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Women's Studies

Offerings Origins and Organization, Intellectual Contours

Women's studies is an interdisciplinary field of inquiry that arose in the early 1970s. Within thirty years, it developed into a recognized discipline with undergraduate majors, masters and doctorates programs, university departments and programs, a scholarly literature of books and journals, and professional associations. The origins of women's studies are multiple, the scope and nature of the inquiry extensive, and its relationships to other campus and community organizations related to women and gender diverse.

Offerings Origins and Organization

The first courses in women's studies were taught at Cornell University and San Diego State University in 1969. They were undergraduate offerings, team taught, and provided overviews of the issues that arose out of the women's liberation movement.

The landscape of higher education changed dramatically in the 1960s as larger numbers of women and minorities entered the professorate and the number and size of institutions grew. Many of the women who entered the academy in the next decade had been influenced by the women's movement and undertook research on women. Thus, scholarship on women grew in the existing disciplines and was designated as feminist scholarship. However, many of the questions that arose fell outside the bounds of disciplines as they were defined then. The field of women's studies emerged as the site for investigating these questions, forging new subject matter, employing multiple research methodologies, and experimenting with pedagogies that took into account gender differences in learning styles. Women's studies refers to the campus administrative unit and concentration of courses covering this material on women.

Women's studies grew rapidly in the 1970s, so that by the end of the decade, the National Women's Studies Association counted some 200 programs offering undergraduate minors and majors. A typical major consisted of an introductory course, courses on women selected from cooperating departments, and a capstone seminar. Many included internships that enabled students to experience first hand the issues community women encountered. The introductory course covered some aspects of women's history, an examination of quantitative research on women's status, selected reading of literary works by women, and attention to issues largely absent from the overall curriculum. These issues centered on the oppression of women, sexual assault, questions of marriage and family, the professional advancement of women, pay equity, and representations of women in media, among other topics. Courses offered by departments–The Psychology of Women, for example–constituted the majority of courses for the major. Some programs and departments were able to offer special topics courses (i.e., Images of Girls in Literature) or additional core courses (i.e., Feminist Methods, Feminist Theories). Most programs attempted to offer a research seminar as a capstone course, enabling majors and minors to come together for research and reflection.

As programs became departments and as departments grew, the course offerings of the major changed to reflect the emergent scholarship. Courses on identities and differences among women, courses with a global focus, courses that linked with other new fields (cultural studies, American studies, popular culture, media studies, ethnic studies, gay and lesbian studies, queer studies) all emerged in the 1980s and 1990s. The most significant shifts in course offerings at the undergraduate level occurred in the 1990s as the study of gender and of race were added to the study of women.

Feminist scholarship on women grappled with the question of gender, that is, of the relationships among men and women, masculinity and femininity, and social power. Research revealed that new information and interpretations about women forced a reframing of what was known about men and masculinities at any given time or place. Advocates of research on gender argued that the expanded focus enabled scholars to see the sex/gender system holistically. Other scholars and many activists argued that a focus on gender buried a concern with the inequalities women still suffered in society and therefore did not advance an agenda of social change. By 2000 women's studies programs numbered nearly 800; most had added a concern with gender to their teaching and research missions while retaining a focus on women's inequality.

Equally important to the origins and offerings of women's studies through its short history has been the question of identities, particularly those that are race based. While the initial scholarship focused on the ways in which all women had suffered injustices, research as well as experience quickly revealed the obvious fact that there were substantial differences among women that bore investigation. African-American women and lesbian women advocated greater attention to the ways in which being female was interwoven with other identities, demonstrating that each combination was reflected and refracted in the social world in a distinct way. Developing the conceptual tools as well as the methods to investigate these multiple manifestations of woman became the focus of scholarship.

Just as the undergraduate subject matter of women's studies became more complex over time, the relationship of programs and departments to other campus units diversified. There are two primary sets of relationships, one with campus women's centers and the other with graduate schools. On most campuses, either a women's studies program, usually housed in academic affairs, or a women's center, usually housed within a division of student affairs, came first. The unit that was created first was seen by the campus community as the place for women's issues to be handled and efforts to establish additional units to deal with the multifaceted needs of women students, faculty, and staff often had to compete for resources. Because their origins are distinct, their administrative homes different, their missions discrete, and occasionally their audiences separate, the relationships between women's studies and women's centers vary from campus to campus.

Graduate programs, arising in the 1980s, were structured much like undergraduate programs, with core requirements, courses selected from other departments, and an emphasis on either research or practicum to prepare students for careers. The Ph.D. in women's studies emerged in the 1990s. In the United States, M.A. and Ph.D. programs tended to be organized around issue clusters and offered students opportunities to enter the professorate as well as to assume research positions in government, corporate, and non-profit sectors. In Europe, Japan, Latin America, and the United Kingdom, undergraduate degrees in women's studies were less common and graduate research degrees more frequent.

Intellectual Contours

Women's studies scholarship is in its most basic form an epistemological endeavor. It asks teachers, students, and researchers to develop a reflective critical consciousness whose goal is not only to inform, but also to transform what one knows and how one knows it. To accomplish this goal, it uses a wide variety of methodological approaches and investigates questions at the center of women's lives, questions that have not been central to formal knowledge systems. This innovativeness raises a series of intellectual debates. For some, these debates are a sign of vigor, for others a quagmire. The central topics for debate include the meaning of interdisciplinarity, the relevance of feminist scholarship, the relationship of scholarship to activism, and the utility of various feminist theories.

