Women's Studies

Article excerpt


It's been four decades since the first women's studies courses were offered in Canada, and the discipline seems to be hitting its stride. The first credit course in women's studies was offered at the University of Toronto in 1970, and the first degree -granting program was at the University of British Columbia in 1971, a year after San Diego University established the first women's studies program in North America.

In its youth, women's studies was largely concerned with including women in the university by telling their oftenoverlooked stories and by engaging in research that would contribute to women's rights projects. But like any academic program worthy of inclusion in university, women's studies not only had to stake out its place, it also needed to build a foundation upon which to sustain itself in the long term.

And so it has. Its feminist roots have enabled women's studies to engage with critical theory in ways that illuminate the complexity of gendered lives. Sure, the discipline still studies women, but it has pushed the boundaries of its original conception. Combining studies of women's history, literature, philosophy, sociology, psychology and science with cutting-edge postmodern theory, today's women's studies yields vibrant and wide-ranging feminist critiques of gender.

Still, the field is sometimes viewed as suspect for being a relative newcomer to the academy (when compared to centuries -old disciplines like mathematics, history and literature). But it's in good company. The past few decades have seen the rise of many interdisciplinary fields, such as black studies, sexuality studies, social justice studies and diaspora studies.

Recent attacks on women's studies in right-wing segments of the Canadian press have left supporters of the discipline dismayed at the anti- feminist sentiment of an uninformed few. Most notably, National Post columnist Barbara Kay has been vociferous in her tirades against what she sees as a malebashing forum for feminist recruitment. (See Susan G. Cole's column, "Women's Studies Under Attack, in Herizons' Spring 2010 issue.) But feminists have long dealt with such criticisms, and despite the recent spate of negativity about and toward women's studies the discipline itself is thriving in many respects.

Today, most universities in Canada offer women's and/or gender studies undergraduate programs, and enrolments in M. A. and Ph.D. programs are on the rise. Numerous academic journals, feminist presses and student and professional associations support women's studies, and it is among the hottest and most dynamic programs on many campuses. The success of any scholarly discipline is contingent on academic rigour and an active research agenda, and women's studies professors have a long-standing passion for both. The research interests of today's hot scholars are diverse, mapping new territory in studies of sexuality, gender, race, trans nationalism and religion.

Take this year's Canadian Women's Studies Association Book Prize winner, Liz Millward, for example. Her book Women in British Imperial Air Space ·, 1922-1937 (McGiIlQueen's University Press) examines a unique and seldom researched area of women's history. Another up-and-coming researcher, Bobby Noble, associate professor of English and sexuality studies at the school of women's studies at York University, enters into critical engagement with feminist pornography cultures. His work has led to the establishment of the Feminist Porn Archive, a key site for future research in gender and sexuality.

Diverse interests among women's studies faculty play out in classrooms and lecture halls across the country. The range of courses available today is indicative of both a rich feminist history and a third- wave sensibility that pushes the boundaries of critical thinking. In many programs, conventional course titles like Introduction to Women and Gender, Feminist Theory and Canadian Women's History are offered alongside courses like Indigenous Cinema: De-Colonizing the Screen (University of Victoria), Debates on Feminism and Islam (Queen's University), Bad Girls and Transgressive Women (University of Prince Edward Island) and Nags, Housewives and Sluts: Language and Women's Place (University of Windsor). …