In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, many campuses across the United States were relatively quiet while new political ideas were taking shape. The women’s movement was gaining momentum as issues of unequal pay for men and women, unequal access to managerial jobs and other aspects of gender inequality and sex discrimination became national issues. At numerous colleges and universities, this emerging awareness manifested itself with the introduction of women’s studies courses and a major.
When the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) was created in 1977, 319 women’s studies programs, offering courses such as women and economics, feminist texts and psychology of women, were represented. Despite tremendous growth over the years — NWSA currently has 768 member institutions in its database and estimates there are at least another 200 in the United States that are not members — programs and departments are still called upon by institutions to defend their purpose and right to exist.
The reality is women’s studies has become entrenched, although there are certainly still challenges to overcome, and the discipline in 2009 has evolved and broadened its scope to address racial, social justice and, increasingly, sexuality issues.
Once perceived as a major that drew White middle-class and upper-middle-class women, it now holds enormous appeal to women of color. This is perhaps reflective of the expanded areas of study, particularly international issues.
Three types of people are attracted to an undergraduate major in women’s studies, says Dr. David G. Allen, chair of the Women Studies Department at the University of Washington, which offers both undergraduate and graduate programs. The first group of majors are those who have witnessed sexism and misogyny firsthand, either in their own families, on the job or in another setting. They come to women’s studies comfortable with the language of feminism. The second group, he says, may often feel uncomfortable with the very word feminist but have an interest in the lives of women.
“Then there’s another group that comes in because they’re looking for a site in the university that is articulated with social activism,” Allen says. “The form that activism takes isn’t necessarily feminist. It might be homelessness. It might be prison issues. But they’re looking for an academic site that both values and advances a social justice agenda.
“We think that more and more of them are also either coming to or arriving with a set of interests around anti-racism,” he continues. “There’s a second wave of feminism by women of color to consistently link racialization and gender.”
The same appears to be so at the University of Connecticut. “We focus much more on the intersectionality of gender with race, class, sexuality and other inequalities,” says Dr. Manisha Desai, director of the UConn women’s studies program. “The other is the increase in the transnational aspects of women’s studies. My own research is transnational feminism.”
Christine A. Littleton, a professor of law and women’s studies and chair of the women’s studies department at the University of California, Los Angeles, sees incredible diversity in ethnicity and nationality among the women’s studies majors and graduate students at UCLA, but says that may be attributed to the kind of student population that UCLA attracts. Unquestionably, as women’s studies has matured as a field of study, more and more diverse influences have contributed to the discourse.
“Black feminism, Chicano feminism, global feminism, transnational feminism — those have really enriched both the curriculum and our understanding of what counts as women’s studies,” she says. “Unity doesn’t mean uniformity.
“Gender plays out differently in different socioeconomic classes, in different racial communities, in different geographic locations, but it always does make a difference,” she says. “Understanding that gender is always important but it doesn’t always express itself in the same way has made an entire field blossom and grow.”
Dr. Bonnie Thornton Dill, professor and chair of the department of women’s studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, sees a similar trend. “Throughout the field and throughout the research and scholarship in the field, there is more attention to issues of racial, ethnic, sexuality, ability and diversity in the U.S. context as a way of understanding women’s lives in a more complex way,” she says. “There is a sense of a shared yet diverse experience among women in the U.S. context.” When the discussion expands to include women internationally, new areas of inquiry are introduced.
Despite this thriving and cutting-edge atmosphere, women’s studies at UCLA only became a department, as opposed to an interdepartmental degree program, in January 2008 — after three decades.
At most colleges and universities women’s studies is set up as an interdisciplinary major or minor. Some schools have actual departments, but many consider women’s studies a program, which means its access to resources can be limited. Maryland is one of 12 institutions to offer a Ph.D. in women’s studies.
A Place for Sexuality and LGBT Studies?
At Barnard College in New York, which established women’s studies as a department more than 20 years ago, many of the women are oriented toward activism and there are courses that address it.
“Almost every place that some kind of gay and lesbian studies exists, it has been enabled through a women’s studies program,” Jakobsen says.
UConn women’s studies major Cassidy Weyel says she arrived at college anticipating she would major in Italian, but weeks into her freshman year set her focus on women’s studies.
“I discovered that through women’s studies theories and all that work I was doing I fell into a different path,” she notes.
Now a senior, she’s found her focus has shifted toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues. She’s applying to master’s programs in public health with an interest in working with transgender populations.
“I’m currently working on a project with the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, which focuses on violence against LGBT and HIV positive people. I’m going to be conducting, I think it’s the first, needs assessment survey in Connecticut on these issues. I’m going to help them try and expand their anti-violence work into Connecticut.”
Littleton anticipates a deepening and broadening of the women’s studies field. “There is a very interesting debate going on within the field,” she says. “What about sexuality studies, where does it belong? What about LGBT studies? Is that part of our mission or is that a different mission? Those sorts of questions are really creating a new energy and new ferment in the field.”
Thornton Dill says how LGBT studies fits within women’s studies varies between institutions, but it is certainly an increasing area of discussion.
“What women’s studies did was open a whole discourse on the meanings of gender,” she explains. “In that context, a focus on gender and sexuality is an important part of the discourse.”
Returning to the global vision that women’s studies now encompasses, Littleton addresses the idea that women have advanced greatly in the past 30 years. So how does women’s studies remain relevant? Unquestionably there have been considerable advances in the United States, although there is still a long way to go. She says students are eager to discuss the lives of women in Africa, the Balkans and South Asia.
“If you look at the world from women’s perspectives, you see enormous spaces in which there are huge inequalities, but there are different inequalities,” Littleton says. “Our students are hungry for action that they can take. Not just theory that they can study, but actions that they can take. They’re eager to bring those two things together, so there’s not so much gap between what happens inside the university and outside the university.”
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