Women's Studies

views updated Jun 08 2018


In its short history (from the late 1960s in the United States) women's studies has moved around the world as an idea, a concept, a practice, and finally a field or Fach (German for specialty or field). As late as 1982 in Germany Frauenstudium was not considered a Fach and therefore could not be studied in the university but only in special or summer courses. By the early twentieth century women's studies was recognized in higher education from India to Indonesia, from the United States to Uganda, China to Canada, Austria to Australia, England to Egypt, South Africa to South Korea>WOMEN'S STUDIES. In its short history (from the late 1960s in the United States) women's studies has moved around the world as an idea, a concept, a practice, and finally a field or Fach (German for specialty or field). As late as 1982 in Germany Frauenstudium was not considered a Fach and therefore could not be studied in the university but only in special or summer courses. By the early twentieth century women's studies was recognized in higher education from India to Indonesia, from the United States to Uganda, China to Canada, Austria to Australia, England to Egypt, South Africa to South Korea.


Women's studies is the study of women and gender in every field. Its basic premise is that traditional education is based on a study of menusually upper-class, Caucasian, educated menwhile other groups of men and all different groups of women are erroneously subsumed under the category "mankind." Early on courses drew especially on history, literature, and sociology, but they quickly expanded to the other humanities (philosophy, religious studies, comparative literature, art, music) and the social sciences (anthropology, political science, economics, psychology, geography). Science and technology have been slower to embrace women's studies, but biology, math, technology, computer science, chemistry, physics, and medicine have all begun to examine their assumptions for sexist bias, and courses in "gender and physics," "women geologists," or "sexism and science" are de rigueur in most programs.

Over the years the term itself and the naming of the enterprise have been contested and changing. The first name was "female studies," but "women's studies" quickly found more adherents. The name "women's studies" has been criticized for its ambiguous apostrophe (the study of or by women?), for its (supposed) assumption that all women can be studied together, and for its "hegemonic narrowness" that does not take into account transgendered or lesbian identities. Some programs have changed their names to "gender studies," "women and gender studies," or "feminist studies." And of course in the exporting of "women's studies" around the world, various languages are unable to translate "gender" or "women's studies" in satisfactory ways. It is safe to say, however, that all permutations share some commonalitiesthat women matter and that their own assessment of their experiences is the starting point for description and analysis; that the history of women's subordination is differently experienced but commonly shared; that the elimination of that subordination is a common goal. The concept of gender as a social construction that reflects and determines differences in power and opportunity is employed as the primary analytic category.


Women's studies, as a concept and a site of learning, really began with the second wave of the women's movement in the late 1960s. But generations of work and information gathering preceded that time, particularly in the nineteenth-century penchant for writing stories of "great women" and gathering them in collections of "women worthies." A later, more democratic strain of the study of women was begun by the historian Mary Beard, who in her 1946 volume Woman as Force in History took a different tack. If one looks at "long history," one finds not "great women" only but everyday women, not women as victims but women who influenced their worlds, women who had agency, even within the confines of a limited sphere, within the private realm. Simone de Beauvoir wrote of women as "other" in The Second Sex (1953), while Betty Friedan analyzed "the problem that has no name," the malaise and victimization of middle-class women, in The Feminine Mystique (1963), and Helen Hacker compared women's position to that of minorities (1951). Yet all these important precursors did not initiate women's studies.

It took a combination of the civil rights movement, the New Left, the peace movement (especially the protests against the war in Vietnam), and the various open university movements in the 1960s to help women coalesce and organize themselves into the women's liberation movement. Many more women were attending colleges and universities, many women were participating in the radical youth movements of the 1960s, and many women students and faculty were leaders in the civil rights and antiwar movements. It was thus almost inevitable that women would begin to question their role in those movements if they always had to make the coffee, do the typing, and be available as sex objects. Stokely Carmichael of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) famously said, "The only position of women in the movement is prone," infuriating many young women. The second wave of the women's movement began with hundreds of small consciousness-raising (CR) groups in many cities and towns; as women collectively started to understand and then study their situation, they initiated courses and classes on women's history, literature, and culture, first on a community, ad hoc basis but quickly moving to the college classroom. There were hundreds of women's studies courses offered at colleges and universities in the United States in the late 1960s, and by 1970 formal women's studies programs were launched, first at San Diego State University inCalifornia and then at Cornell University in New York. Every year after that saw an increase, from 276 programs in 1976 to 680 in 1999. Most of these programs offered minors, certificates, concentrations, or majors. A Campus Trends report for the American Council on Education in 1984 found that women's studies courses were offered at a majority of four-year colleges and universities and at 25 percent of community colleges; there are more now. Women's studies at the beginning of the twenty-first century enrolled the largest number of students of any interdisciplinary field. The Department of Education estimates that 12 percent of all undergraduate students in the United States have received credit for a women's studies course. But the growth in formal programs does not tell the whole story; many more students enroll in separate courses than choose to major or minor in the field.

Growth and Institutionalization

Because American educational institutions, especially newer, less-traditional ones, are very flexible in curricular change, women's studies grew and expanded in the United States more quickly than anywhere else. But very soon there were women's studies programs in Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Finland, Sweden, India, South Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines. By the 1980s there were programs in all countries in Western Europe, plus Thailand, South Africa, China, the Caribbean, and Uganda. Finally, after the change from communism in Eastern Europe, programs were instituted in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Russia, Ukraine, and others, in addition to Malaysia, Vietnam, and other African nations. Two series of international conferences gave impetus to the growth of women's studies, both within universities and in community-based organizations worldwide. The International Interdisciplinary Congress on Women began in Haifa, Israel, in 1981 and has met every three years sincein the Netherlands (1984), in Ireland (1987), in New York (1990), in Costa Rica (1993), in Australia (1996), in Norway (1999), in Uganda (2002), and in South Korea (2005). Two to three thousand delegates, mostly women, both academics and community organizers, attend to present their work. Each conference draws especially on that continent's practitioners. Thus the Costa Rica conference brought together many indigenous women from Central America as well as Latin American delegates. Languages that year were Spanish, English, and a variety of Indio languages. That this congress continues to meet, without governmental or formal organizational support, is testimony to the personal importance to women all over the world of global scholarship on women.

The United Nations has sponsored four international conferences as a part of its "Decade for Women," in Mexico City (1975), Copenhagen (1980), Nairobi (1985), and Beijing (1995). The nongovernmental organizations (NGO) forums held in conjunction with each conference brought together thousands of activists and women's studies groups from all over the world, thus reminding those from the developed world of the connections between education and broader social justice issues.

Research and Publication

Scholarly journals in women's studies were begun in the United States early on (1972 for Feminist Studies; 1975 for Signs: A Journal of Women in Culture and Society; but not until 1988 for the National Women's Studies Association Journal ), and soon there were journals published around the world. In 1999 an informal International Network of Women's Studies Journals (now the Feminist Journals Network) was formed, meeting first in Tromso, Norway, then in Halifax, Canada, in 2001 and in Kampala, Uganda, in 2002. Thirty editors from twenty-seven journals in twenty-one countries were represented in the membership in the early twenty-first century. Joint publishing projects, including a book series by Zed Press, reprinting of articles from journals in the "economic south" (developing nations) by journals in the "economic north" (industrialized nations, mostly in the north but including Australia), a Web site, and a listserv to make members aware of current issues are all part of their work.

Ellen Messer-Davidow surveyed the number of books and scholarly monographs available in English between 1980 and 1998 and estimated that 10,200 feminist books were published during that period. As she says, the print knowledge is so voluminous that scholars cannot keep track, much less read it all. And the topics are superabundant: "everything and anything is gendered, gendering is narrated, quantified, or modeled, and 'gender' as an analytical category is interrogated" (Messer-Davidow, p. 167).

Theories and Assumptions

Even though some practitioners of women's studies disavow any attempt to theorize universally about women or women's studies, most others will subscribe to a discussion of the following kinds of theories. Women's studies course material depends largely on various feminist theories, although these assumptions may not always be made explicit. Most feminist theories can be divided into two basic kinds, based on the answer to the question: How important is the physiological or biological difference between males and females? Put another way: What should one make of the sex-gender difference? Should this difference be noted and positively valued for its unique perspective? Or should it be downplayed in a system that recognizes the common humanity of men and women and attempts to unite women with institutions from which they have historically been excluded? These two basic strains of feminist theory have been variously called equality feminism and difference feminism, minimizer feminism and maximizer feminism, or individualist feminism and relational feminism. In each case, the first term includes those who seek to deemphasize difference and press for the integration of women into masculine institutions, usually emphasizing the individual; the second term includes those who seek to stress and value difference, to transform or abandon masculine systems, often emphasizing the relational qualities of women, especially in regard to children and extended families.

The term sex-gender is used here to refer to the biological and social difference between males and females. In the early days, the two words were used separately and distinctly. Sex meant the physiological difference between male and female, while gender meant the social overlay of education and socialization, constructed differently in different eras and societies. The two terms have become conflated in everyday speech, and many use gender where sex would have been used earlier. For many theorists, both terms are constructedthat is, the particular culture gives its own meaning to sex and gender. Additionally, we now have much more research and experience with transgendered individuals, such that the binary of male-female is problematic at best. Any particular "sex-gender system" is of course an artifact of a particular historical time and place. Still, the two major types continue to be a useful way of understanding the various forms of the theories that underlie women's studies.

Each one of the two major types of feminist theories includes several subtypes, from conservative to radical, from positions that imply few changes in the status quo to ones in which the whole society is altered by the shift in women's status and conceptualization. It is useful to envision the positionsminimizers and maximizers of differenceon two lines that move from the more conservative to the more radical, from right to left. The most conservative feminist position on both continua is that view of women that offers a rationale for the present structure of society. The most radical position offers a call for a future society totally transformed either by the extreme of making males and females no longer different physiologically (for example, by the abolition of female reproductive capacities) or, for the maximizers, the extreme of totally separating the two sexesphysically, geographically, and socially. Beyond the conservative feminist pole, one finds reactionary positions: for the maximizers, various sociobiologist positions; for the minimizers, the position that fails to recognize that human rights may be an issue. This latter view is based on an unstated assumption that might be expressed thus: "We are all alike; we all stand in the position of white privileged males; we all have equal rights."

