Women’s Studies, Gender Studies and Feminism

Women’s Studies, Gender Studies and Feminism

Stevi Jackson

Women’s studies as an academic enterprise had its roots in second wave feminism and originated as a challenge to male-defined and male-centred knowledge. Students studying sociology now take it for granted that gender is central to sociological analysis. This was not always so. The sociology I was taught as an undergraduate in the late 1960s and early 1970s was the sociology of men as if they represented the whole of society – and primarily white western men. Women featured only briefly, in lectures on family and kinship. This was not a problem peculiar to sociology; women in other disciplines were facing similar biases in relation to what counted as knowledge. Some of us, inspired by feminist ideas, began to complain and then to act.

By the middle of the 1970s feminists began to organise across disciplines as well as within them. Young feminist academics and graduate students met to discuss the possibility of launching women’s studies as a new ‘women-centred way of knowing’ that would challenge the prevailing androcentric view of society and culture prevalent in the humanities and social sciences (science subjects weren’t even having the debate at that stage). We offered adult education courses in our communities as well as agitating in universities, using the skills we were learning through political activism to make a difference within the academy. At this time most feminist academics were also activists in the wider women’s liberation movement. We were a privileged group of women; not all of us were by any means middle class in origin but we had gained a university education at a time when only a small minority of young people did so – and this, perhaps, is partly why second wave feminism is seen as overwhelmingly middle class.

Looking back, we were remarkably successful within a very short period of time. The first women’s studies courses, at postgraduate level were set up in the early 1980s, initially at Kent and Bradford, then York, followed by many others. Throughout the 1980s both undergraduate and postgraduate women’s studies programmes sprang up in universities and polytechnics across the UK and by the end of the decade we had our own professional association, initially called the Women’s Studies Network (later to be renamed the Feminist and Women’s Studies Association). In many ways the 1980s were an inauspicious time for new academic initiatives. It was the Thatcher era, with its cuts in central government funding of HE, leading to a lack of academic jobs and thus little opportunity for job mobility. Yet among those who had been recruited into academia before the job slump took hold, there was a critical mass of committed young feminists willing to put considerable effort into developing women’s studies.  When a group of us in a Polytechnic proposed a women’s studies degree we met little opposition. As far as the ‘authorities’ were concerned we could go ahead in seeking validation provided we could do so without any additional resources. What mattered, we were told, was ‘bums on seats’, and provided we could achieve this (and bring in the fees paid by said bums), the powers that be had little interest in what we were teaching. Programmes such as this one were initially successful. At undergraduate level they often attracted mature women students without standard academic qualifications who came in via access courses

Women’s Studies programmes relied heavily on the energy and feminist commitment of, primarily, junior academic staff often on temporary contracts. While these degrees appeared to flourish, under-resourcing and the lack of institutional support also made them rather precarious. During the 1990s a few more job opportunities opened up. One consequence was that when those involved in women’s studies moved on, and their replacements often lacked the same expertise or commitment. At the same time cuts in the funding of students, the decline in student grants and their replacement by loans meant many less advantaged women could no longer contemplate a degree course while others opted for ‘safer’ subjects. As student numbers declined in the 1990s and early 2000s, many degree programmes shut down. While there were a few new ones at postgraduate level (usually badged as gender studies), free standing undergraduate degrees gradually disappeared, although a few universities still offer women’s or gender studies routes through other degree programmes. Postgraduate courses have, however, proved more durable.

This decline has not meant the demise of feminist knowledge production within universities. The rise of women’s studies also led to feminism having an impact on a variety of disciplines, with a gradual ‘mainstreaming’ of feminist research and theory in much of the humanities and social sciences. As feminist knowledge became more academically respectable it was increasingly possible to build a career as an avowedly feminist scholar. This very success, however, has created another problem: a rift between academic feminism and feminist activism, which became apparent in the 1990s. Feminist knowledge, in particular feminist theory, was increasingly more abstract and distant from the everyday challenges facing women in the outside world. There was pressure to keep up with whatever intellectual trend was currently fashionable in order to appear respectably intellectual and ‘cutting edge’. Not all feminist academics played this game, but we were facing other problems that worked against maintaining our connections with activism.

