Women's Studies Classes and Their Influence on Student Development

Article excerpt

College-level women's studies classes in the United States were first offered in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with the intent of remediating academia's long-standing androcentrism (Brush, Gold, & White, 1978). Research and teaching were accused of being based on white, middle-class male perspectives and experiences, and women's studies-like its older relative, ethnic studies - presented an opportunity to explore traditional topics from alternative viewpoints. As the women's movement uncovered increasing evidence of bias in a variety of domains, its academic representatives began remediation by exposing bias in research and curricula, as well as by reexploring issues from a female perspective (Brush, Gold, & White, 1978). At that time, and throughout the 1980s, a primary goal was to integrate this more inclusive body of knowledge into traditional courses. Although the virtue of such an approach is apparent, women's studies classes are now recognized by feminist scholars as valuable in their own right and are expected to continue making independent contributions to students' education and development (National Women's Studies Association [NWSA], 1996).

The present paper explores how women's studies classes differ from traditional classes and how they contribute to student development. The literature on the structure and focus of women's studies classes is reviewed, and empirical findings regarding their influence on students are discussed. Finally, suggestions are made for future research on the influence of women's studies on students' psychological development.


Women's studies classes are found primarily in the same subject areas as traditional classes, such as psychology, history, and philosophy. However, the social construction of gender is a central theme. Further, gender is viewed as inextricable from race, ethnicity, nationality, social class, age, sexual orientation, and ability.

The previously marginalized perspectives of different women are moved to the center, which distinguishes women's studies classes from traditional ones (NWSA, 1996). Feminist philosophy is heavily reflected in these classes. Feminist scholars (e.g., Reinharz, 1992) contend that one cannot accurately speak for an "other"; to be properly understood, women's experiences must be provided by women, in their own words. Thus, there are no "facts," but rather the presentation of the individual's subjective perspective, which is open to critique, discussion, and new interpretation.

Traditional teaching methods are often abandoned in favor of alternative approaches to acquiring, framing, and transmitting information (NWSA, 1996). A primary method is personalized learning (Musil, 1992a). Students are encouraged to relate what they are learning in class to their personal lives. As the material becomes personally relevant, students gain an awareness of social constructions of gender, which can contribute to a sense of empowerment and a motivation to work toward change. Personalized learning is encouraged through subjective assignments, such as individual journals, collaborative projects, position papers, and practical applications of class material (NWSA, 1996).

Women's studies classes are typically characterized by a more cooperative learning environment than are traditional classes. Communion and dialogue are encouraged. Class seating is often arranged in a circle, removing the instructor from a physical position of dominance. The decentralization of authority in the classroom opens students to their own authority and to the realization that they can teach as well as learn. As a result, students can learn much more than the psychology or history of women; indeed, their personal and professional development may be profoundly influenced (NWSA, 1996).

Musil (1992a), reporting the findings from a multiple-institution assessment project, indicated that women's studies classes affect students in several ways. For instance, students reported discovering their own "voices." Further, they learned to acknowledge differences while simultaneously building connections. Women's studies classes were also found to contribute to student empowerment, but at the same time to foster a sense of commitment and responsibility: "students in non-women's studies courses usually felt their courses would help them function better in the world; in women's studies courses, they felt their courses would help them change the world" (Musil, p. 203).

The pedagogical techniques used in women's studies classes were found to contribute to critical thinking (Musil, 1992a). Because of exposure to feminist criticism of androcentrism in academia, students became aware that material in other classes was not as objective as they might otherwise have thought. Thus, they learned to examine all information with a critical eye.

In a comprehensive national investigation (Luebke & Reilly, 1995), graduates reported that women's studies did not just educate them, it changed them. For example, one graduate said that women's studies helps to prepare the individual "to be a competent and successful person - one who can think, express herself/himself, confidently take on a project, make decisions. That is the person who will be able to enter the work world and succeed even as things change" (p. 183).

Such changes in women's studies students raise questions about psychological effects. Since it has been asserted that these students are challenged intellectually and emotionally (Musil, 1992a), several researchers have explored accompanying psychological transformations.


Although there is some related literature on the psychological influence of single-sex education (e.g., Burgers, 1994), relatively little research has explored psychological changes in women's studies students. Joesting and Whitehead (1976) found that women's studies students were more creative than were female athletes (golfers). However, because subjects included those who chose to take a women's studies course, the results might reflect self-selection bias. Research on the influence of women's studies thus needs to include pretest as well as posttest measures. To date, such measures have been used to explore students' attitudes toward women, job motivation, and self-esteem.

