Women's Studies in the Academy: Origins and Impact

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9780130929280: Women's Studies in the Academy: Origins and Impact

Providing a historical framework for understanding how women's studies evolved from women's struggles for access to higher education, this book illustrates the impact that feminist perspectives have made in the academy. Using the disciplines as its organizing principle, the First Edition explores eleven major fields to examine the host of contributions and critiques being made by feminist scholars. This book also probes the emergence of women's studies in the late 1960s as an accomplishment of great historical significance, and presents a vast array of readings by feminist scholars over the past 30 years. For professionals with a career or interest in women's studies, sociology, psychology, history, and/or education.

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This book was born out of a simple, yet ambitious goal: to create text that would introduce undergraduates to Women's Studies. It has been a labor of love. Twenty years ago I took my first undergraduate Women's Studies class at Brandeis University. This class quite literally changed the course of my life. It introduced me to the politics of knowledge, the problem of bias, and the promise of feminism to make things at least better, if not right. Declaring a minor in Women's Studies, I pursued my education with a renewed intellectual vigor that emanated from the dynamism I now saw all around me in the academy. In the academy that I was now operating debates raged, ideas were challenged, theories revised, and new questions asked. This was an intellectual ferment into which that I could sink my teeth, and it was made manifest to me through Women's Studies. The attraction of being part of this ferment led me to graduate school where I studied women's history and began to lend my own voice to the great conversations I had been introduced to as an undergraduate.

Twelve years ago I taught my first undergraduate class. It was an Introduction to Women's Studies class, and I was free to shape it in any way I saw fit. As I developed the course, I gave a lot of thought to the question: How can I introduce something as big and complex as Women's Studies in a sixteen-week semester and make it coherent, accessible, and exciting? There seemed so much to cover. I decided that the class had to accomplish two purposes: to place the development of Women's Studies in a historical perspective and to show its impact on the academy. First, I wanted my students to know where Women's Studies had come from—a long struggle for access to and then reform of higher education. This struggle for women's education emanated from the larger struggle for political and legal rights for women. Simply put, there would be no Women's Studies without social movements dedicated to women's equality. In fact, Women's Studies has been described the "academic arm" of feminism. Furthermore, as the first section of this text will show, there would be no movements dedicated to women's equality without other movements for racial and social justice. It is vital to show today's undergraduates how their present experience of the academy has been influenced by the struggles of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Specifically, cultural notions of womanhood, ethnicity, class, and race shaped both access to and the curricular contents of higher education. In other words, the historical factors that help to explain why women and minorities either weren't educated or were educated differently than white males also help to explain what the curriculum looked like in past eras and why its content has been challenged by "outsiders."

Placed in this context, the emergence of Women's Studies in the late 1960s is properly recognized as an accomplishment of great historical significance. Historicizing the development of Women's Studies encourages recognition of the rich and varied contributions made by women's movements. Furthermore, this context makes clear the integral connections between Women's Studies and other struggles for inclusion and social justice. It highlights the political nature of education—who has access to it, what it looks like, and what its purposes are—and reminds today's students that these issues still require their attention. The omission of this history does a disservice to our students. It is my hope that beginning this class and this text with this history will provide students with the perspective necessary to both appreciate and think critically about their education. I encourage all students to use their experience with Women's Studies to evaluate what and how they are taught, what purpose their education serves, and how critical perspectives enhance the dynamism and relevance of the academy.

Once the historical dimensions have been established, the next objective of this text is to show students exactly what Women's Studies has accomplished. All scholars ask and answer questions in a manner particular to their disciplinary training. For example, historians might ask about the causes and origins of events and then collect and analyze certain kinds of evidence to ascertain answers, while literary critics might ask about the themes or symbolism in a text and apply theoretical and analytical strategies to explore these questions. Feminist scholars have altered the questions scholars ask and the strategies and methods used for answering those questions. In 1995, feminist scholar Peggy McIntosh of the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women encapsulated the power of Women's Studies in the following manner: "Once you've been given permission to connect the dots in a different way, you see new constellations in the sky." This astute and poetic observation captures the essence of my dedication to Women's Studies as a crucial aspect of education. Feminist scholars have literally changed the face of the curriculum: they have connected the dots in different ways and uncovered new constellations. These new constellations are represented by the wide array of readings in this text. It presents a sample of the most innovative and exciting work by feminist scholars over the past thirty years to show students exactly how Women's Studies has transformed the academy. Students will be introduced to research that has been shaped by a feminist consciousness and commitment and can decide for themselves whether this perspective improves or detracts from accuracy or a quest for the "truth."

Feminist scholarship is wide ranging. Just as feminism is not monolithic, neither do feminist academics always (or even often) agree on research agendas, methodologies, or institutional frameworks. Despite these differences, certain important themes and tensions emerge from this collection, which helps to characterize and capture the impact of Women's Studies in the academy.

First, feminist scholars have participated in lively debates regarding the value of objectivity/neutrality Traditionally associated with scholarly inquiry versus the value of engagement traditionally associated with political consciousness and activism. Feminists find themselves trying to resolve this tension or defy its existence. This text provides examples of scholars arguing that feminist perspectives make scholarship stronger and more accurate, and others who flout objectivity as a false construct perpetuated precisely to exclude women's voices.

Second, students will be introduced to the tension in feminist research between the pull of the disciplines and the notion that studying women is an intrinsically interdisciplinary project. Some of the readings reveal the aim of ridding a discipline of masculinist bias and using feminist perspectives to enhance theory building and research methods. Others decry the artificial boundaries among disciplines and search for more holistic ways to investigate and solve problems.

Third, feminist scholars have confronted the problem of what to do about sexism in the academy. They ask, "Can we work within existing frameworks to clean things up, or do we need to `throw out the master's tools'?" This collection contains examples of feminists who find value, despite flaws in their disciplinary tradition, and seek to correct flaws while adhering to conventional criteria and standards. Others can be labeled "rejectionists" as they attempt to create bold, new theories, methods, and standards.

Fourth, many feminist scholars seek ways to recognize and include more women in their theory, research, and teaching so as not to replicate the exclusionary practices that Women's Studies was created to combat. This text presents varying approaches to grappling with this tension of inclusion/exclusion. Some scholars particularly see feminist perspectives as a window into oppression of all kinds, sensitizing them to the ways that the academy has ignored or distorted the experience of marginalized people.

This text is designed not to proselytize or promote a certain perspective, but to present the very idea of perspective to undergraduates who are new to both the academy and encountering Women's Studies and feminism for the first time. It is built on the premise that the academy is a rich and dynamic arena where people dedicated to a search for answers to profound questions engage in lively debates that require disciplined thinking and credible research. This is the academy that this book seeks to introduce to undergraduates. This is also the academy that may get lost in pursuit of major field requirements, professional training, or simply classes that emphasize acquiring information over the assessment of that information. Put simply, the most significant thing Women's Studies can do is help students to think critically. Even more fundamentally, it can serve to introduce the whole concept of critical thought as it offers examples of how scholars have mounted challenges to hegemonic concepts across the disciplines and altered the very nature of those disciplines. In this sense, the introduction to Women's Studies presented in this text is offered in service to all students pursuing any discipline.

I sincerely appreciate the suggestions from the following reviewers: Suzanne J. Cherrin, University of Delaware; Valerie Burks, Florida Atlantic University; Eden Torres, University of Minnesota; and Garlena Bauer, Otterbein College.

Robyn L. Rosen

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