eflections on the Conditions for a Feminist Politics of Knowledge

Paola Melchiori



In this paper I draw some reflections from the experience of the Free University of Women in Milan, Italy. Through this experience it was possible to clarify some of the main issues at stake in feminist knowledge production and pedagogy such as: the relationship between women’s and feminist culture, the knowledge production processes which occur among women, their epistemology, and the kind of scientific rigor of such a body of knowledge. These issues are particularly important from the perspective of teaching and transmitting feminism to a new generation of women.


Culture is not a way to attain emancipation, but it is a precise answer to intellectual, existential and vital needs. Culture is a tool for research concerning life, a ‘‘quality’’ of life, not a ‘‘quantity’’ to be possessed.

The aim of our research is not only to reinstate female presence in various disciplines, but to investigate the meaning of the fantastic and real man/woman, masculine/feminine, relationship, which lies at the origin and shapes any kind of knowledge, finding out which transformations a female subject brings into them. (Melchiori, 1986)

This is the opening ‘‘manifesto’’ of an institution created by a handful of women, in Milan, Italy, which will soon reach its 20th birthday. The text was written at its foundation, in 1986, after 10 years of experimenting with different possible institutional forms. This independent organization was called the ‘‘Free University of Women.’’ The women who founded the Free University were feminists, some of them university professors, particularly interested in what I would call, today, a feminist politics of knowledge. All of them had been involved, at various levels, in research and action around the issue of how the culture of resistance of an oppressed group can become an autonomous culture, able not only to demystify the ideology of a culture and a science with their pretended goals of objectivity, rationality, and universality, but also to move toward a new conception of science and culture.

This background and their feminist intellectual practice led them to invent space autonomous from the academy. The autonomy of this space, the absence of negotiations with bureaucracy, the freedom of thinking outside the frameworks allowed an exploration and a clear identification, if not solution, of the main issues at stake in feminist knowledge production and pedagogy.

THE ‘‘150 HOURS’’

The ‘‘150 Hours’’ is the name that was given to a contractual improvement gained by Italian auto and steel workers in 1973, a time when Italian unions were led by a radical generation of workers and joined by many intellectuals.

The employers had to pay for 150 hours every three years for cultural and learning activities undertaken by each of their employees, who would add the same amount of hours from their free time. The ‘‘150 hours’’ clause was quickly adopted in other industrial sectors, and later extended to the unemployed and adults in general, which brought many women, first workers, then housewives and the unemployed, to the courses. All the unions decided to give priority to remedial programs for older workers who had never had access to schooling, followed by wider programs aimed at granting all workers a high school diploma.

The State was then asked to recognize such independent programs as ‘‘public school.’’ During the same period, some unions organized independent ‘‘university’’ seminars and training sessions for top representatives of labor, political, and cultural groups. The political thrust and strength, that had made the ‘‘150 hours’’ possible, also pushed the public administration to agree to offer teachers and logistical support to host workers’ evening programs in public schools and universities and, at the same time, to recognize the best intellectuals chosen by unions and social movements as trainers of all the teachers. In three years 100,000 metallurgic workers went back to public schools with programs designed by Marxist and leftist intellectuals.

Although the secondary school phase was more problematic owing to the complexity of redesigning the curricula and the resistance from the State to recognize the programs, at this higher level the experiment was huge, very different from the adult schooling promoted in the Anglo-Saxon tradition.

It was an experiment managed directly by the unions, the workers’ cultural vanguards together with some intellectuals. They had taken responsibility for learning objectives, methods, and for negotiating the recognition of their programs with state authorities. The choice of curricula, the composition of the student body and teaching faculty amounted to a true political and cultural experiment. Pupils consisted of blue-collar vanguards who had led the 1968 struggles together with the students, and the teachers were these same students who were coming back en mass to help and learn from their blue-collar allies.

This experiment was an attempt by the lower classes at reclaiming and modifying culture. The attempt was sustained by a rich Gramscian tradition, by the debate surrounding Brazil’s Paulo Freire’s exile to Geneva, but above all by the questioning of the Marxist tradition that occurred in those years, through a rereading of Lucaks, Rosa Luxembourg, and other intellectuals.

These writers were rethinking the formation of a class conscience and a concept of political avant-garde in a different way than the classic Marxist tradition, for example. The main question at stake was what possibility this political vanguard had, entering the world of culture, to rethink its meaning, its neutrality, its production processes, its capacity to really afford the creation of a different culture and science.

The general objectives, as mentioned in the programs were for strengthening collective control over labor conditions and production processes, reclaiming school education without capitulating to outdated standards, questioning school’s social function and neutrality, and defining the intellectual’s role in relation to blue-collar and lower classes. The intention was to avoid oversimplifications and to select the best of the cultural tradition, reinterpreting bourgeois culture, and locating its usefulness from the point of view of alternative social and historical positions. This needed a collective effort from different positions.

