Women's studies

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The spring 2009 "Women's studies" issue of Ms. magazine

Women's studies is an academic field that draws on feminist and interdisciplinary methods in order to place women’s lives and experiences at the center of study, while examining social and cultural constructs of gender; systems of privilege and oppression; and the relationships between power and gender as they intersect with other identities and social locations such as race, sexual orientation, socio-economic class, and dis/ability.[1]

Popular theories within the field of women's studies include feminist theory, standpoint theory, intersectionality, multiculturalism, transnational feminism, social justice, affect studies, agency, biopolitics, materialisms, and embodiment.[2] Research practices and methodologies associated with women's studies include ethnography, autoethnography, focus groups, surveys, community-based research, discourse analysis, and reading practices associated with critical theory, post-structuralism, and queer theory.[3] The field researches and critiques societal norms of gender, race, class, sexuality, and other social inequalities.

Women's studies is closely related to the fields of gender studies, feminist studies, and sexuality studies, and more broadly related to the fields of cultural studies, ethnic studies, and African-American studies.[4] Women's studies courses are offered in over seven hundred institutions in the United States, and globally in more than forty countries.[5]


In 1956 Australian feminist Madge Dawson took up a lectureship in the Department of Adult Education at Sydney University and began researching and teaching on the status of women. Dawson's course, "Women in a Changing World," focused on the socio-economic and political status of women in western Europe, becoming one of the first women's studies courses.[6] The first accredited women's studies course in the U.S was held in 1969 at Cornell University.[7] After a year of intense organizing of women's consciousness raising groups, rallies, petition circulating, and operating unofficial or experimental classes and presentations before seven committees and assemblies, the first women's studies program in the United States was established in 1970 at San Diego State College (now San Diego State University).[8][9] In conjunction with National Women's Liberation Movement, students and community members created the AD HOC Committee for women's studies.[10] By 1974 SDSU faculty members began a nationwide campaign for the integration of the department. At the time, these actions and the field were extremely political.[11] During these early days of women's studies, before formalized departments and programs, many courses were advertised unofficially around campuses and taught by women faculty members—for free—in addition to their established teaching and administrative responsibilities.[12] Then, as in many cases today, faculty who teach in women's studies often hold faculty appointments in other departments on campus.[13]

The first scholarly journal in interdisciplinary women's studies, Feminist Studies, began publishing in 1972.[14] The National Women's Studies Association (of the United States) was established in 1977.[15]

The 1980s saw the growth and development of women's studies courses and programs across universities in the U.S., while the field continued to grapple with backlash from both conservative groups and concerns from those within the women's movement about the white, essentialist, and heterosexual privilege of those in the academy.[16] The political aims of the feminist movement that compelled the formation of women's studies found itself at odds with the institutionalized academic feminism of the 1990s.[17] As "woman" as a concept continued to be expanded, the exploration of social constructions of gender led to the field's expansion into both gender studies and sexuality studies.

The field of women's studies continued to grow during the 1990s and into the 2000s with the expansion of universities offering majors, minors, and certificates in women's studies, gender studies, and feminist studies. The first Ph.D. program in Women's Studies was established at Emory University in 1990.[18] As of 2012, there were 16 institutions offering a Ph.D. in Women's Studies in the United States.[19][20] Since then, UC Santa Cruz (2013),[21] the University of Kentucky-Lexington (2013),[22] Stony Brook University (2014),[23] and Oregon State University (2016)[24] also introduced a Ph.D. in the field. In 2015 at Kabul University the first master's degree course in gender and women's studies in Afghanistan began.[25] Courses in Women's Studies in the United Kingdom can be found through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.[26]

Theoretical Traditions and Research Methods[edit]

Early women's studies courses and curricula were often driven by the question "where are the women?".[27] That is, as more women were present in higher education as both students and faculty, questions arose about the male-centric nature of most courses and curricula. Women faculty in traditional departments such as history, English, and philosophy began to offer courses with a focus on women. Drawing from the women's movement's notion that "the personal is political," courses also began to develop around sexual politics, women's roles in society, and the ways in which women's personal lives reflect larger power structures.[28]

