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Summary Article: Women's Studies
From Encyclopedia of Diversity in Education

Women's studies in the United States emerged as an interdisciplinary field of scholarly study in the 1960s and 1970s. As the field developed, courses and programs helped recover the suppressed or ignored contributions of women in all disciplines, foster and support new scholarly and creative works by and about women, expand understanding of women's diverse experiences across time and location, examine sexed and gendered socialization and systems of oppression, promote attention to the intersectionality of identities, and inform social justice activism. Although women were initially the primary focus, over time women's studies scholars and students have applied feminist theories to a wide range of topics, and engaged in the study of all sexes, genders, sexual orientations, and gender identities and performances. Women's studies faculty support the full development of a diverse student population through the use of inclusive teaching practices and by connecting academic work to cocurricular and community activities. Although the study of sex and gender has become more commonplace, women's studies programs and courses do not always fit easily within academic structures because of the field's interdisciplinary nature and evolving focus.

The Development of Women's Studies

The first women's studies courses were offered at colleges in the United States as an academic outgrowth of the women's liberation movement. College faculty in women's studies facilitated critical examination of women's history, experiences, and contributions with the expectation that doing so would enhance student learning and better inform feminist activism and other efforts to eradicate sex- and gender-based oppression. The passage and enforcement of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 expanded consideration of women's positions within work and school environments, increased the viability of women's studies courses and programs, and supported new scholarship by and about women. As the field developed, faculty and students within women's studies helped to transform the male-centeredness of academic disciplines, canons of great works, and educational institutions in general.

Women's studies scholarship and teaching is grounded in feminist theories that seek to explain oppressive conditions and lead to transformations that foster inclusiveness, equity, and liberation. Women's studies aims not simply to add women to a previously androcentric (male-centered) curriculum, but to change the nature of what is taught and the way knowledge is organized by taking into account the experiences of all members of a society. While generally challenging the notion that women and men are by nature different in their intellect and affect, feminist theories recognize that sexed and gendered socialization can influence ways of knowing and being. Because of this, women's studies faculty and scholars have explored how disciplines change as women and members of other oppressed groups have brought their interests and socially constructed worldviews into the conduct of research and development of theories and disciplinary practices.

A majority of women's studies programs are housed within humanities or social sciences divisions, with affiliated faculty drawn from all sectors of the institution. Rather than centralizing course offerings addressing women, sex, gender, and sexuality in one departmental location, most programs offer a core curriculum supplemented by coursework in disciplines throughout the academy. Core courses often include a generalist introduction to the field, theory and research methods, and coursework addressing the intersections of sex and gender with other identities. Most programs also include an internship, activist project, or similar applied experience to reinforce and maintain connection to the activist and social justice roots of the field. The remainder of course-work typically includes courses cross-listed between women's studies and other academic disciplines, ensuring a diverse, interdisciplinary program of study that is grounded in feminist theories.

At the time of its development, most academic disciplines in the United States privileged works by and about Caucasian, middle-class, heterosexual men. Women's studies challenged this norm by focusing attention on women, and by including course texts from outside the traditional canon of great works so that more diverse women's perspectives and experiences could be studied. As a field of study with a political agenda to enhance understanding of and appreciation for members of a group oppressed by sex, it was also essential to consider differences among and between women so that other forms of oppression obtained the attention due them.

Scholarship in the growing fields of ethnic studies, Jewish studies, men's studies, lesbian and gay studies, queer studies, disability studies, area studies, American studies, cultural studies, postcolonial studies, and transnational studies has greatly influenced women's studies and helped to deepen attention to diversity as part of the women's studies curriculum. Although by no means fully inclusive, women's studies has been a leader in promoting consideration of the intersectionality of identities, the need to recognize the interplay of identities and characteristics when making claims about individuals and groups, and the importance of considering what is included and excluded in the formal and informal curriculum.

As a relatively new field of study within academe, women's studies continues to grow and evolve. Originating in the humanities and social sciences, feminist theories and methods are now applied throughout the disciplines. The examination of the relationships between biological sex and socially constructed concepts of gender, sex, and sexuality has exposed the historical fluidity of identities and the need to avoid essentializing (assuming that a particular identity is inextricably linked to a particular experience). Attempts to globalize or transnationalize the curriculum within women's studies helped expose the limitations of generalizing a Western worldview on sex and gender, and encouraged reflection on the Western bias of curricula and theoretical standpoints.

Reflecting this expanding scope of scholarship on sex, gender, and sexuality, many programs have changed names to women's and gender studies, gender studies, gender and sexuality studies, feminist studies, or sex, gender, and sexuality studies. Such name changes signal a sea change in both the focus of what is studied and the understanding of identity categories overall. For some, the aim of the discipline is the application of a growing range of feminist theories to any subject of study; for others, it is to study only women from a variety of theoretical perspectives; and still others see it as addressing a range of sexed and gendered issues from various perspectives. In each formulation, the work interrogates issues of power, identity, and difference with the goal of creating more inclusive and just conditions. Some are concerned that the field's focus on women, its grounding in feminist theory, and its link to activism are being diluted by a change from women's studies to these other program names/foci. Others believe that a change can allow the core aspects of women's studies to be maintained while creating more opportunities for courses and scholarship to address subjects and theories related to sex, gender, and sexual orientation.


