SINCE the first women's studies program began at San Diego State
University 23 years ago, critics have disparaged the discipline
with terms ranging from unintellectual, touchy-feely stuff to
propaganda and oppression studies.
Not only did they trivialize it, but "many people thought it was
a fad," says Caryn McTighe Musil, a senior research associate for
the Association of American Colleges in Washington.
But instead of fading into obscurity, women's studies continues
to crop up on campus after campus, and scholars in the field say it
has affected many other disciplines.
"Women's studies has had an indelible impact on the curriculum
... especially in the humanities and social sciences," says Sally
Kitch, director of the Center for Women's Studies at Ohio State
University in Columbus, Ohio. "The research and scholarship of
women's studies have penetrated in those fields so that it's
impossible not to think about gender issues."
For example, says Linda Wilson, president of Radcliffe College
in Cambridge, Mass., the machines of the Industrial Revolution were
invented to take advantage of cheap female and child labor. But
material written about the period usually focuses on working men.
"If you begin to look at women's role in it, it transforms one's
understanding of the whole Industrial Revolution, and that's
happened in area after area," Ms. Wilson says.
These pedagogical changes are occurring partly because women's
studies have seeped into mainstream course offerings. Over the past
five to 10 years, more institutions has included such courses in
their general-education requirements, says Wendy Kolmar, director
of women's studies at Drew University in Madison, N.J. "You're
reaching a more diverse body of students than when it's purely an
elective," she says.
Today two-thirds of universities, one-half of four-year
colleges, and one-quarter of two-year colleges offer
women's-studies courses. There are 621 programs - an increase of 20
percent from the last count in 1988.
Some of the strongest programs are found at big state
universities. Many of the Ivy League and private women's colleges
established programs much later, Ms. Kolmar says. "I think that a
lot of the women's colleges had kind of a sense that they didn't
need to do women's studies because they already in some ways lived
it," she says. "A lot of the state universities were much more
conscious of needing to do things for their women students."
A women's-studies program typically consists of an
interdisciplinary introduction to the field that incorporates
theory and research methodology. Other courses might include the
sociology of gender, women in literature, and women's history.
Women's-studies scholars say their subject has been doing for
the past 20 years what many educational-reform reports are now
recommending. "Women's studies can answer some of the questions we
have been seeking for revitalizing our educational system and
increasing the quality of it," Ms. Musil says.
These findings were discovered in the first study of women's
studies classes. "The Courage to Question: Women's Studies and
Student Learning" is the recently published report of a three-year
study involving hundreds of faculty members and thousands of
students at seven colleges. …