Sarah Blugis: Rename “women’s studies” to include “gender”

Media Credit: Cartoon by Juliana Kogan

Images of burning bras and brightly dyed underarm hair may come to your mind when you think of women’s studies. But the truth is, “women’s studies” is no longer a progressive term. In fact, it’s outdated.

When students major or minor in women’s studies now, we aren’t just talking about women. We’re talking about people of color, men, transgender women and men, gender-nonconforming people and countless other groups. It’s a more holistic approach: To get at the roots of oppression, we have to talk about the way everyone is oppressed – not just women.

But the name of our women’s studies program at GW no longer matches this mission. If the department wants to move forward and stay on the forefront of the women’s movement, it’s time to include “gender” in the title of our women’s studies program.

This is by no means a radical idea. In fact, all of GW’s 14 peer schools except Duke University have incorporated “gender” into the name of their women’s studies program. The names do vary somewhat – from “women’s and gender studies” to “gender and sexuality studies” to “women’s, gender and sexuality studies.” But in general, they all recognize that their students discuss and theorize about more than just women.

Many classes in GW’s women’s studies department also cover unique subject matter, another reason that the name doesn’t quite match. Sexuality in U.S. cultural history, athletics and gender, queer politics and the anthropology of gender are just some examples.

Jennifer Nash, the director of the women’s studies program, told me that the program held an event last semester where they discussed “the politics of naming in the field.”

It’s great that program leaders are open to a discussion about changing the name. But since then, the department’s name has stayed the same, and it’s time to revisit the conversation. GW was the first school in the country to offer a women’s studies program for graduate students in 1972, and the department should continue that tradition of progressivism.

“I don’t think one name can capture all that we do since our work covers gender, sexuality, race, class, nation, disability and beyond,” Nash said. “I do, though, think that all of us – faculty and students – in the program are working on questions related to gender and sexuality broadly speaking.”

And discussion of gender, beyond discussion of women, is key to a top-notch program. Gender is a socially constructed concept – the image someone presents to the world that may or may not line up with the biological sex they were assigned at birth. The roles and expectations that come with gender are some of the most difficult obstacles that women have to work to overcome, which means we have to discuss and learn about them.

Plus, the women’s movement has grown and changed to include people of all genders – and men take women’s studies classes too. Discussing how strict gender norms negatively impact all of us is crucial to making progress.

In fact, some schools – like Stony Brook University – have started taking an in-depth look at how gender affects men. The program, called “masculinities studies,” pushes students to think about what it means to be a “real man” in today’s society, and the consequences of the expectations society has for men. The way men act, after all, has huge effects on women.

Some would argue that the name of the department is inconsequential. Students are still talking about gender and sexuality, even if the name doesn’t reflect that, so it shouldn’t matter.

But it does matter. As a women’s studies minor, it’s particularly important to me. I’ve chosen to attach myself to the department and I want that small line on my resume to reflect what I actually spent time learning about.

The students majoring or minoring in women’s studies that I’ve met during my time here have been extremely open-minded, progressive people. They come from every walk of life, and they are all interested in figuring out how to make our society a more equal one for everyone. It’s time for the name of our department to be just as progressive as the people in it.

Sarah Blugis, a senior majoring in political communication and minoring in women’s studies, is The Hatchet’s contributing opinions editor. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.

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