Since the 1970s, scholars of women's studies have taken post-modern approaches to understanding gender as it intersects with race, class, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, age, and (dis)ability to produce and maintain power structures within society. With this turn, there has been a focus on language, subjectivity, and social hegemony, and how the lives of subjects, however they identify, are constituted. At the core of these theories is the notion that however one identifies, gender, sex, and sexuality are not intrinsic, but are socially constructed.[29]

Major theories employed in women's studies courses include feminist theory, intersectionality, standpoint theory, transnational feminism, and social justice. Research practices associated with women's studies place women and the experiences of women at the center of inquiry through the use of quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods. Feminist researchers acknowledge their role in the production of knowledge and make explicit the relationship between the researcher and the research subject.[3]

Feminist Theory[edit]

Feminist theory refers to the body of writing that works to address gender discrimination and disparities, while acknowledging, describing, and analyzing the experiences and conditions of women's lives.[30] Theorists and writers such as bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins, and Alice Walker added to the field of feminist theory with respect to the ways in which race and gender mutually inform the experiences of women of color with works such as Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (hooks), In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens (Walker), and Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (Collins). Alice Walker coined the term womanism to situate black women's experiences as they struggle for social change and liberation, while simultaneously celebrating the strength of black women, their culture, and their beauty.[31] Patricia Hill Collin's contributed the concept of the "matrix of domination" to feminist theory, which reconceptualizes race, class, and gender as interlocking systems of oppression that shape experiences of privilege and oppression.[32]


Associated with the third wave of feminism, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw's theory of intersectionality is an approach to understanding how institutional structures mutually shape an individual's gendered, racial, and social status. Intersectional theory posits that these relationships must be considered in conversation with each other in order to understand hierarchies of power and privilege and they ways in which they manifest in an individual's life.[33]

Standpoint Theory[edit]

Standpoint theory developed in the 1980s as way of critically examining the production of knowledge and its resulting effects on practices of power.[34] Standpoint theory operates from the idea that knowledge is socially situated and, as a result, underrepresented groups and minorities have historically been ignored or marginalized when it comes to the production of knowledge. Emerging from Marxist thought, standpoint theory argues for analysis that challenges the authority of political and social "truths".[35]

Transnational Feminist Theory[edit]

Transnational feminism is concerned with the flow of social, political, and economic equality of women and men across borders, particularly in response to globalization, neoliberalism, and imperialism.[36] Women's studies began incorporating transnational feminist theory into its curricula as a way to disrupt and challenge the ways knowledge is prioritized, transmitted, and circulates in the field and academy.[37]

Social Justice[edit]

Since its inception and connection with the women's movement, activism has been a foundation of women's studies. Increasingly social justice has become a key component of women's studies courses, programs, and departments. Social justice theory is concerned with the fight for just communities, not on the individual level, but for the whole of society.[38] Women's studies students engage in social justice projects, although some scholars and critics are concerned about requiring students to engage in mandated activism or social justice work.[39]


In most institutions, women's studies courses employ feminist pedagogy in a triad model of equal parts research, theory, and praxis. The decentralization of the professor as the source of knowledge is often fundamental to women's studies classroom culture.[40] Students are encouraged to take an active role in "claiming" their education, taking responsibility for themselves and the learning process.[41] Women's studies programs and courses are designed to explore the intersectionality of gender, race, sexuality, class and other topics that are involved in identity politics and societal norms through a feminist lens. Women's studies courses focus on a variety of topics such as media literacy, sexuality, race and ethnicity, history involving women, queer theory, multiculturalism and other courses closely related. Faculty incorporate these components into classes across a variety of topics, including popular culture, women in the economy, reproductive and environmental justice, and women's health across the lifespan.[42]

