About Denise Thompson


Lesbian Feminism

Refereed Papers

Conference Papers

Work in Progress


Introduction to Refereed Papers

This section of the website contains papers I sent to academic journals with the expectation of getting them published. (Links to the papers are included at the bottom of the page).

They were all rejected although even the critics admitted they were well-written and well-argued. A number of reasons were given supposedly explaining why the papers couldn't be published in that journal at that time, but none of those reasons made much sense. (I discuss them in more detail below and in the context of each paper). Largely this was because the readers had little idea of what I was talking about. But rather than acknowledging that and starting from the assumption that work that is well-written may actually have something to say, most of the readers treated the work with a disdain they made no attempt to hide. 

That wasn't true of all of them. But even the most gracious (and there were some) couldn't understand what I was trying to do, and their advice teetered on the verge of being patronising. And the smug certainty and self-righteous posturing of some of the other 'peer reviewers', not to mention their unmitigated gall, was breathtaking. 

One of the main criticisms, couched in a number of different ways, was that my work was 'old-fashioned'. Although this was not meant as a compliment, for two reasons I'm prepared to concede the charge. The first reason is that some of the best theory is that which the reader finds intensely familiar. This is what a friend of mine called (with reference to my work) 'the bleedin' obvious', something that's immediately recognisable once it's pointed out, but which the reader hasn't thought of beforehand. Time and again the reviewers say I'm going over old ground, as though the issues I'm discussing had been resolved long ago. But I know, as they appear not to, that not only was nothing ever resolved, there was never any debate either. The taken-for-granted status of the 'essentialism' of radical feminism, for example, or of the 'white and middle-class' nature of feminism, was not arrived at through reasoned debate. Rather, the pre-eminence of beliefs like these was effected by unthinking reiteration and the exclusion of alternative and dissenting views. So, yes, the debates are familiar and long-standing (in 'second-wave' feminist terms), but the ways in which I open them up for debate (or try to) is not.

The other reason I'm prepared to accept the charge is that 'old-fashioned' is often used to dismiss radical feminism, usually with reference to the 1970s, so I feel I'm in good company. I'm fascinated to note that feminism seems to have gone from being too radical (for 'the women out there') to old-fashioned with nothing in between. But of course the issue is not whether or not feminism belongs to a by-gone era, which is never discussed anyway but simply asserted. Rather, what we are seeing is the operation of one of the mechanisms of ideological control - trivialisation and contemptuous dismissal.

A further point to be made about the notion of 'old-fashioned' is that it is a tacit admission that fashion is central to academic feminism. There appear to be no qualms about involving feminism in connotations of the superficial, the trivial and the ephemeral the notion of fashion entails. 

This is presumably the influence of post-modernism. To the extent that I understand it, one of its chief premises is that there are no grounds for judgement about anything - no distinctions can be made about whether something is right or wrong, good or bad, high culture or low culture, important or unimportant, trivial or significant, true or false (especially true or false), etc. To make such judgements is to find oneself caught up in dichotomous thinking, binaries or dualisms, and that is self-evidently (i.e. doesn't need any argument or evidence) bad. So a passing fad is as good a basis as any other for deciding whether or not something is worth publishing.

Of course, the argument is self-refuting. If there are no grounds for judgement, there are no grounds for judging there are no grounds for judgement either. (The point has been made frequently). The absurdity is allowed to continue because the issues are not thought through. There is currently a fad for calling feminism 'old-fashioned', and that's a good enough reason for using the epithet.

While I'm on the subject of postmodernism, I have to admit that I have a long-standing policy of ignoring it, at least under that name, and this might partly explain the charge of 'old-fashioned'. I do deal with many of the issues which have been paraded under the postmodernist banner, I just don't identify them as such.

And one final point - presumably these same reviewers would not call 'old-fashioned' a paper that discussed the work of, say, Plato. And yet Plato was writing much longer ago than the theorists I discuss. 

* * * * *

So how can these reviewers' reactions be explained? I can't provide a definitive answer to that question, but I have had a few thoughts on the matter because I've had to decide, and more than once, whether or not to continue to write and try and get published when the venues within which I think my work fits find it so incomprehensible.

I think it's fair to say that academe is a regime of power/knowledge - it gives credence only to certain ways of seeing and not to others. There's nothing wrong with that in itself, in fact it's unavoidable. But the forms of inclusion and exclusion ought to follow the non-distorted purposes of each particular framework if that framework is to retain some integrity, and not some external agenda like career advancement or fear of the new or reluctance to offend or personal inadequacy. The purpose of the intellectual life of academe ought to be to allow the free exchange of ideas without fear or favour. This is, of course, an ideal that can probably never be fully worked out in practice, but its failure in practice makes it even more necessary as a guiding principle, not less. It is in fact the kind of principle we need to call on in the face of the banal corruption that permeates intellectual life (and every other institution in society insofar as it colludes with domination). 

