Is women's studies dead?

A British newspaper pronounces the academic discipline "predictable, tiresome and dreary."


Tedra Osell
March 26, 2008 1:10PM (UTC)

Oh, look -- is feminism dead? Again? That's what two British papers would have you think. "Farewell to 'predictable, tiresome and dreary' women's studies," read the U.K. Independent’s headline, while the London Times posed a false dichotomy: "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?"

Or maybe it's that, in fact, women's studies is actually a fairly young and dynamic discipline, one that has given rise to queer studies, men's studies and gender studies, and that these departments are simply being renamed to reflect the field's widening -- not shrinking -- range.

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But, of course, that's not nearly as exciting a story, since it doesn't really give journalists a chance to quote the well-known anti-feminist Christina Hoff Summers saying that "British and American societies are no longer patriarchal and oppressive 'male hegemonies'" while claiming in the next paragraph that perhaps, on the other hand, the real problem is that "young women have shied away from studying feminist theory because they would rather opt for degrees that more obviously lead to jobs." Which must be why feminist theory is now studied in departments of literature, sociology, political science and history. And if being a feminist doesn't lead to a job, doesn't that suggest that society is still perhaps just a wee bit patriarchal?

The Times offers a less polemical explanation: declining enrollments. (Though their reporter, too, quotes Hoff Summers. Note to journalists: E-mail me if you need a quote from an actual feminist about feminist topics, OK?) But their example of a course with only four students doesn't seem to me unusual for a British university. When I studied at the University of Sussex in the late '80s, four wasn't a particularly small size for a seminar: Most of my courses in the still-extant department of English had between three and six students. Sussex, by the way, still has an active Centre for Gender Studies that includes seven possible undergraduate 'modules," or subdisciplines.

I'm quite willing to believe that in the U.K., just as in North America, smaller interdisciplinary departments are under a great deal of pressure from the corporatization of higher education. Which is a real problem, since education isn't, in fact, a business -- nor should it be. But the idea that students are "consumers" and professors are "providing a service" in universities that are supposed to function like diploma mills is a problem that affects the entire university, not just women's studies. The real problem isn't moldy old feminists (as if!): It's old-school anti-intellectualism, trying to reduce the value of education to a simple matter of pounds and pence.


Tedra Osell

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