The workers’ avant-gardes, the Trade Unions who had got this space, needed intellectuals to collaborate. A space opened up for an unusual collaboration between students and political leaders, each interested in the political meaning of culture, science and education. Academics, intellectual leaders within the unions, popular adult educators, and researchers joined in many centralized and decentralized groups of discussion and curricula planning at national and local levels. Such a process of collective reflection appealed not only to independent intellectuals, teachers, and students, but also to traditional academics. They opened the doors of their institutes to blue-collar workers, invited unionists to lecture in their universities, and put into question the goals and the social power of their knowledge.

The debate, the teaching and the programs focused on how to form an ‘‘alternative social consciousness.’’ A whole series of more specific questions were raised: What kind of relationship should be established with middleclass culture – acquisition, refusal, critique? How to go about building knowledge and historical truths while maintaining and showing awareness of partiality and non-neutrality? How does class-consciousness develop?

What are the linkages between experience and its symbolization, between action and reflection? What is the role of teachers, of the full-time intellectual, of the cultural organizer? What is the relationship among social struggles, the changes that such struggles produce, and the cultural interpretations of these transformations?

For years, classes were busy reading and debating the classics of the political Marxist tradition for the light they could shed on the formation of ideology. At that time, it was not uncommon for students and workers to read together the works of Marx, Sartre, Lukacs, Merleau-Ponty, Marcuse, Fanon, and others.

The influence of Paulo Freire meant that much attention was given to the individual experiences of the people attending courses. Oral histories, reallife anecdotes, the experiences of immigrants and factory workers were told in the first person, collected into texts, worked through with the intent of supporting research on how life experience combines with conscience production and knowledge production, to the point that they could even ch’ange the content of formal academic subjects and redesign their disciplinary boundaries and epistemological tools. On the other side, some formalized disciplines were used largely to offer new insights to unravel the cultural patterns and meanings lying behind different life experiences.

In the best cases, from these interrelations, new fields, interdisciplinarily reframed, were created. The best results were reached when strong intellectuals of certain disciplines became available and were curious to rethink their own foundation paradigms from these perspectives. In a renewed tie, formed among social processes, political action, and different forms of cultural analysis and knowledge, a political stand simultaneously questioned ideology, the neutrality of science, and the constitution of disciplines, in an attempt to find a new rigor and epistemology. Many intellectuals attempted to bring the outcomes of these independent and alternative experiences into academia and took the movement as their most important basis for theorizing.

We will see later how this attitude also strongly influenced feminist ideas on how to set ‘‘women’s and feminist studies’’ inside the universities.


The results of this experiment presented many surprises. School classes slowly formed into ‘‘free ports’’ where both cultural norms and politically correct behaviors were put on hold. Listening passionately and investigatine individual stories rather than studying abstract ideology became paramount.

In this process, however, the mythology of abstract conceptions like ‘‘class’’ was progressively replaced by the real histories of people, and reallife experiences, apart from ideology. This meant that the homogeneity of the ‘‘class culture’’ began breaking down into differences and conflicts, the real confrontation of what we would call today, many ‘‘situated knowledges.’’ 

‘‘Vanguards’’ become ‘‘people’’ filled with contradictory desires oscillating between ‘‘integration’’ and ‘‘revolution.’’ The distance between the idealization of the working class and the complex existence of real workers became evident. Also evident was the ‘‘internalization of the oppressor.’’

Teachers were almost disappointed because they were expecting to find ‘‘the leadership of the working class.’’ They found it difficult to manage the complexity and uneasiness of dealing with contradictory and conflicting individualities marked by an internal struggle between the values of the oppressed and of the oppressor. The complexity of individual subjectivities fragmented the compactness of ‘‘the idea.’’

When ‘‘class consciousness’’ was left free to express itself without the constraints of political correctness, it displayed all its convoluted complexity.

An analysis of a deeper oppression having to do with the subjectivity of the individual members of the working class started to enter Marxist analysis.

Frantz Fanon, Marcuse, Laing, Foucault, and what was then called the antiauthoritarian psychoanalytic movement, led by the psychoanalyst Elvio Fachinelli and by Lea Melandri, who would be one of founders of the Italian feminist movement. Melandri contributed greatly to the analysis of the subjectivity and the formation of the culture of a class that is at the same time culturally colonized and yet in a position to demystify the ideological constructions of the dominant sciences and culture.


The title of this paragraph, above, is the heading of the class journal given by the women who joined the courses during those years, mainly housewives.

Following the first wave of auto and steel workers, women started taking up courses; women workers, but mostly home workers, nurses, unemployed women, migrant women, lately, brought different voices to the working class. What happened was that at the end of each course, male workers usually went back to their occupations, while women did not want to leave the classes. They kept coming back, even to repeat the same course.

The voices of illiterate, working and popular classes of women started entering the space of a public school. It was estimated that 2,000 women came back to school in the first three years.

