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Women'S Studies


As "the most powerful force affecting women in higher education today," according to Mariam Chamberlain of the Ford Foundation, women's studies stands at the cusp of several controversies. Many of the criticisms of the early days (the standard retort from men in power was "When are we going to have men's studies?") have disappeared into internal controversies among practitioners: Should women's studies attempt to integrate into the regular curriculum or remain an autonomous outsider? Should women's studies opt for discourse theory, forsaking political action on which women's studies was built? Can you teach what you have not experienced? Can a white woman teach multiculturalism? Should people give priority to transgendered and other sexual concerns over against the concerns of postcolonial and developing nations?

The dangers of identity politics and the threatening allegation of essentialism have fractured the unity of women's studies programs. But disciplinary identities can be as dangerous, such that the feminist literary critic or the feminist sociologist hearkens back to her disciplinary language and methodology, even as she is opposed to those disciplines' contents. What often happens now in women's studies programs is that the senior faculty continue their disciplinary identity, leaving the junior faculty to be the "identity reps" of Chicana, Asian, or African-American ethnicity and prey to the charge of essentialism.

Another difficulty is the ubiquitous presentism that is now everywhere in women's studies. Although women's history was one of the earliest and strongest supporters of women's studies, women's and gender history have moved largely into their own field, with dedicated journals and conferences. Few sessions on history are to be found now at National Women's Studies Association conferences or at the International Interdisciplinary Congress on Women. Both the history of the discipline and women's history itself therefore stand to be marginalized or ghettoized from women's studies. Worse, the disciplines have so embraced women's studies that "translation" is now necessary in moving a course from women's studies to, say, literature or sociology.

There is often a conflict between those faculty who "privilege gender or gender and sexuality, as analytical frameworks, and those who also incorporate race, colonialism, and class," say Laura Donaldson, Anne Donadey, and Jael Silliman, in their article in Robyn Wiegman's edited collection, Women's Studies on its Own (Donaldson, Donadey, and Silliman, p. 439). And often in the United States, globalization is little more than "a Cold War production of knowledge," which compares other areas to the United States to their detriment, continuing a dangerous U.S.-centrism.

Still, with all the fragmentation, the "center holds." Women's studies as a concept and a practice is here to stay. It has been so institutionalized, there is so much new knowledge and new scholarship, there have been so many hearts and minds changed through this study that the various splits and positions can only help to proliferate the ideas.


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Margaret H. McFadden

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Well-being to Jan Ɓukasiewicz BiographyWomen'S Studies - Definitions, Origins, Growth And Institutionalization, Research And Publication, Theories And Assumptions, Gerda Lerner