Select Top Stories From Herizons

Women's Studies: Is it Time to Change Course?  by Renee Bondy
Women's Studies: Is it Time to Change Course?

It’s been four decades since the first women’s studies courses were offered in Canada, and the discipline seems to be hitting its stride. The first credit course in women’s studies was offered at the University of Toronto in 1970, and the first degree-granting program was at the University of British Columbia in 1971, a year after San Diego University established the first women’s studies program in North America.

In its youth, women’s studies was largely concerned with including women in the university by telling their often overlooked stories and by engaging in research that would contribute to women’s rights projects. But like any academic program worthy of inclusion in university, women’s studies not only had to stake out its place, it also needed to build a foundation upon which to sustain itself in the long term.

And so it has. Its feminist roots have enabled women’s studies to engage with critical theory in ways that illuminate the complexity of gendered lives. Sure, the discipline still studies women, but it has pushed the boundaries of its original conception. Combining studies of women’s history, literature, philosophy, sociology, psychology and science with cutting-edge postmodern theory, today’s women’s studies yields vibrant and wide-ranging feminist critiques of gender.

Still, the field is sometimes viewed as suspect for being a relative newcomer to the academy (when compared to centuries-old disciplines like mathematics, history and literature). But it’s in good company. The past few decades have seen the rise of many interdisciplinary fields, such as black studies, sexuality studies, social justice studies and diaspora studies. of the Canadian press have left supporters of the discipline dismayed at the anti-feminist sentiment of an uninformed few. Most notably, National Post columnist Barbara Kay has been vociferous in her tirades against what she sees as a male-bashing forum for feminist recruitment. (See Susan G. Cole’s column, “Women’s Studies Under Attack, in Herizons’ Spring 2010 issue.) But feminists have long dealt with such criticisms, and despite the recent spate of negativity about and toward women’s studies the discipline itself is thriving in many respects.

Today, most universities in Canada offer women’s and/or gender studies undergraduate programs, and enrolments in M.A. and Ph.D. programs are on the rise.Numerous academic journals, feminist presses and student and professional associations support women’s studies, and it is among the hottest and most dynamic programs on many campuses. The success of any scholarly discipline is contingent on academic rigour and an active research agenda, and women’s studies professors have a long-standing passion for both.The research interests of today’s hot scholars are diverse, mapping new territory in studies of sexuality, gender, race, transnationalism and religion.

Take this year’s Canadian Women’s Studies Association Book Prize winner, Liz Millward, for example. Her book Women in British Imperial Air Space, 1922-1937 (McGill-Queen’s University Press) examines a unique and seldom researched area of women’s history. Another up-and-coming researcher, Bobby Noble, associate professor of English and sexuality studies at the school of women’s studies at York University, enters into critical engagement with feminist pornography cultures. His work has led to the establishment of the Feminist Porn Archive, a key site for future research in gender and sexuality.

Diverse interests among women’s studies faculty play out in classrooms and lecture halls across the country. The range of courses available today is indicative of both a rich feminist history and a third-wave sensibility that pushes the boundaries of critical thinking. In many programs, conventional course titles like Introduction to Women and Gender, Feminist Theory and Canadian Women’s History are offered alongside courses like Indigenous Cinema: De-Colonizing the Screen (University of Victoria), Debates on Feminism and Islam (Queen’s University), Bad Girls and Transgressive Women (University of Prince Edward Island) and Nags, Housewives and Sluts: Language and Women’s Place (University of Windsor).

I’m lucky enough to teach a large first-year class called Gal Pals:Women and Friendship, and each semester I marvel at the lively conversations and depth of analysis that emerge as we probe the colourful history and diverse literary and pop cultural representations of women’s friendships, from Sappho to Sex and the City. Merging scholarship and activism, today’s women’s studiesstudents find many ways to walk the feminist talk, some ofthem embedded in the structures of their academic programs.

At the University of Victoria, for example, students can earn credit through work placements at women-centred organizations. Christine St. Peter is a professor of women’s studies at the University of Victoria. She notes that her students have many opportunities to make connections between rigorous classroom learning and the world beyond academia, including co-op programs, practica and volunteering. St. Peter speaks highly of the level of student engagement at the University of Victoria: “Our students do a lot of community work, a lot of activist work, and that’s one thing we’ve promoted.

 “They work in sexual health agencies, in AIDS support groups, they’re in queer community groups, in environmental agencies, in homeless youth volunteer work, in anti-violence groups, they’re running newspapers, they’re on the student government—and in proportion to their numbers in the university, they stand out.”

 Evidence of women’s studies’ success beyond the university is the recent triumph of the Miss G Project. After years of lobbying, the Miss G Project, a young grassroots feminist organization, persuaded the Ontario ministry of education to adopt a gender studies course for high schools starting this year. As women’s studies celebrates 40 years in post-secondary education, it has extended its reach beyond the university and reaches a new, younger demographic.

