Women’s Issues: Driving Michigan men to Monday Night Football and Budweiser since 1973.

Suffice it to say, when female concerns or feminist ideologies come up in a conversation, most men are apt to skip out and run the other direction, fast. When similar issues or perspectives are framed in a less genderized and polarizing ways, however, the possibility for real conversation and progress may open up.

Take “gender issues,” for instance: Now that sounds like a more inviting conversation to men. “Gender and sexuality”? They’re all ears.

As a Daily article earlier this month outlined, the University has made great strides in offering female-orientated education since the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s. In 1972, student rebellion led the University to create its first women’s studies course. When the experimental course fizzled the following semester, the Committee on Women’s Issues stepped in and convinced LSA administrators of the legitimacy and necessity of women’s studies at the University. In 1973, the University welcomed Women’s Studies to LSA as an interdisciplinary program, bringing the University in tune with the women’s social rights movement and calming students’ cries for a female-specific department.

At the time, the University was at the forefront of offering such education. Today, however, 34 years after the induction of the women’s studies department, the University has fallen behind. Women’s studies has become the outdated older sister of more progressive programs, which are run at top-rated universities around the country. What’s taking its place? Gender and sexuality departments.

Of the top 26 undergraduate colleges in the country, as rated by U.S. News and World Report (Michigan is tied for 25 with the University of California at Los Angeles), 24 have gender-related studies. Of those 24, only four have programs that are geared in name solely toward women. Michigan is one of those schools, and it hasn’t hinted at changing its status anytime soon.

Some of the other 20 – among them all of the Ivy League institutions – have required classes or program structures similar to the University’s. But all have renamed their programs – such as the Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at Cornell University – or added to their existing women’s programs – such as the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies Program at UCLA. They have crawled out of the “women’s studies” shell and created programs with broader bases.

The renaming of existing programs and the branching-off of related programs comes at a time when American universities are looking to become more accepting toward different sexual orientations and reach out to a wider population with sexuality-based education. What’s encouraging is the move hasn’t occurred simply for politically correct reasons, but instead for the expansion of education and to draw further attention toward gender norms and ideologies and spark further exploration.

When the University of Colorado at Boulder changed its program’s name from “Women’s Studies” to “Women and Gender Studies” in 2006, an associate professor in the department said, “The name change enlarges the definition of women because it acknowledges how each gender shapes the identity of the other . The understanding of gender relations is an important factor in the effort to achieve women’s equality with men.” Schools are realizing the need to incorporate men into conversations about sexuality, rather than alienating them from women’s programs.

These philosophical reasons for the name change at programs at universities around the country is what makes Michigan’s stagnation so confusing. The University’s women’s studies program was once groundbreaking, and the University’s administration is known for its progressive ideology and acceptance of all people. The University is certainly not one to lag behind in making a sociologically conscious reformation by changing the name.

There are some reasonable arguments for having a program whose name alludes only to women. It allows an open arena for feminist ideologies and narrows in on topics generally covered in psychology and sociology. Also, many could argue that the University’s program shouldn’t be forced to change its name only to get more men to take its classes or concentrate in the program. Besides, the program already offers minors in Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender/Queer Studies as well as Gender, Race and Ethnicity; what’s changing the department’s name going to do?

For starters, renaming it would be a symbolic gesture toward opening up the program for men and recognizing that gender studies should not be limited to women. Without male perspectives, how can we get anywhere in terms of breaking down gender roles and expectations? There are also structural problems in the University’s program that extend beyond its title, such as the fact that of the more than 80 faculty members in the women’s studies department, only three are men. This – along with its name – creates an image that the department is OK with excluding men.

As one of only two female opinion columnists at the Daily, I understand the need for more sexuality based conversation. There is pressure – whether its spoken or just implied – put on women at the University to discuss female-specific topics. Perhaps if men weren’t so stigmatized from sexuality studies at the University, maybe we could create better conversation around women’s issues, and men would be more willing to discuss or write about gender-related issues.

Theresa Kennelly is an associate editorial page editor. She can be reached at thenelly@umich.edu.

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