Scott, Richards, and Wade (1977) used a pretest/posttest design to investigate the influence of women's studies on students' attitudes toward women. One hundred seventy-six students at two midwestern institutions were administered the Spense and Helmreich Attitude Toward Women Scale before and after taking either an introductory women's studies class or a psychology (control) class. This 55-item scale measures attitudes toward women's marital, intellectual, vocational, and sex roles. Results revealed that women's studies students at both the liberal arts college and the state university became more liberal in their attitudes toward women, whereas the control students showed no change.

Bargad and Hyde (1991) also reported changes in attitudes among women's studies students. They administered their Feminist Identity Development Scale, which assesses attitudes toward women's roles and feminist ideals, to female students in an introductory women's studies class and to female control students who were on waiting lists for women's studies courses. They found an increase in feminist identity, from the beginning to the end of the academic term, for the women's studies students but not for the controls.

Brush, Gold, and White (1978), however, reported mixed results regarding feminist attitudes. They explored changes in self-concept, sex-role attitudes, and sex-role stereotypes of women's studies and non-women's studies female students over a two-year period. Changes in self-concept were found among women's studies students the first year of data collection but not the second; increases in feminist beliefs were found the second year but not the first.

Ruble, Croke, Frieze, and Parsons (1975) studied students' attitudes toward women in more depth. They administered a sex-role attitude inventory to 46 undergraduate women's studies students and 19 undergraduate developmental psychology students during the first and last weeks of classes. They found that traditional attitudes decreased more for the women's studies students than for the psychology students. The attitudes of women's studies students were most likely to change in the domains of traditional roles of women, nonstereotypic beliefs, and perception of sex discrimination. However, they were less likely to experience changes in regard to future plans, as well as distrust and dislike of women.

Zuckerman (1983) explored students' future plans. Questionnaires assessing educational goals, career goals, and plans for marriage and children were administered to female students in five women's studies classes and five non-women's studies classes at the beginning and again at the end of the academic term. All ten classes were taught by professors with similar feminist credentials to reduce confounds. Analyses revealed that the women's studies students had slightly less traditional future plans than did the control students at both pretest and posttest. The goals of first- and second-year women's studies students became more traditional during the term, while the control students' goals became less traditional. Further, the career goals of women's studies upperclasswomen were more traditional than were those of their younger counterparts, and their plans did not change significantly during the term.

Stake and Gerner (1987) administered measures of educational and occupational goals to 212 female and 38 male women's studies students and 101 female and 35 male non-women's studies students at the beginning and end of the academic term. Greater increases in job motivation and job certainty were found for the women's studies students as compared with the control students.

Stake and Gerner (1987) also explored changes in students' self-esteem. Women's studies students had higher posttest scores on the Performance Self-Esteem Scale and showed greater increases in self-esteem over time than did the controls. No significant gender differences were found, suggesting that women's studies classes may act as a change agent for males as well as females.

A self-esteem measure (Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale) was also included in the Zuckerman (1983) study. Results were less positive regarding the agency of women's studies. Although women's studies upperclasswomen showed an increase in self-esteem over the course of the term, women's studies underclasswomen showed a decrease. Non-women's studies underclasswomen, in contrast, showed a small increase. Data on students' previous women's studies coursework and whether they were majoring or minoring in women's studies, which might be important factors, were not presented.

It has been claimed that women's studies students are transformed (NWSA, 1996) and, indeed, many students agree (e.g., Luebke & Reilly, 1995; Musil, 1992b). Yet, relatively few investigations have addressed psychological changes in women's studies students, and those discussed above do not allow for much generalizability. Many factors have yet to be explored and few variables have been taken into account in regard to the influence of women's studies classes on student development.


In discussing the results of a seven-institution study on the influence of women's studies classes, Musil (1992a) asserted that there are relationships between late adolescents' identity development and the kinds of issues raised in these classes. However, no validated identity development inventories were used as a pretest/posttest measure. Such identity development inventories would need to take into account various domains. Erikson (1968) specified occupation, religion, political ideology, and sex roles, but other domains should also be assessed, including race, social class, and sexual orientation. Gender identity in particular may be influenced by women's studies classes.

