In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, many campuses across the United States were relatively quiet while new political ideas were taking shape. The women's movement was gaining momentum as issues of unequal pay for men and women, unequal access to managerial jobs and other aspects of gender inequality and sex discrimination became national issues. At numerous colleges and universities, this emerging awareness manifested itself with the introduction of women's studies courses and a major.
When the National Women's Studies Association (NWSA) was created in 1977, 319 women's studies programs, offering courses such as women and economics, feminist texts and psychology of women, were represented. Despite tremendous growth over the years--NWSA currently has 768 member institutions in its database and estimates there are at least another 200 in the United States that are not members--programs and departments are still called upon by institutions to defend their purpose and right to exist.
The reality is women's studies has become entrenched, although there are certainly still challenges to overcome, and the discipline in 2009 has evolved and broadened its scope to address racial, social justice and, increasingly, sexuality issues.
Once perceived as a major that drew White middle-class and upper-middle-class women, it now holds enormous appeal to women of color. This is perhaps reflective of the expanded areas of study, particularly international issues.
Three types of people are attracted to an undergraduate major in women's studies, says Dr. David G. Allen, chair of the Women Studies Department at the University of Washington, which offers both undergraduate and graduate programs. The first group of majors are those who have witnessed sexism and misogyny firsthand, either in their own families, on the job or in another setting. They come to women's studies comfortable with the language of feminism. The second group, he says, may often feel uncomfortable with the very word feminist but have an interest in the lives of women.
"Then there's another group that comes in because they're looking for a site in the university that is articulated with social activism," Allen says. "The form that activism takes isn't necessarily feminist. It might be homelessness. It might be prison issues. But they're looking for an academic site that both values and advances a social justice agenda.
"We think that more and more of them are also either coming to or arriving with a set of interests around anti-racism" he continues. "There's a second wave of feminism by women of color to consistently link racialization and gender."
The same appears to be so at the University of Connecticut. "We focus much more on the intersectionality of gender with race, class, sexuality and other inequalities" says Dr. Manisha Desai, director of the UConn women's studies program. "The other is the increase in the transnational aspects of women's studies. My own research is transnational feminism."
Christine A. Littleton, a professor of law and women's studies and chair of the women's studies department at the University of California, Los Angeles, sees incredible diversity in ethnicity and nationality among the women's studies majors and graduate students at UCLA, but says that may be attributed to the kind of student population that UCLA attracts. Unquestionably, as women's studies has matured as a field of study, more and more diverse influences have contributed to the discourse.
"Black feminism, Chicano feminism, global feminism, transnational feminism--those have really enriched both the curriculum and our understanding of what counts as women's studies," she says. "Unity doesn't mean uniformity.
"Gender plays out differently in different socioeconomic classes, in different racial communities, in different geographic locations, but it always does make a difference" she says. …