Informal Feminism

{March 13, 2011}   The Necessity of Women’s Studies Programs

             “What unites Women’s Studies scholars is the shared understanding that gender relations shape every site of human interaction, from the very local, to the global. Hierarchical gender relations are understood in constant interaction with other important social, economic and cultural hierarchies, such as class, race, ability, and sexuality” ( This statement clearly shows the significance of women’s studies programs; the program encourages critical thinking and awareness about social justice issues. It helps to promote awareness of the interconnectivity of different sources of oppression and highlights how that oppression is at work in our current society, not only that but it is a space in which women can feel safe to fully express themselves. Unfortunately it is also a discipline that is constantly being bombarded with attempts to get rid of it. People like to claim that the need for women’s studies died along with feminism but they fail to realize that feminism is far from dead. With the closing of the women’s studies program at Guelph and the subsequent responses from people like Barbara Kay, who is firmly against the women’s studies program, the need to continuing having a women’s studies program becomes obvious.

            In order to explain why women’s studies programs are so necessary it is best to first have an understanding of feminist theory. bell hooks writes that “Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression” (hooks viii). Feminism is rooted in the belief that women should be able to achieve equality with men. It is a movement that supports challenging traditional gender roles and gives women the voice they need to question authority.  “Feminist theory – of all kinds – is to be based on, or anyway touch base with, the variety of real-life stories women provide about themselves” (Lugones and Spelman 19). A critical element of feminist theorizing is to incorporate lived experience. This is important because it helps to highlight the different and intersectional oppression in women’s lives. Exposing the reality behind different women’s experience allows for more connectedness across the discipline; as well the discipline opens up individual women to how affected they are by the boundaries of sexual oppression and helps women to connect with each other through the telling of individual stories. Feminist theorizing is crucial in exposing the amount of and difference between sources of female oppression. Women’s studies are programs that are designed to help women challenge their roles in society with feminist theory. Women’s studies can be considered subversive by the dominant patriarchal culture because it gives women a space in which they can challenge their roles within a patriarchal society and look at how these roles are affected by greater systemic oppression. The subversive nature of women’s studies is one of the reasons it is so harshly critiqued.

One major example of how women’s studies programs are being challenged is at Guelph University, which cut the women’s studies program from their university altogether in April 2009. While the administration did allow the current majors to finish their degree, they were no longer allowing new people into the program. The removal of the program was claimed to be the result of lack of funding which caused Guelph to be unable—or unwilling—to continue to allot financing for the women’s studies program in their budget:

 The budget of the Women’s Studies program at Guelph is a drop in the ocean of the University’s budget problem, representing a mere 0.17% of the projected shortfall… The coordinator of the program at Guelph, Norman Smith, re-wrote a budget this January that slashed the Women’s Studies budget in half. This budget proposal was rejected, and instead the University has turned around and told Women’s Studies that it’s being cut.

Although the reasoning behind the cut from Guelph was claimed to be budgetary, the above quote casts doubt on that claim. Yet it also helps to highlight how important the women’s studies program was to Guelph since the program co-ordinator was willing to cut his, already restrictive, budget in half to keep the program going. The other issue that faces these women’s studies departments is the amount of students that major in the program but to only measure the majors excludes the people who take women’s studies as minors, electives or major in one subject but take cross-listed courses with women’s studies. It might have less majors but that doesn’t make it a useless program.

            After the cutting of the program at Guelph there were many different debates surrounding women’s studies and its validity as a program. Barbara Kay was one of the main opponents to women’s studies. Her view is that women’s studies is a dead program and that feminism has accomplished its goal. Kay published an article in the national post after a debate she had about women’s studies on CBC radio. In her article she argues that women’s studies does not promote gender equality but instead wants to give women a stronger advantage over men, under the guise of equality. She makes the claim that, “Women’s Studies is merely the politically activist arm of the feminist movement, which is nothing more today than a lobby group for women’s interests, not at all a movement interested in true equality between the genders” (Kay She sees women’s studies departments’ roots in activism as problematic, as she feels university should not be the site of activism. What is undertaken by women’s studies departments’ is the creation of discourse, which can lead to political activism. This is no different then other humanities courses, which also seek to create discourse and challenge dominant ideologies. It is critiqued by Kay on the basis that it is creating an activist movement but without the activism created from women’s studies programs, women would have been unable to gain the rights and freedoms that they currently maintain. As well, women may appear to have gained equal rights with men based on the media’s portrayal of the issues but in reality the high levels of poverty and discrimination that women continue to face show that there is still a compelling need for women’s studies departments’ to be a site of activism.

Kay makes several other problematic comments within the article that are on par with the commentary found in the editorial published in the post. Her final point is one of the most shocking statements in that it completely disregards not only the women’s studies departments but feminism in general:

Women’s Studies are losing funding because they are losing students. The revolution is over. Women won. What’s good about Women’s Studies can be taught in other disciplines. What’s bad is unworthy of a university’s endorsement. Women’s Studies are superfluous in every respect, and calling them Gender Studies won’t disguise that reality. Goodbye, salut, farewell, shalom. Don’t slam the door on the way out”   Kay

This statement ignores the reality of the feminist movement and the diversity within female oppression. It trivializes the work done by feminist scholars in creating a space where women can feel free to challenge the issues of discrimination that they face. What women’s studies teaches can not be subsumed by other disciplines because it teaches its students to challenge how the other disciplines represent women. If women’s studies were to be dismantled and tacked onto different disciplines, the social justice issues that face women specifically would become a footnote within the courses. This would only serve to set back the feminist movement and the work it has already achieved. Both of these examples help to highlight how clear it is that women still need to be taking part in both women’s studies programs and feminism in general.

            Women’s studies and feminist theory are still very much looked down upon and disrespected within the academic circles, which is what helps to make them so necessary. What is especially shocking about these perspectives is that they are coming from women. Barbara Kay is a woman who has benefitted from the results of feminism; she is well-educated and is able to maintain a well-paying job in which she can clearly and fully express her opinion. Without the activism of feminism she would not have been able to fulfill this role within society. She also speaks from a second hand perspective; she did not major in women’s studies in university and is judging it without any personal experience. Without proper experience the perspective is biased. To reference hooks again, “when I ask them about the feminist talks they have heard, about the feminist activists they know, they respond by letting me know that everything they know about feminism has come into their lives third hand, that they really have not come close enough to feminist movement to know what happens” (hooks vii). It is this point that emphasizes why women’s studies is still clearly needed within the university. The dominant discourse around feminism and feminist thought is being created by people who have no experience with the discourse themselves; they have only second or third hand information and they have the kind of access to corporate media that feminist scholarship and activism does not have.

In opposition to Barbara Kay, women’s studies and the university is the best site of activism. University is a place where ideas and knowledge should be fluid and always evolving, it should be a space where challenging social norms is validated academically. It is a place where a person should feel comfortable expressing their opinions and a place to recognize that creating discourse around a topic is the best way to reenergize the theorizing that accompanies political struggles for social justice. This is why women’s studies courses are still necessary; they create a discourse that challenges society’s dominant conceptions. I myself am proud to hold a degree in women’s studies and would not trade my education for anything and am constantly encourage people to explore the women’s studies discipline for its ability to expose you to ideas that might not have crossed your mind.


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