Women's studies programs often emphasize differences among women. This focus on diversity may have implications for the identity development of students who are ethnic or racial minorities, lesbians or gays, disabled, older, or of low socioeconomic status. A variety of models and tools are available for understanding and assessing changes in these facets of identity; for example, Atkinson, Morten, and Sue's (1989) Minority Identity Development Model; Brady and Busse's (1994) Gay Identity Questionnaire; and Cross's (1971) Nigrescence Model. Finally, Musil (1992a) suggested investigating the relationship between the development of the self and the development of a sense of community.

Another issue is the level of development that students have already achieved prior to taking women's studies classes. Paludi and Tronto (1992) reported that students needed to establish a sense of identity before being capable of thinking critically or of finding and expressing their own "voices" - two things that are typically fostered in women's studies classes. Explaining the decline in self-esteem of women's studies underclasswomen, Zuckerman (1983) suggested that these younger students may be gaining awareness rather than building self-esteem. This is consistent with Downing and Roush's (1985) theory of feminist identity development, which asserts that females at lower stages are just becoming aware of sex discrimination. Indeed, the NWSA (1996) pointed out that students' first women's studies class is often an eye-opening experience. Yet, few studies have included students' previous college experience, amount of women's studies coursework, age, or level of feminist identity development as variables in their analyses. Zuckerman's (1983) study suggests that such variables might account for some of the differences between students.

Research has not explored whether students majoring or minoring in women's studies differ from those who take only one or two classes. For example, they may have chosen to follow this academic course because of a strong feminist orientation. Any such differences should be assessed and included in further analyses. In addition, women's studies classes might influence graduate and undergraduate students differently, and studies are needed, particularly regarding the influence of graduate-level classes on student development (as of 1990, 102 institutions offered graduate coursework in women's studies; NWSA, 1996).

Future research should also assess student development during the pursuit of a women's studies degree (both undergraduate and graduate programs). Brush, Gold, and White (1978) and Zuckerman (1983) suggested that women's studies classes may have latent effects in addition to immediate ones. Thus, they recommended longer-term assessments to identify changes taking place after graduation.

The type of institution and class size should be taken into account. Women's studies classes at a women's college may be different from those at a coeducational university, and smaller class size may be more conducive to feminist teaching styles. In addition, at women's colleges, female-oriented material may already be mainstreamed into non-women's studies courses, as is the case at Smith College (Schuster & Van Dyne, 1985). Some coeducational institutions (e.g., Lewis and Clark College) are also committed to being gender-inclusive across their curriculum (Finke, Maveety, Shaw, & Ward, 1992). Such variables may mediate the relationship between women's studies classes and student development.

Along the same lines, minority-dominated colleges might influence student development in different ways than would more integrated colleges. Women's studies philosophy asserts that gender identity development does not occur independently of other factors, such as race (NWSA, 1996). Therefore, women's studies classes at a black women's college and at a mixed-race coeducational university might influence development differently. Butler (1985) has suggested that women's studies classes do not always sufficiently address racial diversity, which is further reason to distinguish between minority and majority-white colleges when exploring developmental issues. None of the studies reviewed analyzed race or sexual orientation, yet such factors might mediate the degree of which women's studies classes foster student development.

Zuckerman (1983) suggested that distinctions also be made between elite and less-elite colleges when studying the impact of women's studies classes on students. Indeed, Brush, Gold, and White (1978) pointed out that "colleges differ in the kind of atmosphere they provide for change and in the kind of students they select (and who select them). The difference in context should be closely examined before inter-college comparisons are made" (p. 881). In short, future explorations into the influence of women's studies on student development need to account for a number of moderating variables.

A final question concerning the ways in which women's studies classes influence student development addresses gender differences themselves: Are females and males affected differently? The limited literature suggests that it does. Musil (1992a) offered three ways in which women's studies classes influence male students: males develop friendships with females; their awareness of gendered power relations increases; and although they may initially resist the course content, they are transformed in a way that allows them to appreciate the material both personally and intellectually. Stake and Gerner (1987) unexpectedly found that the male students in women's studies classes experienced greater gains in self-esteem, job confidence, and job motivation than did the non-women's studies control males. Stake and Gerner suggested that males with nontraditional sex-role orientations may choose women's studies classes, which in turn validate their perspectives. Research into why males choose to take women's studies classes (or why females do, for that matter) would provide greater insight into the ways in which these classes foster student development.