The minimizers.

Along the "minimizers" continuum, one moves first from the "human rights" position to "women's rights," the stance of various reformist groups and theorists that advocate granting equal rights to women in all areas by working within existing political systems. This nineteenth-century egalitarian position of the first women's rights activists, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, is also known as liberal feminism. It is the point of view of John Stuart Mill in his important work The Subjection of Women (1869) and that of Mary Wollstonecraft in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). The stance is found most conspicuously in the early twenty-first century in views of the U.S. National Organization for Women (NOW).

Gerda Lerner

Gerda Lerner could be called "the mother of us all," that phrase used by Gertrude Stein in her opera about Susan B. Anthony. An American historian by training, Gerda Lerner's biography exhibits the uniqueness of her life and work. Born and educated through secondary school in Austria, she came to the United States as a part of the Jewish exodus after the 1938 Anschluss that brought Nazi power to Austria, first as a part of a nearly phony marriage that enabled her to gain a visa. As a young wife and mother in Los Angeles and then in New York through the war years and the early days of the Cold War, Lerner organized for such groups as the Congress of American Women. Her (second) husband, Carl Lerner, was a screenwriter, editor, and filmmaker. Both were involved in various leftist activities for years. After the war she began writing fiction and taking courses at the New School for Social Research in New York in 1948. Gerda Lerner quickly earned first her B.A. at the New School and then her M.A. and Ph.D. at Columbia University, using her biography of the Grimké sisters of South Carolina as her Ph.D. dissertation. As a "returning student" in the years before that was a recognized category, Lerner had to persuade the authorities at Columbia to let her study women's history, not an acceptable field in the early 1960s. Beginning the women's studies program at Sarah Lawrence College (and one of the first graduate programs in women's history), Lerner proceeded to teach, write, and lecture around the country, penning several classic volumes in women's studies: Black Women in White America (1972), The Majority Finds Its Past (1979), and her two-volume magnum opus, The Creation of Patriarchy (1986) and The Creation of Feminist Consciousness (1993). In 1982, after the death of her husband, she moved to the University of Wisconsin to found the Ph.D. program in women's history. Her autobiography of her early years, Fireweed: A Political Autobiography, was published in 2002.

Next along the continuum are various types of socialist feminists: those who advocate the primacy of socialist revolution, those who advocate wages for housework and other solutions to equate being a housewife (or a househusband) with working outside the home, and others who attempt to make new syntheses of feminist questions and socialist or Marxist answers that begin with an economic analysis. Historically the socialist position on women is stated most dogmatically by Friedrich Engels in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884), but many other theorists have used economics and class as a starting point. This approach is illustrated by Sheila Rowbotham's influential Women, Resistance, and Revolution (1972); Juliet Mitchell's four interlocking female structures (production, the reproduction of children, sexuality, and the socialization of children) in Woman's Estate (1971); and Zillah Eisenstein's grid pattern for understanding sex and class in concert in Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism (1979). What has come to be called "state feminism" in Europe, especially in the Nordic countries, fits into this position. A women's or equality minister is a part of the government, and socialist solutions to women's traditional inequality are made a part of the law.

The next position on the minimizer continuum is one that advocates the sharing of traditional gender characteristics. In order to remedy the psychosocial tyranny that oppresses both men and women, exclusive female parenting that produced "momism" (as well as the fear and hatred of women) must be ended, these feminists argue. This gender difference is a cultural product, not an inherent biological distinction. The psychologists Nancy Chodorow, in The Reproduction of Mothering (1978), and Dorothy Dinnerstein, in The Mermaid and the Minotaur (1976), both weigh in with this view, although in different ways. Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Women and Economics (1898) is an early work with this perspective. Traditional masculine (and valued) characteristics had been mistakenly monopolized by one sex, she believed, while the "feminine" virtues also needed to be shared.

Those who want to abolish gender distinctions completely, creating a gender-free (but not sexless) society, are next on the continuum. Males and females are more similar to each other than either is to any other species, these theorists claim. The anthropologist Gayle Rubin proposed this view in her influential article "The Traffic in Women: Notes on the Political Economy of Sex" (1975). Simone de Beauvoir's renowned Le deuxième sexe (1949; The Second Sex, 1953) can be read as arguing this point as well. Her goal is for women to become the independent, "transcendent" human beings that men have always had the choice of becoming. Ursula Le Guin's fictional The Left Hand of Darkness (1977) posits an androgynous society in which people belong to a particular sex for only a few days a month; for most of the time they function androgynously in both physical and psychological ways.

The extreme pole of the minimizer position is represented by those intensely controversial thinkers who want to abolish not only gender and sex roles but also female reproduction (including conception, pregnancy, and birth) or at least their exclusive ownership by women. Gilman wrote one of the first explorations of such a society. Her fictional Herland (1915) envisioned a female-only culture where women conceive by parthenogenesis (without male sperm). In the more recent past, both theorists, such as Shulamith Firestone in The Dialectic of Sex (1970), and feminist science-fiction writers, such as Marge Piercy in Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), have advocated the abolition of exclusive female reproduction. Many believe that reproductive technology, with its artificial fertilization and implantation of a fertilized egg, is close to making this a reality. The film Junior (1994), in which Arnold Schwarzenegger's character becomes pregnant, explores this fantasy in a humorous manner.

Women have been left out of history not because of the evil conspiracies of men in general or male historians in particular, but because we have considered history only in male-centered terms. We have missed women and their activities, because we have asked questions of history which are inappropriate to women. To rectify this and to light up areas of historical darkness we must, for a time, focus on a woman-centered inquiry, considering the possibility of the existence of a female culture within the general culture shared by men and women. History must include an account of the female experience over time and should include the development of feminist consciousness as an essential aspect of women's past. This is the primary task of women's history. The central question it raises is: What would history be like if it were seen through the eyes of women and ordered by values they define?

What is needed is a new universal history, a holistic history which will be a synthesis of traditional history and women's history. It will be based on close comparative study of given periods in which the historical experiences of men are compared with those of women, their interactions being as much the subject of study as their differences and tensions. Only after a series of such detailed studies has been done and their concepts have entered into the general culture can we hope to find the parameters by which to define the new universal history. But this much can be said already: Only a history based on the recognition that women have always been essential to the making of history and that men and women are the measure of significance, will be truly a universal history.

source: Gerda Lerner, The Majority Finds Its Past, pp. 178, 180.

The maximizers.

All feminists on the maximizer continuum are interested in seeking out, recognizing, and valuing sex-gender difference, especially as it relates to women. Women's specific talents and unique ways of contributing plead for their having a larger role in society. A bumper sticker reading "A Woman's Place is in the Houseand in the Senate" uses this maximizer or difference argument, as does one that says "Clean Up PoliticsElect Women."

One notes first the historical "separate spheres" positionthat women and men inhabit different physical places in society (private and public) and have different roles, virtues, aptitudes, sensibilities, and "ways of knowing." The nineteenth century saw the first clear use of the separate-spheres philosophy to help ameliorate women's position, in such thinkers as Catharine Beecher and Frances Willard. Later Jane Addams, in Newer Ideals of Peace (1907), enunciated the "municipal housekeeping" argument for giving women the vote: women should manage the household, but if they were to do this well, they must be concerned with clean water, pure milk, garbage disposal, and safe streets and parks for their children. They must therefore participate in municipal government by voting and standing for office. People promoting separate spheres in the twenty-first century include conservative women on the New Right and fundamentalist Christians.

The next group on the continuum wants to glorify the "feminine," wherever it may be found, often in writings of male poets. Sometimes identified as postmodern feminists, many of these thinkers are French or influenced by Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and other French deconstructionists. Opposed to binary oppositions such as male-female, these feminists wish to assert multiple modes of being and gender. Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva are important writers here, as are Jane Gallop, Joan Scott, and Teresa de Lauretis in the United States and Toril Moi and Gayatri Spivak internationally. Additionally these thinkers would be opposed to the very idea of the two continua, since they often assert that neither "woman" nor "man" can be defined.

Cultural feminists and maternalists occupy a middle position on the maximizer continuum. Cultural feminists celebrate women's spirituality, art, music, and writing, especially in women's bookstores, cafés, theater groups, galleries, holiday centers, and support groups. Both the feminist art movement and the women's music movement, with its annual festivals, have been important in articulating these viewpoints. The maternalists cherish motherhood as the source of woman's difference and superiority. Both practical groupslesbian parenting, natural and home-birth groups, and the women's health movementand theorists such as Adrienne Rich in Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976) and Sara Ruddick in Maternal Thinking (1989) are connected to the maternalist position.

Preamble to the Constitution of the National Women's Studies Association, Adopted 1977, Revised and Ratified 1982.

The National Women's Studies Association was formed in 1977 to further the social, political, and professional development of Women's Studies throughout the country and the world, at every educational level and in every educational setting. To this end, this organization is committed to being a forum conducive to dialogue and collective action among women dedicated to feminist education and change.

Women's Studies owes its existence to the movement for the liberation of women; the feminist movement exists because women are oppressed. Women's Studies, diverse as its components are, has at its best shared a vision of a world free from sexism and racism. Freedom from sexism by necessity must include a commitment to freedom from national chauvinism, class and ethnic bias, anti-Semitism, as directed against both Arabs and Jews; ageism; heterosexual biasfrom all the ideologies and institutions that have consciously or unconsciously oppressed and exploited some for the advantage of others. The development of Women's Studies in the past decade, the remarkable proliferation of programs that necessitated this Association, is a history of creative struggle to evolve knowledge, theory, pedagogy, and organizational models appropriate to that vision.

Women's Studies is the educational strategy of a breakthrough in consciousness and knowledge. The uniqueness of Women's Studies has been and remains its refusal to accept sterile divisions between academy and community, between the growth of the mind and the health of the body, between intellect and passion, between the individual and society.

