Was Emily Dickinson a lesbian? Was Beethoven a rapist? Was Melville's "Moby Dick" a tract in support of male supremacy?
Such questions have surfaced in a dispute among academic feminists that has, in recent months, turned both public and nasty. While no single, ideological and philosophical line has ever existed among women of letters, a sharp divergence of views of late has left some women feeling confused--and others feeling ostracized.
One has even gone so far as to take legal action. A lawsuit filed here by a distinguished professor of literature at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology charges MIT with a "persistent and continuing pattern of professional, political and sexual harassment." Filled with phrases such as "extraordinary abuse and vilification," and "unconscionable and punitive exclusion," the action by Prof. Cynthia Griffin Wolff names Women's Studies Prof. Ruth Perry as one of the alleged harassers.
Wolff--who friends say considers discussions of Dickinson's sexuality irrelevant--contends that decisions at the school "were being dominated by political views and sexual preferences." Her complaint filed in state court further argues that some of her colleagues--male and female alike--have mistreated her because the "content of her scholarship" did not "comport with their stated political and ideological orientation."
"There's a sense that if you're not exactly where I am in feminism, then you're betraying the cause," says an MIT professor who asked not to be named.
By no means is this the first example of women battling women in a political or legal arena. Women adopted wildly opposing views in the debate over the nomination of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas last summer, and there have been harsh disagreements about the naming of rape victims in press coverage.
But the elite nature of the academic world has tended to keep it safe from scrutiny. Still, says Mary Lefkowitz, a professor of classics at Wellesley College and a friend of Cynthia Griffin Wolff, intellectual skirmishes were probably inevitable.
"It's always true that when there's a common enemy, then everyone is together," Lefkowitz says. But with increased recognition of women in their respective fields, "everyone starts splitting into pieces."
While refusing to comment directly on the lawsuit, MIT Provost Mark S. Wrighton issued a statement that "the concerns raised--collegiality, civility--are serious and of paramount importance in an academic community." No damages have been specified, and no one involved--including Wolff and Perry--would discuss the matter.
Wolff is a highly regarded expert on Dickinson and Edith Wharton. That such a prominent scholar would file such a bitterly worded complaint reflects the level of acrimony among many feminists in academia.
"Suddenly we're not seen as feminists--because we won't politicize the entire spectrum," Lefkowitz says.
She recalls a conference of academic women at which "I thought I was going to be lynched" because "I said there wasn't much evidence that patriarchy was created, that it just happened."
The dispute appears to center around differing interpretations of the meaning of feminism. "Liberal" feminists, such as Wolff and Lefkowitz, say they do not believe a classroom is an appropriate forum for a political agenda. Radical feminists, by contrast, have as a central fulcrum to their approach their political and ideological orientation.
But even that distinction elicits debate.
"I think it would be oversimplification to say that there is one schism," says Marilyn Friedman, a philosophy professor at Washington University in St. Louis. "As among any scholars, there are many disagreements."
Says philosophy professor Sandra Lee Bartky, of the University of Illinois at Chicago, "It's only people on the outside who see feminism as a monolithic phenomenon. When you're on the inside, you see the multitude of views."
Christina Hoff Sommers is a frequent target of venom from the radical feminist camp. She freely acknowledges that she may have invited some of the criticism with her outspoken comments about the scholarly credentials of some of her radical feminist associates, particularly in her own field of philosophy.
Sommers, of Clark University in Worcester, Mass., says her opponents are "ideologues" who believe "there has been a conspiracy against women that is so profound that it is invisible. It is the sexist, capitalist, hetero-patriarchal conspiracy."
Heated exchanges in scholarly journals pit Sommers against detractors who describe her as a right-wing fanatic who espouses the kind of political correctness that, as one critic said, "belongs in the Dartmouth Review."
"She is parasitic," University of Colorado Philosophy Professor Allison M. Jagger said in a Chronicle of Higher Education article early this year. "She is sniping from the sidelines."
But Bartky, of the University of Illinois at Chicago, says Sommers and others in the "liberal" faction are equally intolerant of more radical feminists in the academic community.
"They point to us and say, 'yes, they're Femin-Nazis,' " Bartky says. "That is their dogma, that we want to impose a monolithic view. That's nonsense. That's a fantasy."
Camille Paglia, author of the best-selling book "Sexual Personae" and a professor in the humanities department at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, says the Wolff lawsuit brings to light a longstanding pattern of "absolute suppression of dissident female voices" in universities.
"I'm a feminist, but I'm totally out of sync with this academic Establishment," says Paglia, who has a growing reputation for her biting assessments of the women's movement.
With characteristic bluntness, Paglia blasted women's studies departments as havens for "academic careerists" and "conference groupies" who have been "completely paralyzed by the cronyism of Academe.
"They have an a priori feminist agenda, and like a library stamp, they stamp, stamp, stamp it everywhere," Paglia says. "But no one can criticize them, because if you do, you're anti-woman or anti-feminist."
Jean Bethke Elshtain, a professor of political theory at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee who has been "locking horns with certain brands of feminist argumentation for some time," says she was branded "reactionary and anti-revolutionary" when she wrote about differing strains of feminism in The Nation almost 20 years ago.
Elshtain was teaching at the University of Massachusetts at the time, and says she was treated as "a traitor to some orthodox point of view I didn't even know existed. It led to a very uncomfortable situation for me"--and to a reputation that continues to dog her.
Often described as the "matron saint" of academic feminism, Gerda Lerner refuted the idea that women scholars may have fractured into opposing factions--or that if they have, that fact would be of any cosmic significance.
"If I were to say to you, isn't it terrible that men have this terrible schism within themselves and they don't all hold the same opinion, you would think that I was crazy or stupid--or both," says Lerner, a retired history professor who still maintains her office at the University of Wisconsin.
"It is absolutely preposterous to assume that on any issue, all women would agree, and it is a creation of the media to assume that any departure therefrom is a crisis," she says. "It is a measure of the brainwashing of the population that there is this stupid position that women have one agenda."
Holding women of letters to such an improbable standard, says Lerner, "guarantees us that the women's movement is trivialized and misunderstood. If you can stay cool about the fact that maybe there are two women on opposing sides, then maybe you can say OK, so what?"
But others worry about the consequences of both the Cynthia Griffin Wolff lawsuit and the ongoing contentiousness among academic women.
"I think one of the saddest parts of much of what is going on is the example we are giving to young women," says Elshtain.
She also voiced trepidation about the role of sexual preference in such discussion.
"If you make the whole basis of your politics your sexuality, it winds up being destructive," she says. "It gets narcissistic."