For the women, the courses proved to be places of discovery of ‘‘another possible life;’’ they could give voice to their solitudes, consciousness and lifeexperiences, free from cultural and political norms. A space, a social public haven, was provided in which it was possible to talk in the first person about women’s experiences about unspoken suffering, suffering that was considered worthy of study. The collective sharing of this life-based knowledge became, literally, a condition for survival.

Feminist teachers immediately reached these spaces where ‘‘normal women’’ were speaking to each other, raising consciousness, studying all kinds of books voraciously, learning to express themselves, and giving feminism the voices of women who feminism feared it would never reach. ‘‘Ordinary’’ women brought to the table a wealth of experiences and reflections on the relationship between life and knowledge, between women’s culture and feminist culture.

Women’s philosophy was formed at night, washing dishes, ironing shirts, tiding things up when everybody is asleep. It was formed, they said, ‘‘when everyone is gone, and our kids stop bringing us dirty laundry,’’ when the purpose of ‘‘service’’ in our lives becomes most apparent and ‘‘emptiness knocks at the door of our conscience.’’ It was at this juncture that women discovered a ‘‘desire for knowledge of the world’’ which was also a desire for ‘‘knowledge of the self.’’ Little by little the courses were literally invaded by women, mostly housewives, ‘‘more dust in our houses, less dust on our brains.’’

Women’s real presence changed the terms of the intellectual and political debate as the consciousness raising methodology of feminists was added to the mix of Marxist and Gramscian traditions, and psychoanalysis moreover, after the initial enthusiasm, the increase in the number of women joining the courses awakened a growing intolerance from the unions. They were ‘‘disturbed’’ by women’s methodology and themes. The combination of these factors with the attempt of Italian feminism to enlarge its reach while keeping all its autonomy led to a separation of the women’s courses from the unions and to the start of independent cultural organizations which later became the ‘‘Free University of Women.’’


The years between 1976 and 1980 coincided with a second feminist wave. In this wave feminists were looking for more contact with women of different experiences, classes, and history. The ‘‘cloistered’’ period of strict self-actualization was followed by attempts to make the feminist movement more visible in society. A pedagogical setting was identified as the right space to continue the work started in consciousness raising groups, a space to analyze the problems of power that were starting to appear in the ideal world of sisterhood and the particular kind of authority that was, at the same time, dominating the groups and putting them in crisis. It was considered that any political practice where what is supposed to be transmitted is not only knowledge, but a certain kind of ‘‘consciousness,’’ has a more or less visibile pedagogical implication made of the interconnection between an authority coming from ‘‘the experience of life,’’ and an authority coming from a more classic knowledge base.

The space of ‘‘150 hours’’ was ideal for developing a work of this kind. Some of the ‘‘150 hours’’ course teachers were already feminists; others joined the movement, attracted by the power of women whose great wisdom was matched only by their great lack of formal acculturation.

It is important to note that Italian feminism, along with the political and cultural background mentioned above, was strongly permeated by Marxist culture and was born as a separation and differentiation from the left. What in the United States was called the debate on the feminist standpoint, with-out its later post-structuralist component, took place very early in Italy.

With two characteristics: a strong anti-institutional approach including the idea of trying to influence the academic world with its own principles and rules, and the identification of psychoanalytic thinking as a tool particularly important to understand the specific oppression of women.

The first meant that the prevailing idea, inherited also by women’s studies, was not to enter the academic world but to dismantle the structure of a selfpretended neutral knowledge and science, from the outside, from the perspective and the strengths of the social movements and their organic intellectuals, deepening the Marxian critique of ideology. According to Marxian analysis of ideology, revisited through Gramsci and Lucaks, the idea was that a really rigorous and creative knowledge could only be produced by intellectuals coming from a class whose position in economy and society was able to unmask the lies of a false ideology. Academics, freed by the need to strictly follow disciplinary and academic rules, conceived as organic intellectuals, were welcome to collaborate in this deconstruction and reconstruction process.

The second meant that, in this framework, Italian feminism, deepening the analysis of the material basis of women’s oppression and trying to illuminate all the aspects of power and patriarchy, incorporating psychoanalytic tools into the analysis of patriarchy, and the critique of its ideology, invented a ‘‘special version’’ of consciousness raising, called the ‘‘practice of the unconsciousness.’’ The name was meant to combine a traditional consciousness raising practice, taking as its basis the narrative of every single woman, with a particular use of psychoanalysis, enacted in the ‘‘women’s group.’’ The underlying hypothesis was that the group eliminates the physical presence of men, which is what impedes women from thinking of themselves from themselves.

As the psychoanalyst Manuela Fraire writes:

One of the elements that hinders the possibility for women to produce not only their own culture but also a critical perspective on the existent one, is men’s physical presence. The co-presence of men and women does not allow the women to think of themselves. They answer a command so old as to be confused with the instinct leading to the fact that, where the man is present, he represents the organizing mind and rationality, while women are inevitably pushed to impersonate the body and instinctuality. (Fraire, 1989, p. 128, Melchiori transl.)

