UW women's studies program now offers 100 courses

Activist leanings and lack of ideological diversity among the knocks against growing Gender and Women’s Studies major

By RACHEL HORTON | Oct. 22, 2018

Madison — “Women’s studies is not a discipline,” declared sociologist Richard P. Taub, then associate dean at the University of Chicago, in the 1980s. Since then, the Gender and Women’s Studies program has surged at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which now grants the second-highest number of such degrees in the country.

UW’s Department of Gender and Women’s Studies (GWS) was founded in 1975 as the Women’s Studies Program. It became a full-fledged academic department in 2008 and now includes a Ph.D. minor, a 30-credit undergraduate major, a certificate in LGBT studies and a master’s program.

Students in the Gender and Women's Studies program study at Sterling Hall on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. Photo by Allen Fredrickson.The GWS program offers 100 courses, most of them cross-listed, or taught in tandem, with another department. The courses run the gamut from introductions to human sexuality and gender to advanced coursework in intersectionality and queer studies.

An area of research once relegated to the academic ghetto now enjoys the same support and administrative infrastructure as other departments. GWS at Madison has tenured professors, 19 faculty, a research center and a colloquium series. In 2014, it added a privately funded fellowship in Feminist Biology, which allows postdoctoral students to “develop research skills in an area of biology related to gender and teaching skills in feminist approaches to biology.”

This growth has occurred despite decades of pushback from the broader academic community.

In 1984, when many of the programs were in their infancy, Walter Goodman of The New York Times quoted a University of California-Berkeley social scientist as saying, “There is no logic in intellectual life for singling out any group as a separate discipline, be it blacks, Chicanos or women.”

Madison’s department chair, Aili Tripp, disagrees. “The pursuit of knowledge is only enhanced when the perspectives and experiences of women, racial and ethnic and sexual minorities, and others who have been on the fringes of scholarship are taken into account.”

She hopes her students gain an awareness of global issues, specifically, “how far behind the U.S. (is) compared to most other advanced industrialized countries when it comes to women’s rights.”

Tripp notes, “More American women are dying of pregnancy-related complications at higher rates than any other developed country, and only in the U.S. has the rate of pregnant women who die been rising. We don’t have (federal) paid maternity leave, a benefit women enjoy in most countries in the world.”

Opinion editor Abigail Steinberg, writing in The Badger Herald student newspaper in October 2017, argued that GWS courses are not only beneficial to the student body but should be mandatory.

“These misunderstandings (relating to sex and gender) are not only inconvenient but detrimental to the culture, relationships and well-being of all humans,” she wrote. Therefore, “it is both logical and imperative that women’s and gender studies courses be required.”

There are skeptics

Others may wonder: What is the goal of a gender studies education?

Its direct connection to the post-college job world seems shaky at best; it lacks the timelessness and practicality of subjects such as history or math. A Gender and Women’s Studies degree could leave idealistic prospective activists struggling to find relevant employment.

National data show that most GWS graduates become elementary and middle school teachers or work in the legal field. The highest-paying industry for GWS majors, by average wage, is travel arrangements and reservation services (travel agents, miscellaneous managers, sales reps, etc.).

Most GWS students at Madison are double majors. “They go into fields as diverse as marketing, law, banking, communications and a variety of health fields,” Tripp says.

UW-Madison trails only the University of Michigan in the number of Gender and Women’s Studies degrees granted in the United States. While UW’s program remains relatively small, with 88 undergraduates majoring in the field as of spring 2018 (four of whom are male), the introductory classes prove popular.

GWS 103, Women and Their Bodies in Health and Disease, draws a wide variety of undergraduate students in both its online and in-person classes. Part sex education, part introduction to feminist thought, the class examines how an individual’s health connects to “larger social and political contexts.”

Diverse viewpoints shunned

Kara Bell, a senior majoring in political science and communications, took the course online over the summer. While she found it beneficial in emphasizing the disparities and challenges in health care in the U.S. as well as providing a solid foundation of sex education, it didn’t adequately acknowledge a diversity of opinions, she says.

