Women's studies, gender studies and feminist studies are terms used to describe areas of academic study relating to the social rights and roles of men and women. Research, teaching and activist/advocacy work are done in these fields in a variety of disciplines, and some universities have departments devoted to them, usually under the title of women's or gender studies.
Women's studies, also known as feminist studies, came out of the changes brought about by the feminist movement of the 1960s. The feminist movement raised awareness about the inequalities women faced in Western society, including such factors as lower wages, discriminatory laws and reduced access to education and other opportunities. Notions of men and masculinity were used as a standard of normality around which society was based, setting up women as inferior others. With the increased awareness of such bias, academic feminists also began to point out the extent to which women and women's issues were excluded from university studies and from the content of curricula. Women's accomplishments and their roles in history were rarely acknowledged in humanities classrooms; scientific research was based on men and men's health needs; and female students often had trouble gaining recognition for their academic accomplishments. Female students were generally encouraged to study in areas deemed appropriate for women, fields like the humanities and nursing, because of the prevailing belief that most of the women would be focusing on marriage and motherhood after college, rather than on careers. Female teachers, as well, were often limited in academia to the lowest-level professorial jobs and were frequently passed over for promotions and research funding. Feminist teachers and students, therefore, sought a way to make women a legitimate and valued part of the education system.
In order to do this, courses focusing on women started to be taught in the 1960s, eventually leading to the creation of the first official Women's Studies Department in the United States at San Diego State University in 1970. Later the same year, Cornell University became the second American school to authorise a department. Prior to receiving approval for a department at San Diego State, faculty had to teach women's studies classes on a voluntary overload basis, a situation that was also happening at other institutions. Taking on extra teaching duties was necessary because of the difficulty in convincing university administrators that women's studies was an important and justifiable teaching area. Officials were reluctant to dedicate university resources to the field and had to be shown that there was enough interest on the part of students. Women's studies programmes were being similarly developed in Europe, particularly in Britain, and in Australia and Canada. In England, the first women's studies courses were taught at the University of North London, in Australia at Adelaide and Flinders Universities, and in Canada at the University of British Columbia. Over the last thirty years women's studies programmes have expanded to many other parts of the world.
The development of women's studies programmes started off slowly, with schools first offering related courses; then some beginning to develop undergraduate certificates and minors, majors and eventually graduate degrees. As the field grew, women's studies periodicals started being published, such as Feminist Studies (1972), Women's Studies (1972), Radical Teacher (1975), Frontiers (1975), Hecate (1975), Al-Raida (1976), Feminist Review (1979), Signs (1980), Australian Feminist Studies (1985) and the Nordic Journal of Women's Studies. Since the 1990s, journals in the field have increased exponentially, in terms of both subject matter and geographic origins. Some examples include the Journal of South Asian Women Studies (1995), the Asian Journal of Women's Studies (1995), Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women's Studies and Gender Issues (1998) and the Journal of Cultural and African Women Studies (2000). Hundreds of professional organisations have also been established. Some of the prominent ones include the National Women's Studies Association in the United States (www.nwsa.org), formed in 1977, the Institute for Women's Studies in the Arab World, in 1973, the Feminist and Women's Studies Association in the United Kingdom (www.fwsa.org.uk), the Australian Women's Studies Association in 1989, the New Zealand Women's Studies Association in 1984 (www.womenz.org/wsa/journal.htm), the Worldwide Organisation for Women's Studies, in 1996 (www.fss.uu.nl/wows/start.html) and Women's International Studies Europe, in 1990 (http://www.wise.medinstgenderstudies.org/).
Women's studies helped to initiate widespread academic changes both in what is taught and in how universities include and encourage women. Issues of women and gender are now addressed, in varying degrees, in almost every discipline. In literary studies, for example, work by feminist scholars has brought about the recovery of many forgotten women's texts. As well, the rewriting of literary and other histories to recognise women's cultural contributions has given many female students more confidence in their own abilities. Women's studies forced the remembering of many who had been forgotten or dismissed by history.
Significantly, the dialogues of remembering and revaluing both sexes that were opened by women's studies led to expanded dialogues on differences based on factors such as ‘race’ and ethnicity, religion, nationality, sexual orientation and gender. However, it is important to note that these dialogues often came about through cultural moments of great tension similar to those producing and produced by the women's movement. Initially the project of women's studies was to acknowledge women's place in society and to analyse and redress systems of sexual inequality. However, the strategies used to combat inequalities sometimes involved essentialising women and femininity. What came to represent the essence of womanhood was often based on white, heterosexual women. In the late 1970s, women's studies and the feminist movements were criticised for focusing primarily on the needs and concerns of these white, heterosexual women and setting them up as a norm for femininity. Black and lesbian scholars and activists pointed out the ways in which this essentialisation excluded them from much of the discourse surrounding feminism. Their courage helped to diversify the field of women's studies. International feminists have also built on their ideas since that time to reprove the overemphasis on women of North America and Europe and the assumptions made by women in these areas about women and their roles in the rest of the world.