Women's Studies, then, is equipping women not only to enter society as whole, as productive human beings, but to transform the world to one that will be free of all oppression. This constitution reaffirms that commitment.

The "woman-as-force" position rejects "woman-as-victim" stances and argues that because of women's close connection to naturehistorically, biologically, mythologically, and psychologicallywomen can save humanity from the destructive path that men have begun. The historian Mary Beard enunciated the woman-as-force position in 1946, while Carol Gilligan's argument that young women take different ethical stances than young men, articulated in her In a Different Voice (1982), has influenced psychological and learning theories on gender differences. Another important work in this vein is Mary Field Belenky and her colleagues' Women's Ways of Knowing (1986).

Ecofeminism is an important subcategory of the woman-as-force position; the views of various theorists, such as Ynestra King, Susan Griffin, and Karen Warren, have been influential. The Indian nuclear physicist Vandana Shiva's work, especially Staying Alive: Women, Ecology, and Development (1988), explores ecofeminism on the global stage and makes connections with postcolonial and development concerns.

The female supremacists occupy the most radical position on the maximizer continuum. Either lesbian or celibate, these most extreme of the separatists advocate a complete partition of the sexes, believing that only with their own institutions can women find freedom. How far separatism is taken depends on the individual, but some advocates call for separate geographical areas for women, attempting self-sufficiency in various communal living situations. Most influential in this argument are Mary Daly, in Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (1978) and Websters' First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language (1987); Sonia Johnson, in Wildfire: Igniting the She/Volution (1989); Marilyn Frye, in Some Reflections on Separatism and Power (1981); and various science-fiction proposals, such as Joanna Russ's The Female Man (1975). It should be noted, however, that lesbians are found in all categories of feminism.

Problems with the model; or, mediating the dichotomy.

The dichotomy of equality-difference or minimizers-maximizers is difficult to maintain and often false, asserts the German critic Gisela Bock, since dichotomies are often hierarchies in disguise. Arguing strongly on the side of difference can lead to the dangerous "difference dilemma" because it can confirm women's inferiority. Yet strong arguments from the equality stance produce the "equality dilemma," in which gender differences are completely erased and everyone is presumed to be the same.

The most fruitful way to deal with the two kinds of arguments is to mediate between them, as some contemporary thinkers have done. There is a suggestive link made by African-American and multicultural feminists who argue the need for forms of socialism (a minimizer strategy) while identifying and celebrating the unique assets supplied to the struggle by strong women of color (a maximizer strategy). "The Combahee River Collective Statement," in Home Girls (1983), edited by Barbara Smith, and This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1983), edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, are essential works in this vein. Likewise the historian Gerda Lerner's conceptualization of "woman as majority" in The Majority Finds Its Past (1979) connects maximizer arguments about women's different strengths and special institutions with the minimizer insistence on the necessity of abolishing the sex-gender system and sharing gender.

Other creative thinkers have written of "difference in unity" or "equality in difference." Virginia Woolf, in Three Guineas (1938), proposes that women need to belong to a society of outsiders who have the same goals as men but must work in their own way on the borders of the patriarchal system, both inside and outside. In a spoof on the religious vows of monks and nuns, she says that women who belong to this society must take vows of poverty, chastity (of the brain), derision of honors, and freedom from the "unreal loyalties" of nation, class, sex, family, or religion. Members of the Society of Outsiders would agree to earn their own livings "expertly," not engage in any profession that promotes war, and criticize the institutions of education and religion. Only in this way can women help prevent war. Contemporary thinkers, especially Latinas and other bicultural women, such as Gloria Anzaldúa in Borderlands: The New Mestiza La Frontera (1987), or African-American women, such as bell hooks in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (1984), also explore this "border" position. So-called Third or Developing World feminists (also known as postcolonial feminists) clearly mediate the two strands of theory, with their call for support for nationalist struggles ("all issues are women's issues" and "if it's appropriate technology, it's appropriate for women") and their recognition of women's continuing "double day" work (housework, child care, and productive or economic activities) at every level of society around the world.


As "the most powerful force affecting women in higher education today," according to Mariam Chamberlain of the Ford Foundation, women's studies stands at the cusp of several controversies. Many of the criticisms of the early days (the standard retort from men in power was "When are we going to have men's studies?") have disappeared into internal controversies among practitioners: Should women's studies attempt to integrate into the regular curriculum or remain an autonomous outsider? Should women's studies opt for discourse theory, forsaking political action on which women's studies was built? Can you teach what you have not experienced? Can a white woman teach multiculturalism? Should people give priority to transgendered and other sexual concerns over against the concerns of postcolonial and developing nations?

The dangers of identity politics and the threatening allegation of essentialism have fractured the unity of women's studies programs. But disciplinary identities can be as dangerous, such that the feminist literary critic or the feminist sociologist hearkens back to her disciplinary language and methodology, even as she is opposed to those disciplines' contents. What often happens now in women's studies programs is that the senior faculty continue their disciplinary identity, leaving the junior faculty to be the "identity reps" of Chicana, Asian, or African-American ethnicity and prey to the charge of essentialism.

Another difficulty is the ubiquitous presentism that is now everywhere in women's studies. Although women's history was one of the earliest and strongest supporters of women's studies, women's and gender history have moved largely into their own field, with dedicated journals and conferences. Few sessions on history are to be found now at National Women's Studies Association conferences or at the International Interdisciplinary Congress on Women. Both the history of the discipline and women's history itself therefore stand to be marginalized or ghettoized from women's studies. Worse, the disciplines have so embraced women's studies that "translation" is now necessary in moving a course from women's studies to, say, literature or sociology.

There is often a conflict between those faculty who "privilege gender or gender and sexuality, as analytical frameworks, and those who also incorporate race, colonialism, and class," say Laura Donaldson, Anne Donadey, and Jael Silliman, in their article in Robyn Wiegman's edited collection, Women's Studies on its Own (Donaldson, Donadey, and Silliman, p. 439). And often in the United States, globalization is little more than "a Cold War production of knowledge," which compares other areas to the United States to their detriment, continuing a dangerous U.S.-centrism.

Still, with all the fragmentation, the "center holds." Women's studies as a concept and a practice is here to stay. It has been so institutionalized, there is so much new knowledge and new scholarship, there have been so many hearts and minds changed through this study that the various splits and positions can only help to proliferate the ideas.

See also Equality: Gender Equality ; Feminism ; Gender ; Human Rights: Women's Rights ; Structuralism and Poststructuralism ; Women's History .


Belenky, Mary Field, Blythe McVicker Clinchy, Nancy Rule Goldberger, and Jill Mattuck Tarule. Women's Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind. New York: Basic Books, 1986.

Bird, Elizabeth. "Women's Studies in European Higher Education." European Journal of Women's Studies 3, no. 3 (1996): 151165.

Bock, Gisela. "Challenging Dichotomies: Perspectives on Women's History." In Writing Women's History: International Perspectives, edited by Karen Offen, Ruth Roach Pierson, and Jane Rendall, 124. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.

Boxer, Marilyn Jacoby. When Women Ask the Questions: Creating Women's Studies in America. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

Donaldson, Laura E., Anne Donadey, and Jael Silliman. "Subversive Couplings: On Anti-Racism and Postcolonialism in Graduate Women's Studies." In Women's Studies on Its Own, edited by Robyn Wiegman, 438456. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2002.

Frye, Marilyn. Some Reflections on Separatism and Power. East Lansing, Mich.: Tea Rose, 1981.

Grewal, Inderpal, and Caren Kaplan, eds. Scattered Hegemonies: Postmodernity and Transnational Feminist Practices. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994.

Hacker, Helen. "Women as a Minority Group." Social Forces 30 (1951): 6069.

hooks, bell. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. 2nd ed. Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press, 2000.

. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Howe, Florence, ed. The Politics of Women's Studies: Testimony from Thirty Founding Mothers. New York: Feminist Press, 2000.

Lerner, Gerda. Fireweed: A Political Autobiography. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002.

. The Majority Finds Its Past. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Lerner, Gerda, ed. Black Women in White America: A Documentary History. New York: Pantheon, 1972.

Messer-Davidow, Ellen. Disciplining Feminism : From Social Activism to Academic Discourse. Durham, N.C., and London: Duke University Press, 2002.

Minnich, Elizabeth Kamarck. Transforming Knowledge. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.

Moraga, Cherríe, and Gloria Anzaldúa. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. Latham, N.Y.: Kitchen Table/Women of Color Press, 1983.

O'Barr, Jean Fox. Feminism in Action: Building Institutions and Community through Women's Studies. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.

Offen, Karen. "Defining Feminism: A Comparative Historical Approach." Signs 17 (Fall 1988): 119157.

Scott, Joan Wallach. Gender and the Politics of History. Rev. ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Shiva, Vandana. Staying Alive : Women, Ecology, and Development. London: Zed Books, 1988.

Smith, Barbara. The Truth That Never Hurts: Writings on Race, Gender, and Freedom. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1998.

Smith, Barbara, ed. Home Girls. Latham, N.Y.: Kitchen Table/Women of Color Press, 1983.

Tong, Rosemarie. Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction. 2nd ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1998.

Warren, Karen J. Ecofeminism: Women, Culture, Nature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997.

Woolf, Virginia. Three Guineas. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1966.