If students shared a conservative viewpoint in a discussion, “the instructor would often encourage them to consider the viewpoint we were taught and ‘consider a new perspective,’ ” Bell says. 

Rather than allow students to fully articulate their own opinions, “the discussion assignment was often phrased in a way that developed the responses of the students” — essentially prompting students to answer in line with the instructor, she says.

The notion of gender and sex as a spectrum was heavily emphasized throughout the course material. According to the class, gender is not confined to male or female but exists on a spectrum, influenced by factors beyond one’s birth sex. One lesson’s introduction stated, “Culture shapes an individual’s gender throughout life.”

Throughout the discussions, students were required to use terms such as “male-assigned” or “female-assigned” instead of “man” or “woman.” In fact, “woman” was considered to be a subjective term, and in discussing pregnancy, one couldn’t simply assume the gender identity of a mother, Bell says.

She questions the purpose of this in light of the aims of the department: “How can we fight for women when we can’t even define what a woman is?” Bell asks.

Most troubling to Bell, however, was how the course covered the subject of abortion. Students watched the documentary “I Had an Abortion,” which seeks to destigmatize abortion by interviewing a variety of women and highlighting what led them to terminate their pregnancies.

One of the course’s readings, “What is Feminist Sex Education?,” states that feminist sex education is “pro-choice, supporting the right of women to have complete sovereignty over their bodies at all times, including during pregnancy, and equally supporting the right of those who do or can become pregnant to choose abortion, adoption or parenting.”

Bell feels the class failed to acknowledge the other side of the issue; pro-life works and research were not part of the curriculum. Rather than presenting both sides, the class cemented the notion that modern-day feminism and pro-life beliefs are incompatible.

An open-minded approach

Other introductory courses and instructors, however, take a more open-minded and inclusive approach.

Professor Christine Garlough’s GWS 102, Gender, Women and Society in Global Perspective — described as a “global, interdisciplinary, social science-oriented analysis of gender, race, class and sexuality in relationship to social institutions and movements for social change” — has 240 students enrolled this semester.

Sinead Van Dresse, a sophomore hoping to study nursing, is taking the class despite feeling that the subject matter is not quite her forte. But she credits Garlough’s engaging teaching style and breadth of knowledge with helping to “broaden her horizons.”

Each class opens with Garlough prompting students to discuss with a classmate a current event related to course content. “We all have our go-to news sources,” Garlough explains, so she asks students to look at different types of news sources, including ones that offer opposing viewpoints.

In doing so, she hopes students “learn how to think critically, and understand (they’re) encountering arguments in a public sphere, there are people behind those arguments and understand them in context.”

Introductory classes of this size often feel impersonal and dull, with their large lecture halls and harsh fluorescent lighting. But Garlough held the attention of the well-attended lecture on a recent September day with ease, as she spoke on the issue of women’s suffrage throughout history, encouraging students to share their reactions to the material, presented without bias.

One advanced course offering this semester is Contemporary Queer Art and Visual Culture. The course description notes, “The political imperatives of a queer or queered position, linked to the intersections of race, class, sex and gender will shape thematic investigations of practices related to activism, documentation, abstraction, mining the archive, craft, camp, and drag, among others.”

This focus on these intersections — known as intersectional theory — has taken an increasingly prominent role in the department, as well as in modern academic scholarship more broadly.


On the Undergraduate Learning Outcomes page, the department lists intersectionality as one of the areas of knowledge that students are expected to accrue. The department expects GWS students to “recognize how gender intersects with other axes of inequality, such as race, class, disability status, sexuality, gender expression, nationality, geography and age.”

Intersectionality plays a role in many of the GWS courses and has been a course subject in its own right.

Taught in a prior semester, Theorizing Intersectionality asked students to “critically examine important issues, questions, and debates regarding intersectionality or the notion that race, gender, sexuality, and other terrains of difference gain meaning from each other.”

One option for the final project was to write a manifesto outlining why feminist activists working in a particular arena (reproductive rights, sexual violence, affirmative action, workplace discrimination, subsidized child care for working mothers, etc.) can and should embrace intersectionality.

