Women in the mix: the impact of gender studies

By Jae-Ha Kim
Chicago Sun-Times
March 1, 2004

Mention women’s studies and you’re likely to get a mixed reaction. One group may talk about why it’s so important for students of both sexes to learn about women’s historical impact on society. Another may roll their eyes and argue that a men’s studies program would be considered sexist — so why the need for women’s studies in the 21st century?

What many experts point out, though, is that until a few decades ago that’s exactly what the collegiate curriculum was — a history of men, written by and for men.

“We need women’s studies because before that, all we had was men’s studies — only we didn’t call it that,” says Michael S. Kimmel, author of The Gendered Society (Oxford University Press, $27.95). “We called it literature or political science, but it was really men’s studies where women were invisible. A lot of famous women were written out of history.

“Women’s studies is without question one of the great transformations of universities in the past 30 or 40 years. It leveled the playing field in a way. There’s a study that [the University of Chicago] conducted in the 1950s that dealt with occupational mobility. But they measured American mobility by asking white men about their education and occupation, and that of their fathers. They didn’t ask women or ethnic groups. Today, thankfully, no school would get one cent of grant money to study just one group.”

At the University of Washington in Seattle, the quadrant features four buildings: history, literature, music and women’s studies. Each features something relevant to its field, such as a gargoyle wearing a gas mask to depict war for the history building.

But for the women’s study building (which is now used for international studies), the decorations include women sewing, at the washboard and cooking. Women’s studies back in the day meant home economics.

The first women’s studies program was founded in 1970 at San Diego State University. Marilyn J. Boxer, who helped launch the program, believed women’s studies precipitated the intellectual movement.

Not that it caught on quickly across the nation. Even liberal arts schools such as the University of Chicago didn’t offer courses on the status of women until the 1980s, and it wasn’t until 1996 that the U. of C. started a gender studies program.

That’s right — gender studies, not women’s studies.

“One of the major shifts over the last 10 or 15 years is that women’s study programs got renamed gender studies,” says Gina Olson, assistant director for the administration and programming at the University of Chicago’s Center for Gender Studies. “Another shift is that the increase in the lesbian and gay issues had been integrated into gender studies, as well as race and class. This has broadened the area of study, providing a greater analysis.”

Kimmel agrees that movement from women’s studies to gender studies would be beneficial to expanding everyone’s outlook.

“Now we need to include men in gender studies classes,” says Kimmel, who also teaches sociology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. “This was revealed to me in a class not long ago where I gave a guest lecture for a woman professor. When I walked in, one of the students said, ‘Finally, an objective opinion.’ ”

He won’t say whether the student was male or female, but adds, “When [the female professor] spoke, all the students saw was a woman. When I walk into a room, they see a middle-class white man — their vision of what objectivity looks like. When I said something, they believed it could be true. When she said something about the way women were being mistreated, they saw a woman complaining about female issues.”

As to the effectiveness of women’s studies, both Kimmel and Olson say take a look at society today.

“Look back at some of the 1930s movies with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, where the argument was that women couldn’t be reporters because they weren’t capable of following a hard news story,” Kimmel says. “That was a reflection of society’s attitudes. Look at ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ where she was paid less than the men and she felt bad about asking for a raise.

“You walk into a hospital or a law firm or a newsroom and see the enormous progress we’ve made in some areas of women’s lives. Then you see the hard-core pornography screen savers used in half the dorms across the country, and that makes you a little sad. There’s still some work to be done.”



“Issues of sexuality are at the forefront, whether it’s about contraceptives or the choice to have an abortion, and marriage for both straight and queer women. Women also are often the hardest hit when there are drops in the economy. Women take the brunt of cuts in social services.” –Gina Olson

“Many of the things we take for granted are exalted privileges in other parts of the world. We’re focused on balancing work and family, getting enough child care and support in order to have the professional lives as well as a family.” –Michael S. Kimmel


“Economical concerns are at the forefront: managing a family when they’re the main income earners. Reproductive choice also is a huge concern.” –Gina Olson

“A global focus on gender makes one aware that one of the biggest problems for women worldwide has to do with health issues. Whether it’s access to health care, protection from HIV, prenatal care — these are all problems with a global focus. Women have HIV risk because of sexual slavery. There’s routine violence against women, and rape used as an instrument of war.” –Michael S. Kimmel


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