Women's studies programs are involved in social justice work and often design curricula that are embedded with theory and activism outside of the classroom setting. Some women's studies programs offer internships that are community-based allowing students the opportunity to experience how institutional structures of privilege and oppression directly affects women's lives. Women's studies curricula often encourage students to participate in service-learning activities in addition to discussion and reflection upon course materials. However, Daphne Patai, from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has criticized this aspect of women's studies programs, arguing that they place politics over education, stating that "the strategies of faculty members in these programs have included policing insensitive language, championing research methods deemed congenial to women (such as qualitative over quantitative methods), and conducting classes as if they were therapy sessions."[43]

Since women's studies students analyze identity markers such as gender, race, class, and sexuality, this often results in dissecting institutionalized structures of power. As a result of these pedagogies, women's studies students leave university with a toolset to make social change and do something about power inequalities in society.[44]

Notable women's studies scholars include Charlotte Bunch, Patricia Hill Collins, bell hooks, Angela Davis, Cherríe Moraga, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, and Barbara Ransby.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Shaw, Susan M.; Lee, Janet. Women's voices, feminist visions: classic and contemporary readings (Sixth ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0078027004. OCLC 862041473. 
  2. ^ Oxford Handbook of Feminist Theory. Oxford University Press. 2018. ISBN 0190872829. OCLC 1002116432. 
  3. ^ a b Hesse-Biber, Sharlene Nagy. Feminist research practice: a primer (Second ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications. ISBN 9781412994972. OCLC 838201827. 
  4. ^ Wiegman, Robyn (2002). Women's studies on its own: a next wave reader in institutional change. Durham: Duke University Press. ISBN 9780822329862. OCLC 49421587. 
  5. ^ Berger, Michele Tracy; Radeloff, Cheryl (2015). Transforming Scholarship: Why Women's and Gender Studies Students Are Changing Themselves and the World. New York: Routledge. p. 7. ISBN 978-0-415-83653-1. 
  6. ^ http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/07/30/1059480406739.html
  7. ^ Kahn, Ada P. (2006). The Encyclopedia of Stress and Stress-related Diseases (2nd ed.). Facts on File. p. 388. ISBN 0816059373. Retrieved 29 September 2012. 
  8. ^ * Salper, Roberta (November 2011). "San Diego State 1970: The Initial Year of the Nation's First Women's Studies Program". Feminist Studies. Feminist Studies, Inc. 37 (3): 658–682. 
  9. ^ "SDSU Women's Studies Department". Archived from the original on 18 September 2014. Retrieved 6 October 2014. 
  10. ^ "History :: Department of Women's Studies at San Diego State University". womensstudies.sdsu.edu. Retrieved 9 December 2015. 
  11. ^ Boxer, Marilyn J. (Fall 2002). "Women's studies as women's history". Women's Studies Quarterly, special issue: Women's Studies Then and Now. The Feminist Press. 30 (3–4): 42–51. JSTOR 40003241. 
  12. ^ Ginsberg, Alice E. (2008). "Triumphs, Controversies, and Change: 1970s to the Twenty-First Century". The Evolution of American Women's Studies: Reflections on Triumphs, Controversies, and Change. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 11. ISBN 978-0-230-60579-4. 
  13. ^ Berger, Michele Tracy; Radeloff, Cheryl (2015). Transforming Scholarship: Why Women's and Gender Studies Students Are Changing Themselves and the World. New York: Routledge. p. 49. ISBN 978-0-415-83653-1. 
  14. ^ "History". Feminist Studies. Retrieved 30 May 2014. 
  15. ^ "NWSA". nwsa.org. Retrieved 26 July 2015. 
  16. ^ Ginsberg, Alice E., ed. (2008). The evolution of American women's studies: reflections on triumphs, controversies, and change (1st ed.). New York: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 16. ISBN 9780230605794. OCLC 224444238. 
  17. ^ Wiegman, Robyn (2008). "Feminism, Institutionalism, and the Idiom of Failure". In Scott, Joan Wallach. Women's Studies on the Edge. Durham: Duke University Press. p. 41. ISBN 978-0-8223-4274-8. 
