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Women’s Studies: Don’t You Mean Gender Studies?

| August 21, 2014

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Photo credit: Laura Blais

Working as a professor of Women’s Studies for the last 20 years has been a joyful and purpose-driven experience. I often lightheartedly explain my job as one that encourages me to see the world through my own eyes, using my gendered perspective to research, write, and teach. When I’m at conferences or university gatherings and I’m introduced as a Women’s Studies professor, there are two characteristic responses. First, people have a hard time believing that the Black woman standing before them is a university professor, and second, they are curious as to why Women’s Studies. And it is that second reaction that stimulates further questions: what is Women’s Studies; is there a men’s studies; why Women’s Studies and not African American Studies; do women need to be studied; and so why not make it Gender Studies, so men can be included. The questions vary, depending on the person’s curiosity. However, the seemingly innocent and nonthreatening question that is constant and ever-present is: “Why Women’s Studies and not Gender Studies so that you can include men?”

This essay is my response to these questions and is simultaneously an open letter to my sisters in the academy, many of whom have lost that loving feeling for the comprehensive category of “woman” and the all-inclusive concept of Women’s Studies. My answers to these frequently posed queries come easily and from much practice.

First, Women’s Studies is an academic area that examines history, society, politics, and other fields using a feminist lens. I believe that when there is no feminist lens and no empathic perspective that acknowledges that one-half of the population is female, something is missing. Such an omission is not only impertinent, but it can be life-threatening. For example, medical researchers and practitioners did not realize for years that women heart patients who were in coronary distress typically exhibited different warning symptoms than male patients. Quite simply, when you are not represented at the metaphorical table, then your needs are rarely discussed or fully considered.

I’m in Women’s Studies because I find all things pertaining to women endlessly fascinating. I research issues related to women because these matters are under-explored and I know that my presence and voice, especially as a Black woman, are needed. Moreover, I’m in Women’s Studies because I’m brave, as historically in this interdisciplinary academic field most of the women are White, as was first proclaimed in the groundbreaking text All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies (Hull, Bell-Scott, & Smith, 1982). And finally, yes, Virginia, there is a men’s studies. It’s called the university.

Now, on to the ubiquitous inquiry of why not Gender Studies: this is a major issue that looms large for me. At the National Women’s Studies Association annual conference, when I refer to my program, I am routinely asked why we have yet to change our name to Gender and Women’s Studies or Gender Studies and Sexuality, or some variation thereof, with the implication being that the suggested titles are more progressive and superior in their philosophical grounding. This was a question that my former Dean asked me when, after 15 years as a Women’s Studies professor, I was applying to be the Director of the Institute for Women’s Studies at the University of Georgia. Even though I was aware that my program was considering a name change, I made it very clear that I was opposed to such an alteration. As I explained in my interview, “I get it. As a scholar, I understand the impetus for the name change. But my scholarship is only one facet of who I am in the world and of what I hope to accomplish. I am a woman. I simply do gender.” What I meant by that is that gender is a performance, a system that is a socially constructed classification (or more accurately a continuum) into which both genders fit. 

I prefer to be represented by the descriptor Women’s Studies because I believe that there is strength and beautiful completeness in the word and concept “woman.” Women’s Studies is about me and about my sisters across the globe. Having the name Women’s Studies boldly centers women as the focus of the discussion, research, and teaching, communicating our mission: we give systematic attention to issues of gender, race, class, and sexuality through our research, teaching, and service. Of course, we include men in our work, because of their essentiality and because it is necessary for the thoroughness of our work. However, the perspective remains continuously and consistently woman-centered and feminist.

To add gender and/or sexuality to our Women’s Studies name not only gives preference or primacy to particular issues that are already included, but succeeds in compartmentalizing Women’s Studies. I am reminded of how in the 1980s and 1990s programs such as African American Studies, Latino Studies, and Native American Studies at major research universities across the U.S. were subsumed under wide-ranging departments called Ethnic Studies or Area Studies, which were often administrative solutions to combine resources, both student and faculty, and to allegedly promote inclusivity. In the process, there were programs that sacrificed their identities, lost their political standpoints, failed to attract new students, and eventually closed. Currently, a similar trend appears to be underway in Women’s Studies as programs adopt the new identity of Gender and Sexuality Studies to purportedly portray more theoretical grounding and broader inclusiveness. However, as the Director of the Institute for Women’s Studies, I take pride in our Women’s Studies moniker and understand that it makes us uniquely identifiable.

Lastly, as I travel the world outside of my academic environs, whether I am with a group of women at a leadership forum at the local community college, with Massai women in Tanzania, or speaking to a Brownie troop at the local elementary school, the audience understands the term woman/women. I have never had to explain the concept or justify why I study and teach about women. The terms are universal and wonderfully complete, not giving favor to or pigeonholing any aspect of our existence. With the term woman/women, there is no focus on the theoretical, socially constructed concept of gender, at the risk of taking the power from the political strength that the classification of woman conveys. Quite simply, we are because we are. I invite you to sit with it for a while and embrace the wholeness.

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