Margaret H. McFadden

Women's Studies

views updated May 14 2018

Women's Studies

Like the field of black/African-American studies with which it is often compared, women's studies is in the rather uncommon position of an academic subject whose existence resulted from a political movement. While most scholars attribute the first women's studies program to San Diego State University in 1970, all the programs/departments of the early twenty-first century, no matter what their date of origin, credit feminism and the women's movement for their birth. Allison Kimmich, the director of the National Women's Studies Association, told Alison Neumer Lara in 2005, "Women's studies is an outgrowth of the feminist movement. It is the academic arm." Campus activism was widespread in 1960s, and forever changed the way knowledge and the political implications of intellectual work are viewed. The founding of Students for a Democratic Society and campus antiwar and civil rights movements set the stage for this new field of research, which "reconstruc(t)ed the traditionally fashioned women and men, denaturalized sex and sexuality, formulated subjective and social gender, modeled sex-gender systems, multiplied identities and oppressions, and problematized all such categories" (Davidow 2002, p. 166). Of course, this origin in political activism means that women's studies has had a somewhat vexed place at the academic table, as Jacky Coates, Michelle Dodds, and Jodi Jensen (1998) note, stating "the point is to change the world, not just to study it" (p. 333), and later asking rhetorically, "[i]f confined solely to the world of texts, does the work of feminist academics contribute any more than the work of other academics to concrete social change?" (p. 338). Certainly "theory" versus "activism" is a binary near and dear to many laboring inside and outside of academia, each believing that their work contributes more to the feminist (or other political) project. Yet, as Mary Evans echoes in her 1997 essay, "In Praise of Theory: The Case for Women's Studies," "belief and ideology … have critical effects on the lives of millions of people" and the "production of counter-ideologies may, therefore, be as much part of a struggle of the oppressed as any other" (p. 20).

Despite these debates, however, the growth of women's studies as a discipline has been swift. By 1969 the Modern Language Association had formed their Commission on the Status of Women, and by 1971 the journals PMLA and College English had published their first all-feminist issues. The growth of classes in the field (although a name was not yet decided, many were calling it "female studies") also moved rapidly from a barely institutionalized 100 or so courses in 1970 to more than 395 programs in the United States alone and more than 700 worldwide by the early twenty-first century. Though the field has not been free from its share of threats stemming from rising tides of conservatism and university budget slashing, this level of growth over the course of more than thirty-five years remains notable. And though most programs' goal at the outset included a desire to fuse activist concerns with academic knowledge, how each women's studies program actually worked then and in the early twenty-first century has everything to do with the individual institutions themselves. They range from freestanding departments with their own tenure lines to the far more common (and some would argue disenfranchised) "programs" with a few core requirements and the bulk of their courses offered through interdepartmental cross-listing.

In other words, women's studies (this term will be used until discussing the rise of gender studies specifically) can mean anything from the addition of women to course syllabi to a completely reconceptualized methodology and pedagogical practice. According to Marilyn Jacoby Boxer (1998), most women's studies programs began via a demand for topics, courses, and terminology that included women (a request that in the early twenty-first century seems quite modest—a testament to the field's growth). Soon though, she argues, "traveling beyond rediscovered foremothers and asking what women had done in the male-defined world they began to formulate new questions," wondering if they wanted only to "join the [higher education] parade or also to change its route and objective" (p. 52). Changing the route and objective could mean that those involved would engage in "radical attacks on the epistemological presuppositions, bodies of knowledge, and methodologies of the fields in which they were trained" (p. 56) as well as a questioning (and possible reformation) of the disciplines altogether.


Such reformations across institutions led to a reinvigoration of the project of interdisciplinarity as key to the women's studies project, calling as it does for "an integration of disciplines to create a new epistemology" (Allen and Kitch 1998, p. 276). The influence of inter-disciplinarity remains, in a variety of forms, despite the fact that the 1980s and 1990s witnessed much fragmentation and debate over whether the field should view itself as an "interdisciplinary discipline, with theories, methods, and professional regimes of its own" or identify chiefly as a field that makes "strategic forays that disrupt and reconfigure the disciplines" (Hewitt and Lancer 1998, p. 236). Historically, these questions of inter/transdisciplinarity have a basis in the earliest discussions within feminist theory over notions of essentialism, that is, the question of whether or not women as a gender share some kind of intrinsic "essence." Just as advocates of inter/transdisciplinarity might argue that an analysis of gender requires more than one disciplinary inclination, "nonessentialist" feminists at the outset advocated moving beyond the singular lens of gender to get at what it means to identify as "woman" in a particular culture. Though much of the "essentialism debates" are overstated (no one seriously argues that women are all born with an identical kernel of "womanness"), feminism and women's studies do have to answer (as do most academic disciplines) for an early overemphasis on white (women's) experiences as exemplar. Theorists such as Gerda Lerner, Audre Lorde, Cherrie Moraga, Gloria Anzaldúa, Barbara Hull, Barbara Smith, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, and bell hooks have issued wide-ranging correctives to such a perspective, leading the authors of the introduction to Oxford University Press's Feminisms to state (some might say overly optimistically) that in women's studies "monocausal and totalizing theories of patriarchy have been replaced by multifaceted explorations of the contingencies of identity" (Kemp and Squires 1997, p. 6).

Of course, moving beyond such totalizing theories means moving beyond simply the issue of race, class, and so on within national borders, giving rise to feminist postcolonial theory that aims to question western feminists' monolithic conceptions of "third world" women. In challenging hegemonic white, Western, and urban feminism, as well as a sexist "extremely selective rejection of Westernization" on the part of the colonized (Narayan 2005, p. 546), theorists such as Mohanty, Arjun Appadurai, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Uma Narayan, and Vandana Shiva have contributed to one of the most theoretically rich and engaging strains of feminist theory in women's studies of the early twenty-first century.


The "post" in "postcoloniality" relates to another oft-cited "post" in women's studies from the 1980s, that of "postmodern" and/or "poststructuralist" feminist theory, a wide-ranging intellectual realignment that has reshaped the field in profound (if contentious) ways. Although some have derided this development in the field as a "shift from things to words" (Kemp and Squires 1997, p. 8), others have argued that what is sometimes colloquially referred to simply as "theory" and includes "Derridian deconstructive readings, Lacanian psychoanalysis, and Foucauldian discourses of power and corporeality … [has] prove[n an] invaluable tool to feminist theorists across the disciplines" (p. 8). Incorporated under the somewhat vague "theory" rubric is what is similarly casually referred to as "French feminism," which includes the work of Luce Irigaray, Hélène Cixous, and Julia Kristeva, as well as their Anglo-American counterparts such as Jane Gallop and Juliet Mitchell and journals such as Signs, Feminist Studies, and Yale French Studies. French feminist theories ground deconstruction in psychoanalysis and the female body and have gained much (academic) currency, despite a backlash against what is perceived to be not only their theoretical blind spots but also their difficulty. Theorists have pointed out, however, that philosophical writing of all kinds are too-easily labeled "difficult" and removed from "real" life when "real life" means an anti-intellectual culture without equal education for all, especially at the higher levels. In speaking of this backlash in their introduction to Feminisms, the editors argue that "To assume that work which is difficult is elitist is to confuse the form with the context" (Kemp and Squires 1997, p. 5). Nevertheless, what might be a more valid critique of academic/French/poststructuralist feminist theory, also discussed in this anthology, is its continuing domination (with the exception of work explicitly labeled "third world" or "postcolonialist") by (white) Anglo-American and French writers.


While gay and lesbian studies was born around twenty years after women's studies, its issues, like its course offerings, often coalesce around similar questions, in particular "essentialism," that is, whether too much difference (of race and class for example) gets subsumed, this time under the rubric of sexuality. In response to both this critique and the influence of poststructuralism, queer theory emerged as a "contestation of social norms" and a "voluntarism of identity" (Auslander 1997, p. 11) that moved beyond the binaries of hetero- or homo-identity with an emphasis on the fluidity of (sexual) identity. Queer theory looks at sex and gender (and by implication, sexuality) as "ideal construct[s]" whose "materialization is compelled" (Judith Butler quoted in Davidow 2002, p. 177). Some theorists, such as Lisa Duggan (1992), argue for its superiority to traditional gay and lesbian theory and politics, which locates itself, like second-wave feminism, in a liberal politics that posits a unified gay identity implicitly coded as white and male. In contrast, she argues that queer theory and the queer community "[are] unified only by a shared dissent from the dominant organization of sex and gender altogether" (p. 20). Other feminist theorists such as Sheila Jeffreys (1994) have argued the exact opposite, that queer theory's emphasis on gender performativity and its invocation of endlessly floating gender signifiers is "feminism free." Similarly, Jacquelyn Zita (1994) claims that theorizing gender and sexuality from the perspective of postmodern performativity (a common rhetorical move) is a theoretical luxury that neglects the very real cultural and political repercussions that come from resisting sex and gender norms. While these debates continue, the profound influence of queer theory on women's studies cannot be denied, and not only at the level of knowledge formation but also in the term women's studies itself.


Clearly, the postmodern critique of identity categorization has thrown a wrench into all sorts of academic discourse. But for a field such as women's studies, itself a result of a political movement (feminism) originating in a politics of (gendered) identity, the effects are particularly apposite. Theorists such as Wendy Brown (1997), for instance, taking off from queer theory and poststructuralism, have gone as far as to prophesize the "impossibility of women's studies," while writers as diverse as Eve K. Sedgwick, Judith Butler, and Judith Halberstam have pushed the field into looking at how gender and sexuality manifest themselves outside of a binary male/female framework. Exploring such topics as female masculinity, transsexuality, and intersexuality and their relationship to differences between women (or even whether a term such as woman has any intrinsic meaning at all) has led women's studies, in Robyn Wiegman's terms (2002), to more complicated analyses around "multiple axes of power and difference" (p. 32) beyond a simple oppressor/oppressed model. From this current have arisen such programs as the University of Chicago's Center for Gender Studies (not Women's Studies), whose stated mission is to "coordinate research and teaching in the field of women's feminist, gender, gay and lesbian, and queer studies as well as the study of masculinity" (my emphasis; Auslander 1997, p. 3). While many applaud this change as an evolution in scholarship that pushes one to consider both how "freedom from scrutiny has enabled the white middle class masculine norm to remain invisible" (Robinson 2002, p. 147) and to "account for the possibility of conditions under which men might productively fail to live up to phallic expectations" (Thomas 2002, p. 66), like the debates around queer theory and postmodernism, both the emerging field of "masculinity studies" and the name change to gender studies have occasioned critique and alarm within women's studies.

