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Women's studies, also known as feminist studies, is an interdisciplinary academic field which explores politics, society and history from an intersectional, multicultural women's perspective. It critiques and explores societal norms of gender, race, class, sexuality, and other social inequalities.
Women's studies were first born as an academic rubric apart from other departments in the late 1960s, as the second wave of feminism gained political influence in the academy through student and faculty activism. As an academic discipline, it was modeled on the American studies and ethnic studies (such as Afro-American studies) and Chicano Studies programs that had arisen shortly before it.
The first accredited Women's Studies course was held in 1969 at Cornell University. The first two Women's Studies Programs in the United States were established in 1970 at San Diego State College (now San Diego State University) and SUNY-Buffalo. The SDSU program was initiated after a year of intense organizing of women's consciousness raising groups, rallies, petition circulating, and operating unofficial or experimental classes and presentations before seven committees and assemblies. Carol Rowell Council was the student co-founder along with Dr. Joyce Nower, a literature instructor. The SUNY-Buffalo program was also the result of intense debate and feminist organizing led by Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy, and it was eventually birthed out of the American Studies department. In 1972, Sarah Lawrence College became the first institution to grant Masters degrees in Women's History. Throughout the later 1970s many universities and colleges created departments and programs in women's studies, and professorships became available in the field which did not require the sponsorship of other departments.
By the late twentieth century, women's studies courses were available at many universities and colleges around the world. A 2007 survey conducted by the National Women's Studies Association included 576 institutions offering women's studies or gender studies at some level. As of 2012, there are 16 institutions offering a Ph.D. in the United States. Courses in the United Kingdom can be found through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.
In Canada, one of the first women's studies courses was offered in Toronto at the University of Toronto, as well as at universities in Montreal and Waterloo. The evolution of these programs are well documented in "Minds of her own: Inventing Feminist Scholarship and Women's Studies in Canada and Quebec, 1966-76", edited by Wendy Robbins, Meg Luxton, Margrit Eichler and Francine Descarries, published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press (2008).
The University of Toronto through the Institute of Women's Studies and Gender Studies is poised to celebrate the 40th anniversary of its program. In 1971-72 the first course was held there. Two of the co-founders of the program are Ceta Ramkhalawansingh and Kay Armatage. In 1970 while still an undergraduate and a member of the University's Inter-disciplinary Studies Committee, Ceta worked with a team of graduate students to mobilise for the program. A group of graduate students along with a Faculty member taught the first program in the fall of 1971. The story of this program is partially documented in two essays in "Minds of her own". Kay Armatage contributed "Blood on the Chapel Floor: Adventures in Women's Studies". The title comes from the fact that the office and seminar room for the program was in an old chapel in a former mansion at 97 St. George Street on the St. George Campus of the University of Toronto. Ceta Ramkhalawansingh contributed "Women's Sight: Looking backwards into Women's Studies in Toronto".
Methodologies and curricula
Women's studies faculty practice a diverse array of pedagogies, though there are some common themes to the way many Women's Studies courses are taught. Women’s studies curricula often encourage students to engage in hands-on activities, including discussion and reflection upon course materials. The development of critical reading, writing, and oral expression are often key to these courses.[vague] The decentralization of the professor as the source of knowledge and wisdom is also common.[vague] Courses are often more egalitarian, stressing critical analysis of texts, and the development of critical writing.[vague] Like gender studies, Women’s Studies employs feminist, queer, and critical theories. Since the 1970s, Women’s Studies has taken a post-modern approach to understanding gender and how it intersects with race, class, ethnicity, religion, age, and (dis)ability to produce and maintain power structures within society that ensure social inequality. With this, there has been a focus on language, subjectivity, and social hegemony, and how the lives of subjects, however they identify, are constituted. At the core of these theories is the notion that however one identifies, gender, sex, and sexuality are not intrinsic, but are socially constructed.
Women studies programs are involved in social justice and design curriculums that are embedded with theory and also activism outside of the classroom. Some Women Studies programs offer internships that are community-based allowing students the opportunity to gain a better understanding of how oppression directly affects women’s lives. This experience, informed by theory from feminist studies, queer theory, black feminist theory, African studies, and many other theoretical frameworks, allows students the opportunity to critically analyze experience as well as create creative solutions for issues on a local level. However, Daphne Patai, from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has criticized this aspect of women's studies programs, arguing that they place politics over education, arguing that "the strategies of faculty members in these programs have included policing insensitive language, championing research methods deemed congenial to women (such as qualitative over quantitative methods), and conducting classes as if they were therapy sessions." It is important to note, however, that many Women’s Studies curricula engage with a variety of different epistemological and methodological practices.[vague] Feminist scholarship is diverse and utilizes positivism, critical realism, and standpoint theory in its interdisciplinary scholarship.[vague]
Feminist activism not only focuses on women’s issues but has spread throughout many other movements including (but not limited to) environmental issues, body politics, feminist art, identity issues, reproductive rights, gender issues, animal rights, homosexual rights, and ethnic minority rights. These forms of activism can include letter writing, boycotting, protesting, the visual arts, bodily demonstrations, education, and leafleting. In current feminism, the focus has shifted to encompass an outlook and desire for equality for all—identifying oppressive systems and forces around the world that affect all types of beings. Feminist activism explores the intersections of social, political, and cultural histories (among various others denominators), their implications, and dedicates time and energy to the liberation of all people from injustices.[vague]
Simply studying or being a student of women’s studies can be seen as activism in it of itself. Therefore, for most students of women’s studies, an activism status is already engaged. To foster the growth of the study body, one of the key aspects of women’s studies classes and programs is to connect the classroom to social change. Women’s studies classes and programs focus on power structures, oppression, inequality, and social suffering. Students are encouraged to bridge their learning and community involvement and take action in the world to foster positive social transformation. Students and feminist activists not only learn about oppression in society but also look at the possibility for a global unity in difference.