It’s not clear how a student would fare on these assignments should she or he take a more critical view of the application of intersectionality. The professor who taught the course did not respond to a request for an interview.

While intersectionality is one of many lenses through which students learn to view the world, there are drawbacks.

As Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff note in their recent book, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” “interpretations of intersectionality have the potential to turn tribalism way up. … (They) teach people to see bipolar dimensions of privilege and oppression as ubiquitous in social interactions.”

By creating these stark divisions between privilege and oppression, intersectionality perpetuates the “us vs. them” mentality already spreading on campus. Intersectionality takes the complexity of the human experience and reduces it to a set of characteristics like race, class, gender and sexual orientation.

Academia vs. activism

Historically, skepticism of Gender and Women’s Studies was in part due to fears that scholarship in the discipline too often blurred the line between academic research and social activism.

“This focus on activism makes women’s studies suspect as an academic field. Proponents of women’s studies aim to exert political influence in the larger world,” says Karin Lips, president of the Network of Enlightened Women.

For GWS at UW-Madison, the connection between research and activism is inextricable.

As the department’s diversity statement notes, “Our Department affirms our commitment to research that exposes and condemns multiple axes of inequality. … (GWS) is strongly committed to using the tools of scholarship and teaching to help create a more inclusive and just world.”

This takes shape in a number of ways. For example, professor Araceli Alonso uses her research on human trafficking to aid victims not only in Madison but around the world.

Another example is the department’s focus on Feminist Biology, which, according to professor Janet Hyde, “seeks to redress inequities or bias, particularly bias, in past research and create new research that corrects those biases.”

But, of course, feminists have their own biases, and by merging feminist activism with biology, the potential for politicized research is strong. As Christina Hoff Sommers of the American Enterprise Institute notes in a video blog, “We need good biologists, not agenda-driven, politicized science.”

Lips worries about this melding of activism and academia: “Too often these institutions and departments lack intellectual diversity and a spirit of open-mindedness. They’re activist, not academic.”

GWS’s diversity statement affirms a commitment to diversity in many areas, including race, religion, immigration status, gender and sexuality. But there is no mention of ideological diversity.

The department notes that many of these groups “have felt attacked and abandoned. The Department of Gender and Women’s Studies recognizes their pain in the face of glacial institutional change and a new-found cultural license to goad, harass, and hate.”

While an admirable sentiment, language such as “glacial institutional change” seems oddly hyperbolic and evocative of the type of cognitive distortion that Haidt and Lukianoff warn about.

Victimization mode

“The majority of the coursework tries to show the progression of female empowerment but oftentimes falls short and stays in the victimization viewpoint,” Bell says.

“Victimhood culture breeds ‘moral dependency’ in the very students it is trying to help — students learn to appeal to third parties (administrators) to resolve their conflicts rather than learning to handle conflicts on their own,” writes Haidt, co-founder of Heterodox Academy, an organization composed of 1,800 professors and graduate students devoted to increasing ideological diversity in universities.       

Women are autonomous beings capable of making their own health decisions but apparently are also in need of administrative support and bias response teams to ensure their well-being.

Universities traditionally have had the pursuit of truth as their unifying purpose. Mottos such as “Veritas” and “Strength Through Truth” adorn university crests across the nation. Increasingly, social justice and activism have played a larger role on campus, and the compatibility of these aims with ideological diversity continues to confound administrators and faculty alike.

There are drawbacks to policies that prioritize the comfort of students, as they can stifle discussion, a vital part of the learning process. Classes that fail to acknowledge opposing and potentially “offensive” viewpoints actually harm the learning process.

Courses that don’t encourage and respect differing opinions on subjects of sex and gender do a disservice to students, shaping the narrative around gender dynamics on campus. Without ideological diversity, women aren’t empowered to form their own opinions and come to their own conclusions.

 Instead, they’re molded to fit a larger narrative, one that fails to acknowledge the inherent intellectual capacity of the individual — regardless of gender.

Rachel Horton of Milwaukee graduated from Indiana University with a degree in economics.

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