Texas Tech University

Feminist Family Researcher Examines Sense of Feminist Fraudulence in Her Work

Heidi Toth

November 10, 2015

Elizabeth Sharp recently published a paper that cast a critical eye on her research to see if it met the ideals for feminist research.

Elizabeth Sharp
Elizabeth Sharp

A Texas Tech University professor garnered national attention in her field when she openly questioned whether she was a bad or imperfect feminist. She unveiled complex challenges of conducting feminist research within the backdrop of post-feminist, neoliberal sensibilities.

Elizabeth Sharp, an associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies, recently published a paper, “Feeling Like Feminist Frauds,” in the Journal of Family Theory & Review in which she and another colleague foregrounded their feelings about feminist frauds. It wasn't to point fingers or condemn themselves, Sharp said. Rather, two feminist-identified researchers wanted to expose the untenable conditions under which feminist scholars work and how such conditions may hinder feminist scholars in their pursuit of “authentic” feminist work.

“That paper is a result of us looking at our projects and wanting to share with other scholars some of our missteps, our questions and then the way we resolved them,” she said.

The paper, which Sharp knew would be provocative when she and Shannon Weaver, an associate professor at the University of Connecticut, published it, inspired debate among other feminist family researchers about what feminist scholarship should look like and how to produce studies that live up to the high standards of feminist principles.

It also was one of the factors that led to Sharp's selection for the Alexis J. Walker Award for Mid-Career Achievement in Feminist Family Studies from the Feminism and Family Studies Section of the National Council on Family Relations. She will be recognized at the section's annual conference in Vancouver, Canada, on Thursday (Nov. 12).

“Dr. Sharp exemplifies the high ideals inherent in feminist scholarship in all areas of her work – research, teaching and service,” Weaver said. “Her recent projects melding social science with the humanities are cutting edge, and she has reached a wider audience outside of academia. Her research has received national and international attention by both scholars and popular media.”

‘Bad' feminist?

As a feminist researcher, Sharp is held to multiple standards: the mainstream academic standard for quality of research and feminist standards, which extend beyond the requirements of mainstream research ideals. She's always tried to use feminist practices in her research but encountered many dilemmas in doing so.

While working on the manuscript with Weaver, Sharp came across “Bad Feminist,” a collection of essays by Roxane Gay. Gay tapped into the similar sentiment of high standards of feminism in one's daily life. Sharp indicated Gay, in the end, is a great feminist, especially because she asked the difficult questions of herself and her relationship to feminism.

In her manuscript, Sharp recalled a project in which she conducted focus groups with women who had recently been married. She wanted their experiences as a bride and new wife. The atmosphere quickly became competitive, with women talking about their “perfect” wedding and husband, shutting down women who attempted to share less than positive experiences.

Sharp, wanting to protect participants and her feminist ideals, terminated the focus group and conducted private interviews instead. When her paper came up for review, however, two reviewers took her to task, arguing this decision altered her project in ways she hadn't considered.

“Part of what makes feminism complicated is that the ethical standards are high, extending beyond the standard guidelines and principles of mainstream research,” Sharp and Weaver wrote. “Feminist ethical principles are so great that it may be impossible for scholars to fully adhere to feminist principles in conducting studies. There is considerable danger in having such high standards – because of the ethical promises feminists make, they have further to fall.”

She talks about a post-feminist world where both genders are equal, which remains a figment of imagination. She pointed to a study in which science professors are given resumes of a potential graduate student and asked to evaluate the student's competency, whether they would hire and mentor the student and how much they would pay the student. Two resumes were sent out, identical except in one way: the first had John at the top, the second Jennifer.

The results showed professors of both genders were more likely to find John competent, more likely to hire him, more likely to be his mentor and were willing to pay him more than Jennifer.

“It just maps onto all these implicit biases,” Sharp said. “Men and women hold these biases. It's not just the male employers.”

They also took on neoliberalism, a point of view too often associated with feminist activity. Neoliberalism, based on capitalist market principles, encourages people to take care of themselves and not worry about anyone else, which sacrifices moving ahead for all to moving ahead for the one.

“I think that really interferes with a feminist sensibility, which is about the larger justice,” Sharp said. “If you're just looking at yourself and you're OK, and you are not doing anything to help anyone else, that is problematic from a feminist lens.”

Emotional mapping

Although her topics for research vary along the spectrum of feminism, Sharp's current project is a little different. She's looking at emotional mapping. This literally requires a map – in this case, a map of the Texas Tech campus. She wanted to know what emotions women felt at various points on campus.

To that end, she met with first-year female students, gave them a map, asked them to circle places they frequented and put an emoticon sticker showing how they felt in that place. Answers varied; for some the gym induced guilt, for others it was happiness. Residence halls, classrooms, the library and Student Union Building all evoked different emotions from the 30 women.

Patterns emerged, Sharp said; there are certain places in the library only fraternity and sorority members go, and some women said they never walk through the SUB at certain times of day because there are people using the anonymous social media app Yik Yak to comment on women's bodies.

From there, Sharp's graduate student did walking interviews with selected women, taking each to these emotion-causing places and asking deeper questions as they walked. This an emerging form of qualitative data collection, which she has discussed with other researchers in a recent national webinar.

All of Sharp's research ties into her overall feminist family ideals aimed at empowering women. She's not calling anyone a bad feminist, she's quick to clarify, not even herself. She wants her research to question the power structures and encourage others to question, as she did when she was a first-year college student and had a feminist male graduate student teaching her English class. Question everything, he told them. Nothing is too sacred to question.

“He used to tell us, ‘Becoming conscious sucks. It's hard,'” Sharp said. “You have to do it if you want the world to be better, for some of this stuff to change. But the process is really difficult.”