One of the most eloquent critics of the embrace of gender/masculinity studies is Tania Modleski, who, in Feminism without Women (1991), wonders why theorists would want to change a name that honors the field's roots in a political movement, especially because "the experiences of women are rarely studied in isolation" anyway (p. 47). Further, because, theoretically at least, gender studies does not necessarily have to focus on women at all, this potential erasure comes at a time when "those [i.e., women] who have fairly recently found a place in the discourse" are in threat of being erased (p. 49). Similarly, Rosi Braidotti (1994) argues that gender studies defuses feminism and "market[s] masculinity and gay male identity instead" (pp. 43-44). On the other hand, explicitly aiming to study masculinity might be the best way to get at a thorough understanding of the myriad ways in which "the repression of the abject vulnerability of the male body—a repression necessary for the construction of heteronormative masculinity—depends on a displacement of that vulnerability … onto the feminine" (Thomas 2002, p. 63). Nevertheless, despite a growing acceptance of the need to study both masculinity and femininity, the only PhD program calling itself "gender studies" as of 2006 is at Indiana University, Bloomington. While there are two officially titled gender studies doctoral programs in Europe (Central European University in Budapest and the London School of Economics and Political Science), the vast majority of programs, including undergraduate majors, minors, and certificates, and MA- and PhD-granting institutions continue to use the term women's studies, with some elaborating on it—"women's and gender studies" being the most common form of this expansion.

All in all, if the most general goal of women's studies (or gender studies) has been to bring gender as a key aspect of knowledge to the forefront of a range of disciplines, it has inarguably been achieved. This achievement, despite all the debates and institutional roadblocks discussed here, must seem nothing less than remarkable from the perspective of its founders in 1970. Women's/gender studies has brought about nothing less than the veritable end to a casual biological determinism (beginning with Shulamith Firestone and continuing with the work of scholars such as Butler today), as well as a reconfiguring of the sex binary as not natural but a "knowledge problem." Perhaps most compelling of all, the notion that gender is a "social, subjective, and symbolic formation" (Davidow 2002, p. 171) has permeated across almost all academic disciplines, thanks in no small part to a field that itself has been devoted to an interrogation of the terms of those very disciplines. The advent of the "third wave" of feminists entering the academy, and the continued growth of women's/gender/feminist studies, suggests a long future for the vigorous debates and theoretical development of which this entry only scratches the surface.


Allen, Judith A., and Sally L. Kitch. 1998. "Disciplined by Disciplines? The Need for an Interdisciplinary Research Mission in Women's Studies." Feminist Studies 24(2): 275-299.

Auslander, Leora. 1997. "Do Women's + Feminist + Men's + Lesbian and Gay + Queer Studies = Gender Studies?" Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 9(3): 1-30.

Boxer, Marilyn Jacoby. 1998. When Women Ask the Questions: Creating Women's Studies in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Braidotti, Rosi, with Judith Butler. 1994. "Feminism by Any Other Name." Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 6(2-3): 27-61.

Brown, Wendy. 1997. "The Impossibility of Women's Studies." Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 9(3): 79-101.

Davidow, Ellen-Masser. 2002. Disciplining Feminism: From Social Activism to Academic Discourse. Durham: Duke University Press.

Duggan, Lisa. 1992. "Making It Perfectly Queer." Socialist Review 22(1): 11-31.

Evans, Mary. 1997. "In Praise of Theory: The Case for Women's Studies." In Feminisms, ed. Sandra Kemp and Judith Squires. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Goodloe, Amy T. "Lesbian Feminism and Queer Theory: Another 'Battle of the Sexes'?" Available from http://www.lesbian.org/amy/essays/lesfem-qtheory.html.

Hewitt, Nancy, and Susan S. Lancer. 1998. Preface to Feminist Studies 24(2): 275-299.

Jeffreys, Sheila. 1994. "The Queer Disappearance of Lesbian Sexuality in the Academy." Women's Studies International Forum 17(5): 459-472.

Kemp, Sandra, and Judith Squires. 1997. Introd. to Feminisms, ed. Sandra Kemp and Judith Squires. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lara, Alison Neumer. 2005. "Who Studies Women's Studies?" Chicago Tribune, September 7.

Modleski, Tania. 1991. Feminism without Women: Culture and Criticism in a Postfeminist Age. New York: Routledge.

Narayan, Uma. 2005. "Contesting Cultures: 'Westernization,' Respect for Cultures, and Third World Feminists." Feminist Theory: A Reader, ed. Wendy K. Kolmar and Frances Bartkowski. 2nd edition. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Robinson, Sally. 2002. "Pedagogy of the Opaque: Teaching Masculinity Studies." In Masculinity Studies and Feminist Theory, ed. Judith Kegan Gardiner. New York: Columbia University Press.

Thomas, Calvin. 2002. "Reenfleshing the Bright Boys; or, How Male Bodies Matter to Feminist Theory." In Masculinity Studies and Feminist Theory, ed. Judith Kegan Gardiner. New York: Columbia University Press.

Wiegman, Robyn. 2002. "Unmaking: Men and Masculinity in Feminist Theory." In Masculinity Studies and Feminist Theory, ed. Judith Kegan Gardiner. New York: Columbia University Press.

Zita, Jacquelyn. 1994. "Gay and Lesbian Studies: Yet Another Unhappy Marriage?" In Tilting the Tower: Lesbians/Teaching/Queer Subjects, ed. Linda Garber. New York: Routledge.

                                             Jennifer Maher

Women’s Studies

views updated May 11 2018

Womens Studies






Womens studies is an interdisciplinary academic field that concentrates on the experiences and aspirations of women. Although womens studies departments and programs in the United States and around the world are reflective of their locations within educational institutions and their larger social context, a common thread is the claim that womens experiences have been underrepresented or misrepresented in more traditional academic disciplines that claim to capture the human experience. This has been found by some critics to be the case in traditional disciplines that purport to speak about human nature but consider only the social location of men or take men as the universal subject, casting women as either substitute or inferior men.


Arguing that women are human too and that the academic is also political, womens studies is founded on critical terrain, offering critiques of traditional disciplines and correctives to their representations or exclusions of women. Thus, a womens studies program may offer courses in education, literature, history, political science, philosophy, psychology, ethnic studies, biology, medicine, religious studies, and international relations, among other fields, centralizing women and the theoretical frameworks of feminism within each of those fields. Further, the misrepresentation of womens experiences in academic disciplines is thought by some to reflect a generalized societal devaluation of womens experience and social roles and thus to be part of the oppression of women. In this way the purpose of womens studies is shaped by its relationship with womens movements inside and outside the academy. The field has developed around the idea that the personal is political, meaning that gender identity and the subjectivities of individuals are shaped through the political structures of a gendered social system.

In these ways the field of womens studies is a critique and a corrective as well as a self-reflexive and politically engaged discipline that functions with a commitment to social transformation within education and the wider society in which it exists. Since their inception womens studies programs have operated from the often contradictory position of educating for social change and existing within traditional academic institutions that tend to favor neutral and disinterested knowledge production.


The first womens studies courses were offered in the United States in 1965 at the New Orleans Free School, the University of Chicago, Barnard College, Spelman College, and the Free University of Seattle. The earliest womens studies program was established in 1970 at San Diego State University, and the Womens Resource and Research Center was established at Spelman in 1981. Influenced by the civil rights, womens, and New Left movements and the inception of African American, American, and ethnic studies, early womens studies courses were guided by a vision of a world free from sexism, racism, class bias, ageism, and heterosexual bias.

The scope of the field has expanded continuously, increasing from 150 womens studies programs in the United States in the period 19701975 and three cross-disciplinary journals in 1972 to the growing number of courses, programs, departments, academic conferences, and journals of the first decade of the twenty-first century. In 2006 there were over seven hundred degree-granting womens studies departments in the United States with approximately seventeen doctoral programs, including the Africana Womens Studies program at Clark Atlanta, the Graduate Certificate Program at Howard University, and the earliest doctoral program at Emory University; more than two hundred fifty womens departments in sixty countries worldwide, with approximately twenty-five doctoral programs; and over forty scholarly journals and dozens of annual national and international conferences. The U.S. National Womens Studies Association (NWSA) was founded in 1977, and Womens Worlds: International Interdisciplinary Congress on Women was founded in 1981 with conferences held since that time in locations ranging from Haifa, Israel, to Seoul, South Korea.


The primary methodological approach of womens studies is derived from feminist analysis, a complex field of study that questions the foundations of traditional male-centered knowledge. Feminists have interrogated the masculinealso known as the patriarchal, androcentric, and phallocentricbiases and exclusions of prevailing social relations, institutions, and political structures to understand why women consistently experience gender-based oppressions that are manifested differently in accordance with the context. From home, to schools, to the workplace, to neighborhood streets, to war zones feminists have demonstrated the ways in which women, by virtue of being female, are barred disproportionately and systemically from the privileges enjoyed by men. At the same time feminist analysis documents womens political agency and resistance to oppressive circumstances. This has been particularly true of black feminist traditions.

To rectify structurally derived inequalities between men and women, one set of approaches feminists have offered consists of strategies to oppose existing masculine structures. Feminist oppositional solutions have taken a number of forms, from proposing equity in the workplace, government, and home to more profoundly transformative solutions of challenging masculinist epistemologies with feminist ways of knowing. Whereas man has dominated the social and human sciences, feminists have proposed woman as a replacement, a supplement, or the basis for structural transformation.

A number of concerns about the transformative potential of feminist oppositional strategies have been articulated within feminist debates. Proposing woman as an oppositional category immediately raises the question of whether gender is the primary identification of all women everywhere, casting doubt on the core of much of feminist politics. Racialized women, lesbians, disabled women, working-class and poor women, and women outside North America and Western Europe have been the most insistent voices against homogenizing women into hegemonic categories, thus contributing to the plurality of feminist analyses.

The long tradition of black feminist thought, for instance, has reconceptualized feminism by demanding attention to race, to diaspora communities, and to the construction of womanhood outside the United States. Debates about difference, or multipositionality, within womens studies programs continue, revolving around the ways in which race, class, nation, ability, age, and other social locations modify gender. Not only was the notion of woman challenged, the entire notion of a core focus or single identity was challenged by debates that demanded intersectional, plural, and culturally attentive approaches to feminism that are simultaneously antisexist and antiracist. For womens studies programs that primarily have focused on the experiences of white women the challenge is to integrate a racial analysis; for programs within historically black colleges and universities the challenge is to integrate a gender analysis into already established racial analyses.