In this ‘‘primary scenery’’ of patriarchy, women are obliged to represent the continuity of existence while men can act the dreams of an immortal and non-embodied mind. Out of the existence given to them by the male presence, paradoxically, the pervasiveness of its imaginary presence becomes even more evident but can be kept at a distance, can be analyzed.

This primitive scenery of patriarchy becomes accessible to elaboration and change only by this combination of material absence and imaginary presence. In this situation the ‘‘group of women’’ does not guarantee any difference per se.

However, making visible the obstacles women meet in thinking about reality and about themselves in a re-composition of mind and body, trying to give voice to their own experience in their own way, they can detect the misogyny that inhabits their intellectual world, show which fears, complicities and seductions have to be elaborated, and thus become subjects and producers of an autonomous culture. ‘‘The group of women’’ allows the permanence of this standpoint, through women’s collective presence and, making available to women a different imagination about themselves, legitimating different linkages between body and mind, and making possible a different knowledge production process.

The evocation of motherhood is, in this sense, the possibility of making alive again, recalling in a lived emotional experience, the presence of the first element which constitutes every personal subjectivity: the mirroring eye of a mother/woman. The re-composition of mind and body, made possible by a women’s group, by a valorized mother’s eye, evokes however a work to be done, a project for the future, not an already available inheritance of the past. The recuperation of what was called a ‘‘feminine mediation’’ toward the world, through a mother figure, is necessary, but dangerous and ambivalent.

In order to understand the complex and contradictory dynamics of women’s groups oscillating among strong sisterhood, strong rivalries, and deadly personal competition, the specificity of a new mother/daughter relationship with all its discoveries, ambiguities and ambivalences, had to be taken into consideration.

The combination of Marxist critique of ideology and psychoanalysis, used in consciousness raising groups, is, in my opinion, the most original and interesting trait of Italian feminism. Among other things, it prompted many academics to rethink their cultural formation and try what was called a ‘‘wild’’ interdisciplinary approach, a ‘‘stealing’’ of bits and pieces of various disciplines, recombining them according to a different logic, and thereby undoing the path that had led them to acculturation.

A new hierarchy of knowledge emerged during these processes, so different from the usual one, that one could easily remember group meetings where the academics and even the professional analysts were rethinking and silently accepting the guidance of ‘‘natural feminist leaders’’ who were recognized as able to weave a different set of connections between events and knowledge, using different disciplinary approaches, making visible new linkages and meanings which would have been meaningless in any traditional academic context. In that environment the recognized authority was that of those who were able to keep together the dualities that patriarchal culture has created, who were able to create new meanings incorporatine lived experience and knowledge, and who were creating an ‘‘embodied mind.’’ The roots of this authority were complex, a combination of consciousness, life experiences, wisdom, critical rethinking about knowledge, and its production processes from a point of view able to ‘‘see through’’ them, unveiling the critical silences that constitute them. Not an ‘‘only women’’ knowledge but a critical women’s eye on knowledge, an eye not immune to patriarchy, but able to detect its own complicity and, only from that consciousness, able to build new knowledge.


The independent organization that was created at this point was called the ‘‘Free University of Women.’’ ‘‘Free’’ being used here according to the German ‘‘Freie Universitat’’ model, an autonomous university born in Berlin in the 1960s, in the midst of the student movements, where the freedom referred both to difference from traditional knowledge and also to reclaiming of a conceptual rigor as valid as the academic one.

The idea was to give words and memory to women’s subjectivity and experiences, contrasting them with academic cultures and disciplines in order to rethink knowledge production, its system, and its epistemology. It was implied that the teachers were feminists, researching and teaching women the methodology of feminist research, more than its results, thereby questioning the structure and process of knowledge production in the various disciplines. It was seen as crucial that the collaboration of different women and feminists not be absorbed by academic mechanisms and by the strength of the academic organization of knowledge. The presence of ‘‘ordinary’’ women was seen as a guarantee for not losing touch with women’s culture as the real basis for feminist knowledge.

The strong collaboration between women and feminists came out of the fact that many feminist teachers had found a deeper self-involvement with women during the experiences of the ‘‘150 hours.’’ Teaching women a knowledge that was at the same time an enemy and an object of love, a knowledge not made for women and by women, going back to and openly facing the price paid to enter any field of knowledge, in the presence of almost illiterate women pupils, led to unforeseen results. Women not acculturated, were and are, implacable memories of a feminine identity, living memory of what one had to cut, to abandon, in the exercise of learning and accepting the rules and the secrets of patriarchal knowledge. These women were revealing to feminists the secret misogyny still embedded in their own intellectual activity and knowledge.