It has been asserted that women's studies classes provide students with more than just a set of facts about women. These classes help students to find and use their own "voices." Part of a feminist teaching approach is to allow students to express their perspectives in their own words (Luebke & Reilly, 1995; Musil, 1992b). Women's studies students also are assisted in developing critical thinking skills, and they learn to work and communicate with others more effectively (Musil, 1992a).

However, the literature on the influence of women's studies classes on student development is quite limited, and the qualitative approaches used often have had weaknesses (e.g., self-selection of subjects). Follow-up assessments of the psychological changes that take place in diverse populations of female and male students at different institutions and academic levels are needed.

Because college students typically struggle with their sense of self (Erikson, 1968), the classes they take may influence their identity development. To determine the extent to which women's studies and non-women's studies classes have an effect, a variety of identity development measures should be employed. Data should be further analyzed for differences between female and male students; students of different racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds, educational levels, ages, and sexual orientations; and students at different types of educational institutions.

The author is grateful to Katherine Kipp, Judith Preissle, and Wythe Whiting for their suggestions and support during the preparation of this paper.


Atkinson, D. R., Morten, G., & Sue, D. W. (1989). A minority identity development model. In D. R. Atkinson, G. Morten, & D. W. Sue (Eds.), Counseling American minorities (pp. 35-52). Dubuque, IA: W. C. Brown.

Bargad, A., & Hyde, J. S. (1991). Women's studies: A study of feminist identity development in women. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 15, 181-201.

Brady, S., & Busse, W. J. (1994). The Gay Identity Questionnaire: A brief measure of homosexual identity formation. Journal of Homosexuality, 26(4), 1-22.

Brush, L. R., Gold, A. R., & White, M. G. (1978). The paradox of intention and effect: A women's studies course. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 3(4), 870-883.

Burgers, K. E. (1994). College women's psychosocial development. Georgia Journal of College Student Affairs, 9(1), 6-11.

Butler, J. E. (1985). Complicating the question: Black studies and women's studies. In M. R. Schuster & S. R. Van Dyne (Eds.), Women's place in the academy: Transforming the liberal arts curriculum (pp. 73-84). New Jersey: Rowman & Allanheld.

Cross, W. E., Jr. (1971). The Negro-to-black conversion experience: Towards a psychology of black liberation. Black World, 20, 13-27.

Downing, N. E., & Roush, K. L. (1985). From passive acceptance to active commitment: A model of feminist identity development for women. The Counseling Psychologist, 13(4), 695-709.

Erikson, E. H. (1968). Identity: Youth and crisis. New York: Norton.

Finke, L., Maveety, E., Shaw, C., & Ward, J. (1992). Lewis and Clark College: A single curriculum. In C. M. Musil (Ed.), The courage to question (pp. 43-81). Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges.

Joesting, J., & Whitehead, G. I., III. (1976). Comparison of women's studies students with female golf star athletes on the 16 PF. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 42, 477-478.

Luebke, B. F., & Reilly, M. E. (1995). Women's studies graduates: The first generation. New York: Teachers College.

Musil, C. M. (Ed.). (1992a). The courage to question. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges.

Musil, C. M. (Ed.). (1992b). Students at the center: Feminist assessment. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges.

National Women's Studies Association. (1996). Liberal learning and the women's studies major: A report to the profession. College Park, MD: Author.

Paludi, M., & Tronto, J. (1992). CUNY-Hunter College: Feminist education. In C. M. Musil (Ed.), The courage to question (pp. 133-155). Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges.

Reinharz, S. (1992). Feminist methods in social research. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ruble, D. N., Croke, J. A., Frieze, I., & Parsons, J. E. (1975). A field study of sex-role attitude change in college women. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 5(2), 110-117.

Schuster, M. R., & Van Dyne, S. R. (1985). Beyond departmental boundaries. In M. R. Schuster & S. R. Van Dyne (Eds.), Women's place in the academy: Transforming the liberal arts curriculum (pp. 98-115). New Jersey: Rowman & Allanheld.

Scott, R., Richards, A., & Wade, M. (1977). Women's studies as change agent. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 1(4), 377-379.

Stake, J. E., & Gerner, M. A. (1987). The women's studies experience: Personal and professional gains for women and men. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 11, 277-284.

Zuckerman, D. M. (1983). Women's studies, self-esteem, and college women's plans for the future. Sex Roles, 9(5), 633-641. at p [less t