Starting from their initial questioning of man as the legitimate grounds of knowing, feminism and womens studies debate the proper subjects and objects of the field. In this sense feminist and womens studies debates are both reflective of and a challenge to broader debates within the social sciences about conventional criteria of knowledge production, disciplinary configurations of relevance, verifiability and falsifiability, the separation of subject from object, and the criteria of objectivity and universality as necessary features of legitimate knowledge production. With the crisis of reason comes the instability of feminist claims to know, and feminism is both oppositional to and implicated in conventional epistemological discourses. In fact, the very immersion of feminism in patriarchal practices is seen a factor in the critical effectiveness of feminism and thus the transformative potential of the field of womens studies.

These debates manifest themselves in a variety of ways in womens studies programs. Pedagogically, the field of womens studies has attempted to create inclusive, non-hierarchical, and open learning environments that do not privilege hegemonic voices or experiences. In this regard peer facilitation, experiential knowledge, and self-reflection are emphasized in many womens studies programs. Epistemologically, womens studies programs offer feminist theory and methodology courses in interdisciplinary and politically engaged knowledge production. This means that womens studies programs provide courses that centralize womens experiences as well as methods of reading the social through feminist theory. Normatively, womens studies courses tend to highlight the value biases of feminist theory and demonstrate the hidden values of knowledge that is said to be neutral and disinterested. Institutionally, womens studies programs are often in an uneasy alliance with academia, on the one hand attempting to offer transformative curricula and on the other hand finding it necessary to offer courses and programs that are recognizably legitimate in comparison with other liberal arts degree programs. Additionally, womens studies departments often seek models of departmental governance that maintain some of the ideals of feminist organizing while operating within the larger institutional framework. Finally, the field of womens studies continues to nurture its relationship with womens movements and community activism beyond the academy.

Beyond womens studies programs and departments, feminist analysis has found its way into many traditional disciplines and departmental appointments. In light of the mainstreaming of feminist analysis, the question arises whether womens studies as an autonomous field has outlived its utility in the academy. At the same time there are qualitative differences between working as a feminist scholar within a discipline that does not centralize the project of academic and social transformation and working within an interdisciplinary womens studies department that is intended to transform the entire educational experience from the classroom to departmental governance.

As womens studies programs have increased their legitimacy within the academy, acquired departmental status, increased their number of tenure-track appointments, and developed doctoral programs, the negotiations about remaining transformational and autonomous have continued. In that context the field of womens studies is dynamic, worldly, and continuously engaged with the central epistemological and normative debates that animate much of the social sciences.

SEE ALSO Gender; Gender Gap; Gender Studies; Women; Women and Politics; Womens Liberation; Work and Women


Boxer, Marilyn J. 1982. For and about Women: The Theory and Practice of Womens Studies in the United States. Signs 7 (3): 661695.

Brown, Wendy. 1997. The Impossibility of Womens Studies. Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 9 (3): 4364.

Carby, Hazel. 1982. White Woman Listen! Black Feminism and the Boundaries of Sisterhood. In The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in 70s Britain, ed. Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. London: Hutchinson.

Cruikshank, Margaret, ed. 1982. Lesbian Studies: Present and Future. Old Westbury, NY: Feminist Press.

Grosz, Elizabeth. 1993. Bodies and Knowledge: Feminism and the Crisis of Reason. In Feminist Epistemologies, eds. Linda Alcoff and Elizabeth Potter. New York: Routledge.

Guy-Sheftall, Beverly, with Evelyn Hammonds. 1997. Whither Black Womens Studies. Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 9 (3): 31-45.

hooks, bell. 1981. Aint I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. Boston: South End Press.

Hull, Gloria T., Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith, eds. 1982. All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave: Black Womens Studies. Old Westbury, NY: Feminist Press.

Lowe, Marian, and Margaret Lowe Benston. 1991. The Uneasy Alliance of Feminism and Academia. In A Reader in Feminist Knowledge, ed. Sneja Gunew, 4860. New York: Routledge.

Mohanty, Chandra T., Anne Russo, and Lourdes Torres, eds. 1991. Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Parmar, Ratibha, and Valerie Amos. 1984. Challenging Imperial Feminism. Feminist Review 17: 319.

Riviere, Rebecca, and Anita Nahal. 2005. Finding Our Place: Womens Studies at Howard University. NWSA Journal 17 (2): 150155.

Sheridan, Susan. 1991. From Margin to Mainstream: Situating Womens Studies. In A Reader in Feminist Knowledge, ed. Sneja Gunew, 6172. New York: Routledge.

Wiegman, Robyn, ed. 2002. Womens Studies on Its Own: A Next Wave Reader in Institutional Change. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Liz Philipose

Women's Studies

views updated May 29 2018


Women's studies is an interdisciplinary field of inquiry that arose in the early 1970s. Within thirty years, it developed into a recognized discipline with undergraduate majors, masters and doctorates programs, university departments and programs, a scholarly literature of books and journals, and professional associations. The origins of women's studies are multiple, the scope and nature of the inquiry extensive, and its relationships to other campus and community organizations related to women and gender diverse.

Origins, Offerings, and Organization

The first courses in women's studies were taught at Cornell University and San Diego State University in 1969. They were undergraduate offerings, team taught, and provided overviews of the issues that arose out of the women's liberation movement.

The landscape of higher education changed dramatically in the 1960s as larger numbers of women and minorities entered the professorate and the number and size of institutions grew. Many of the women who entered the academy in the next decade had been influenced by the women's movement and undertook research on women. Thus, scholarship on women grew in the existing disciplines and was designated as feminist scholarship. However, many of the questions that arose fell outside the bounds of disciplines as they were defined then. The field of women's studies emerged as the site for investigating these questions, forging new subject matter, employing multiple research methodologies, and experimenting with pedagogies that took into account gender differences in learning styles. Women's studies refers to the campus administrative unit and concentration of courses covering this material on women.

Women's studies grew rapidly in the 1970s, so that by the end of the decade, the National Women's Studies Association counted some 200 programs offering undergraduate minors and majors. A typical major consisted of an introductory course, courses on women selected from cooperating departments, and a capstone seminar. Many included internships that enabled students to experience first hand the issues community women encountered. The introductory course covered some aspects of women's history, an examination of quantitative research on women's status, selected reading of literary works by women, and attention to issues largely absent from the overall curriculum. These issues centered on the oppression of women, sexual assault, questions of marriage and family, the professional advancement of women, pay equity, and representations of women in media, among other topics. Courses offered by departmentsThe Psychology of Women, for exampleconstituted the majority of courses for the major. Some programs and departments were able to offer special topics courses (i.e., Images of Girls in Literature) or additional core courses (i.e., Feminist Methods, Feminist Theories). Most programs attempted to offer a research seminar as a capstone course, enabling majors and minors to come together for research and reflection.

As programs became departments and as departments grew, the course offerings of the major changed to reflect the emergent scholarship. Courses on identities and differences among women, courses with a global focus, courses that linked with other new fields (cultural studies, American studies, popular culture, media studies, ethnic studies, gay and lesbian studies, queer studies) all emerged in the 1980s and 1990s. The most significant shifts in course offerings at the undergraduate level occurred in the 1990s as the study of gender and of race were added to the study of women.

Feminist scholarship on women grappled with the question of gender, that is, of the relationships among men and women, masculinity and femininity, and social power. Research revealed that new information and interpretations about women forced a reframing of what was known about men and masculinities at any given time or place. Advocates of research on gender argued that the expanded focus enabled scholars to see the sex/gender system holistically. Other scholars and many activists argued that a focus on gender buried a concern with the inequalities women still suffered in society and therefore did not advance an agenda of social change. By 2000 women's studies programs numbered nearly 800; most had added a concern with gender to their teaching and research missions while retaining a focus on women's inequality.

Equally important to the origins and offerings of women's studies through its short history has been the question of identities, particularly those that are race based. While the initial scholarship focused on the ways in which all women had suffered injustices, research as well as experience quickly revealed the obvious fact that there were substantial differences among women that bore investigation. African-American women and lesbian women advocated greater attention to the ways in which being female was interwoven with other identities, demonstrating that each combination was reflected and refracted in the social world in a distinct way. Developing the conceptual tools as well as the methods to investigate these multiple manifestations of woman became the focus of scholarship.

Just as the undergraduate subject matter of women's studies became more complex over time, the relationship of programs and departments to other campus units diversified. There are two primary sets of relationships, one with campus women's centers and the other with graduate schools. On most campuses, either a women's studies program, usually housed in academic affairs, or a women's center, usually housed within a division of student affairs, came first. The unit that was created first was seen by the campus community as the place for women's issues to be handled and efforts to establish additional units to deal with the multifaceted needs of women students, faculty, and staff often had to compete for resources. Because their origins are distinct, their administrative homes different, their missions discrete, and occasionally their audiences separate, the relationships between women's studies and women's centers vary from campus to campus.

Graduate programs, arising in the 1980s, were structured much like undergraduate programs, with core requirements, courses selected from other departments, and an emphasis on either research or practicum to prepare students for careers. The Ph.D. in women's studies emerged in the 1990s. In the United States, M.A. and Ph.D. programs tended to be organized around issue clusters and offered students opportunities to enter the professorate as well as to assume research positions in government, corporate, and non-profit sectors. In Europe, Japan, Latin America, and the United Kingdom, undergraduate degrees in women's studies were less common and graduate research degrees more frequent.

Intellectual Contours

Women's studies scholarship is in its most basic form an epistemological endeavor. It asks teachers, students, and researchers to develop a reflective critical consciousness whose goal is not only to inform, but also to transform what one knows and how one knows it. To accomplish this goal, it uses a wide variety of methodological approaches and investigates questions at the center of women's lives, questions that have not been central to formal knowledge systems. This innovativeness raises a series of intellectual debates. For some, these debates are a sign of vigor, for others a quagmire. The central topics for debate include the meaning of interdisciplinarity, the relevance of feminist scholarship, the relationship of scholarship to activism, and the utility of various feminist theories.