By 'corruption' I don't mean the usual ethical, political use of the term implying individuals consciously using bribery, undue influence, nepotism, the buying of preferment, honours and favour, falsification of research results, etc., although the kind of milieu I'm talking about provides a fertile soil for such practices. I mean something more neutral than that. I mean something like the way a computer file is corrupt so that it won't do the work for which it is intended, but instead does something useless or futile or does nothing at all. The academic world is corrupt in the sense that the system can't do what it ought to do. 

Instead, prestige and privilege determine meaning and trump truth. One of the ways in which this happens is through a system of coteries, private networks and personal fiefdoms, an operating system that has acquired a veneer of respectability by being given a name, 'mentoring'. Mentoring requires that the one being mentored be inducted into the framework of the one doing the mentoring. It's a kind of apprenticeship whereby mentors initiate the junior partners into the ways of the academic world, not only by showing them how to do things, but also by introducing them to the personal networks that will ensure the apprentice a place in the system. All this is done via a particular subject matter. One major problem with this is that you tend to get stuck with that subject matter for the rest of your academic career, because successful grant applications depend on 'track record', and academic careers depend on successful grant applications. But you can't even get onto the first rung of mentoring system if, like me, you're always doing something that no one else is doing, or worse, busily demolishing taken-for-granted frameworks on which careers and reputations are built. So while there are problems with the mentoring system even for those within it, for those outside there is very little chance of an academic career at all (or so I have discovered). 

Then there's the convention of using bibliographies to select reviewers. If a paper has a bibliography packed full of works being criticised (as mine always do), there's a fair chance it will be sent either to the author of one of the works I am criticising or to someone whose work is similar. But sometimes an expert is the last person my paper should be sent to because those with the greatest stake in the system are least likely to be able to deal with something that radically brings it into question. Yes, I know academic work is supposed to include openness to critical engagement and debate but in my experience it rarely does. People in academe are as committed to their own views, as defensive of them and as little able to tolerate criticism, as people anywhere else. 

There's also the problem of scarcity - over 80% of submissions to academic journals get rejected. Although academic journals pay nothing, they get flooded with submissions because publication in academic journals, especially 'prestigious' ones, is the royal road to employment, career development, promotion, access to grant money, etc. If you want to work in academe, you have to get published in the refereed journals. Although there can be exceptions (there are always exceptions in social life), the general rule dictating who gets jobs, grants, promotions, recognition is, as it always has been, 'publish or perish'.

One journal editor suggested that it might be some 'consolation' to me to know that 'well over 80% of articles received' are rejected. But the curious outcome of journal selection policies is that what actually gets published is hardly riveting stuff, this same editor's reference to 'the volume of high-quality work coming in' notwithstanding. Unless I'm very much mistaken (mistaken, that is, to the point of dementia), what I write is better written, more important and much, much more interesting, than a great deal of what consistently appears in the academic journals. As a friend of mine said of them, 'You wouldn't mind so much if they weren't full of toilet paper'. (He does get published and he's puzzled about why I don't). 

With an 80% (or more) rejection rate, this is a system in crisis. In crisis situations, it's not the case that only the best survive. The best are the first to be defeated because what is required for survival is ruthlessness, sycophancy, opportunism, and a pusillanimous care not to rock any important boats. There's also an element of chance because crisis creates chaos, and so sometimes good work gets through. But the system is heavily weighted against it. 

So there's a sense in which I can't blame the reviewers for rejecting my papers. I can blame them for the tone of their reviews. Disdainful dismissiveness and personal affront ought to have no place in an academic context. There are journals where the problem is recognised and reviewers are advised to treat respectfully the submissions sent to them. But there are no sanctions for bad manners, and reviewers' word is law and from their decisions there is no right of appeal. And even the kindest review is useless to the author if it misses the point of what she's trying to say. 

But I can't really blame them for not understanding either. What I write makes no attempt to fit in with the accepted ways of thinking and as a consequence it is, at least in some sense, 'out of the academic mainstream' (as one reviewer put it). Of course, this begs the question of why being 'out of the academic mainstream' should be grounds for rejection, instead of being welcomed as a source of fresh insight. But it does explain the strong sense I get from the readers' reports that what I'm doing isn't academic in some crucial sense.

This is due in large part to my refusal to acknowledge postmodernism. As I put it in Radical Feminism Today: 'The omission ... is deliberate. I do not discuss postmodernism as an identifiable framework because to do so, even as critique, would be to reinforce its position of pre-eminence. To focus attention, even critically, on postmodernism would be to award it credibility as a feminist enterprise, when from a feminist standpoint it is merely another ruse of male supremacy' (p.2). 

I also find it incomprehensible for a number of reasons. Sometimes I can't understand the words on the page - I simply have no idea what the author is saying. At other times I can understand what is being said (or I think I can), but I can't understand why that particular argument is being presented in that context. What is feminist, for example, about dispensing with the notion of 'women', or arguing for the harmlessness of pornography, or defining prostitution as just another job of work, or uncritically reproducing the theories of Jacques Lacan or Julia Kristeva? Or I can't understand why the argument is being presented as though it were startling and new when it has already been argued, and better, within the sociology of knowledge or in phenomenology or ethnomethodology or linguistic philosophy. Or I can't understand why the argument has stopped at that point, why something is being presented as self-evident when not only is it no such thing it is actually false, e.g. the 'essentialism' of radical feminism. 

