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It’s worthwhile to fight
1 Jun 2010
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“I think it’s important to find your own way through all this, to find the way to keep yourself on the track, to find the way to get inspired, to renew your energy. It’s nothing you can learn about in books. It’s a very personal and private thing, how you manage to keep your integrity and keep yourself going as a person.”

Thorgerdur Einarsdottir. Professor of Gender Studies at University of Iceland since 2009; associate professor  from 2004-2009; assistant professor from 2001-2004; guest lecturer in Gender Studies and Sociology from 1999-2001. Interviewed June 2010.

It’s worthwhile to fight

Everything we do creates resistance. That has been a part of my job, to make students able to take and deal with resistance.

I’ve been teaching Gender Studies now for eleven years, but it’s very heavy because when you are in Gender Studies and feminist issues, you have the wind in your face. But you find that you manage to make people stronger, you can see people grow, and you see your students go into society debating. They’re into politics and able to fight for a good cause. They’re clever and they’re intelligent persons. You can see the results overall.

The Gender Studies students are struggling. As Gender Studies students, they’re facing resistance, and I see it as my task to help them grow in this very difficult role to be fighters.

It’s also very nice to see if you personally can deal with obstacles or hindrance. There is always some resistance among my colleagues. So it makes me happy when I can get through what I’m saying and make people understand, when I see they gradually come to listen. When I can open people’s eyes, I am happy. 

It’s worthwhile to fight and I believe in small steps. You have to consider every step carefully and be confident and believe in what you are doing. There are times when I’ve been very disappointed in my job, but there’s always something that keeps me going. Some hope and some reward. I’m sure that when I retire, I can look back and say, “At least I did this.”

At least something was worthwhile and I’m very, very convinced that the successes are always bigger than the disappointments. I feel that I am succeeding, at least partly, within the university.

 I was a Sociology student when I was young, and I got all my training in Sweden. I started my University studies in 1977 when I was 20 years old. I intended to be a Psychologist. I did my first year at the University of Gothenburg in Psychology.

Then, I had one compulsory course in Sociology, and I just fell in love with it. I realized that this was my true interest, not to have the individual as an object of study but the society, all these invisible things that influence you, all the forces, all the social mechanisms that you can’t see, you can’t touch, but you can see the consequences.

So I dropped Psychology and continued with Sociology. I took many optional courses in addition to Sociology. I took social anthropology, education, philosophy. I graduated in 1982 with my B.A, and I started my graduate studies.

In 1985, my husband and I moved to Iceland. We had had our first child in 1984 so she was one year and a half at that time. We were in Iceland then for 7 years. In 1990, we had twins and in 1991, we moved to Sweden for one year and a half when I started my PhD studies. We moved back to Iceland in 1992, and I traveled back and forth for four years.

When I graduated, in 1997, I was forty years old, so I came rather late into the university system.

Even though all my training is in Sociology, I’ve always been interested in gender. I remember when I was a kid I thought about these things, gender roles and the life of my mommy and my daddy and different opportunities in life. But it was not a systematic way of thinking.

When I started to study in University, in 1977, it was shortly after the student revolts of 1968. There was a radical leftish atmosphere and a discussion about women’s issues. I started to write my essays from a gender perspective. So I've done all my essays and assignments from a gender perspective from the very beginning. I’ve been a women’s activist in that sense all along.

I also did my PhD in Sociology about medical doctors from a gender perspective. I wrote about why men and women in medicine end up in different specialties, why men become surgeons and women become general practitioners, geriatric physicians, and so on. I did a big survey among doctors in Gothenburg, and I did interviews. It was both a study of the medical professions and the gender dynamic.

My theoretical approach was social closure. We had had all these myths that women can’t be surgeons because that job is too heavy, too long working hours, too this, and too that. All these myths and explanations seemed contradictory to me. I started from the other direction, that the reason might possibly be that women and men are influenced by the social and cultural discourses.

If you compare different specialties, there are not so much objective differences between them. If you take working hours and what they really do, they are very similar. For example, compare surgeons of different kinds and an OB-GYN. OB-GYN have a surgical part in their job, but the whole discourse around that discipline is very different from the surgeons. The surgeons have a very masculine discourse when they talk about their job. They make associations to very masculine things like flying and mountain climbing. The surgeons really want to make their job look like risk-taking. And a part of the discouse is that there’s always a life at stake.

In OB-GYN, you have the lives of two at stake, the life of the mother and the child. If surgery in general is risky because of the number of lives at stake, then being an OB-GYN is more risky in that respect. At the same time, they have a very different way of talking about their discipline. They don’t have these heroic and masculine connotations. 

My approach was that it’s more the discourse, the way you talk about the profession, and the way they construct their discipline that makes a difference. It is the discourse rather than the objective things like the content of the job, the working hours and so on. It was social discursive closure and a kind of professional culture. 

So I’ve had this interest all the time in gender, but I’ve not been so much involved in the direct feminist movement. I’m a little bit too young for the Red Stockings movement. They were founded in 1970 when I was thirteen years old.