Yet, despite its gains over the past decades, there are some real challenges facing today’s women’s studies programs. Underfunded and understaffed, a few women’s studies undergraduate programs have found themselves shortlisted for closure, regardless of the seeming vitality of faculty and course offerings. A more endemic concern, however, is the discipline’s image. It’s a complex issue to address. Many programs that were once called women’s studies now go by gender/sexuality/equality/social justice (or some combination thereof ) studies— and it’s hard to know if this rebranding is part of the solution or possibly part of a problem. As women’s studies turns 40, we are poised to ask:What does the future hold for the discipline and, by extension, for the ongoing presence of feminist teaching and research within the university Unfortunately, the women’s studies program at the University of Guelph is no longer debating these important questions. In April 2009, the university’s senate voted to eliminate the program, despite protests by faculty and students, as well as national and international women’s studies organizations.

Guelph students held a funeral at which mourners eulogized the program. Headstones inscribed “RIP Feminism: Apparently We Don’t Need You” called attention to the students’ indignation at the elimination of feminist curricula. 

Given the recent economic downturn and subsequent budgetary constraints, small interdisciplinary programs find themselves in precarious positions. Programs that teach hundreds of students in elective courses, but have relatively few majors, are especially vulnerable. The elimination of women’s studies at the University of Guelph seemed like a prime example of the sacrifice of a program in the name of fiscal belt-tightening. But in reality, it saved only 0.17 percent of the university’s budget shortfall.

 Helen Hoy, a professor in English and theatre studies and former coordinator of the women’s studies program at the University of Guelph observes that, “Having tried to use money as the reason, and finding it was quite a limp explanation [the administration] moved to arguments about it being out-dated and at an impasse.” Prior to the elimination of the program, the administration had, in fact, made overtures regarding the creation of a sex, sexuality and gender studies program. There was a feeling that a name other than women’s studies “would sound less parochial or restrictive, or [less] unpalatable for those who aren’t prepared to initially consider themselves feminist,” says Hoy. But a process of consultation to move in this direction was not pursued beyond preliminary discussions and women’s studies was laid to rest.

Is the demise of women’s studies at the University of Guelph a one-off incident or an example of carefully concealed misogyny under the guise of belt-tightening? Many women’s studies professors say that the position of women’s studies within the university is a key factor in the sustainability of the discipline.

 At some institutions, including the University of Guelph, women’s studies is structured as an academic program; at others, it is structured as an interdisciplinary department. From the outside, the designations may seem trivial. But at most universities departmental status puts interdisciplinary fields like women’s studies on equal footing with other disciplines, like history, English or physics, affording them higher standing and greater bargaining power within the institution.

 While some programs have departmental designation, others remain in the precarious position of being a mere program. This can affect budgetary considerations, including the number of full-time faculty. As a result, some programs rely heavily on instructors hired on part-time contracts, which affects their stability and growth.

 Another issue affecting women’s studies arises from recent efforts to rebrand the discipline. Some universities have made the strategic decision to change the names of their women’s studies programs and departments, adopting more modern and inclusive monikers. Some, like Queen’s University, host gender studies programs, while others have adopted hybridized names, like Simon Fraser University’s gender, sexuality and women’s studies and Nipissing University’s gender equality and social justice department. Others, including Memorial University, Laurentian University and the University of Victoria, have chosen to stay with their original name, women’s studies, at least for the time being.

 Associate professor Ann Braithwaite coordinates the women’s studies program at the University of Prince Edward Island and is a past-president of the Canadian Women’s Studies Association. She understands both sides of the debate and says that in one way “we don’t worry all that much about the question: What happens to the ‘women’ in women’s studies?”

 For many insiders to women’s studies, there is no internal identity crisis. On the other hand, in the 21st century, women’s studies teaches not only about women, but also about men and multiple other ideas, like race, ethnicity, sexuality and ability. As Briathwaite points out, there is a strong argument to be had that “a name which is identity-based runs the risk of being tied to that identity.”

 What there may be in the name change, however, is an opportunity to market women’s studies to a broader audience, with the end result of bringing more researchers and students into the field. Associate professor Sal Renshaw, who chairs the gender equality and social justice department at Nipissing, believes their name has responded to and enables them to “keep up with shifts, like the emergence of sexuality studies, gay and lesbian studies and critical race studies.” It may also be credited with drawing increasing numbers of young men to the field, she says.

 Still, the historian in me is troubled by the easy dismissal of the “women” in women’s studies, a discipline founded by women, and primarily for women. Although it has benefited from opening its doors to men and to studies of sexuality and gender, women’s studies still utilizes a feminist analysis that is historically rooted in women’s scholarship and experience. And, surely, women’s studies programs hold an important social purpose for women in education. Will a name change, particularly if it is entered into as a marketing ploy, change any of this?

 Christina Simmons, a professor of history and women’s studies at the University of Windsor, acknowledges the ongoing need for a program name that ensures feminist spaces. Asked about the name change debate, Simmons says that “telling women they are important and at the centre is why women’s studies still seems best to me.”

Clearly, women’s studies programs continue to face internal struggles and debates, and even the largest and most successful programs cannot presume long-term security within the university system. As we celebrate its achievements, however, women’s studies must be vigilant not only to ensure its own survival, but to continue to challenge and change the very institution it calls home.  

Please support the feminist press! Subcribe to Herizons at