More specific hypotheses about the relationship between women and culture started to appear. Feminists had to question their own love for their chosen disciplines, asking themselves to what extent culture was used to mask their belonging to their gender, somehow guaranteeing them a neutral identity. The structure and goals of culture were questioned from the point of view of women’s real-life experiences and from the point of view of nonelite cultures as well as from the point of view of the meaning of intellectual activities in relation to sexuality.

A pedagogical setting was an ideal space to analyze all these issues in slow motion. It was a protected setting, like a laboratory, where it was possible to observe the making of a knowledge process for an individual woman starting from its very beginning. Here the kind of questions that life experiences pose to a knowledge system and to different disciplines, and also the interplay of differences among women as sources of power and potential conflict could be seen. Because in a formally recognized pedagogical setting the power of the historically cumulated differences, of culture and of class, are explicitly declared, and because the borders between teachers and pupils can be explicitly made the objects of analysis, observation can be made of how the intellectual power and the social power implied in these differences operates to affect the ideal sorority of women working together in a common project.

Throughout this experience, identities and differences among women apparently cut through ‘‘quantities’’ of culture, literacy, wealth, and class, which inevitably create a hierarchy of values, and start to redesign themselves in unexpected ways. Various overlapping scenarios of a process of knowledge production and transmission reenacted themselves under new perspectives.


A course or class of women is first of all an environment. It can be described as a complex forum crossed by a variety of currents and tensions giving place to a force-field where many levels play and appear at the same time.

How does a woman enter the knowledge production process from her own body and not have to forget her own sexual identity? This is the process to be observed. It means unfolding the minute steps of how the intermittencies of the body link with the work of symbolization, how intellectual activities are symbolized in relation to sexuality, how abstractions and generalizations are made, how basic paradigms for judgment and further knowing are constructed.

More analytically, we can observe:

_ the meaning of cultural activities in the personal emotional balance of women. The relationship between learning, its contents and its tools, its activities, such as writing/ speaking/ reading: what I would call the emotional economy of knowledge;

_ the secret animation of knowledge, that is, the secret life of disciplinary thinking as a whole system and as a single discipline;

_ the interrogation that the chaos of experience poses to the structure of knowledge itself, to its founding paradigms, and the implication in terms of the relationship between reality and the abstractions necessary to knowledge; and

_ finally, the interplay of differences among women in terms of the kinds of power that emerge among women and in the building of the fabric of a women’s society. These include the differences of social condition, cultural history, time constraints, age, life situations, and emotional attachments.

Often, young and single women find themselves leading older women with children and families along their cultural journey. Today older women have to transmit to younger women their knowledge and experience.

These elements are important in a scenario, which willing or not, evoke maternal and filial roles that continually give additional and side meanings to the process of learning.


What needs to be understood first is the purpose of cultural activity in the formation of any female subjectivity. The central goal in women’s quest is not pure knowledge. It is always related to a quest for life. Cultural acquisition is the stated goal of education and courses, but it occurs inside a relationship so involving that it cannot be displaced by the objects of culture.

Intellectual work cannot be separated from emotional ties. Teaching and learning among women allows a kind of restarting of the process under different conditions, without first having to repeat the splitting of body and mind.

The first striking event, in terms of emotional setting, is the reawakening of desire, a ‘‘sparkly feeling.’’ As one woman defined it, like an awakening.

What is waking up is the opening of the possibility to access reality with a less painful symbolization process. It is the suspension of a sentence, the reopening of a story with a different possible end, the tying back of old threads. What is interesting is the fact that this feeling is shared by teachers and pupils. The renewed tie to which I am referring is that between women’s drives and the will for knowledge. The shadow usually cast by women’s traditionally passive response to their own desires, mind, and body is blown away. Action goes back to its neutral point, before the polarization of characters fixes individual features into stereotypical historical identities.

The mere presence of another woman evokes the possibility of easing the split between mind and body as the precondition of access to the world of knowledge. This is the split responsible for setting the original contraposition between mind and body against each other, replicating countless times the sexual dualism of ‘‘opposite’’ or, what is the same for women’s destiny, its ‘‘complementary.’’

If ‘‘the man/woman relationship is the most fundamental locus of all unequal relationships,’’ and if this relationship has ‘‘crept and multiplied in the deepest strata of consciousness and society,’’ (Balandier, 1989, p. 83)  then the slightest intentional movement of symbolism makes it remerge in its defining elements. A whole pattern which had remained submerged comes to the surface. Teachers and students produce knowledge, but as the presence of women’s bodies is unavoidable, they have to question themselves about the relationship between their knowledge and their sexual identities.

A pupil is a receiver of a knowledge not created by and for women while the teacher is the mediator of it. Knowledge is not ‘‘gendered’’ by changing the gender of its mediator, but in this presence, a double process takes place.

On one hand, students/women can approach knowledge and learn under the understanding eye of other women, now seeing their gender as the legitimate subject of knowledge and thought. On the other, teachers ‘‘unlearn’’ their knowledge.

