Friday, August 24, 2007

ACLALS 2007 - Dr. Arun Mukherjee...

Starting July 1, English professor Arun Mukherjee will be York's next University Advisor to the President on the Status of Women. Mukherjee succeeds professor of French studies Yvette Bénayoun-Szmidt, whose term ends June 30.

"In some ways I see my appointment as a milestone in my own struggles to work in the intersections of gender with all other forms of oppression, such as race, class, disability, age and sexual orientation," Mukherjee says. "I will be working for all women at York, while paying attention to the double and multiple barriers certain groups of women face because of these other aspects of their identity besides gender."

Mukherjee received her BA and MA from the University of Saugar in her native India. After completing a second MA (because her Indian credentials were not recognized by the University of Toronto) and a PhD in English at the University of Toronto, she taught first at the University of Regina and then the University of Western Ontario before joining York in 1985.

"My aim is not to be faculty-centric but to represent the concerns of all the women of the York community," she adds. The start of Mukherjee's term as Advisor coincides with the starting date of incoming President Lorna Marsden. Although the two haven't yet met, Mukherjee says she is looking forward to meeting with the new president.

Mukherjee "brings to the position of Advisor her dedication to women at York, and her experience in addressing concerns around race in the women's movement. As a scholar and researcher, she has focused on curricular issues related to women, both as part of women's studies and more generally. As well, she focused on employment equity and fair hiring practices," says York President Susan Mann.

"As Advisor, professor Mukherjee will bring her expertise and commitment to the many issues still confronting women in universities. I thank her for agreeing to take on this task and thereby continue York's progress in this area.

"I've been concerned with women's issues since the early 1980s," Mukherjee says. "I read The Women's Room [Summit Books, 1977] by Marilyn French. It was the beginning of consciousness for many women of my age group. I designed a course at the University of Regina around women's lives called "Marriage in English Literature," to think about women's roles in marriage and how literature portrayed these roles. It was the beginning for me to think about these issues."

Mukherjee says she began to educate herself with early feminist classics like Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch (Flamingo, 1970) and Kate Millett's Sexual Politics (Simon & Schuster, 1990). While they awakened her feminist consciousness, she says the feminist movement provided a different kind of awakening for women of colour because the women's movement in the 1980s was dominated by white, middle-class women. "Books like Bell Hooks' Ain't I a woman: black women and feminism (South End Press, 1981) and Angela's Davis' Women, Race And Class (Random House, 1981) were very important in my education," she says.

"White feminists who were preeminent in the second wave movement weren't aware of their racial privilege... Their analysis was that women have been oppressed around the world and can join together in sisterhood," Mukherjee says. "Because they didn't understand their racial privilege, they were oblivious to racism in the society and the particular barriers women of colour suffer from.

"As a result of the interventions by women of colour, many women in the university setting began to feel that the women's movement would go nowhere if it did not seriously respond to women's diversity. Many women of colour, including myself, felt that women studies courses were not responding to our identity, our needs, our oppressions because reading lists were dominated by white writers and theorists. We began to contest that and demand that feminist theory become more diverse and women's studies courses [diversify], too. A lot of my work in that area has been to make people aware of the issues around racism in literature," she adds.

Mukherjee has analyzed the works of canonical women writers such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Kate Chopin. "Those writers in the mid-'80s were being taught in practically all women's studies courses as foremothers newly discovered. My work was to say they were problematic because they were racist. We couldn't teach them or think about them as speaking to all women."

Some white feminists became defensive when they were criticized for ignoring issues that affect women of colour, Mukherjee says. "Nobody likes being called names. Some took it very personally. They didn't think they were consciously racist." Others were more open to the concept of inclusivity. Today attitudes have changed as many women have come to understand the importance of racial, sexual and class diversity to the feminist movement, she adds.

Mukherjee says the fact that the National Action Committee on the Status of Women's past President, Sunera Thobani, and current President, Joan Grant-Cummings, are both women of colour helped bring attention to this issue, but "there is more to do."