Women's studies claims to be an interdisciplinary discipline. For some, interdisciplinary refers to the fact that the questions and methods used in teaching and research are drawn from two or more of the traditional disciplines, whether by one person or a team. For others, interdisciplinary is more specifically defined as the intersection of questions and methods that are used in combination to arrive at new knowledge. For those who see interdisciplinarity in this way, it is not additive but transformative: the methods employed to investigate a subject come from the question that is asked and the question derives from the goals of the researcher or teacher.

Thus, interdisciplinary women's studies scholars use methods and approach questions in distinct combinations, often viewed as nontraditional. This approach requires that scholars balance the breadth of the tools and queries they utilize with the need for depth in analysis.

For those outside the field, the most commonly asked question is why women's studies? The question is asked from a least two different standpoints. In the 1970s, colleagues in other disciplines frequently claimed that women's studies was unnecessary. They claimed that any of the questions pursued in women's studies could be handled by the extant disciplines. Women's studies scholars countered that such questions had not beenand were unlikely to beaddressed without a separate site for the production of knowledge about women. The subject matter of women's studies is distinctive: it places women and gender at the center and analyzes practices, contexts, and ideologies from that standpoint.

Given the institutional successes of women's studies, the why women's studies question has taken a second form. At least three decades after the founding of this field of study, the claim is made that the questions of discrimination and agency that are foundational to the field are now resolved and therefore irrelevant. Some argue that the questions of the twenty-first century are issue-based, not identity-based, and that questions of women and gender are now included in all such issues, making their separate study unnecessary. Women's studies scholars counter that the inclusion of conversations about women cannot be ongoing without the continuing infusion of new knowledge that derives from specialization.

It is generally agreed among feminist scholars that the impetus for women's studies arose in the activism of the women's movement in the late 1960s. Once faculty and students began investigating the conditions and representations of women's lives as subjects of academic study, however, activism's role became problematic. The issues are formulated in a variety of ways. Some investigators believe that research outcomes should always be of social value. Thus, psychologists who investigate sexual assault often encourage the use of their work in policy and legal projects. Other scholars take the position that all knowledge is ultimately socially useful but that research and teaching on any subject is an end in and of itself. For example, a philosopher who writes in the area of feminism might argue that the critical thinking skills students develop benefit an informed citizen over the course of a lifetime.

The evolution of scholarship on women and gender in yet other fields, particularly the humanities, has become so specialized that it has developed language, theory, and traditions that are difficult for casual readers to comprehend. These scholars may claim that social activismthe engagement with cultural and political organizations and their activitiesis separate from formal study and should be pursued according to individual inclinations. Thus, debates continue: Should an internship in an activist organization be a required part of a major? Should information in women's studies classes explore the links to activism? Should departmental structures support activist endeavors? Given the origins of women's studies in political activism and the continued inequalities in society and culture based on gender, these questions are likely to remain at the center of debates in the field.

A final debate centers on the choice of theories to explain women's positions in the gender systems of societies and cultures. This is perhaps the most controversial of all the debates. Much of the work in women's studies in the 1970s grew out of the social sciences, particularly history, cultural anthropology, sociology, and psychology. These scholars infused theoretical paradigms already in playliberalism, Marxism, socialism, and psychoanalytic approaches, among othersand revised them to include women. Joined by colleagues in literature and art history, the first generation of feminist scholars engaged in the recovery of texts by, and information about, women, finding patterns in their discoveries that offered new explanations for women's exclusion as well as agency.

By the late 1980s developments in philosophy, literature, and other interdisciplinary fieldscultural studies, queer studies, media studies, studies of popular culture, studies of sexualitiescame to prominence in women's studies. These approaches focused more on the representations of women in texts (written and visual as well as spoken) and less on empirical investigations. Known as post-structuralism, post-modernism, and critical theory, they emphasized the fluid and temporal nature of interpretations of women and gender, making the meaning and use of theory both more complex and more contested.

The place of theory was further complicated by the development of a global perspective in women's studies. Beginning with the first of the United Nations Decade for Women meetings in Mexico City in 1975, followed by meetings in Copenhagen in 1980, Nairobi in 1985, and Beijing in 1995, feminist scholars increasingly conducted research around the globe, and scholars from every country investigated women's issues. The introduction of material on women globally called into question Western-based theories of sex and gender.

For scholars who came from the empirical tradition, theory conveyed a broad range of endeavors aimed at identifying patterns that would yield explanations over time and space. For scholars who worked within the humanities paradigms, theory meant critical theory, the investigation of texts and their meanings. For policy makers who looked to women's studies scholarship to identify women's material conditions, theory had a utilitarian focus. For those in the natural sciences who followed traditions of experimentation, feminist theory often appeared as an unlikely tool. And the work of global scholars, working out of yet other intellectual traditions, further contributed to theoretical debates. However, the evolution of these various debates about what constitutes theory had, by the twenty-first century, encouraged many scholars to examine the interstices and find linkages.

See also: Academic Disciplines; Academic Major, The; Multiculturalism in Higher Education.


Allen, Carolyn, and Howard, Judith A. 2000. Provoking Feminisms. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Boxer, Marilyn J. 1998. When Women Ask Questions: Creating Women's Studies in America. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Maher, Frances A., and Tetreault, Mary Kay Thompson. 2001. The Feminist Classroom: Dynamics of Gender, Race, and Privilege. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Moi, Toril. 1999. What Is a Woman? And Other Essays. New York: Oxford University Press.

Young, Iris Marion. 2000. Inclusion and Democracy. New York: Oxford University Press.

Jean Fox O'Barr

Women's Studies

views updated May 21 2018


WOMEN'S STUDIES is an interdisciplinary university curriculum originating in the United States in the late 1960s. Almost simultaneously in 1969–1970, the first women's studies courses appeared in a handful of American universities, including Cornell University and San Diego State College (now University). By 1980 there were over 300 women's studies programs and departments in United States universities. That number had more than doubled again by 2000, and included nine Ph.D. programs (with at least one more in development). In addition, there were women's studies programs and departments at universities around the world, including many sites in Canada, Europe, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and Australia, as well as Japan, Korea, Lebanon, Mexico, Ireland, Sudan, Turkey, and Uganda.

In the late 1960s, as the proportion of women enrolled in colleges and universities increased, feminists identifying with a new women's liberation movement criticized American higher education for failing to address women's concerns on at least three levels: the lack of equal professional opportunities for women scholars and graduates (the "glass ceiling"); the absence of curricular content reflecting women's lives and contributions in the liberal arts, sciences, and technical fields; and the skewed, diminished, and often insulting experiences of women undergraduates and graduate students in and outside the classroom.

Unsurprisingly, as Marilyn Boxer has pointed out, many of the pioneers in developing women's studies courses were political activists, using the free university and civil rights movements as models for developing feminist perspectives in various disciplines and expanding women's access to male-dominated classrooms, programs, positions, and bodies of knowledge. Jean Fox O'Barr, for example, was five years beyond a political science dissertation that deflected questions about women when she began reading recent women's studies literature by Kate Millett, Robin Morgan, and others. As a result, O'Barr began questioning fundamental assumptions in her own discipline and eventually became a leader of the women's studies movement.

Women's studies scholars came from existing disciplines that, with the exception of home economics, were male-dominated. Women literary scholars and historians weighed in first, asking questions that repositioned women in their research and thus changed previous bodies of "knowledge." In literature, feminist scholars began to ask about the exclusion of women writers from the canon of "great" (and thus always studied) writers. In history, Marilyn Boxer cites Joan Kelly as recalling, "All I had done was to say, with Leonardo, suppose we look at the dark, dense immobile earth from the vantage point of the moon? … Suppose we look at the Renaissance from the vantage point of women?" (Boxer, p. 129). Kelly articulated the core perspective of women's studies. The add-women-and-stir approach, pasting women into existing pictures of historical process or social dynamics, did not generate transformative insights. Nor did it help to recognize individual women who did things that men usually do. Instead, significant changes in scholarship stemmed from shifted "vantage points." This shift usually involved identifying systems of values and priorities practiced by women, systems that might either supplement or challenge prevailing value systems that are enforced socially or politically. An example from historical scholarship is Nancy Cott's seminal articulation in 1977 of a "woman's sphere" of interpersonal relations in colonial and early national New England. In women's studies, perhaps even more than in other areas of study, we can often identify "clusters" of significant works elaborating new insights. In this area of colonial and nineteenth-century European American women's culture, Cott's book had been preceded by Barbara Welter's work and enriched by complementary theses offered by Linda Kerber, Mary Beth Norton, Kathryn Kish Sklar, Carroll Smith Rosenberg, and others.

The floodgates of revisionist scholarship opened in the 1970s and 1980s, not just in history, but also in anthropology, sociology, literature, communication, and psychology. Simultaneously, women scholars began feminist activism within their disciplinary organizations, creating women's caucuses and women's networking mechanisms, agitating for greater representation of women scholars on conference panels and in governing offices and committees, and identifying ways of mentoring women graduate students. The National Women's Studies Association was founded in 1977. Several notable journals of women's studies were established, including Feminist Studies in 1972 and Signs in 1975. Sage, founded in 1982, has become a widely respected journal in black women's studies.

The proliferation of courses, programs, and then departments of women's studies from 1970 through 2000 testifies to the development of an audience, a teaching faculty, and curriculum. Early women's studies advocates faced key questions about the content of the courses, the viability and structure of women's studies as a discipline, and the political mission of the enterprise. From the beginning, women's studies theorists have considered pedagogy an integral part of creating their discipline. Instructors have widely agreed that the dynamics of the classroom must somehow reflect and embody the theoretical struggles of the discipline. Would it be enough for a women's studies course to include content on women's lives, or must the course be taught from a feminist point of view? What was feminist pedagogy and what would a feminist classroom look like? Did traditional dynamics between instructor and students—grades, modes of address, even the arrangement of desks and chairs—echo prevailing power structures in a stultifying or an exemplary way? How would men experience a women's studies classroom, and how would a women's studies class experience men? Could men teach women's studies? Was there or should there be a difference between a women's studies course per se and courses in other home disciplines that reflected revised content on women?

