July 6, 2013

What’s In A Name? Is ‘Gender Studies’ More Inclusive?

Filed under: Gender — Tags: , , , — Marley @ 11:03 am

Last fall UCLA changed the name of the Women’s Studies department to Gender Studies and I have gone back and forth as to why I believe the name change does the major a disservice.  The decision was based on the views of faculty and graduate students in the department who took a vote and decided that ‘Gender Studies’ was more inclusive of a term that highlights the ability to reach a wider audience.  Jenny Sharpe, Chair of Gender Studies and professor in English, Gender Studies and Comparative Literature at UCLA, made this statement regarding the name change:

Building on the path-breaking scholarly legacy of the first generation of Women’s Studies departments, the shift to Gender Studies marks the rich terrain of intellectual inquiry now encompassed by the field, which includes exploration of the histories and experiences of diverse women as well as studies of sexualities, masculinities, and gender systems in historical and transnational perspectives.

The change stems from UCLA’s attempt to make the major more relatable to everyone, not just women.  While I commend the attempt to be more inclusive, it seems as though actually being more inclusive needs to come from within the major and not just by simply changing the name.  Women’s Studies is an interdisciplinary field in which studies of sexualities, masculinities and other gender systems are the areas of focus; the name Women’s Studies derived out of a need to learn history and experiences of women that have been largely silenced within the dominant historical discourse. It is not a major solely intended for women, it is the study of using an intersectional lens in which to view the world, outside of male and female binaries.

As a Women’s Studies major, I have dealt first hand with the incredible amount of prejudice and stereotyping that comes along with being in the major.  References to the ‘soft sciences’ and interrogations about my character and political affiliation are typically at the forefront of the conversation.  While I believe that the change can be beneficial to those who hear ‘Women’s Studies’ and automatically think that it a male-bashing major made just for women, I truly believe that deciding to change the major’s name is somewhat of a cop out.  Simply changing the name without an in-depth look at how the department plans to make the material more relatable (or the professors less judgmental) does not magically make Women’s Studies more inclusive- if anything, it makes it more exclusive.

The first Women’s Studies class I took at Santa Monica College with Professor Melanie Klein changed my life.  It created a space in which students were given the ability to recognize the inherent erasure and silencing of women’s voices in a historical perspective and pushed us to bring women to the forefront of political and social discourse and to create change.  On the first day of class, we were given a questionnaire about the word feminist and the types of stereotypes and misunderstandings that are linked to that word.  Yes, the term feminist brings with it a slew of unwanted perceptions, questions and often times a conversation that can be quite confrontational but never once did I decide not to openly call myself a feminist because I was afraid of the backlash.  In fact, it instilled in me an even more important reason why I openly call myself a feminist- to demystify the negativity.

The same can be said for my views on changing the name ‘Women’s Studies’.  Changing the name on some level acknowledges that there is something wrong, something not to be proud of and for that I inherently disagree.  The role, experiences and achievements of women is just part of the importance of the name Women’s Studies; it is a way of understanding the world that is intersectional, embodying all aspects of the society in which we live related to gender, race, class, sexuality, age, ability, the list goes on. I graduated last month and am thrilled that despite the department’s name change, my diploma will  say ‘Women’s Studies’ because I transferred into the program before the change went into effect. With that said, it saddens me that an area of study I care so deeply about is more worried about conforming to the ideals of the dominant culture rather than keeping alive a spirit of women and men who have worked hard to see Women’s Studies accepted as a field of study.