrative knowledge production, decolonizing knowledge, and collective knowledge making, among others.
 Mary Belenky’s study of women’s ways of knowing in 1986, based on interviews with 135 women of varying ages, ethnicities, and social classes, helped to characterize what being an independent knower meant to those women: understanding that all knowledge is contextual and valuing both subjective and objective epistemological strategies (Belenky et al. 1986).
 NWSA examples include “In Our Own Words: Black Women Produce Knowledge about Race, Class, and Gender” (1985); “Knowledge Is Made for Cutting: The Insurrection of Working-Class Experience in the Academy” (1990, a rare example of class); and “Experience, Knowledge, and Authority in Incest Survivor Narratives” (2000). Other examples appeared at NWSA in 1996, 2002, and 2013.
 See also essays on spiritual activism by Anzaldúa in This Bridge Called My Back (1983) and this bridge we call home: radical visions for transformation (2002).
 Exceptions to this observation include several discussions of critical race theory as the source of knowledge construction, starting in the 2000s. Examples from NWSA include “Difficult Dialogues: Critical Race Theory and Feminist Disability Studies” (2009), and “Implications in Black Feminism: Critical Race Theory and Feminist Disability Theory” (2013). Rare journal examples include Nikol G. Alexander-Floyd’s “Critical Race Black Feminism” (2010).
 One was “Is Sexuality a Luxury in the Geographic Third World?: Decolonization Modernity and Obligatory Heterosexuality” (NWSA 1999). Journal examples include Gerhard (2000) which discusses the “reinvention of female heterosexuality through theories of female orgasm and genitals” (451).
“White Lesbian Women Define Mental Health for Themselves” (NWSA 1983), “White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness” (NWSA 1986), “Marginality and Liminality: White Women Reading Black Women’s Texts (1987), “Clamor and Glare Negotiating a White and Feminist Reading of Toni Morrison” (NWSA 1995), “Sit Sister Silence: Contemporary White Women Poets Read an American Colonial Past” (NWSA 2001).
 The term international was associated with the concept of integrating feminisms in NWSA presentations in 1985 (“Women’s Studies Materials in Cross-cultural Application: Cooperative Models for International Feminism”), 1994 (“Chicana Feminism in an International Frame: Gloria Anzaldúa’s Mestizaje Ecriture”), 2001 (“integrating international Feminisms”), and 2012 (“Decolonizing Knowledge: The International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers”). Transnational was also used in that way, as in Grabowska (2012) and “Transnational Testimonio Challenges US Knowledge” (NWSA 2012). See also “Toward a Transnational Feminist Literacy” (NWSA 2013) and “Transnational Feminist Dialogue as Transformative Practice” (NWSA 2013), and Ella Shohat’s concern about the falsely imagined space of nations (2001).
 Titles of these and other examples from NWSA presentations include: “Thinking and Unthinking History: The Generative Difference of Black Women’s Narrative” (1987); “Narratives of Schooling: Black and White Working-Class Women Claiming Knowledge” (1989);“Black Women’s Activism and Knowledge Construction in the Environmental Justice Movement” (2005); “Power and Resistance: The Intellectual Traditions of Black Feminist Political Theory” (2006); “Using Black Feminism to Understand Political Economy in the Global South” (2008).
 “Decolonial Feminist Critique and Narratives of Indigeneity: Intelligible Indigeneity and Feminist Interpolations of Miami History” (2010). An earlier example was “Shaking the Dead Hand of American Indian History, or How I Create Authentic Background in My Short Stories” (1980).
Relevant NWSA presentations include: “First Environment: Integrating Indigenous Knowledge and Science to Create Woman Centered Models for Respect Equity and Empowerment of Indigenous Women” (1996); “Australian Indigenous Epistemologies Embodying the Land” (2000); “Wilma Mankiller: American Indian Feminist Thought” (2010); “Black Native Feminist Formations at Colonial Collision Sites” (2010); “Surrounding First Nations Girls in an Indigenous Feminist Intellectual Movement” (2012); “Rooted in the Land: Re imagining Digital Spaces to Account for Indigenous Women’s Histories (2013); “Transformative Storytelling: The International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers” (2013); “Taking Up Space: Indigenous Feminist Storying Practices as Historiography” (2013).
 “An Evolving Chicana Feminist Literary Theory and Its Application” (NWSA 1988), “Writing About Men: A Latina Feminist Approach” (NWSA 2010), and “Chicana Feminist Alteration to Fashion: Small Business Practices” (NWSA 2014).