Women's studies claims to be an interdisciplinary discipline. For some, interdisciplinary refers to the fact that the questions and methods used in teaching and research are drawn from two or more of the traditional disciplines, whether by one person or a team. For others, interdisciplinary is more specifically defined as the intersection of questions and methods that are used in combination to arrive at new knowledge. For those who see interdisciplinarity in this way, it is not additive but transformative: the methods employed to investigate a subject come from the question that is asked and the question derives from the goals of the researcher or teacher.

Thus, interdisciplinary women's studies scholars use methods and approach questions in distinct combinations, often viewed as nontraditional. This approach requires that scholars balance the breadth of the tools and queries they utilize with the need for depth in analysis.

For those outside the field, the most commonly asked question is why women's studies? The question is asked from a least two different standpoints. In the 1970s, colleagues in other disciplines frequently claimed that women's studies was unnecessary. They claimed that any of the questions pursued in women's studies could be handled by the extant disciplines. Women's studies scholars countered that such questions had not been–and were unlikely to be–addressed without a separate site for the production of knowledge about women. The subject matter of women's studies is distinctive: it places women and gender at the center and analyzes practices, contexts, and ideologies from that standpoint.

Given the institutional successes of women's studies, the why women's studies question has taken a second form. At least three decades after the founding of this field of study, the claim is made that the questions of discrimination and agency that are foundational to the field are now resolved and therefore irrelevant. Some argue that the questions of the twenty-first century are issue-based, not identity-based, and that questions of women and gender are now included in all such issues, making their separate study unnecessary. Women's studies scholars counter that the inclusion of conversations about women cannot be ongoing without the continuing infusion of new knowledge that derives from specialization.

It is generally agreed among feminist scholars that the impetus for women's studies arose in the activism of the women's movement in the late 1960s. Once faculty and students began investigating the conditions and representations of women's lives as subjects of academic study, however, activism's role became problematic. The issues are formulated in a variety of ways. Some investigators believe that research outcomes should always be of social value. Thus, psychologists who investigate sexual assault often encourage the use of their work in policy and legal projects. Other scholars take the position that all knowledge is ultimately socially useful but that research and teaching on any subject is an end in and of itself. For example, a philosopher who writes in the area of feminism might argue that the critical thinking skills students develop benefit an informed citizen over the course of a lifetime.

The evolution of scholarship on women and gender in yet other fields, particularly the humanities, has become so specialized that it has developed language, theory, and traditions that are difficult for casual readers to comprehend. These scholars may claim that social activism–the engagement with cultural and political organizations and their activities–is separate from formal study and should be pursued according to individual inclinations. Thus, debates continue: Should an internship in an activist organization be a required part of a major? Should information in women's studies classes explore the links to activism? Should departmental structures support activist endeavors? Given the origins of women's studies in political activism and the continued inequalities in society and culture based on gender, these questions are likely to remain at the center of debates in the field.

A final debate centers on the choice of theories to explain women's positions in the gender systems of societies and cultures. This is perhaps the most controversial of all the debates. Much of the work in women's studies in the 1970s grew out of the social sciences, particularly history, cultural anthropology, sociology, and psychology. These scholars infused theoretical paradigms already in play–liberalism, Marxism, socialism, and psychoanalytic approaches, among others–and revised them to include women. Joined by colleagues in literature and art history, the first generation of feminist scholars engaged in the recovery of texts by, and information about, women, finding patterns in their discoveries that offered new explanations for women's exclusion as well as agency.

By the late 1980s developments in philosophy, literature, and other interdisciplinary fields–cultural studies, queer studies, media studies, studies of popular culture, studies of sexualities–came to prominence in women's studies. These approaches focused more on the representations of women in texts (written and visual as well as spoken) and less on empirical investigations. Known as post-structuralism, post-modernism, and critical theory, they emphasized the fluid and temporal nature of interpretations of women and gender, making the meaning and use of theory both more complex and more contested.

The place of theory was further complicated by the development of a global perspective in women's studies. Beginning with the first of the United Nations Decade for Women meetings in Mexico City in 1975, followed by meetings in Copenhagen in 1980, Nairobi in 1985, and Beijing in 1995, feminist scholars increasingly conducted research around the globe, and scholars from every country investigated women's issues. The introduction of material on women globally called into question Western-based theories of sex and gender.

For scholars who came from the empirical tradition, theory conveyed a broad range of endeavors aimed at identifying patterns that would yield explanations over time and space. For scholars who worked within the humanities paradigms, theory meant critical theory, the investigation of texts and their meanings. For policy makers who looked to women's studies scholarship to identify women's material conditions, theory had a utilitarian focus. For those in the natural sciences who followed traditions of experimentation, feminist theory often appeared as an unlikely tool. And the work of global scholars, working out of yet other intellectual traditions, further contributed to theoretical debates. However, the evolution of these various debates about what constitutes theory had, by the twenty-first century, encouraged many scholars to examine the interstices and find linkages.


ALLEN, CAROLYN, and HOWARD, JUDITH A. 2000. Provoking Feminisms. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

BOXER, MARILYN J. 1998. When Women Ask Questions: Creating Women's Studies in America. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

MAHER, FRANCES A., and TETREAULT, MARY KAY THOMPSON. 2001. The Feminist Classroom: Dynamics of Gender, Race, and Privilege. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

MOI, TORIL. 1999. What Is a Woman? And Other Essays. New York: Oxford University Press.

YOUNG, IRIS MARION. 2000. Inclusion and Democracy. New York: Oxford University Press.


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