Women’s studies by any other name

Department name change to ‘gender studies’ will reflect broader scope of research, professor says

Women’s studies professor Margaret Little says feminist scholarship has shifted in the last 20 years to include previously excluded areas of study.
Women’s studies professor Margaret Little says feminist scholarship has shifted in the last 20 years to include previously excluded areas of study.

The women’s studies department has voted near-unanimously to change its name to gender studies, pending approval by the Faculty of Arts and Science board and Senate.

In a May 4 e-mail to women’s studies students, department head Bev Baines said the faculty board will vote on the motion at its September meeting.

After it passes at faculty board, the request is forwarded to Senate, which will make the final decision based on the recommendation of the Senate Committee on Academic Development.

Courses for the 2009-10 year and all department correspondence will continue to use the women’s studies designation.

Although the name change is still unofficial, some professors have already begun referring to the department as gender studies, which they feel more accurately describes their research.

Margaret Little, a political studies and women’s studies professor, is one of them.

“When I look at what most people [in the department] are doing research on, we’re doing research on gender and researching women in relation to men,” she said. “I’m interested in looking at how women’s poverty looks different from men’s poverty, so I study men’s poverty too.”

Little said the department has organized town halls and researched departments at other universities for more than six years to get a feel for what a name change would mean.

Allison Williams and Ian Dick, both ArtSci ’09, conducted a survey of women’s studies students and found that a majority of them would support a name change to gender studies.

“That really helped catapult us into deciding, ‘Alright, we’ve done all the research and consulted all the different groups that would be affected ... and we should just take the plunge,’” Little said.

At the department meeting April 24, members of the department voted 9-1 in favour of the change.The department named its masters program, which begins in the 2008-09 academic year, ‘gender studies,’ Little said, adding that it makes sense to link the undergraduate and graduate programs with the same name.

“Some people worried that we were going to lose our focus on women,” Little said, adding that these concerns stem from the second-wave feminist movement in the 1960s-70s.

Little said second-wave feminism focused on white, middle-class, straight women and largely ignored other voices.

She said feminist scholarship has shifted in the last 20 years to include previously excluded areas of study, and gender studies is a reflection of the change.

“Sometimes men and women come together around racial oppression or sexual oppression ... and now we can look at the connections between [men and women],” she said.

Little studied at Queen’s in the early 1980s, graduating with an M.A. in political studies in 1985. She was a member of the committee that organized the first women’s studies course, IDIS200, Introduction to Women’s Studies, in the 1985-86 academic year.

“Many of the courses at that point were all about men in whatever discipline you went into,” Little said. “I remember having a struggle in one course on political theory, [when] I couldn’t do my paper on feminist theory because that wasn’t seen as a legitimate political theory.”

As a masters student at Queen’s, Little began a feminist group that met informally in the political studies lounge to discuss women’s issues.

“We had that because there was no class where we could talk about this on a regular basis,” she said.

When IDIS200 began, Little attended every lecture in Botterell Hall even though she couldn’t enroll in the course for credit because she was a masters student.

“We just all went to it,” she said, adding that there were always more than 100 students in the classroom.

Little said female professors from various departments took turns lecturing on topics such as nursing and literature, with a special focus on women in those fields.

“It was absolutely a valid concern then because no one else was going to put women on the agenda,” Little said. “I have to say, in retrospect, in putting just women [as a focus], we left out certain groups of women.”

Incoming masters student Shannon Coyle, ArtSci ’01 and ’09, said although the department’s name didn’t influence her decision to apply for to the master’s program at Queen’s, gender studies better describes her work than women’s studies does.

Coyle is looking at studying the trans community for her masters project.

“I think [gender studies] is just dissecting human beings,” she said. She thinks the change might encourage more men to enrol in courses.

“I don’t know if it’s a necessary direction, but it’s an important one,” she said. “We lack dialogue in classes without also having [men’s] perspectives.”

Jeff Brown, ArtSci ’08 and 2007-08 AMS Social Issues Commissioner, said he was always one of the few male students in the women’s studies courses he took at Queen’s.

Brown said the name change might remove the stigma of being a man in a women’s studies course.

“[Removing the stigma] can’t be the primary objective of the name change,” he said. “The forefront of the name change should be to include those marginalized groups on campus.”

He said those groups include people of colour, people who don’t identify with the male-female gender division and members of the queer community.

Brown said he thinks men need a space that allows them to unpack what it means to have a masculine identity.

“I think that the movement to unpacking gender in a broader sense is an important part of women’s studies,” he said. “I think it’s a positive change.”

Growing pains

After a recommendation by the Principal’s Advisory Committee on the Status of Women, IDIS200, Introduction to Women’s Studies, is offered for the first time.

Women’s studies becomes a special field concentration.

Eighteen cross-listed courses are included in the women’s studies special field concentration program.

IDIS200 is renamed WMNS200.

In addition to the special field concentration, women’s studies becomes available as a minor or medial program.

WMNS100, Introduction to Women’s Studies is introduced; WMNS200 is renamed Topics in Women’s Studies.

Audrey Kobayashi becomes the first director of the Institute of Women’s Studies.

Sue Hendler becomes the first head of the newly-named Department of Women’s Studies. She establishes the Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans- studies certificate, later renamed the Sexual and Gender Diversity certificate.

The department admits its first students in the fall to the M.A. program in Gender Studies.

—Source: “A Brief History of Women’s Studies at Queen’s University” by Bev Baines.

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