  18. ^ "Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies". Retrieved 6 October 2014. 
  19. ^ "NWSA". nwsa.org. Retrieved 26 July 2015. 
  20. ^ "Artemis Guide to Women's Studies in the U.S." Retrieved 6 October 2014. 
  21. ^ "UC Santa Cruz – Feminist Studies". feministstudies.ucsc.edu. Retrieved 2016-08-22. 
  22. ^ "PHD Program | Gender & Women's Studies". gws.as.uky.edu. Retrieved 2016-08-22. 
  23. ^ "Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies". www.stonybrook.edu. Retrieved 2016-08-22. 
  24. ^ "PhD in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies! | College of Liberal Arts | Oregon State University". liberalarts.oregonstate.edu. Retrieved 2016-08-22. 
  25. ^ FaithWorld (2015-10-26). "Kabul University unlikely host for first Afghan women's studies programme". Blogs.reuters.com. Retrieved 2015-11-02. 
  26. ^ "Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, United Kingdom". UCAS. Retrieved 6 October 2014. 
  27. ^ Rothenberg, Paula (2008). "Women's Studies – The Early Years: When Sisterhood Was Powerful". In Ginsberg, Alice E. The Evolution of American Women's Studies. New York: Palgrave MacMillan. p. 68. ISBN 978-0-230-60579-4. 
  28. ^ Ginsberg, Alice E., ed. (2008). The evolution of American women's studies: reflections on triumphs, controversies, and change (1st ed.). New York: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 69. ISBN 9780230605794. OCLC 224444238. 
  29. ^ Levin, Amy K. (2007). "Questions for A New Century: Women's Studies and Integrative Learning" (PDF). www.nwsa.org. Retrieved November 18, 2017. 
  30. ^ Kolmar, Wendy K.; Bartkowski, Frances (2013). Feminist theory: a reader (4th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill Higher Education. p. 2. ISBN 9780073512358. OCLC 800352585. 
  31. ^ Phillips, Layli (2006). The Womanist reader. New York: Routledge. ISBN 9780415954112. OCLC 64585764. 
  32. ^ Collins, Patricia Hill. Black feminist thought: knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment (2nd ed.). New York. ISBN 9780415964722. OCLC 245597448. 
  33. ^ Carastathis, Anna (2014-05-01). "The Concept of Intersectionality in Feminist Theory". Philosophy Compass. 9 (5): 304–314. doi:10.1111/phc3.12129. ISSN 1747-9991. 
  34. ^ Harding, Sandra G. (2004). The feminist standpoint theory reader: intellectual and political controversies. New York: Routledge. p. 2. ISBN 0415945003. OCLC 51668081. 
  35. ^ Hekman, Susan (1997). "Truth and Method: Feminist Standpoint Theory Revisited". Signs. 22 (2): 341–365. JSTOR 3175275. 
  36. ^ Moghadam, Valentine M. (2011). "Transnational Feminisms". In Lee, Janet; Shaw, Susan M. Women worldwide: transnational feminist perspectives on women. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. p. 15. ISBN 9780073512297. OCLC 436028205. 
  37. ^ Parisi, Laura (2012). "Transnational". In Orr, Catherine Margaret; Braithwaite, Ann; Lichtenstein, Diane Marilyn. Rethinking women's and gender studies. New York: Routledge. p. 326. ISBN 9780415808316. OCLC 738351967. 
  38. ^ Capeheart, Loretta; Milovanovic, Dragan (2007). Social Justice: Theories, Issues, and Movements. Piscataway: Rutgers University Press. p. 2. ISBN 9780813541686. OCLC 437192947. 
  39. ^ Johnson, Jennifer L.; Luhmann, Susanne (2016). "Social Justice for (University) Credit? The Women's and Gender Studies Practicum in the Neoliberal University. (Report)". Resources for Feminist Research. 34 (3–4): 40. 
  40. ^ Shrewsbury, Carolyn M. (Fall 1987). "What is feminist pedagogy?". Women's Studies Quarterly, special issue: Feminist Pedagogy. The Feminist Press. 15 (3–4): 6–14. JSTOR 40003432. 
  41. ^ Rich, Adrienne (2005). "Claiming an Education". In Anderson, Chris; Runciman, Lex. Open Questions. New York: Bedford/St. Martin's. pp. 608–611. 
  42. ^ Berger, Michele Tracy (2015). Transforming Scholarship (Second ed.). Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge. pp. 35–40. 
  43. ^ Patai, Daphne (January 23, 1998). "Why Not A Feminist Overhaul of Higher Education?". Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved 2007-05-04. 
  44. ^ Bubriski, Anne; Semaan, Ingrid (2009). "Activist Learning vs. Service Learning in a Women's Studies Classroom". Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge. 7 (3): 91–98. 