If a feminist is supposed to have clarity about the meaning of the process which is going on, she is not immune from the process. The feminist presence is the guarantee of a different possibility for women; they witness the possibility of learning without sacrificing their own gender. But the process involves teachers as well because what is at stake is the whole meaning of the intellectual activity for a female subject. Therefore, from different positions, both teachers and students go through similar experiences. Women’s presence reactivates for teachers’ dormant memories, reconnecting with the emotional pathways, which lead women both to (new) modes of thought and to new relationships with different thought modes.

The act of teaching women gets charged with all the cultural messages relating to women, femininity, female, body and its equivalent, and in the process such messages become entrenched. Women who are learning evoke the cumbersome weight of the female body, its resistance to the mind, but they also guarantee that the female figure will not disappear in the process.

An original often forgotten process of re-enactment occurs, a process through which teachers can re-live and re-look through the deep meaning of their own cultural history in relation to their gender is re-enacted. They can see the unfolding of their own process of symbolization, the approaching of their intellectual activities and the deep reasons for the emergence of a passion for a certain subject or a certain discipline. How do the activities of the mind unfold in relation to the sexual polarities and the body: Subjugation? Control? Revenge? Oblivion? And which feelings, emotions, in relation to which imagination of femininity and sexuality?

This thinking in presence with other feminine subjectivities, in reality and in the imaginary, creates a collective ‘‘gendered eye’’ which is more than the addition of the individual women. This collective eye, embodied by real and imaginary presences, takes a stance outside patriarchal parameters; sets a process which allows, promotes, and legitimates new links between emotions, thoughts, and phenomena; and gives meaning to ideas and processes that would not have any meaning in other contexts. This is what was at stake in consciousness raising. The possibility of doing this together consciously and explicitly, with a more refined and focused process of consciousness raising about cultural and intellectual activities, is what Italian feminist psychoanalyst, Manuela Fraire, called, during a conversation, a ‘‘conscious raising of second degree.’’ Here feminist consciousness is important; it means the capacity to understand the process, and possibly to readdress it.

Many ‘‘women’s studies’’ programs that were developed in the early years, before the ‘‘gender studies’’ took over, inside the universities, rested on the same premises: opening up to the ‘‘pressure exercised by oscure lives,’’ identifying the purpose of knowledge, and of possible applications of culture from the point of view of women. We could wonder today, what was subsequently lost of this attempt to re-compose life and knowledge, bodies and minds.


The legitimization of different questions, of certain modes of intellectual operating has consequences. It modifies the structure of knowledge production processes, their epistemology, their contents, and the kinds of questions that give origin to a certain kind of research. It opens up to the second scenery.

It appears clear, in analyzing the reactions to different disciplines, that every discipline has a secret existence. Women’s voices that had been excluded or hidden in the making of the basic paradigms of a discipline reappear as secretly involved in the formation of any knowledge, as the phantasmic object behind a man thinker. It is like opening up the boundaries of the knowledge field to its subconscious images, the images men had in mind when creating knowledge. This results in an interrogation into the quality of the subject/object relationship at the core of every knowledge production.

Here again feminist work is important as it is able to give meaning to the developments of the processes of teaching and learning, reintroducing and making visible the critical passages, implied but hidden, showing embedded assumptions, undeclared omissions, supposed logic, or ‘‘natural’’ deductions.

In general, this means making visible some hidden part of the ‘‘icebergs’’ that form the corpus of science and knowledge.

During classes it seemed that women instinctively reacted to something behind the content of a particular discipline, producing reactions, symptoms, body language. Trying to give meaning to these reactions, other feminists were called in to be observers and gather, and analyze the ‘‘symptoms’’ of uneasiness, restlessness or excitement surfacing during class activities, and idiosyncrasies expressed toward academic subjects, so that it was possible to clarify their meaning and unearth cultural artifacts buried deep inside the history of knowledge.

And it was like the re-enactment of the mythical relation between a man and his sexualized intellectual objects, leading to the foundation of the processes of knowledge, staged right in front of the observers’ eyes. Just as in consciousness-raising groups, the absence of the male body allowed women to experience the lingering power of a ‘‘ghostly’’ male presence, analyzing its internalization, in the same way knowledge, ‘‘filtered’’ through women’s reactions, did not cancel the male imprint, it put it ‘‘on hold,’’ under a certain kind of scrutiny. This scrutiny makes evident on one hand the male basic image secretly carried inside any discipline and on the other the particular relationship that all teachers entertain with their own field of knowledge, the emotional economy of knowledge. Giving words to women’s and teachers’ feelings in reaction to every discipline, the original metaphors become alive again.