Then, we had the big women’s day off in 1975, when 25,000 women gathered in the plaza place of the city of Reykjavik, and because I went to high school in the countryside, I wasn’t in Reykjavik to experience it. I was in Sweden when the Women’s List in Iceland was founded in 1982, so I missed that too. By some coincidence, I haven’t been here when these things were happening.

But I’ve been active in the debate. I very early on started to write articles in the newspapers and the women’s magazine, Vera. All the time, I’ve had a more scholarly perspective. I’ve never been active in the grassroots movement until the Feminist Association was founded in 2003.

I consider myself as the scholarly figure, going into the debate every now and then. I consider my contribution to be the "educator." I know the theoretical foundations and I'm educating other people who will then go and continue with the work. My job is keeping the Gender Studies program alive in order to strengthen other people.

I create the surroundings for other people to grow. I am in the background, nurturing the whole field. Those who are in the front lines of the fight, the struggle, they need to have the arguments, the knowledge, and it’s my job to provide the knowledge, to write articles, and come into the public debate as the scholarly person who clarifies concepts and provides knowledge and perspectives. I am here to drop into the public debate when I feel like it but be on the sideline. I am the one who follows the debate, the one that those on the front line can go back to and get knowledge and arguments from. In that sense, Gender Studies is policy relevant. 

My view is that Gender Studies needs to have a space of its own where we can be secure and safe to say things and develop and create knowledge. At the same time, we need to have a dialogue with the traditional disciplines and be in dialogue with society. 

That’s a very conscious decision because we want students to have one foot in the traditional disciplines. We have Gender Studies as a minor at the undergraduate level so the students have one third of their credits in Gender Studies and two thirds in another discipline—Social Anthropology, Sociology, Political Science, whatever. So we try to do both: We have a special space, safe space, for ourselves, and we mainstream gender into the other disciplines. 

Now, the Gender Studies Program is in the faculty of political science, and we have started to introduce a gender module in some of the Political Science courses. So in that sense, we are mainstreaming. 

I really enjoy developing gender issues in a completely new context. I’m bringing gender into courses in public policy, public administration, and I have to make Gender Studies issues understandable and interesting. I have to know their vocabulary, different terms, and different approaches. I think that’s very rewarding.

Although the Gender Studies students are very intelligent, fine, and ambitious students, it is important to also move forward and to reach out to other students. 

This is a way to extend. I have to think about how to approach the students who are not in Gender Studies. We’re going to have a compulsory course for the Political Science students that they have to take. We call it “Gender, diversity, and multiculturalism.” We’re going to talk about multiculturalism, diversity, sexuality. In order to get through, we have a broad approach because we know they have prejudices and misconceptions about academic feminism.

It’s always this difficult task to have a dialogue with people, not to be defensive, to be inviting, to keep your dignity, not to give them reason to classify you as the "grumpy feminist." That’s a challenge, to create your own appearance, and your personality. I think it’s the worst thing to be defensive. If you do that, then, you’re lost and you don’t get anywhere.

You must learn how to deal with the disappointments and all the lost battles without being defensive. That has been the biggest challenge in my job. You don’t get through and you’re misunderstood and there are misconceptions that you don’t know how to correct.

At that same time, it’s also inspiring. How can I meet these people where they are? 

At the University, we’ve had individual courses on gender since the early 70’s. In the beginning, these were entirely on the initiative of individual women. In 1996, we got a minor in Women’s Studies. It was very loosely organized. The faculty of humanities and social sciences took turns to have it and run it every other year. In 1998, they changed the name to Gender Studies, and in 2001, I was the first person to be appointed to a full-time position. In 2005, we were allowed to offer graduate studies, and in 2006, we celebrated the ten year anniversary of the program. Gyda Margaret Petursdottir was the first to graduate with PhD. She actually began in Sociology and moved to the Gender Studies when we got the PhD program established.

We had people waiting for the opportunity to study Gender Studies. There was so much interest that the framework came along the way. That’s how we’ve done it. The need and the interest has been there. We have the understanding from the administration and support in our school because we have the students and the interest.

The Gender Studies students are really dedicated and enthusiastic. They are people who really dare to take challenges and do something new. We have great students.

I have also been sort of creating my own role models in different areas along the way. There were women at the university who were pioneers. Some of them are my role models, I create a space for them in my mind, and that’s how I do it. I say to myself: I would like to chair a meeting like this woman; I would like to do this or that as well as she does. Then I try to do that.

I think it’s important to find your own way through all this, to find the way to keep yourself on the track, to find the way to get inspired, to renew your energy. It’s nothing you can learn about in books. It’s a very personal and private thing, how you manage to keep your integrity and keep yourself going as a person.

It’s so easy to be disappointed and give up. Try to find the way to always have a source of inspiration, find ways to get some support, to deal with your disappointments and bad things. That’s the most important. To keep going. Recharge your batteries. Because this is a long haul. 

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