The first courses constructed their content around women's experiences, which reflected the grassroots nature of liberationist politics as well as a democratic and particularist epistemology. Women's studies teachers found that the opening of the universities in the 1960s and 1970s brought in "nontraditional" students, often older women returning to school after raising children or after a divorce, to pursue education and credentials for new careers. This population has enriched women's studies classes by bringing perspectives and debates into the classroom that are relevant to postgraduate and non-college women. Most women's studies curricula are grounded by a specific introduction to women's studies course. Besides the introductory course, core curricula then may include courses on feminist theory and epistemology; political and legal issues; feminist perspectives on social structure and social power, race, class, sex and sexuality; and individual and family development issues.

Women's studies students generally take additional university courses allied with, or double-listed by, women's studies. These often include courses in sociology, history, anthropology, art and aesthetics, and literature. One of the thorniest sets of issues, and one that often lay beyond the control of the organizers of women's studies programs, concerned the structure of the women's studies program and the interaction between its administrative and curricular organization. Would it be more important to integrate women's content into a traditionally organized curriculum, or to create a beachhead of feminist scholarship and pedagogy? Would organization in a department isolate and "ghettoize" the women's studies endeavor? Would departmental status tempt faculty to abandon their mission to transform the entire university curriculum? Many early advocates of integration became converts to the departmental model because of the advantages of regular funding and tenure lines, which improved stability and seemed to bestow the stamp of legitimacy. Programs still far outnumbered departments as of 2001, but the number of women's studies departments continues its proportional increase. In institutions where the program model prevails, women's studies faculties usually have two homes, one in women's studies and one in another department.

Another set of issues that enriched and sometimes threatened to fragment the women's studies enterprise revolved around women's differences, particularly those of race, class, and sexuality. In 1969 Frances Beale updated the concept of "double jeopardy," the oppression of black women on the two counts of sex and race. African American women scholars, artists, and activists, as well as those of Asian, Native American, Hawaiian, Latina, and other racial and ethnic backgrounds, protested any assumption that women experienced a common set of life conditions, simply on the basis of sex. (The coining of the term "women of color" presented some of the same pitfalls of unintentional homogenization.) Powerful writings and performances helped create a new mosaic of images and understandings of the multiplicity of women's lives as lived in the United States and in other parts of the world. Often painfully, women's studies absorbed the idea that privilege was not just a category that separated women from men, but also women from each other.

Though there were many lesbian and bisexual scholars involved in the creation of women's studies on campuses across the United States, the women's studies movement resembled the women's movement in general in its initial ambivalence toward full and integrated recognition of non-heterosexual women. Interestingly, the evolution of gay and lesbian studies courses and programs in the last fifteen years has both reinforced the legitimacy of inclusion and, in some ways, diluted the impact of lesbian content in women's studies programs. The flip side of this dilemma, and one that echoes the uncomfortable position of black women in African American studies, is that lesbians often find themselves and their concerns under-represented in queer studies programs that, of course, include gay men.

In the last decade of the twentieth century, women's studies scholarship grappled with the same theoretical dilemmas that troubled and enlivened other humanities and social science disciplines. Some scholars believed that postmodernist interpretations threatened to eviscerate feminism, while others saw postmodernist discourse as a meta language that would salvage the intellectual integrity of the women's studies project. As the ranks of women's studies professors increasingly include scholars exposed to women's studies as undergraduates, the professional as well as intellectual dynamics of the field will continue to evolve.


Boxer, Marilyn Jacoby. When Women Ask the Questions: Creating Women's Studies in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

O'Barr, Jean Fox. Feminism in Action: Building Institutions and Community Through Women's Studies. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

Winkler, Barbara Scott, and Carolyn DiPalma, eds. Teaching Introduction to Women's Studies: Expectations and Strategies. Westport, Conn.: Bergin and Garvey, 1999.


See alsoEducation, Higher: Women's Colleges .

Women's Studies

views updated Jun 11 2018

Women's Studies

In the United States women's studies became a distinct scholarly discipline as an outgrowth of the "second wave" of feminism in the 1960s. While women and issues of sex and gender had been the subject of research and theory prior to that time, women's studies developed as a uniquely interdisciplinary and feminist endeavor. Early proponents of women's studies saw the establishment of their field as inextricably related to a larger movement for feminist social transformation. Like that of ethnic studies programs originating at the same time, the very existence of women's studies as a field challenged the self-declared objectivity and scholarly disinterest of academic institutions that had failed to perceive the significance of women, people of color, the working class, and other marginalized groups within American society. The essential feminist insight that "the personal is political" called for study of the status of women as the result of institutionalized forms of oppression. It also led to research and teaching methods that emphasized learning in interaction between individual subjectivity and the object of theory or study. Thus, from the outset, women's studies programs and scholars sought to redefine the very nature of scholarship.

Since the late 1960s women's studies research, courses, and programs have developed an extensive body of scholarly work in the humanities and sciences. As a part of a new, interdisciplinary field with activist roots, women's studies scholars have always had diverse and, at times, conflicting understandings of the nature and purpose of their discipline. From the start, there have been those who perceive separate women's studies programs as segregating and further devaluing the significance of feminist scholarship, rather than creating a demand for an integrated curriculum in all areas of study. Defenders of women's studies as an independent field argue that it gives feminist scholars greater support and academic freedom and also creates connections among numerous disciplines that enhance feminist scholarship. The enormous growth in the literature on women, sex, and gender has, in some ways, resolved the dispute. As the research has become more specialized and sophisticated, it has increasingly addressed an audience within its own specific field. On a purely practical level, the sheer volume of work in women's studies has made it impossible for any individual scholar to remain current in the discipline as a whole.

Another controversy has been the issue of essentialism: whether there actually is a distinct (essential) female nature or experience that can be the focus of discrete study. As working-class and ethnic-, racial-, and sexual-minority women developed their own scholarship, they critiqued the feminist research that had assumed a middle-class, Christian, white, and heterosexual perspective as normative. Their work challenged the notion that there could be any singular, universal voice or theory concerning sex and gender. Earlier feminist theorists had perceived the importance of distinguishing biologically determined sex (female or male) from socially constructed gender (feminine or masculine). The growing body of research on women as well as the influence of deconstructionism, a movement that challenged the idea that there are any fixed meanings or identities, led women's studies scholars to question even these categories and explore instead their fluidity and indeterminate nature. One response to this debate has been a growing emphasis on gender or gender studies rather than an exclusive focus on women.

The relationship between women's studies and religious studies has changed dramatically over the course of the past three decades. Like the feminist movement in general, early women's studies programs were at best indifferent and frequently hostile to religious traditions perceived as inherently and irrevocably patriarchal. This antagonism extended to feminist scholars of religion, especially those working within institutional religious frameworks. Even in the absence of overt antipathy, religious studies were generally excluded from the disciplines considered essential to women's studies programs.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s a number of factors began to change this situation. Allowing appropriate visibility to feminist scholars from racial and ethnic minority communities involved an acknowledgment of the continued significance of religion within those cultures. Feminist scholars in fields such as comparative literature, history, and sociology began to research topics in religion, conveying the importance that spirituality and ritual play in the lives of the vast majority of the world's women. A growing number of scholars in religion had experience in feminist activism, scholarship in other disciplines, or both and initiated ties with women's studies programs.

Nevertheless, there has continued to be an unequal relationship between the disciplines. To the extent that women's studies scholars perceive the study of religion as doctrinal, they fail to inform themselves of the larger theoretical issues raised in the field, such as feminist hermeneutics (theory of interpretation), epistemology (theory of knowledge), and historiography. In contrast, feminist scholarship in religion incorporates a wide range of feminist sources in other fields.

During the 1980s women's studies in religion became increasingly institutionalized and visible as a distinct area of scholarship. The American Academy of Religion, the professional organization of scholars in religion, established a Women in Religion section. Seminaries and university religious studies departments developed their own women's studies courses and programs. Fellowships, visiting scholar positions, endowed lectures, and a few endowed professorships in women's studies in religion have continued to be created.

See alsoEcofeminism; Feminist Spirituality; Feminist Theology; Gender Roles; Inclusive Language; Ordinationof Women; Religious Studies; Womanist Theology.


Farnham, Christie, ed. The Impact of Feminist Researchin the Academy. 1987.

Gunew, Sneja, ed. A Reader in Feminist Knowledge. 1991.

Humm, Maggie, ed. Feminisms: A Reader. 1992.

Stanley, Liz, ed. Knowing Feminisms: On AcademicBorders, Territories and Tribes. 1997.

Drorah Setel

Women's Studies

views updated May 29 2018

Women's Studies


Attn: TFBPW Foundation
803 Forest Ridge Drive, Suite 207
Bedford, TX 76022
Tel: (817)283-0862
Fax: (817)283-0872
E-mail: [email protected]
Web Site: http://www.bpwtx.org/foundation.asp
To provide financial assistance to women in Texas who are preparing to enter selected professions.
Title of Award: Hermine Dalkowitz Tobolowsky Scholarship Area, Field, or Subject: History; Law; Political science; Public administration; Women's studies Level of Education for which Award is Granted: Graduate, Undergraduate Number Awarded: 1 or more each year. Funds Available: A stipend is awarded (amount not specified). Duration: 1 year.
Eligibility Requirements: This program is open to women in Texas who are interested in attending school to prepare for a career in law, public service, government, political science, or women's history. Applicants must have completed at least 2 semesters of study at an accredited college or university in Texas, have a GPA of 3.0 or higher, and be U.S. citizens. Selection is based on academic achievement and financial need. Deadline for Receipt: April of each year. Additional Information: This program was established in 1995.

About this article

Womens studies

All Sources -
Updated Aug 18 2018 About encyclopedia.com content Print Topic