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Introduction to Women Studies


If we could free ourselves from slavery, we should free men from tyranny.

—Virginia Woolf, from a letter to Leonard Woolf

Virginia Woolf, by George Charles Beresford. Platinum print, July 1902.  © National Portrait Gallery, London

Virginia Woolf, by George Charles Beresford. Platinum print, July 1902.

© National Portrait Gallery, London

“Women’s Studies,” at basic, means the study of women, yet it is a designation that, since its inception in 1970, has evolved to describe courses of study in disciplines as diverse as anthropology, sociology, psychology, history, political science, economics, literature, creative writing, linguistics, biology, chemistry, mathematics, medicine, religion, philosophy, music, theatre, dance, film, pop culture, and the fine arts. Women’s Studies is closely tied to feminist theory, to activism, and to other cross-disciplinary areas that center on marginalized social groups. Women’s Studies also encompasses a wide range of approaches, from the gathering and analysis of data to the representation of women in the visual arts of painting, sculpture, and digital imaging. In other words, Women’s Studies covers so much ground that it may seem to be a designation that is almost meaningless—especially over the last thirty years as the study of gender has become more prominent in college classrooms and the basis of much research, writing, art, teaching, and activism.

Part of this turn to gender, by those working in the disciplines listed above, is a distinction that gets made between biological sex and what is termed the social construction of gender. Whereas sex is a material distinction (it is written on the body), gender is made up of learned representations of “femininity” vs. “masculinity” that we, in North America, have come to use as a way to decide—and often to value—what we think is a “woman” vs. what we call a “man.” Women’s Studies, then, has been a discipline that’s been criticized for essentializing what it means to be a woman. If Women’s Studies teachers are only talking about women, such classes are in danger of only addressing the material differences—not the psychological, emotional, spiritual, behavioral, and (let’s face it) fashionable differences—between women and men. 

Moreover, Women’s Studies began in the 1970s, a close cousin of the Women’s Rights Movement in the United States. As a result, much of the early content of Women’s Studies classes was predicated on the fundamental notion that women were oppressed—in their jobs, in the home, on the street. Since then, women have flown into space, become multi-millionaire CEOs, obtained easy access to birth control, won sexual harassment suits, and, be they gay or straight or in-between, openly claimed their sexual desires. We have had three female Secretaries of State. Certainly from the early 1990s on, popular and political culture in America has often claimed that “equal rights did its job” or “feminism is dead” (hence the persistent popularity of Rush Limbaugh’s term “femi-nazi”). Put simply, if women are now on equal footing with men, what’s the need for Women’s Studies?

While I am certainly one who believes that femininity is learned and performed (a construction), and while I am also someone who thanks her lucky star that she was born in 1969 (and wasn’t fired, like my own mother, for being pregnant while holding a high-school teaching job), I still believe there is a need for Women’s Studies. The majority of people in the United States who live below the poverty line or who are single parents or who are the victims of domestic violence and rape are women—which means there is still a lived difference between the lives of men and the lives of women in our nation. Women still make only 74 cents to the dollar that men make, and they still take-on the second shift of childrearing and housekeeping in families with dual working parents (stay-at-home dads are still called Mr. Moms). Femininity is still represented—even celebrated—as passive, anti-intellectual, hyper-emotional, domestic, and the object of the media’s gaze (Lady Gaga is a case-in-point). And there is still a strong belief that girls should act and look like girls—and if a boy acts or looks like a girl, he may well be the victim of homophobic violence (Matthew Shepherd).

Thus, this course is designed as a collaboratively taught introduction to Women’s Studies as well as other fields that complement it, such as feminist theory, queer theory, intersectionality, and multiculturalism. Primarily with me—but also with faculty visitors I will bring in from across campus—students discuss the lived experiences of women as well as the operation of femininity as a cultural symbol for defining and understanding “women” in the past, in the now, and across the world. Students benefit from the expertise of a variety of faculty who approach Women’s Studies from distinct disciplines, utilize diverse methodologies, and analyze gender across multiple forms. And while students will read about and discuss Women’s Studies in a global context, our point of reference will time and again be the literature, media, and culture of the United States—for each student in the class should expect to end up questioning and re-examining aspects of their own lives and thoughts about women as well as what it means to be a “woman.”

Download a sample assignment from Introduction to Women's Studies (PDF):