Scholar’s blog on ‘feminist fog’ sparks an uproar

A months-old blog post written by a respected medieval scholar, Allen J Frantzen, has gained a second life on social media – and whipped the discipline into a frenzy.

[This is an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, America’s leading higher education publication. It is presented here under an agreement with University World News.]

The post, entitled "How to Fight Your Way Out of the Feminist Fog" and published on Frantzen’s personal website, attacks feminism, alluding repeatedly to "anti-male" propaganda, paints men as victims, and offers advice on how they should "clear the fog". Frantzen retired in 2014, after more than 35 years at Loyola University Chicago.

The post borrows terminology often associated with men’s-rights activism, including encouragement for men to take the "red pill" of reality, not the "blue pill" of illusion, and to break away from the feminist fog. The fog, Frantzen explains, represents how feminism hangs over society – in a "sour mix of victimisation and privilege" – and intimidates men into accepting its perspective.

Medieval scholars have widely condemned the post online as misogynistic, under the hashtag #femfog.

That reaction has also taken the form of blog-post rebuttals, along with lighthearted memes mocking the idea that a feminist fog is gripping society. For many in the small, close-knit field, though, Frantzen’s comments were an unwelcome window back to a time when medieval studies felt less open to women – and a reminder that discrimination persists.

"It’s too easy to take his blog and point out everything that is wrong with it and label him a misogynist and walk away from it like it is a car wreck," said Eileen A Joy, a vocal critic of the post online, in an interview.

Ms Joy, who runs the open-access publisher Punctum Books, said she left the field out of frustration with how her work was being received and how she had been treated as a queer woman. "He was symptomatic of a field that is stunning for its racism, homophobia and misogyny."

‘The standard response’

In an interview with The Chronicle, Frantzen (68) defended his comments, which he said he had posted last summer.

"Anytime you challenge any aspect of feminism… you’re going to hear that you hate women," he said. "I think this is the standard response to anyone that wanders off the reservation… I don’t think they are doing a really great job at responding to my ideas." He also repeatedly asserted that his post wasn’t meant to put women down or claim men are superior, but to build men up and say they should be comfortable enough to develop a critical attitude about feminism.

Frantzen added that he believed people assumed he was a blanket supporter of feminism because he is gay.

"As I used to say to my students in class, as soon as you tell people you’re gay, they’ll tell you what you think," he said. "Just from the fact that I’m gay, people assumed I endorsed all their positions about whatever."

But many of Frantzen’s critics said his record of challenging prejudice in the field made his recent rhetoric surprising. In a blog post, Jeffrey J Cohen, director of the Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute at George Washington University, pointed out that Frantzen had criticised another scholar in 1994 for using the very term "fem-fog".

Within the field, Frantzen is known for his groundbreaking efforts to open up medieval scholarship to work that examined homosexuality – for instance, in his book Before the Closet: Same-sex love from "Beowulf" to "Angels in America" (University of Chicago Press, 1998).

"It was a blow to find out a respected medievalist, whom many people had used in their dissertations and used in their work, could have such a website," Cohen said in an interview.

Other critics questioned what Frantzen’s views had meant, practically, for women in the field.

"How many female PhD students has he supervised? Interviewed for jobs? Listened to their papers? Accepted them onto courses, into conferences?" wrote Lavinia Collins, a novelist influenced by Frantzen, in a blog post.

"Knowing that, all the while, this respected man who has had so much to contribute to the world of scholarship has never viewed women as capable of the same contribution, is immensely sad."

‘We will not stand for this’

Frantzen said he does not believe his comments will deter women from entering medieval studies, citing the increasing number of women enrolling in the humanities nationwide as evidence that women "dominate the field of English".

Still, Cohen said, it’s encouraging that Frantzen’s post has been widely condemned. "As traumatic as it is to find out that somebody can really be writing that kind of stuff that is so terrible against women," he said, "it really mattered that people older in the field so firmly and so forcefully came out against it, to say, ‘This is not the field we’re in, this is not the field we want, we will not stand for this’."

Amid the outrage surrounding Frantzen’s post, some scholars circulated a public statement declaring that a "majority" of Old English scholars were committed to be "welcoming to all others, irrespective of identity".

That attitude is reflected in the field’s changing demographics, said Elaine Treharne, an English professor at Stanford University who shared the public statement on Twitter. "I’ve been in the field for 30 years, and I think the field gets better with every generation," she said. "More welcoming, more open, and with a broader perspective."

Cohen said he had already seen evidence of a changing of the guard.

"There are lots and lots of women that are medievalists," he said. "Honestly, young women medievalists are probably the future of the field at this point because they seem to be doing the most interesting work."