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Further reading[edit]

  • Berkin, Carol R., Judith L. Pinch, and Carole S. Appel, Exploring Women's Studies: Looking Forward, Looking Back, 2005, ISBN 0-13-185088-1 OCLC 57391427
  • Boxer, Marilyn J. (1998). When Women ask the Questions: Creating Women's Studies in America. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0-8018-5834-8. OCLC 37981599. 
  • Carter, Sarah; Ritchie, Maureen (1990). Women's Studies: A Guide to Information Sources. London, England and Jefferson, NC: Mansell and McFarland. ISBN 0-7201-2058-6. OCLC 20392079. 
  • Committee on Women's Studies in Asia (1995). Changing Lives: Life Stories of Asian Pioneers in Women's Studies. New York, NY: Feminist Press at the City University of New York. ISBN 1-55861-108-8. OCLC 31867161. 
  • Davis, Angela Y. (2003). Are Prisons Obsolete?, Open Media (April 2003), ISBN 1-58322-581-1
  • Davis, Kathy; Evans, Mary; Lorber, Judith, eds. (2006). Handbook of Gender and Women's Studies. London, England; Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. ISBN 0-7619-4390-0. OCLC 69392297. 
  • Fausto-Sterling, Anne (1992). Myths of gender: biological theories about women and men. New York: BasicBooks. ISBN 0-465-04792-0.
  • Fausto-Sterling, Anne (2000). Sexing the body: gender politics and the construction of sexuality. New York: Basic Books. ISBN 0-465-07714-5.
  • Fausto-Sterling, Anne (2012). Sex/Gender: Biology in a Social World. New York: Routledge. ISBN 9780415881456.
  • Gardey, Delphine (September 2016). "'Territory Trouble': Feminist Studies and (the Question of) Hospitality". differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies. Duke University Press. 27 (2): 125–152. doi:10.1215/10407391-3621745. 
  • Grewal, Inderpal and Caren Kaplan, An Introduction to Women's Studies: Gender in a Transnational World, ISBN 0-07-109380-X OCLC 47161269
  • Griffin, Gabriele (2005). Doing Women's Studies: Employment Opportunities, Personal Impacts and Social Consequences. London, England: Zed Books in association with the University of Hull and the European Union. ISBN 1-84277-501-4. OCLC 56641855. 
  • Ginsberg, Alice E. The Evolution of American Women's Studies: Reflections on Triumphs, Controversies and Change (Palgrave Macmillan: 2009). Online interview with Ginsberg
  • Griffin, Gabriele and Rosi Braidotti (eds.), Thinking Differently : A Reader in European Women's Studies, London etc. : Zed Books, 2002 ISBN 1-84277-002-0 OCLC 49375751
  • Howe, Florence (ed.), The Politics of Women's Studies: Testimony from Thirty Founding Mothers, Paperback edition, New York: Feminist Press 2001, ISBN 1-55861-241-6 OCLC 44313456
  • Hunter College Women's Studies Collective (2005). Women's Realities, Women's Choices: An Introduction to Women's Studies (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-515035-X. OCLC 55870949. 
  • Jacobs, Sue-Ellen (1974). Women in Perspective: A Guide for Cross-Cultural Studies. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0-252-00299-7. OCLC 1050797. 
