On the first day of a women’s studies class, instead of spending the first few minutes evaluating the professor, students’ eyes immediately focus on those considered the bravest students in the class – the men.
Spotting male students in these classes is fairly rare. Most have only one or two men, who are consistently asked for “the male perspective” or need substantial warning before discussion of the menstrual cycle.
They might be in the class to pick up girls, fulfill a requirement or even because they have a genuine interest in women’s issues. Only a small percentage of the GW student body – about 90 to 100 students each year, according to the women’s studies department – choose to take introductory-level women’s studies classes at all.
The University boasts the oldest graduate women’s studies program in the country, and any student, regardless of gender, should take advantage of the department’s prestige. Such a renowned graduate program means excellent teaching assistants for undergraduates, as well as top professors who teach both undergraduate and graduate students. A few courses, like Sexuality in U.S. Cultural History, Women in the United States and Women in Western Religion, even fulfill the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences’ humanities requirement.
Everyone knows the joke: A man taking a women’s studies class should raise his hand and say, “I don’t want to learn about history. I want to learn about ‘her’story,” while sliding his chair closer to a female classmate.
As ridiculous as the suggestion may sound – and as much as it would fail to impress the women in the class – there is a surprising amount of truth in his sleazy humor.
Many majors list history as a general requirement, but as students notice when flipping through a textbook, much of history is one-sided. Scholars often tell stories from the male perspective: Men are the leaders, heroes, villains and visionaries. Some are good and some are evil, but all boast prominent places in history.
Textbooks usually relegate women of the past to a paragraph with a title such as “Women’s Lives in the Early 18th Century,” which includes a brief discussion of the difficulties of homemaking. In American history, we learn only about the greatest hits: household names like Susan B. Anthony and Rosa Parks.
While it’s important to learn about these heroes, we tend to gloss over the long road of women’s suffering and the unfortunate lives they led for much of history. For example, it’s not common knowledge that many black women went to jail after they failed to give up their seats on public buses before Parks’ landmark arrest. Few recognize the bravery of the women who protested a wartime president outside the White House to finally earn suffrage in 1920.
Learning about past hardships is how we come to appreciate the status of women today. Courses like Athletics and Gender, A Study of Women and Media, and Women and Politics also enlighten students to the disadvantages with which women continue to struggle.
Most people are familiar with the statistics: one in five women experience an attempted or a completed sexual assault in college, and women earn 77 percent of what their male counterparts do for the same work. But there are other issues not so obvious to the untrained eye: These include sexual objectification of women and girls in the media, everyday examples of rape culture like street harassment and the lack of female representation across the political spectrum.
In any discussion about feminism, there are those who believe men and women are truly equal – and therein lies the problem. When basic, common knowledge only covers the successes of feminism and individual women in the past, it creates the illusion that there is no need for it now.
If all students tried a general women’s studies course – not just the few, the proud already studying the topic – more eyes would open to not only the prejudices women face in Western society, but also the life-threatening situations that women endure every day across the world.
“Every spring, when I teach Intro to Women’s Studies,” adjunct professor Todd Ramlow told me, “I hear at the end of the semester from several students who were unsure about whether to take the course or not, that it turned out to be their favorite class of the semester, often the year and just as often of their undergraduate experience at GW.”
So as you drop and add classes during the first weeks of the semester, consider taking a women’s studies course. It might widen your perspective and push you to think more critically than some of the more popular courses.
Sarah Blugis, a junior majoring in political communication and minoring in women’s studies, is The Hatchet’s contributing opinions editor.