As a part of activism, most colleges in the United States have begun to adopt Women's Studies and related Gender Studies Departments. Some of the most predominant institutions to boast Women's Studies programs at the undergraduate and graduate level include the UC system (University Of California), universities in Michigan, Wisconsin, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and New York. Their websites are open to the public offering general knowledge and information about the field.
Many Women Studies courses are designed to explore the intersectionality of gender and other topics (i.e., gender and science). In gender and science research, the masculinized sciences are explored and critiqued through the feminist view. For example, Anne Fausto-Sterling, Professor of Biology at Brown University, explores biology through the feminist lens. Through her research, she has published many books on the topic including Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexualit in 2000 and The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female Are Not Enough.
Founded in 1975, UC Irvine's Department of Women's Studies explores the study of women, gender, and sexuality. The department takes an interdisciplinary approach and,"...recognize[s] that mainstream definitions of “normal” men and women are the outcomes of an elaborate and evolving system usually involving ideological conflicts and uneven systems. We look at how masculinity and femininity are not natural, pre-given facts lodged in a clear-cut binary system of biological difference, but are products of cultural processes, processes that are often but not always antagonistic."
A sampling of courses offered at UC Irvine include:
- Gender & Law
The course examines how law can both reproduce and reduce inequality by combining political, economic, and historical perspectives to explore the impact of gender, race, class, and sexuality on the theory and practice of law.
- Gender & Science
This course studies the complex and invisible relationship between gender and science. Students will observe the roles of women and men in the scientific and technical professions, the gendering of "science," "nature," biological theories of sexual inequality, scientific studies of sexual orientation, and feminist critiques of scientific methods and knowledge.
- Gender & Feminism Series
This three course series focuses on how self-identities, sexual desires, families, nationalism, economics, and global politics are shaped from gender and how gender combines these areas with other aspects of the social structure including race, sexuality, class, ethnicity, and religion.
The UCLA Department of Women's Studies has enjoyed recognition for its interinterdisciplinary feminist scholarship on gender, sexuality, race, class, and nationality, and is currently establishing a reputation in the areas of transnational literary and media studies, postcolonial feminist studies, and studies of settler colonialism. The department's goal is to provide students with critical reasoning and analytical skills and a deep appreciation for the complexities of power and asymmetries in matters of gender, class, and culture over time.
- Women Studies 110A Feminist Theory: Perspectives in the Social Sciences
The course explores feminist theorists' attempt to describe, explain, and critique masculinity considering race, ethnicity, class, etc. The topics covered include: feminist theories of masculinity, the male body, childhood and adolescent socialization, male violence, homophobia, black masculinity, and men's movements in the 1970s to current, with special emphasis on approaches and methodologies of social science.
- Women Studies 110B Feminist Theory: Perspectives in the Humanities
This course studies the theoretical positions of women and gender in literature and the arts and analyzes the ways in which women and sexuality have been socially constructed within society, considering the impact of race, ethnicity, class, etc.
UC Santa Cruz
UC Santa Cruz's Feminist Studies Department is one of the largest and most well-regarded gender studies departments in the nation and since 1974, the university has contributed to the development of a body of internationally recognized feminist scholarship. The department examines how relations of gender are embedded in social, political, and cultural foundations. Additionally, UC Santa Cruz's undergraduate program emphasizes theories and practices derived from multiracial and multicultural contexts.
UC Santa Cruz is also home to Angela Davis, an academic popular for promoting the black feminist theory. In 1983, she published Women, Race, and Class and more recently Are Prisoner's Obsolete? in 2003. Like many of her colleagues, Professor Davis worries about the attention and resources afforded to the prison system at the expense of educational institutions. As a result, she has devoted much of her time to advocating for a future without prisons and encouraging others to help forge a 21st century abolitionist movement.
A sampling of 2013 Winter Courses include:
- Feminist Studies 30-01 Feminism and Science
This course examines the nature of scientific practice, the culture of science, and questions the use of responsible practice in science. The course also recognizes the importance of science and technology are the shifting workings of power. Interestingly, this course does not include a feminist critique of science.
- FMST 40 - 01 Sexuality and Globalization
- FMST 211 - 01 Sexuality, Race, and Migration in the Americas
New York University (NYU)
NYU offers six programs in the school's Department of Social and Cultural Analysis, one of which is Gender and Sexuality Studies. The program uses gender and sexuality as a lens to understanding human experience domestically and beyond U.S. borders. The program also challanges the meanings of "male" and "female" and seeks to complicate what is often presented as "natural" or "normal" in traditional academic curricula. Additionally, the Gender and Sexuality Studies challenges a person's privilege to be classified in certain hierarchical categories (i.e., female or heterosexual) over others, along with the social and political implications that follow.
Rutgers offers a variety of options within the Department of Women's & Gender Studies including Undergraduate, Graduate, M.A. and PhD programs. The first classes appeared in 1973 and finally became instated as a listed department and major in 2001. Since the start, Rutgers has become the number one rated school for programs related to Women and Gender Studies by U.S. News. In 2009-2010 alone, just under 3300 students were enrolled in their undergraduate program.
Toni Cade Bambara was a renowned interdisciplinary professor at Rutgers University. She was also an African American writer, filmmaker, and women’s activist. Rutgers showed their appreciation for the late Bambara with a recollection called Savoring the Salt: The Legacy of Toni Cade Bambara. Savoring the Salt ranges from pictures and interviews of Bambara to excerpts from some of her published and unpublished pieces.
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