  • Kennedy, Elizabeth Lapovsky; Beins, Agatha (2005). Women's Studies for the Future: Foundations, Interrogations, Politics. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. ISBN 0-8135-3618-9. OCLC 56951279. 
  • Krikos, Linda A.; Ingold, Cindy (2004). Women's Studies: A Recommended Bibliography (3rd ed.). Westport, CN: Libraries Unlimited. ISBN 1-56308-566-6. OCLC 54079621. 
  • Larson, Andrea and R. Edward Freeman (1997). Women's Studies and Business Ethics: Toward a New Conversation. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-510758-6. OCLC 35762696. 
  • Lederman, Muriel, and Ingrid Bartsch, eds. The Gender and Science Reader. New York: Routledge, 2001. Print.
  • Loeb, Catherine; Searing, Susan E.; Lanigan, Esther F. (1987). Women's Studies: A Recommended Core Bibliography, 1980–1985. Littleton, CO: Libraries Unlimited. ISBN 0-87287-472-9. OCLC 14716751. 
  • Luebke, Barbara F.; Reilly, Mary Ellen (1995). Women's Studies Graduates: The First Generation. New York, NY: Teachers College Press, Teachers College, Columbia University. ISBN 0-8077-6274-1. OCLC 31076831. 
  • MacNabb, Elizabeth L. (2001). Transforming the Disciplines: A Women's Studies Primer. New York, NY: Haworth Press. ISBN 1-56023-959-X. OCLC 44118091. 
  • Messer-Davidow, Ellen, Disciplining Feminism : From Social Activism to Academic Discourse, Durham, NC etc. : Duke University Press, 2002 ISBN 0-8223-2829-1 OCLC 47705543
  • Patai, Daphne; Koertge, Noretta (2003). Professing Feminism: Education and Indoctrination in Women's Studies (New and Expanded ed.). Lanham, MD: Lexington Books. ISBN 0-7391-0454-3. OCLC 50228164. 
  • Rao, Aruna (1991). Women's Studies International: Nairobi and Beyond. New York, NY: Feminist Press at the City University of New York. ISBN 1-55861-031-6. OCLC 22490140. 
  • Rogers, Mary F.; Garrett, C. D. (2002). Who's Afraid of Women's Studies?: Feminisms in Everyday Life. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press. ISBN 0-7591-0173-6. OCLC 50530054. 
  • Rosenberg, Roberta (2001). Women's Studies: An Interdisciplinary Anthology. New York, NY: Peter Lang. ISBN 0-8204-4443-X. OCLC 45115816. 
  • Schiebinger, Londa. Has Feminism Changed Science?. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999. Print.
  • Ruth, Sheila, Issues In Feminism: An Introduction to Women's Studies, 2000, ISBN 0-7674-1644-9 OCLC 43978372
  • Simien, Evelyn M. (2007). "Black Feminist Theory: Charting a Course for Black Women's Studies in Political Science". In Waters, Kristin; Conaway, Carol B. Black Women's Intellectual Traditions: Speaking their Minds. Burlington, VT and Hanover, NH: University of Vermont Press and the University Press of New England. ISBN 978-1-58465-633-3. OCLC 76140356. 
  • Tierney, Helen (1989–1991). Women's Studies Encyclopedia. New York, NY: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-313-24646-7. OCLC 18779445. 
  • Wiegman, Robyn (editor), Women's Studies on Its Own: A Next Wave Reader in Institutional Change, Duke University Press, 2002. ISBN 0-8223-2950-6 OCLC 49421587
  • Orr, Catherine; Braithwaite, Ann; Lichtenstein, Diane (2012). Rethinking Women's and Gender Studies. New York: Routledge. ISBN 9780415808309

External links[edit]