Still, it's not quite true that what I write is 'out of the academic mainstream'. It's the way I engage with 'the mainstream' that arouses such antagonistic incomprehension. In attempting to solve problems that have arisen within feminism, I take familiar frameworks and do something unprecedented, and hence unfamiliar, with them. Familiar frameworks, whether they shore up one's sense of personal identity or guarantee one's access to public recognition, carry with them a sense of ownership which feels threatened when they're questioned. Threatened people can't think clearly, hence the reviewers' failure even to recognise that they had not understood what I was saying, much less engage with it on its own terms. 

Moreover, I'm critical of the accepted ways of seeing rather than simply reiterating what everybody already knows. With the theorists of the Frankfurt School, I see theory as essentially critical. More to the point (and again, along with the Frankfurt School), I see theory as essentially critical in a quite particular way - it is directed towards exposing the subtle, i.e. not overtly violent, ways in which domination operates on hearts and minds. In doing so, it would appear I accuse those who embrace the frameworks I am criticising of being insufficiently radical at least, and at worst of complicity with domination. (As one reviewer asks, 'Which feminists don't know this?') I don't mean to do this. I didn't know I was doing it, and perhaps I'm wrong about this. But it does explain the sense of personal affront that emanates from some of the reviewers' reports. 

Of course, my critics wouldn't agree with this. They find the fault only in what I write. As one woman at the Lesbian Session at the 1980 Women and Labour conference said, 'It's nothing to do with your theory being sophisticated, it's to do with your theories being very very confused' (quoted in Refractory Girl). Leaving aside the question of sophistication (which I was not arguing anyway), this statement assumed that alternative, clearer theories existed whereas my research had uncovered no such thing. In my experience, everyone was confused about what lesbianism meant within the context of feminism. But in the case of that particular paper, 'Lesbianism as Political Practice', it always seemed remarkably clear to me. It still does, although I wouldn't word it in quite that way now, I don't agree with everything in it, and I did try to cram too much into it. 

Certainly I am often confused, about some things at least. But that confusion is the starting point for the theorising, for that process of clarification that, to my mind, centrally constitutes the practice of theory-making. And sometimes I feel that I have managed to clarify what used to be obscure, although I've had to step outside the accepted frameworks to do so. 

The disjunction between what my critics believe and what I feel, is so great that we can't both be right. My task is to decide where to place my trust, with my own feelings of clarity, or with the critics who demonstrably misunderstand what I'm trying to say. It might seem like a simple choice, but it has taken me years to arrive, not just at the decision, but also at a clear statement of the problem. 

On the above analysis, then, my chances of getting published in the academic journals have been minuscule to none from the beginning. Still, I did hope that someone with some influence on some journal might recognise what I was trying to do, or at least recognise that what I was trying to do had its own integrity. I'm personally acquainted with a number of academics who do understand what I'm doing and who feel, at the very least, that I have a right to be heard, whether or not they agree with me. But academic recognition has very little to do with what particular individuals might want, if what they want goes against the grain of the dominant paradigms. There may be all the goodwill in the world towards what I write on the part of certain individuals, but if I persist in writing outside the dominant paradigms there is little they can do to help me get recognition. 

And I guess I needed to go through the process and get the experience. Although my perspective of critical social theory could have predicted what happened (not to mention Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions), experience is a better teacher than theory, especially as I started out with the belief that a commitment to feminism meant more openness to new ideas and a greater willingness to push the framework further. Clearly it doesn't. And as long as 'feminism' is nothing more than a label that can be applied to anything at all as long as it's got something to do with women, that's not likely to change. 

So I've reached the conclusion that academe is as subject to fashion and trendy ephemeral enthusiasms as any other field of human endeavour, and as little able to tolerate the genuinely new or even the merely different. If reviewers on three continents can't read what I write, when I have been writing, and reading widely in the areas in which I've been writing, for over thirty years (since I was first an undergraduate in 1972), then there must be something seriously wrong with the system. Of course, there could be something wrong with what I write. But given that the academic reviewers couldn't tell me what it was, I'm forced to conclude it's the system. This applies as much to feminist academe as to any other field. The consequence is an educational system that allows the kind of ignorant arrogance documented on this website to persist and to pass unremarked, and to play the gate-keeping role it does.

June 2003/February 2004


Click here for 'Feminism and the Struggle over Meaning'

Click here for 'Feminism and the Problem of Individualism'

Click here for 'The Trouble with Individualism'

Click here for 'What Counts as Feminist Theory?'

Click here for 'Power and Distaste: Tolerance and Its Limitations'

Click here for '"Racism"'

Click here for my reviews


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