“The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians.”
Broadcaster, father and former minister Pat Robertson perfectly sums up the delusions that facilitate the need for women’s studies. In a world where women are stripped of the right to make decisions regarding their own bodies, nevermind decisions in politics, the economy or the workplace, a field of study entirely dedicated to reclaiming the definition of womanhood and allowing marginalized voices to be heard is crucial. Women’s studies gained popularity in the United States in the mid-seventies, often considered the “academic arm” of the feminist movement. The department experienced global expansion during the remainder of the 20th century.
Over the past decade, many colleges and universities have begun to reconsider the assignment of the title “women’s studies” to the field originally created in response to academia’s disregard for women’s histories, experiences and perspectives. As society’s awareness of the nuances of gender and sexual identities increases, it brings into question the accuracy of the label.
The evolution of the name reflects the field’s increasingly common ground with other areas of study, especially gender and sexuality studies. Women’s studies is an inherently interdisciplinary field and always has been, and yet its strong focus on women as a distinct category had not been publicly disputed until recently.
The reconsideration of the department’s traditional name reflects a growing public acceptance of non-binary differences within our society and humanity as a whole.
No matter how well-intentioned, however, the melding of women’s studies with gender and sexuality studies deemphasizes the importance of all three areas of academics. Their differences are as undeniable as their numerous points of intersection. To combine all of them into one department ensures that fewer resources are available to each section.
Some schools have made the argument that adding “gender” to the name “women’s studies,” or even replacing the word “women” altogether, opens the field to men. Taking the focus away from women in order to allow men to maintain their masculinity while studying non-male experiences, however, is about as necessary and productive as the unfortunate new “meninism” movement. Education has always been more readily available to males than to female or gender queer individuals, and it is an insult to all that women’s studies scholars have achieved to undermine the needs of women in order to accommodate the comfort of men.
Women’s, gender and sexuality studies are each their own domain of intellectual challenge; they inform one another and allow for growth and development within each department, and they can certainly benefit from the sharing of resources and knowledge.
But women are not yet in a place where they can be incorporated with equal representation into other areas of academia. The need for a department dedicated to conversations centered around people who identify as female still exists.Gender and sexuality are, of course, an integral part of women’s studies. However, so are race, class, ability and numerous other facets of identity that could not possibly all be included in the department name. The explicit inclusion of gender and sexuality minimizes the importance of other equally important aspects of women’s studies.
Almost all academic disciplines, especially within humanities, intersect with gender and sexuality studies; history, art and psychology cannot be properly examined without taking into account gender and sexuality. They should undoubtedly be incorporated into each department’s curriculum whether or not they are part of the name.
Erasing women as a group from the department name prolongs a long tradition of the elimination of women from history and culture. Women, historically, tend to be left behind, and therefore it is imperative that they retain a strong presence in the department.
The name “women’s studies” by itself, however, is problematic. It suggests that there is something that unites all women, and limits the reach of feminist discourse. This title ignores the system of oppressions that sexism is a part of, isolating–and therefore weakening–the issue.
It is important to retain the phrase “women’s studies,” regardless of any additional words: the apostrophe is an incredibly significant part of the name, in that it stands for women’s reclamation of their own lost history. It denotes the right of women to their own outlooks, histories and narratives, uniting an oppressed group that society typically attempts to divide and weaken.
By titling the department “women’s and feminist studies,” colleges and universities would encompass both the importance of the experiences of the group of people typically classified as women, and the wide reach of the area of study.
The inclusion of “feminism” in the name implies an intersectional approach to the study of oppressions, acknowledging the interaction of sexism with other oppressions. “Feminist studies” inherently retains the focus on women, but allows for a broader spectrum of perspectives and histories.
It is critical, of course, to study gender and sexuality. The full extent of their complexity cannot be sufficiently explored when they are simply combined with other departments. The creation of a separate department, or departments, for gender and sexuality studies would benefit every field, allowing for a greater extent of interdepartmental study.
Perhaps, instead of decreasing the focus on those who identify as female in order to make room for other areas of study, academic institutions should strive to incorporate a wider range of perspectives and narratives into every department.