I am a parttime (or, as we say when we're being fancier, adjunct) teacher in two terrific colleges. because i'm parttime, or maybe because i'm lazy, i tend not to follow education journals. so it was only recently, at a faculty gathering at one of my colleges, that i realized there is a widespread trend toward renaming Women's Studies. they gave us copies of some articles about this trend. after all, our college might eventually want our department name to change. I read the articles, and freaked out.

i'm one of the old-fashioned second wave activists. when i was a college student even very liberal universities had no courses in, or even concept of, women's studies--or black studies or gay studies (let alone queer studies). these were the days when a lit course might possibly have a woman writer in the syllibus--usually emily dickenson or a bronte. in a more sophisticated course, you might get virginia woolf instead. otherwise, it was a male-only selection. i've always felt glad to have been part of the generation that brought into american culture concepts like civil rights, gay liberation, women's liberation. together, these ideas, expressed in protest marches, boycotts, etc., became part of what came to be called multiculturalism. we managed to convince part of the populace at least that the american experience needn't have as its paradigm the white upper-middle class male, with the rest of us useful appendages who played a part in the white male life.to a very large extent the women's movement grew from and then influenced these other movements, with a sort of cross fertilization that was rarely easy but always crucial.

when our ideas began to make their way into academia, we had to fight the same fight over and over. the traditional courses--history, literature, science, etc.,--were all that was needed: they encompassed the entire experience of "mankind." ("No, wait, you don't understand--mankind' includes women.") well no, it doesn't. and for that matter, it doesn't really include men of color--remember all those black "boys"?

bit by bit, we made strides. "Mankind" gave way to humankind; the universal "he became the unwieldy but accurate 'he or she.' We had a twofold goal. one was to improve the traditional courses, to convince department heads that a few crumbs were not enough: that there were more blacks than booker t. washington and more women than betsy ross in our history. that native americans didn't just alternate between scalping innocent whites and then joining them in a yearly ritual of gratitude for the country god had nicely given to the european invaders. we worked for inclusiveness of all of us in all the courses.

But we knew that it would be decades before mankind took his place as merely one species in all these subjects. we wanted to add to the usual courses specific studies geared toward the neglected realities of the peoples and cultures that had been marginalized, lynched, raped, or simply tolerated. eventually, in more and more educational institutions, we got these courses. Some studies actually offered majors, others just minors. but we were getting there: first black studies, then women's studies, gay studies, hispanic, native american, asian american studies. they were by their nature interdisciplinary, including parts of each other as well as of courses that became part of the old disciplines: asian american writer; black women in the civil war; gays abnd lesbians in US history.

not everyone in academia was happy about this, and inevitably many still aren't. backlash has continued in its various forms for years. so when i read of this new trend, it triggers an alarm in my mind. it seems to me part of a philosophy of 'if you can't beat 'em, at least smush them together as much as possible.' so now we have in one university that still retains its women's studies department, that department offering a minor in Sexuality, Gender, and Queer Studies. that's a fine minor, and for that matter a fine major. but why is it in women's studies? this is a study that lends itself well to history, psychology, or sociology.

But at least they're keeping the women's studies department--for ow anyway. others aren't. some have changed their names to Gender Studies. the rationalization? it makes the department 'potentially more attractive to men,' says a (female) professor in one such college.

and there's the rub. how often in the 70s did we have to take on all the 'we don't want to make men mad' crap? how many times do we still have to listen to right-wingers and barely-liberals tell us how oppressed men are? reading again, as if it were a profound new discovery, that 'sexism hurts men too' makes me want to...well, hurt men. which is unfair, because it's often women who are saying it. and the core of truth doesn't make that approach any less dangerous. of course sexism hurts men. of course having the 'feminine' in oneself constantly repressed is damaging to a human being. and of course men having to confront the realities of gender conditioning can end up confused and miserable--especially since feminism scares a lot of women too, and the guy trying to be respectful by waiting for his date to pay her half of the dinner bill is as likely as not to find that he's insulting her. oppression is complicated, and it often hurts individuals within the oppressor category, no matter how they act. read fanon; meet the french torturers of algerian rebels had terrible dreams of violence and found themselves acting hostile toward their own wives and children. read authors like camus and hella haasse, who lived all their lives in third world countries their parents had colonized.