As women's studies and women's rights organisations have been formed around the world, women in Asia, Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe and other marginalised areas have been better able to express their own needs and adapt women's studies towards them. In these areas educational work is often intrinsically tied to community advocacy work.
So beyond gender inequality, therefore, women's studies has delved into disparities based in many other factors. The field has, for the most part, moved away from essentialised or overly simplistic ideas about women and men to value instead the differences within and between genders and to look at the ways in which those differences are often used as a rationale for oppression. Furthermore, a crucial part of what women's studies has accomplished is to give women a voice, or a place of power in society from which to speak and be recognised despite their differences from dominant ideals.
A popular misconception about women's studies is that it ignores men or that it is antimen. This idea has grown out of a backlash against feminism, part of the reason that the label of women's studies has been more popular than feminist studies, as a means of protecting the field from the backlash. Men have always been a factor in women's studies, though women have generally been foregrounded as a counterbalance to the historically routine emphasis on men in academia. One of the key goals of women's studies has been to create a system that balances the needs of men and women, rather than privileging one over the other. A stereotype of man-hating feminists wanting to dominate men nevertheless persists, which has caused women's studies to be viewed with suspicion by some. It has been condemned by some people as being too political or too woman-centred. The tolerance for and encouragement of multiple perspectives in the field also make it difficult to unify women's studies scholars because they have different beliefs and are focusing on many different causes. As well, the diversity and interdisciplinary basis of women's studies make the field difficult to define easily and render it vulnerable to simplistic misunderstandings about its purposes. The stigma attached to the field has limited its potential for growth at some schools and has kept some students, including many men, away from studying it. Despite the stigma, increasing numbers of courageous men have enrolled in women's studies.
Some critics have responded to the contentiousness of women's studies by calling for and developing men's studies programmes. Notions of men's studies have come out of two opposing beliefs. On one side, some argue for men's studies because of their mistrust of or discomfort with women's studies and its ideas of female empowerment. They suggest that there is a need to counteract feminist voices that they deem too influential. On the other side, others argue that having formal men's studies programmes will allow for a productive space of dialogue with women's studies because both would be able to look at the construction of men and women in society. This side of the men's studies debate sees value in what feminism has done for women and wants to develop further that potential for social change involving men. Still others reject the term men's studies as colonising and suggesting a false complementary, arguing instead for ‘Critical Studies of Men’.
One of the more popular and recent developments in the field to reduce the misconceptions about women's studies is the move towards the label of gender studies. Some schools have changed the names of their women's studies programmes, while others developing new programmes have chosen to take the newer name. Gender studies focuses on the social construction of masculine and feminine roles in society and the effects of such roles on individual and collective development. The term ‘gender studies’ has become increasingly popular for a number of reasons. Some scholars believe that it is a more accurate title than women's studies, because women are not studied exclusively or in isolation from men. Another argument for the term ‘gender’ is that it moves beyond the limiting categories of male/female, feminine/masculine, man/woman, which exclude people who cannot be classified in those ways, such as transgender persons. It also reflects a belief that the field is no longer as singularly focused on sexual inequality as it started out to be. In addition, the word ‘gender’ is, in some people's minds, even further removed from the word ‘feminist’, a distance that would give greater protection from the backlash against feminism.
Critics against the adoption of gender studies over women's studies argue that the trend may lead to a re-erasure of women in the curriculum and that the project of balancing the sexual and gender roles in academia and society is not yet done. With the persistence of sexual inequality, they suggest, the need for acknowledging women still exists.
The debate over the names of women's studies versus gender studies is unlikely to be resolved nationally or internationally, but rather it is decided by individual schools based on the needs of their student populations and on university and community pressures. There are feminists and non-feminists on both sides of the debate and powerful arguments can be made for the use of either term.
Regardless of the label used, work is now being done in women's and gender studies at universities around the world, and hundreds of schools now have formal programmes in these areas.
See also: academia; masculinity politics; men's practices, individual and collective; methods, methodology and research
Feminist and Women's Association in the United Kingdom, homepage at www.fwsa.org.uk
Institute for Women's Studies in the Arab World, homepage at www.lau.edu.lb/centers-institutes/iwsaw/programs.html
National Women's Studies Association, homepage at www.nwsa.org
New Zealand Women's Studies Association, homepage at www.womenz.org/wsa/journal.htm
Women's International Studies Europe, homepage at http://www.wise.medinstgenderstudies.org/
Worldwide Organisation for Women's Studies, homepage at www.fss.uu.nl/wows/start.html
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