Women's studies programs exist at over 650 post-secondary institutions in the United States, with many more colleges and high schools offering women's studies courses outside of a coordinated program. Although first established in the United States, courses and degree programs are increasingly available in academic institutions throughout the globe.

The U.S.-based National Women's Studies Association (NWSA) reported in 2007 that approximately 45% of programs offer an undergraduate major, while over 85% offer an undergraduate minor or certificate. Less than 7% of women's studies programs offer a master's degree, and less than 2% offer a doctorate. In 2007, enrollments in women's studies undergraduate courses totaled nearly 89,000 students, with an additional 2,600 enrolled in graduate courses. The NWSA also reported that over 2,000 students earned a minor, and over 1,474 students earned an undergraduate major in women's studies during the 2005-2006 academic year. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), in the United States in 2008, more than 1,250 bachelor's degrees, 160 master's degrees, and 24 doctorates were earned in women's studies.

While less than 5% of the students majoring in women's studies are male, the sex distribution of students enrolled in women's studies courses is less uneven because more than 80% of programs offer courses that count toward undergraduate general education requirements, with 72% of women's studies programs offering a course that satisfies a diversity or multicultural requirement. The faculty teaching women's studies are predominantly female, although programs that incorporate queer, gay, lesbian, transgender, and masculinity/men's issues in the curriculum are more likely to include faculty of all sexes. In 2007, NWSA reported that approximately 30% of women's studies faculty identified as faculty members of color, which was approximately 12% higher than the national average (17.2%) for academic programs in that year.

Feminist Pedagogy

“Feminist pedagogy” has long been recognized as the signature method of teaching within women's studies. Feminist pedagogies are especially concerned with promoting critical thinking, engaging students as coconstructors of knowledge, linking course content to personal experiences, incorporating a variety of types of texts within the curriculum, and applying what is learned to real-world settings. While the practice of feminist pedagogy may include activities and aims that resemble constructivist and liberatory pedagogies, what distinguishes feminist pedagogies is a theoretical grounding in feminist theories that seek to promote gender justice and social change, challenge oppressions, and empower students to improve their own lives and the lives of others. Feminist pedagogies are therefore openly political in nature, and can be engaged in regardless of course content.

When women's studies first developed, engaging students as co-learners and incorporating students' lived experiences into courses were uncommon in U.S. higher education. The standard mode of teaching within colleges and universities was the lecture method, with few opportunities for interaction among students and with faculty. New research on learning and communication styles demonstrated that females and members of ethnic minority groups were often disadvantaged in this type of learning environment, and the inclusive, learning-centered teaching style of feminist pedagogy was an intentional means to enhance student learning and a sense of belonging in the college classroom. The diversity of viewpoints and topics studied in the women's studies classroom was enhanced by the inclusion of writing and creative works from outside mainstream academic sources and connections to personal and community experiences.

Women's Studies Outside the Classroom

Although the primary focus of women's studies is within the curriculum, the social justice and emancipatory aims of the field lead to impacts outside of the classroom as well. The growth of women's studies programs supported the growth of women's centers on college campuses, and collaborations between these curricular and cocurricular programs have improved the campus climate for the sexes on college campuses. By addressing such issues as violence against women, sexual harassment, equity in admissions and hiring, nondiscrimination in academic and cocurricular programs, and reproductive justice, the educational and social programming helps signal to students that campuses seek to promote safety and inclusion and are positioned to assist those who need support or who wish to engage in anti-oppression activism.

See also

Black Women's Studies, Ethnic Studies in Higher Education, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Issues in Higher Education, Social Construction of Gender

Further Readings
  • Belenky, M. F.; Clinchy, B. M.; Goldberger, N. R.; Tarule, J. M.(1986). Women's ways of knowing: The development of self, voice, and mind. New York: Basic Books.
  • Berkin, C.,Appel, C., &Pinch, J. (Eds.).(2006). Exploring women's studies: Looking forward, looking back. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.
  • Boxer, M. J.(1998). When women ask the questions: Creating women's studies in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Davis, K.,Evans, M., &Lorber, J. (Eds.).(2006). Handbook of gender and women's studies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Ginsberg, A. E. (Ed.).(2008). The evolution of American women's studies: Reflections on triumphs, controversies, and change. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Hull, G. T.,Scott, P. B., &Smith, B. (Eds.).(1982). All the women are White, all the Blacks are men, but some of us are brave: Black women's studies. Albany, NY: Feminist Press.
  • Kennedy, E. L., &Beins, A. (Eds.).(2005). Women's studies for the future: Foundations, interrogations, politics. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
  • Maher, F. A.; Tetreault, M. K. T.(2001). The feminist classroom: Dynamics of gender, race, and privilege. Lanham, MD: Roman & Littlefield.
  • Wiegman, R. (Ed.).(2002). Women's studies on its own. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
  • Eudey, Betsy
    Copyright © 2012 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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