As the generation who founded women’s studies became more senior we found ourselves over-burdened by work responsibilities, which was exacerbated by the increasing bureaucratisation of higher education and the audit culture. This left little time or energy for activism. Early career feminist academics were also under pressure. Where my own generation were largely left alone to do whatever research we felt like at the beginning of our careers, as long as we fulfilled our basic teaching commitments, new academics recruits are expected to undertake a teaching qualification, apply successfully for research grants, publish in reputable journals, create impact and be accountable for their intellectual productivity. Yet feminist research and teaching in universities continues to thrive – and not all of it is divorced from activist concerns. Some of it has made, and continues to make, a difference in the ‘real world’, impacting on government and international policies in a number of areas, some of it still making connections with activism.

Do we still need women’s studies?
Most of the surviving programmes in the UK are now branded as gender studies or gender and women’s studies. The pragmatic reason for this is that it is seen as less feminist, more respectable and less threatening than women’s studies. While the term ‘gender’ was initially used by feminists to establish the social (as opposed to natural) basis of hierarchy and division between men and women, this meaning has largely been lost in its incorporation into everyday language. ‘Gender’, therefore has come to seem a safe and neutral term.  ‘Gender studies’ is also seen as more inclusive than ‘women’s studies’, taking in men and women as well as those who identify as neither.

Another objection to ‘women’s studies’ is the problem with ‘women’ as a category. It has been recognised, since the heyday of women’s studies, that ‘women’ is not a unitary category (see e.g. Brah 1991). This is, in my view, not a reason to abandon ‘women’s studies’ or the idea of women centred knowledge. Such knowledge can be a focus for exploring differences and inequalities among women. This is, indeed, what we do on the women’s studies MA at York. We start from Toril Moi’s (2001) question: ‘what is a woman?’ This provides a means of interrogating the category, opening up issues of differences among women and who counts as a woman, which then serves as a base for considering how gender is interlinked with other social inequalities and differences.

One justification for retaining the term ‘women’s studies’ is that it prioritises women-centred knowledge and starts from women’s varied locations in the world. It also pays homage to the roots of the discipline in feminism’s history. There is another important reason. Internationally ‘women’ makes more sense than gender. Gender is, as has long been recognised, an Anglophone concept, one that is not understood globally. Many of our students come from parts of the world where gender is a meaningless term – and they come with a commitment to understanding and addressing the myriad problems women face in their own countries and beyond. If we are serious about working towards a more inclusive feminism, one that is not focused on the relatively privileged societies of the global north, there are good grounds for retaining the name ‘women’s studies’.

In practice, there is little that definitively differentiates between gender studies and women’s studies in terms of what is taught. To be sure, every curriculum is different, but all, whether women’s studies or gender studies, use feminist research and theory, discuss gender and inevitably discuss men as well as women and transgressions of gender binaries. Whether we call what we do women’s studies or gender studies or a hybrid of the two, there is reason to celebrate its survival in the harsh academic climate of our times and continue to defend it. But, given that feminism has had such an influence on sociology and other disciplines, do we still need these programmes?  I would argue that we do. There are limits to feminism’s influence, evident for example in the way some mainstream (or malestream) academics continue to ignore feminist scholarship even where it is of obvious relevance. There is still a need for an institutional base, for a public profile that brings women’s concerns to the fore in the light of the many problems facing women in the world today.

This brings me back to activism. In the early years of my time in the Centre for Women’s Studies at York (in the late 1990s and early 2000s), few of our students had activist backgrounds, and most who did were either overseas students from beyond the Euro-American axis or mature students with second wave affiliations. Today, however, our students are increasingly oriented to activism, to addressing the pressing problems facing women globally and they are wonderfully creative in the forms of activism they pursue. In this I see hope – both for women’s studies/gender studies in the academy and for the impact of feminism in the wider world.

Brah, Avtar (1991) ‘Questions of difference and international feminism’, in Jane Aaron and Sylvia Walby (Eds.) Out of the Margins, London, Falmer Press.
Moi, Toril (2001) What is a Woman? And Other Essays. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Stevi Jackson  is professor of sociology and director of the Centre for Women’s Studies at the University of York (UK).  She is the author of many books and articles on gender and sexuality including Heterosexuality in Question, Sage, 1999 and (with Sue Scott ) Theorising Sexuality, Open University Press, Maidenhead, UK, 2010.