 NWSA examples include: “Sexuality and the Chicana Historical Novel Sor Juanas’ Other Dream” (2003), “Conflicting Gender Expectations Surrounding Female Sexuality in Latina Literature” (2004), and “Feministing Identity: Queering Race, Racialized Sexuality, and Latina/o Queer Studies” (2012).
 “Gay Communities as Knowledge Communities: Applying Feminist Theories of Knowledge” (2000) and “Towards a Queer Feminist Epistemology: Abortion and Gay Media in the Age of AIDS” (2011).
 NWSA presentations include “Gay Communities as Knowledge Communities: Applying Feminist Theories of Knowledge” (2000) and “Novel Gazing: Vision as Lesbian Epistemology” (2001). Journal articles include Chilcoat (2004); Diamond (2006); Fox and Ore (2010); Hitchcock (2012).
 NWSA presentations include “Toward an Ethics of Exemplarity: Transgender Critiques and the Ambivalence of Anti Representation in Queer Theory” (2008), “Gender Faith, Transgender Epistemology” (2010), “Queering the Object of Knowledge: How Modernist Epistemology Makes Strange Bedfellow of Transgender Premodern and Non-Westerns” (2012), “Trans Erotics: Thinking Sex, Gender, Sexuality and Embodiment” (2013), and “Racial Epistemologies in Twenty-First Century Trans* Life Writing” (2014).
 “Butch Genealogies Troubling Progressive Narratives of Feminist Kinship” (NWSA 2014).
 NWSA presentations from 2012: “Textual Odd Bodies and Bodies at Odds: Releasing the Subjugated Knowledges of Trans Bodies Through Contemporary Trans Autobiographies”; “Queering the Object of Knowledge: How Modernist Epistemology Makes Strange Bedfellows of Transgenders, Pre-moderns, and Non-Westerns”; “Live Sex Acts Revisited: Decolonizing Knowledges about Sexuality in Haiti.”
“Asian American Feminism as Part of Global and American Multiethnic Feminist Decolonizing Epistemologies” (NWSA 2012).
“The Effects of Black Studies and Women’s Studies on the Self Concept of Black College Women” (NWSA 1984), “Locating Lesbians in Women’s Studies and Black Lesbians in Lesbian and Gay Studies” (NWSA 1997), “Black Women’s Resistance in Apartheid South Africa: Towards an Indigenous Understanding of Gender Struggles in South African Women’s Studies” (NWSA 2006), and “Toward a Discipline of Black Feminist Transgender Studies” (NWSA 2013).
 NWSA presentations: “Black Feminist Perspectives in Jazz” (2001), “Women in Black Transnational Feminist Resistance to Militarism” (2009), “Who is Right: Black Feminist Forming and Transforming Agency” (2011), “Housewives, Divorcees, and Professionals: Zora Neal Hurston, Feminist Ethnography, and Black Male Female Relationships” (2011), “Anthropology, Bourdieu, and Black Lesbian Social Networks” (2011), “Taboo Subjects: Conversations Between a Black Trans Man and a White Trans Man on Feminism, Racism, Sexism, Sexuality, and the Body” (2012), “Schooling Resistance: A Black Feminist Analysis of Homeschooling” (2012), and “Motherhood, Madness, and Mental Illness: Bebe Moore Campbell and Mental Health Awareness in Black Communities” (2013).
 “American Indian Women and the Academy: Claiming Identity, Building a Discipline, Deconstructing Stereotypes” (1997).
 Examples of NWSA presentations focusing on the impact of indigenous knowledge on feminism include: “Indigenous views on Feminism: Western Pacific Women Speak Out” (1987); “Divergent Histories of Gender: Native and White Women’s Feminisms” (1999); “Wilma Mankiller: American Indian Feminist Thought” (2010); “Surrounding First Nations Girls in an Indigenous Feminist Intellectual Movement” (2012).
 As a premise for Latina sexuality students, García and Torres argued that Latinx cultures are complex sites that simultaneously nurture positive, healthy sexuality and reproduce negative beliefs around sexuality.
 See, for example Yong (2007), which discusses the impact of neoliberal globalization on knowledge about feminism in Taiwan, and Descarries (2014), which critiques the hegemony of English-speaking feminist scholarship on feminist thought worldwide.
 “Market Alternatives” (2017) and “Between the National and Global—Mastery Masculinity as the Bridge” (2018). Talburt (2018) discussed the implications for Trump’s election for women’s studies’ “institutional positioning.”
 Two NWSA examples from 2017: “From Sanctuary to Harboring: An Interrogation of Protection Policies and Knowledge Production on University Campuses” and “Rural Queer Ecohistories as Movement Building and Freedom-Making.”
