I just registered for my first Women’s Studies class! I’m super excited, of course, because I’m seriously considering majoring in Women’s Studies, but there is a downside to this decision, should I follow through. Aside from the horrible cliché of being a lesbian who goes to a women’s college and majors in Women’s Studies, there is a large percentage of people on this planet who are unclear about what exactly “Women’s Studies” entails! And I am afraid that some of those people might be in my extended family, which would complicate the annual “school-love-sports-future” interrogation at family reunions.
In preparation for that moment when I am forced to say “Women’s Studies Major” and watch the slow, wide-eyed nod, tilt of the head, pursed lips and momentary glance in any other direction, I am going to clarify what exactly Women’s Studies entails.
It is NOT the biological or psychological study of the female human being. It is NOT a club for feminists who want to rant and complain about how bad women have it. It is also NOT the study and indoctrination of man-hatred.
Rather, Women’s Studies is an examination of gender inequality in the past and the present, as well as the roles that women play. Which is to say, it is an examination of gender and how its construction takes root beneath our feet.
Why, then, is it called Women’s Studies and not Gender Studies? I’ve occasionally seen the name extended to include “Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies,” and I believe that is a more comprehensively accurate description of the field. However it is generally just called Women’s Studies because the examination of gender often follows the lives of women, since that is where issues of gender inequality usually pop up, both in history and in current events!
Consider this counter-definition of Women’s Studies (called so because it is maddeningly inaccurate) written by Bruce Bawer in his article titled “Women’s Studies and the Spread of Man Hatred.” After having just described a single instance of angry feminist protesting outside a lecture hall, he continues:
Alas, this is the true face of Women’s Studies – a “discipline” that, at its core, has nothing whatsoever to do with education in any objective sense and everything to do with the inculcation of an unreasoning enmity for an entire sex (and that includes inculcating self-hatred in young men).
He goes on to describe the young protesters as “authoritarian thugs” who are “pointlessly angry” and have been somehow indoctrinated by their professors into an “ideology of hate.” It is an excellent example of an intelligently written but stubbornly ignorant rejection of feminism and Women’s Studies.
If you read the article, you will notice that his argument centers entirely around the anger the protesters are feeling and displaying, but does not directly address any of the reasons for that anger, except to diminish them. In so ignoring those reasons, he failed to address the point of Women’s Studies and therefore failed to successfully argue against it.
If he had referenced a video in which we see a professor lecturing on man-hatred, that might have driven his point home. But he did not, which brings me to my first point.
Taking Women’s Studies classes often causes people to become angry, but the classes themselves do not teach anger. They teach awareness and critical observation. That some people become angry when they learn about the construction of gender and how harmful it can be is understandable, but that is an individual experience, not a definition of the entire discipline.
In addition, the point of studying gender construction and inequality is not to place blame on the entire privileged sex, although that is how it often manifests in students of the discipline. The point is simply to notice and understand it better so that we may take steps toward deconstructing and solving the problems!
As much as we like to believe that men are the problem (because it gives us a more concrete problem to solve), they aren’t really. Men today are also “victims” of gender construction; their constructed gender simply has more privilege, so they don’t fight it. Certainly, once upon a time, men came up with these stupid rules. But the modern man did not! Men were taught gender roles just like women were. So when feminists rage against the Patriarchy, they are not raging against men as a sex; they are raging against the abstract notion that men can have privileges women don’t, and the frustrating challenge of convincing individual men to stop taking advantage of and perpetuating those privileges, however convenient they may be.
As a personal side-note, if I may be so bold, Feminism and Women’s Studies are really the practical and relevant extensions of a broader field of philosophical theory: the construction of culture, and within that, the mythology of gender. But this is something we don’t really have a discipline for, because it’s too broad and has in its entirety no worldly application. So we break it up into manageable bits.
In the name of re-claiming our culture and escaping the limiting confines of age-old rules, we teach Women’s Studies and preach Feminism, because it is a field of philosophy which is immediately relevant and applicable to our lives.
So… I guess I should come up with a shorter summary of this for my uncles.
- On The Social Construction of Gender (ucsc.uloop.com)
- Workshop on Feminist Theories: Indian Contexts (knowledgesteez.wordpress.com)
- Has Feminism Gone the way of Hansel and Gretel? A Feminist Response To “The Social Construction of Gender” (mtholyoke.uloop.com)
- Women’s Studies and the Spread of Man-Hatred (frontpagemag.com)
- I am a feminist (manbehindthecurtain.ie)
- Resource: Reading List for Non-Western Feminism (feministphilosophers.wordpress.com)