Last women standing

Women's studies is about to disappear as an undergraduate degree in the UK. But is it because it is no longer relevant or because it has done its job by putting the issues in the mainstream? Esther Oxford weighs up the arguments.

January 31, 2008

I haven't done this week's reading," announces one of the students of women's studies, leaning back in her chair. "But I did read this book on feminism dating back to 1995. It's got this thing on penis envy and how boys and girls relate to their mother and father. It's quite deep. I understood some of it but not all of it."

It was not the most promising start to the third-year undergraduate class in feminist theory at London Metropolitan University. But that does not deter Irene Gedalof, the course leader. She explains the relevance of psychoanalytical thinking and its possible usefulness within feminist debate. Then she waits for the next student to speak.

"I've always had a problem with that man (Freud)," says an American student. "His work is supposed to be helpful, but all he does is give you a template in which to fit your experiences. If you don't fit, you are seen as neurotic."

"He creates the idea that you are the problem?" Gedalof questions gently.

"Yes," says the student, who then elaborates. Slowly, but surely, the class debate takes off. An intriguing insight into the UK's last stand-alone undergraduate degree in women's studies.

On the day in question, there were four students in Gedalof's seminar. London Metropolitan used to have places for 35 undergraduates on the course. But in 2005, it stopped accepting new students.

It is all a far cry from the heyday for women's studies in the late Eighties and early Nineties. In the past two decades, departments across Britain have been forced to integrate into other departments or to close outright. Only MAs and PhDs appear to be surviving the cull.

One problem has been the sustained attack on women's studies as a "soft" subject appealing to fringe elements and perpetuating old-fashioned, irrelevant debates. Women and society have moved on, say critics, but women's studies remains framed by the politics of a particular time, namely the feminist movement of the Seventies.

"The work of women's studies classes is very sophisticated," counters Mary Evans, professor of women's studies at the University of Kent and also a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics. "There has been a great deal of openingup of ideas that weren't previously discussed and a lot of diverse conclusions as a result of the pedagogy of women's studies."

Jackie Stacey, who was director of the now-defunct Institute of Women's Studies at the University of Lancaster, says women's studies courses are "far from being confessional or intellectually sloppy" and that universities lose out by closing women's studies programmes. "I would say to vice-chancellors: you clearly misunderstand the centrality of feminism and its relevance in global debates such as the West versus Islam and world security."

But women's studies has many detractors, including some high-powered female critics. Christina Hoff Summers is former professor of philosophy at Clark University in the US and author of Who Stole Feminism? She argues that women's studies encourages "paranoid theories about patriarchy" and "gets its power from false statistics on how bad things are for women".

Far from coming up with new, invigorating ideas, women's studies professors tend to be "a little intellectually cohesive clique that has never recovered from the Seventies, when that rhetoric of oppression - women as subordinate class - was fashionable," Hoff Summers said in an interview with The Dartmouth Review.

Hoff Summers argues that women's studies appeals to a person who is "hypersensitive and chronically offended" and who wants to view women as a "subordinate class" and men as "oppressors". As a result of this rhetoric, she suggests, students have come to associate feminism with women who are intellectually stilted and angry with men. Feminism has lost its force as a mainstream political movement.

Karen Lehrman, a US author of a book on post-ideological feminism, has also been a pointed critic of some approaches to women's studies. She attended classes at institutions in the US, including Dartmouth College, the University of California, Berkeley, and Smith College, and was disappointed at the "confessional" nature of a "therapeutic pedagogy" that valued students' feelings and experiences "as much as the texts themselves".

Stacey, now professor of cultural studies at the University of Manchester, says that, on the whole, feminism in Britain is "not the politics of victimhood".

"It's about mobilising - using 'the Personal is Political' slogan to encourage women to extend the power of politics into their personal spheres. But that doesn't mean it stays in the personal. It starts there, then moves to connect to broader political movements," she says.

Evans, a pioneer of the subject in UK universities, thinks there is nothing wrong with the confessional. "I can see what (Lehrman) is saying. But I don't think there is anything the matter with women's voices being allowed space and for women to feel supported."

Caroline Wright, a former lecturer in women's and gender studies at the University of Warwick and now director of undergraduate studies in the sociology department, says: "Who would want to teach women's studies as it was 20 years ago anyway? Even back then we were eager to leave Marxism and get to grips with postmodernism. And we've worked through that now. Our modules are very fast-moving - because gender issues are changing all the time."

But if women's studies is such a fast-moving and powerfully mobilising force, why is it on the verge of extinction? Some argue that reduced demand is a symptom of women's studies having had its day: feminist-inspired ideas have been absorbed and are now debated within mainstream subjects.

Others argue that studying feminism is seen as an indulgence, an irrelevance for young women who want degrees that lead to jobs.

Stacey and her department at Lancaster did persuade 80 students to sign up to an Introduction to Women's Studies course, but it wasn't enough to save the Institute of Women's Studies from closure. She says the truth was that vice-chancellors do not think small units are economically sustainable.

Anne-Marie Fortier, who heads the Centre for Gender and Women's Studies within the sociology department at Lancaster, agrees. Women's studies departments can have excellent research ratings, libraries and scholarships. But it makes no difference - to vice-chancellors or students.

"Most students don't even know what a six-star rating means. They just want to know how much coursework they will get and what kind of career options there are," she says.

The fickleness of the higher education marketplace has been the final deterrent. Women's studies and feminism is not seen as a fashionable subject in marketing terms. Students will still study women's issues - but only if they masquerade as something more trendy. Institutions such as the University of Warwick have resorted to repackaging women's studies under "cutting-edge" course names such as Technologies of the Gender Body (the latest model) or War and Conflict Studies.

Students at Warwick started to veer away from signing up to a course that was mockingly referred to as "Cosmo Studies" (after the women's magazine Cosmopolitan) for fear of not getting a job. Disillusioned, some professors opted to find work in sociology, history and politics departments at other universities. They were not replaced.

The closure of undergraduate applications to the last "true" women's studies undergraduate programme at London Metropolitan in 2005 looks like the end of the road for the subject.

But teachers of women's studies say the revolution continues, albeit with different branding. Undergraduate students can specialise in women's and gender studies at Warwick, for example. Instead of graduating with a degree in women's studies, students earn a degree in sociology.

There is further reason to be buoyant. If the aim of women's studies in the Eighties was to achieve heightened consciousness about rape, incest, battering, sexual harassment and gender differences in relation to disease, then it has done that. If the goal of women's studies in the Nineties was to broaden students' understanding of social, cultural and political realities of the human condition, then women's studies has done this, too.

"If you wanted to be positive about the changes, you could say that while women's studies has struggled, the women who taught it are all finding work in other disciplines," Stacey says. "I used to resist this dispersion, but it is true that I can continue my work. We are mutating and transforming and yet still teaching women's studies within different contexts. We have not been extinguished."

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