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The Women’s Studies Department at the University of Michigan was founded in 1973 with the aim of combining elements of medicine, health and law, as well as disciplines from the humanities and social sciences. It offers two majors, three minors and several graduate opportunities.
Though the department has expanded, in terms of size and course content, students and faculty agree people who are not in the field may have certain misconceptions about its nature — specifically that is anti-men and not lucrative in the future. In reality, the department’s mission is to provide a holistic education, discussing the intersection of gender with a range of other fields from arts education to neurology.
Interdisciplinary education is central to the department, along with an emphasis on feminist theory.
Rosario Ceballo, the Women’s Studies Department chair, believes the interdisciplinary aspects of the department is “incredibly intellectually exciting,” but also very relevant and important to the world today. She said employers look for new employees who are able to think broadly across fields.
“If you look at the social problems in our world today, we cannot attempt to solve them with one approach, or from one particular set of expertise or knowledge base,” she said. “To really be able to have an impact in society you need to be able to come at social problems from different perspectives and have different things in your toolkit.”
This is a view also held by Victor Mendoza, an associate professor and the director of undergraduate studies in women’s studies, who highlighted the curriculum’s emphasis on interdisciplinary and cross-cultural understanding in an email interview.
“And by interdisciplinary, I mean something of a radical interdisciplinary, in that our faculty include historians, literary studies scholars, legal scholars, psychologists, nurses, political scientists, midwives, poets, digital studies scholars, performance artists, anthropologists and physicians,” he wrote. “The various fields of inquiry represented by such a disciplinarily varied faculty — not to mention the various geographical sites they work on across the globe — speak to the richness of feminist scholarship that the curriculum offers.”
Majors, minors and course themes
The department offers majors in women’s studies and gender and health, in addition to three minors: gender and health; gender, race and nation; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and sexuality studies. According to Ceballo, there are 72 women’s studies majors, 65 gender and health majors and 113 students declared in the gender and health minor — the largest of the three. Ceballo noted these numbers change daily.
The department was the first in the country to offer joint doctoral degrees with other disciplinary departments — specifically, English, history and psychology.
As part of the women’s studies curriculum, undergraduate majors must complete 33 credits.
Specifically, they must take Women’s Studies 330, which Mendoza currently teaches.
He explained the course examines different types of feminist theory, including psychoanalytic, Marxist and transnational, among others. Central to the course, he wrote, is discussion of intersectionality.
“That is, (Women’s Studies 330) considers critically how feminist theory at its best always attends to the other differences that makes up a person's subjecthood and political commitments, such as race, national background, gender identity, class and sexuality,” he wrote. “It's required for all Women's Studies majors precisely because it looks closely and critically at what we might understand as the feminist theory canon and the various methodological interventions that have emerged out of it.”
Ceballo also highlighted the intersectionality that arises in the field — the idea that how people experience the world is shaped not just by one social identity, but by the intersection of multiple, and that these will change in different situations and at different times.
“The concept that we have to look at people’s multiple, simultaneously intersecting identities to understand people’s experiences in life is an important one that will come up, and to also understand how people have access to resources in our society,” she said.
Mary Kelley, Ruth Bordin collegiate professor of history, American culture and women’s studies, arrived at the University in 2002. Prior to joining the University faculty, she had been a history professor at Dartmouth College since 1977; she helped establish the women’s studies program at the college, which notably enrolled its first cohort of female students in 1972. She currently teaches a class at the University of Michigan called “Sex and Gender in United States History, 1600 to 2000.”
One central theme she introduces in her class is known as the equality-difference dilemma. It involves reconciling the emphasis upon sameness within the pursuit of equality, while also acknowledging difference.
“In other words, if you juxtapose equality and difference as a binary — equality being an emphasis upon ‘everyone is the same so therefore everyone should be equal’ — and you disregard obvious differences, and yet at the same time if you highlight difference, difference becomes the fulcrum for creating hierarchy,” she said. “So how do you incorporate difference without destroying or damaging the idea of equality based on sameness?”
Kelley said in her class she works through this topic using a series of arguments. The underlying mantra to understand, she explained, is when people are equal they should not be treated differently but when people are different they should be treated equally through the incorporation of the difference in their circumstances — pregnancy leave and maternity leave, for example.
LSA senior Anastasia Pacifico is a women’s studies major in the Honors program; she is also a biology major. Currently she is taking Sexual Health and Clinical Science, which she said she likes because it incorporates both of her interests.
“It’s talking about sexuality through a medical lens, but also a critical feminist lens,” she said.
In terms of themes that recur in classes, Pacifico said social constructions are crucial, as well as talk of sexuality, income inequality and medicalization, among other topics. She said she has learned there are several different kinds of feminism and that people’s ideas of feminism differ.
“For example, white feminism — Ivanka Trump might think it’s feminist to have Betsy DeVos have a really big role in government,” she said. “But then when you look at the actual policies that Betsy DeVos is implementing, it’s bad for not just women, but people seeking an education and people from low-income areas, which is a feminist issue. So even though there is a woman in charge that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a feminist accomplishment. It’s all dependent on different perspectives.”
With regard to the gender and health major, Mendoza explained its courses look to incorporate a wide array of discourses surrounding aspects of health and associated topics.
“The gender and health courses articulates core feminist and interdisciplinary gender analysis to the study of varied aspects of health and populations, including health policies, reproductive justice, representations of the human body, sexual assault, disability, human sexuality and psychology,” he wrote.
LSA junior Caryn Sherbet is a gender and health minor. In an email, she explained she was interested in the study of sexuality in high school. After coming to the University, she shifted her attention specifically to sexual assault and women’s health.