anyway, another college renamed its women's studies department Women and Gender Studies. poor old women--still too weak to stand alone! one professor explained ingenuously that this change 'enlarges the definition of women." say what? does this suggest a focus on transgendered people? or a scientific look at the limitations of the XX and XY chromosomes? nah, of course not. it means that 'each gender shapes the identity of the other.' how charmingly parallel! nothing nasty like 'dominance' or 'control' or even 'higher pay' hides behind that sentence!

Writes one woman, 'perhaps if men weren't so stigmatized from sexuality studies at the university, maybe we could create better conversation around women's issues and men would be more willing to discuss or write about gender-related issues.' why would taking a women's studies course 'stigmatize' a man? and who does the stigmatizing? and what does it say about a man's potential willingness to understand women's experiences and viewpoints if he can't even bring himself to enroll in a course in "women's studies'? (I would love here to get into a discussion of the men who do in fact take women's studies courses, and there are such men!--but it's a longer discussion. suffice it to say that i don't think any of my male students have been traumatized by the word 'woman,' and have even survived the word 'feminist' used in the class...)

WOmen's studies courses do in fact deal with 'gender' all the time. it's hard to talk about one gender without mentioning the other. but in fact any course is, or should be, to some extent interdisciplinary. i teach a lit course called Literary Foundations, once known as Great Books. it starts with homer and ends with shakespeare. inevitably i end up teaching a bit of history. how can you begin to understand homer without knowing something of ancient greek history, religion, ideologies of warfare, marriage customs, geography, and a few other things? how can you teach shakespeare without addressing attitudes toward race ("Were she ugly as an ethiope..." anti-semitism, and the world views that the plays reflect? i would not wish to call the course 'literature, history, religion, geography, race, art gender, and sexuality.' the focus is the literature, the prism through we look at everything else. why then back away from accepting that women's studies is foremost about women, and also includes gender expectations of men, history, etc etc etc.? why can we call a history course that utilizes other disciplines 'history,' but drop the women from women's studies?

history, literature and geography don't need to be defended; they have had their place in education for centuries. the various 'studies' are still new--30,40 years old at most. african american studies, queer studies--all the studies that speak to the non-universality of what gets called human experience, and to the role that marginalization has played in every era and every aspect of human history--these are the ones that need defending, and need above all not to get lumped together in a kind of 'all the others' course or two, while the traditional disciplines go about their business.

finally--and god, i hate having to say this again, after all the years and all the struggles around comparisons of different forms of oppression, but damn, it still needs saying: why is women's studies the one that is threatened with a name change? would anyone but glenn beck or sarah palin suggest that we turn 'african american studies' into Race Studies--because after all white people suffer from racism too? and because we don't want to scare away white students from the courses? there would be screaming and yelling and demonstrations galore--and i'd be one of the demonstrators. And for all the homophobia that plagues the world, would we change Queer Studies to Sexuality-based Lifestyles?

But ladies, step aside~you'll get the vote after all the ex slaves do, after all the immigrant men do. you'll get the jobs after all the men coming home from the war do. don't be shrill! don't make the nice men feel bad. After all, when has a little name change ever hurt us?

we have been so very well trained to be nice, to placate, to pacify--to smile prettily and play with our hair and feed everyone cookies. no, dear, you take the last one. well, nurturing is cool. but so is fighting for ourselves.

if we end up diluting or erasing the word 'women' from women's studies, we take a huge step backward. we haven't moved nearly forward enough to risk that.

1 comment:

Judith said...

Yes! Thank you for putting this into words, Karen.