 One example is NWSA presentation “Toward Complicity: Queer Left Activist and Academic Knowledge Making” (2017).
 Many thanks to Meredith Clark for her assistance in identifying this shift.
 Now that readers have seen the categories of identity- and experience-based knowledge construction used in section 1 of this article, they can take advantage of searchable on-line information about the NWSA conference to continue the tally and explore the categories of Black, Latina, etc. knowledge construction scholarship further. Likewise, journal contents are increasingly searchable on-line.
 Here Nash paraphrases Pough (2004, 166).
 First written as a sermon in the mid-1950s, Strength to Love became the title of a collection of King’s sermons by that name in 1963. The quotation comes from the sermon, “Loving Your Enemies” (43-44).
 Nash (2013), 16. In defining love-politics here, Nash incorporates the ideas of many other theorists, including José Muñoz, Robin D.G. Kelley, Wendy Brown, Kathi Weeks, and Jasbir Puar.
2014 NWSA presentations: “Womanist Interventions: The Role of Love in Improving Black Women’s Health Status”; “Tactical Love: Latina Feminists as Embodied Figures, Affective Costs, and Sustainable Fatigue”; “Locating Latina Studies through Feminist Solidarity, Labor, and Love.”
 Although love was a recurring theme in the politics of 1960s activists (e.g., “make love not war”), it did not really infuse women’s studies scholarship in the early years, possibly because feminists recognized the sexism inherent in many hippie communities that spawned that rhetoric.
 Love was not discussed much in relationship to knowledge production and politics among the journals from 2015-19, although the concept of affect as a source of knowledge did appear. Examples include Viteri (2017), Charles (2018), Talburt (2018), and Barceló and Gubrium (2018).
 NWSA presentations from 2015 include “Embodying Compassionate Listening as a Form of Self-Care in Graduate School,” “Engaging the Body and Senses in the Graduate-School Experience,” “Mothering, Care Practices, and Autism: Stories of Precarity,” “Reimaginings of Disability, Identity, and Relationality in Mothers’ Memoirs,” and “Transdisciplinary Bodies: Interfacing WGS and New Materialisms through Anzaldúan Theory.”
 “On Being Black, Queer, and a Student of SOLHOT: Reflections on Hill L. Waters, a Continuation of Love, Collective Action and Genius” (NWSA 2016) and “Re-Imagining the Mental Health of Black Women in Baltimore” (NWSA 2016).
 “Spreading the Joy of Making and Eating Delicious Food: Maternal Recipe Transference and Alternative Knowledge Production” (NWSA 2016), “An Epistemology of Migration: Migrant Domestic Workers in Israel/Palestine” (NWSA 2016) and “Gendering ‘Public Sin,’ Islam, and Human Rights” (NWSA 2016).
 NWSA presentations from 2017 include two that discussed epistemology as well as pedagogy –”Teaching Transformation in Turbulent Times” and “Radical Honesty: A Black Feminist Politic of Teaching and Organizing with Emotion”—as well as “Queering the Circle: Love Language Through Inclusiveness in the Movement for Black Lives,” “Friendship-Love Moves Us from an Individual Here to a Shared There: Witnessing, Trusting, and Honoring the Other’s Knowledge as Our Own,” “Black Queer Ethnographies and Radical Epistemologies of Sex,” “Friendship, Anti-Racism, and Complex Communication” and “Gloves and Revolution: The Limits of Queer Safer Sex as a Political Problem.”
 NWSA presentations include “Ma(r)king Space, Selling Place: Afro-Caribbean Women’s Spatial Negotiations at Caribana” (2018); “Ancestral Eyes: Bodies of Knowledge, Consciousness and Spirit” (2018); “Towards an Epistemology of the Maternal Trace: Embodied Knowledges, Enfleshed Pedagogies” (2019); “Mother Knows Best: Nineteenth-Century Women’s Health Writing’s Complex Epistemology and the Post-Truth Problem” (2019).
 “Abolition Dis-Epistemologies: Against Carceral Feminism and Ableism” (NWSA 2017), “Queering Transgenderism in Southwest China” (NWSA 2018), and “The Other and The One: Afro-Latinx Spirituality and Worlds/Otherwise” (NWSA 2019). In addition, several recent books promote Black utopias and Afrofuturism. See, for example, Zamalin (2019) and Brown (2021).
 “Queering Intergenerational Trauma Thinking and Unsettling the Mobile Intimacies of Colonial Violence” (NWSA 2019) and “Theorizing the Dialectic of Digital Culture” (NWSA 2019).