Ohio University now offers a bachelor's degree in women's studies and the recently dedicated Women's Center brings it home
Feb. 19, 2007
By Julia Marino
It's a safe bet that most students who signed up for WS 210 weren't expecting to learn about gay and transgender African American and Latino men living in New York City. This is a women's studies class, after all.
But one day last quarter, the students were doing just that, watching a documentary called "Paris is Burning," which chronicles the lives of urban drag queens competing in raucous fashion balls in the late 1980s.
If you thought women's studies was all about, you know, women, it turns out you're only half right. It's about men too.
It's also about politics, history, sociology, biology, psychology, race, sexuality, art and even rock n' roll, all mixed together in an interdisciplinary stew.
The documentary was part of Women, Gender and Rock n' Roll, taught by Professor of Political Science and Women's Studies Susan Burgess. Many students take the class because they're interested in rock n' roll, not necessarily women's studies. But then they discover, "hey, women's studies is pretty cool," she says.
"Pop culture and music are part of the fabric of everyone's daily lives," Burgess says, which makes them good vehicles for examining contemporary women's studies, which is grounded in people's experience. "If we want to keep up with women's issues, pop culture is where."
Burgess was director of women's studies at Ohio University from 2000 to 2005. She says that women's studies was born out of the women's liberation movement with the goal of giving women a greater presence and voice on university campuses, leading to more and better opportunities in the professional world.
Women's studies is a "theoretical framework to understand the world," with the women's movement being one of the major events of the 20th and 21st centuries, Burgess says. "If you don't understand that, you've got a gap in your education."
As an academic discipline, women's studies looks at the intersection of gender with sexuality, race and class, all parts of human identity, says Judith Grant, director of the university's women's studies program. With its wide reach, the program is "parasitic on all of the disciplines but still mainstreamed into the university as a bona fide disciplinary area," she says.
During her term as director, Burgess helped expand the women's studies program, which offered an undergraduate and graduate certificate when she took over, to now include a Bachelor of Arts in Women's Studies as an interdisciplinary major within the College of Arts and Sciences.
Since the degree was first offered in 2005, demand for the major has exceeded expectations with more than 15 students, including some men, earning their bachelor's degree in women's studies.
"We're in an interesting time because gender is at the core of our relationship to technology, culture, sexuality, etc. It's a great time to be in this field … it's living," Burgess says. "I would challenge somebody to think about an area that isn't affected by gender."
The interdisciplinary nature of the program if reflected in the curriculum for majors. Each major chooses the global issues, sexuality or general track, and is encouraged to complement the degree with a double-major or a minor in other fields that relate to their academic or professional interests.
Senior Allie Nordman, did just that with a degree in sociology the sexuality and women's studies sequence. She says women's studies is "applicable to so many fields," and it helps her study of sociology to have a women's studies perspective.
Women's studies also ties in with her passion for music, politics, writing and other interests. Last fall, she completed Women, Gender and Rock n' Roll to help fulfill her musical craving and has become this year's editor for Athens' first feminist journal, The Awakening.
Some skeptics don't understand the degree's interdisciplinary approach and assume that "women's studies" excludes men, contradicting the goal of gender equality.
"People make jokes like, 'Where is the men's studies major?'" Nordman says. "They tend to think it is driven by some radical vision of feminism."
The university is even discussing whether to move women's studies to a department and change the name to gender studies, or women, gender and sexuality studies.
Grant, who is not committed to any particular name, says this discussion is useful "because it helps us assess the state of the field." As for the possibility of women's studies becoming its own department, she says that would move the program from "a junior partner to an equal partner," giving students more exciting possibilities and giving women's studies the chance to expand "the table of arts and sciences as full participants."
Julia Marino is a student-writer with University Communications and Marketing.