Last women standing
31 January 2008
By Esther Oxford
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.
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
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
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."
Farewell to 'predictable, tiresome and dreary' women's studies
Twenty years ago, it was the academic fashion. This year, its last
dozen students will graduate
By Nina Lakhani
Sunday, 23 March 2008
Women's studies, which came to prominence in the wake of the 1960s
feminist movement, is to vanish from British universities as an
undergraduate degree this summer. Dwindling interest in the subject
means that the final 12 students will graduate with a BA in women's
studies from London's Metropolitan University in July.
Universities offering the course, devised as the second wave of the
women's rights movement peaked, attracted students in their hundreds
during the late 1980s and early 1990s, but the mood on campuses has
changed. Students, it seems, no longer want to immerse themselves in
the sisterhood's struggle for equality or the finer points of
The disappearance of a course that women academics fought so long and
hard to have taught in universities has divided opinion on what this
means for feminism. Is it irrelevant in today's world or has the
quest for equality hit the mainstream?
The course's critics argue that women's studies became its own worst
enemy, remaining trapped in the feminist movement of the 1970s while
women and society moved on.
"Feminist scholarship has become predictable, tiresome and dreary,
and most young women avoid it like the plague," said Christina Hoff
Sommers, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for
public policy research in Washington and author of Who Stole
Feminism? "British and American societies are no longer patriarchal
and oppressive 'male hegemonies'. But most women's studies
departments are predicated on the assumption that women in the West
are under siege. What nonsense."
Others believe young women have shied away from studying feminist
theory because they would rather opt for degrees that more obviously
lead to jobs, especially since the introduction of tuition fees.
"[Taking] women's studies as a separate course may not feel as
relevant to women who go to university to help them enter the job
market," said Jean Edelstein, an author and journalist. "As the
feminist movement has become increasingly associated with extreme
thoughts, women who may have previously been interested in women's
studies may be deterred by these overtones."
Anyone ruing the degree's demise can take heart: many gender and
equality issues are now dealt with by mainstream courses, from
sociology and law to history and English. And many universities,
including Oxford, still offer the course to postgraduates.
Mary Evans, visiting fellow at the Gender Institute at the London
School of Economics, said: "This final closure does not signal the
end of an era: feminist ideas and literature are as lively as ever,
but the institutional framework in which they are taught has changed."
Ms Edelstein added: "Feminist critique should be studied by everyone.
If integration into more mainstream courses means more people looking
at gender theory and increases the number of people who are aware of
the issues, then that is a good thing."
But Dr Irene Gedalof, who has led the London Metropolitan University
women's studies course for the past 10 years, defended the discipline.
"The women's movement is less visible now and many of its gains are
taken for granted, which fuels the perception there is no longer a
need for women's studies. But while other disciplines now 'deal' with
gender issues we still need a dedicated focus by academics. Despite
the gains women have made, this is just as relevant in today's
world," she said, blaming the course's downfall on universities'
collective failure to promote the discipline.
Given that graduate courses in women's studies are thriving in many
countries, such as India and Iran, the decision to stop the course
here has surprised many.
Baroness Haleh Afshar, professor in politics and women's studies at
the University of York, said: "In the past quarter of a century,
women's studies scholars have been at the forefront of new and
powerful work that has placed women at the centre but has also had
echoes right across academia. In particular, it is important to note
the pioneering work of Sue Lees, which began at the Metropolitan and
still has a long way to go. I am desolate to see that the university
has decided to close it."