In order to better explain what I mean, I refer to Fox Keller’s (1986) work on the language of science. Fox Keller identifies the basic metaphors with which science explains reality through examining the diaries and private images of scientists, illuminating the core issues, and the hidden questions scientists were attempting to answer with their research. She uncovers the drive for knowledge and its ties to the drive for power over the female body as founding the basic scientific metaphors. In the basic paradigms, those concepts that allow other concepts to be formed, the female body is seen as something ‘‘to be penetrated in order to reveal its innermost secrets,’’ or something to ‘‘comprehend and embrace,’’ something to be fully unveiled and investigated (Fox Keller, 1986, pp. 51–52).

In the story of Barbara McClintock, the eccentric biologist who first identified the DNA structure, Fox Keller (1983) makes clear how women scientists, in order to really accept and fully appropriate any language, are caught between self-recognition and alienation. Because to participate fully in it, they have to ‘‘share its fundamental metaphors,’’ and, if a woman’s self is represented as ‘‘inert matter,’’ ‘‘blind and passive nature,’’ then as soon as she starts producing knowledge, she must accept an immediate and total devaluation of her gender identity. Women may try to live in a state of selfalienation, constantly deluded about their own identity, but at what price?

Many personal lives of women who were also intellectual creators, can be read in this perspective.

At the Free University our work with uneducated women was impressive in this sense, showing clearly how a hidden perception of these metaphors is always at work. In parallel, the experience of the teacher showed the price paid to move effortlessly within the parameters of any knowledge. Today the situation is different because a new generation has access to a culture partially revisited by women. But what about these hidden metaphors? And what happens now that women teachers can be more easily seen as subjects of knowledge?

The act of teaching to and learning by women reawakens ancient mores buried deep inside memory. I call this ‘‘crossed maternity’’ to describe the relationship between women teachers and women students. If the teacher is, for the student, the passport to a knowledge that does not deny women’s worth, the lack of academic knowledge of the women pupils, generally combined with wisdom on life, is a guarantee that it is impossible to forget the women, impossible to enter the world of knowledge accepting unconsciously its founding metaphors and their content in terms of women being despised.


The third aspect of this process is the kind of abstraction and generalization mainly used by women. In epistemological terms, the relationships, lifeculture, and subjectivity-experience-knowledge have not yet received a clear mandate. The interrogation ultimately focuses on the crucial passage between the chaos of life and the orderly nature of thought. It aims at revealing what has been removed from the act of thinking and why. It aims at disclosing the extent to which such a removal has to do with the existence of sexual duality.

The French philosopher Simone Weil worked on this problem through her work on the role of analogy. Against the Aristotelian epistemology, she preferred analogies because at the same time ‘‘they preserve reality in its original terms’’ and ‘‘always oblige to rethink’’ (Weil, 1982, p. 147). With the same motivation, other feminists in the 1970s focused on metonymic thought in contraposition to metaphoric thought, because the latter still allows some presence of the real object which is symbolized in language.

Looking at women’s courses, at the way they treat disciplines, a systematic ‘‘contamination’’ of levels and different disciplinary fields, takes place.

Analogies are randomly thrown around without respecting the division of knowledge into its traditional fields. Such analogies contest and shuffle languages around, stacking them in new ways, and creating new meanings.

Sometimes they are really chaotic, sometimes it becomes clear that the chaos is due to the fact that they are organized around other perspectives. If we look at the process of rejection that took place not only against women such as McClintock, but also against men such as Gregory Bateson, we see that one of the reasons for the rejection of their theories is the fact that they are formulated in a way that academic tradition does not recognize, outside classic disciplinary fields, using unusual visualizations or different modes of proceeding in the intellectual work or asking different questions than the ones allowed in the scientific tradition. Even before the solutions, the basic questions are unacceptable.

Again using one example among many others, through the intellectual history of Barbara McClintock, Fox Keller has shown McClintock’s eccentricity lay in the way she formulated her questions and in their peculiar purposefulness, rather than in the results. Those ways of putting the questions were meaningless to her colleagues in the academy. One of her key elements is the prominence given to the observation of ‘‘individual objects’’ without immediately trying for a generalization. Looked at from a classic standpoint, some of these conceptual contaminations can be seen as mere chaos. This chaos is the process of building a different embodied knowledge.

I used the term ‘‘wild knowledge’’ to define this attempt to use existent knowledge without obeying to its parameters, stealing from it and deformino it in order to achieve other objectives and visions of reality. This perspective revolves around the concept of a subject who interrogates knowledge, from the point of view of other priorities, asking questions, which call for different answers.

Here again the interplay between feminists and women culture is important.

The role of a feminist is to see and give meaning to what happens. Even more, it is important to defend a process too often threatened by selfdestruction, because of the shadow cast by a whole tradition of patriarchal knowledge against these sometimes awkward attempts.