Like Pacifico, Sherbet highlighted the prevalence of social constructions in women’s studies courses. She explained oftentimes majority groups assign derogatory characteristics to minorities, and then use those characteristics to justify the degradation of that group. She wrote that such constructions become so ingrained in society that they are perceived as inherent.
“Look at gender, for example. Women are not inherently weak, unintelligent, delicate or inferior to men. Men, however, saw the anatomical differences in women and decided that their lack of penis meant they were half-formed, and thus lesser,” she wrote. “So men decided that women are weak, unintelligent, delicate and inferior — they then used these ‘natural’ traits to exclude women from mainstream society.”
Sherbet explained while women’s studies does a lot to unravel such social constructions, she thinks it is more important to understand the circumstances that created them in the first place so as to even further understand the systems today that still reinforce them.
Misconceptions about women’s studies
Kelley said one way people who are not familiar with women’s studies may misconstrue it is they will assume that individuals in the field “hate” men.
“That is still a comment — I don’t receive it — but I hear it from other people, that they’re told, ‘Oh, those people hate men, they don’t like men,’ or, ‘Those are frustrated women who can never find fulfillment so therefore they’re angry all the time,’ ” she said.
Echoing Kelley’s point, Pacifico said some people misconstrue women’s studies, and others simply have no idea what it entails.
“Some people have preconceived notions of what that is — like being a crazy feminist,” she said.
Additionally, Pacifico said people think women’s studies exclusively focuses on women.
“We talk about men all the time and nonbinary people and transgender people, and the intersection of race, masculinity, femininity and how that changes in different contexts,” she said.
Sherbet wrote she thinks people imagine women’s studies classes to be the ultimate “safe spaces,” and subsequently find them inferior.
“And while professors are pretty good about things like content warnings, this doesn’t mean that students are shielded from dissenting opinions,” she wrote. “A content or trigger warning simply means that a professor is about to discuss something that might trigger someone to have an anxiety attack or a bout of PTSD"; for example, if a professor talks about sexual assault, and one of the students is a survivor of sexual assault, the professor does not want that student to relive their trauma in class.
An evolving field
In terms of department changes, Kelley and Ceballo emphasized a major change is expansion.
For one thing, Ceballo noted it is in fact the Women’s Studies "Department,” not just a “program.” It has 30 budgeted faculty members and over 50 faculty with courtesy appointments. Ceballo added many faculty members have joint appointments with other departments, such as anthropology, English and nursing, among others.
Kelley said another way the department has evolved is as a result of faculty looking to the demands and desires of their students. She said the gender and health component of the department, specifically the new major, was created largely in response to student interest.
Additionally, Kelley explained, there is no longer a stereotypical women’s studies student.
She said prior to the last 10 years, the department consisted more exclusively of women and more exclusively of women who were willing and able to identify themselves as feminists before they entered the classroom. She said today there are more men in the classes and there is less of a stigma toward men taking such classes.
“I think it is less politicized than it was before,” she said. “I think it’s people who feel as though they should know something about women’s and gender history before they leave here — and that’s excellent. But another way it sometimes makes me a little concerned is it may reflect the fact that it still hasn’t been fully integrated into the rest of the curriculum.”
In terms of material, Pacifico explained the field used to be focused primarily on white women, while issues of Black women and other races of women were ignored. She explained this discrepancy is crucial to different types of feminism.
“I think feminism has done a little bit more to try to be racially inclusive and aware but the responsibility is still left on Black feminists’ shoulders and they still get left behind, especially in mainstream feminism, by politicians,” she said.
Mendoza wrote he suspects one misconception people may have is that women’s studies, and feminism more generally, is homogenous — specifically, white.
“But, again, even the Introduction to Women's Studies (WS 240) demonstrates that women of color have an integral role not just in the history of feminist activism and theory but in their future,” he wrote. “I think more now than in recent history, feminist analysis, especially as it is conducted through an intersectional framework — that is, one that understands that various categories of human difference intersect and overlap — is necessary for democracy to survive.”
Value of a women’s studies degree
After graduating, Pacifico plans to take at least two gap years. Currently, she is a member of Sexperteam — a program through the University Health Service in which students teach campus communities about sexual health. In a similar vein, she said she would like to work for a nonprofit that addresses sexuality or sexual education. She would also be interested in pursuing research, as well as medical school at some point in the future.
Consistent with Ceballo’s comment on parent concern about the major, Pacifico said her mom does not see value in a women’s studies degree — that it teaches about problems but doesn’t actually address how to solve them, and doesn’t create marketable skills.
“That is untrue,” she said. “I learn how to critically think about things, I have become a better writer and reader. I’ve learned more about experiences that are different from mine, which can be really hard to do, especially in your own little bubble. When I compare the skills that I’ve gained through women’s studies to the skills that I’ve gained doing my biology degree — and that’s I know how to conduct (polymerase chain reactions) and the components of a cell — what is that going to get me if I’m applying for a job that’s not in a biology lab?”
Sherbet added she thinks the field is important for several reasons, but most importantly, to discuss and fight for change in a complex sociopolitical climate, where it is easy to feel powerless and voiceless.
“With the threat of losing the ACA, affordable birth control and Title IX protections, it’s more important than ever to educate yourself and others, and to fight for these things,” she wrote. “Nothing will ever get done if we all sit around and pretend like it’s not happening — now more than ever, it’s so important to study these topics and put them to good use. Although the past year has been bleak, one of the few things that has given me comfort has been attending classes full of women who are incredibly passionate, driven and ready to take on the world. Because of WS, I know that I will never have to go this fight alone.”