One is led to think that what is necessary to teach to women, is more the study of the operative modes of knowledge, than the issues of ‘‘women’s studies’’ themselves. Sometimes such modes are difficult to work through even for those of us who are feminists, rooted as they are in the deep misogyny of intellectual world. It is a misogyny that even feminists cannot sometimes detect, a misogyny alive even in the very act of carrying out women’s studies courses. It is sometimes difficult to remember the slow motion of our own domestication embedded in the same apprehension of the tools for our own liberation, the prices paid, and the reasons for its failures. Women pupils immediately and mercilessly perceive this relationship tying the teacher with her knowledge. Such women act as mirrors, revealing at once the teachers’ subjugation to tradition, their acceptance of culture as an act against themselves and their efforts to get out of this. How many live the mastering of knowledge as a relief from a fastidious female identity, an act of neutralization of gender. It would be interesting to research if and how, among the current third or fourth wave of young feminists who now work and study in a framework marked by women and feminist thought, this has changed and what form it has taken.


There is a fourth aspect for observation in this laboratory. It has to do with the aspect of the social fabric among women, its strengths and its fragilities.

In our experience women from diverse cultural and academic backgrounds joined forces to carry out a project of research whose challenge was to combine research on women’s knowledge with the political practice of bringing together women from a wide array of cultures and hierarchical positions. Their diversity can be measured both in terms of the variety of women’s academic passions and in terms of where, in a hierarchical scale, such passions fit and overlap with other differences having to do with class, social and economic possibilities, and with all the power that comes from money, class, and knowledge.

The observation of dynamics was very instructive and unexpected. As I said before, meeting knowledge is a form of entering a public space, the world. What happens in this situation is very similar to what happens when women approach a public space where they find themselves torn between two different faithfulnesses: the one to their sex and the one to the sex which is setting the rules of the game. In this world, the edge between transgression and inauthenticity is even clearer. It is a common experience to observe lacerations among women who rapidly break the early dreams of sisterhood.

How to explain the gap between the strength of the awakening and the quick accumulation of shadows in women’s groups? Analyzing the behaviors of teachers and pupils we can observe a parallel and mirroring characteristic. I have called this a process of ‘‘crossed maternity,’’ making the hypothesis that learning in these conditions means being legitimated by a mother figure and, vice versa, that teaching in this context makes it impossibile to cancel the mother figure. The interplay and the importance of this aspect cannot be underestimated, mostly in an intergenerational perspective.

How does it play, today, in our attempt to pass on feminism and knowledge revisited through feminism to the new generation?

Behind the exhilaration caused by women’s reunification lurks another scenario that still needs to be elaborated, with all the shadows of the primari relationships. The ambivalence running through mother/daughter relationships, the question of the quality of the maternal power appears in a pre-oedipal scenario, before the oedipal solutions. This primitive scenario helps us understand why women’s common journey is charged not only with happiness but also with violence. Fatigue, anger, and greediness surface.

Behind the trust awarded to other women surfaces anger for a ‘‘breast that will never give enough nourishment,’’ a dependency and a desire to detach oneself. Receiving, knowledge in this case, is accompanied by desire and envy. Giving and teaching evoke being depredated. All the problems caused by strong idealization processes occur, making it difficult for women to appreciate and accept real, non-idealized, different women. Control, whose purpose is to prevent both detachment and women’s rivalry, emerges.

Mother and child constantly switch camps and roles: women’s mutual mothering causes fatigue. Fatigue is also caused by always trying to impersonate a powerful being for the benefit of others. The limits set by this powerful being are experienced with fear and rancor. Coaching other women brings back childhood feelings of unmediated affection. Hopes, requests, nourishment are then absolutely mutual and mirror-like, even if they are not always distinguishable.

It seems almost impossible, even in the most intellectual scenery, to get rid of this primitive scenario organized around the impossible mother–daughter relationship. This relationship demands to be examined and interpreted in its duplicity, because it refers to a crucial point today. Which kind of motherhood is active between old feminists and the new generation of feminists, the young ones? Which ‘‘crossed difficult motherhood’’ are we experiencing from both sides? Behind ‘‘teaching’’ or ‘‘passing on’’ feminism there is a secret layer of crossed maternity, of reciprocal requests, of images of childhood and motherhood that are secretly happening, occurring and working throughout our meeting each other in an intergenerational setting.

Giving them words and reciprocal communication is the only way to continue feminist transmission as a research project.



Balandier, G. (1985). Anthropologiques. Paris: Librarie Generale Francaise.

Fox Keller, E. (1983). A feeling for the organism: The life and work of Barbara McClintock. New York: W.H. Freeman.

Fox Keller, E. (1986). Il Genere e la Scienza. Milan: Garzani.

Fraire, M. (1989). Una pratica per una politica. In: C. Cotti & F. Molfino (Eds), L’apprendimento dell’incertezza (pp. 126–136). Roma: Centro Cultrale Virginia Woolf.

Melchiori, P. (1986). (Available from Paola Melchiori, Via Lancers Novara 22, 31100, Treviso, Italy.)