Mary Lynn Stewart: Why women's studies, still?

By Mary Lynn Stewart

For several years after I began teaching women’s studies at Simon Fraser University, in 1977, I encountered people, most but not all of them off campus, who asked me, quizzically, what is women’s studies or what do you teach in women’s studies.

I usually answered those questions by telling them about teaching the history of women, which had been ignored in standard historical studies, or teaching courses on women’s work, because much of women’s work—and not only unwaged work—was omitted from economics texts. Or, I told them about offering courses on women’s issues such as equal pay for equal work and maternity leaves or benefits, which were given short shrift in political science courses. I also mentioned colleagues who taught courses on women in film, the public media, et cetera.

Ultimately, and especially in the past seven or eight years, a somewhat better informed public began querying why women’s studies was still necessary, since historians now teach about women (even if, as a trained historian and incoming president of the Canadian Historical Association, I know that most of that instruction is delivered in special topics courses or a lecture or two in general courses), economists cover topics such as women’s work, political scientists include information about social issues such as single parenthood, et cetera (though public perception of how much class time is devoted to these subjects in economics or political science departments differs dramatically from what students report about these departments and the receptivity of professors to doing research on these subjects).

Occasionally, I am also asked why women’s studies is still necessary, given that there have been “so many improvements” in women’s lives and/or that we are now in a so-called post-feminist era. I have to restrain myself when replying to the first of these questions, because it ignores the continuing and disturbing reality that women still earn significantly less than men, even when they work full-time and do not interrupt their careers; that women and children still suffer higher rates of poverty than men, that highly successful women still bump up against a glass ceiling that has protected the upper echelons of business, government, and other areas of endeavour as a men-only—and primarily white men only—domain.

In the past few months, I have added that the current economic woes have different implications for women than men, and that policies such as so-called employment insurance need to recognize this. But I also make the point that the advances women in advanced industrial countries like Canada have enjoyed have not been shared by women in other parts of the world. My response is first to list the number of countries that still do not permit women to vote, to marry or to take outside employment without paternal or spousal approval, or to seek redress of wrongs in court proceedings (although their fathers, husbands, or brothers may initiate court proceedings on their behalf). If not stopped, I go on to cite the number of countries that do not provide or mandate even elementary and more frequently secondary education for girls (and sometimes for boys), that do not acknowledge women’s reproductive rights, that do not have labour laws to protect women and men from excessive working hours, exploitive work conditions, minimum wages, et cetera.

Women’s studies is not just about women in relatively privileged countries, but about women around the world, in all their diversity. Nor, as those of us who are active in women’s studies in western countries have learned from studying and meeting women from other parts of the world, do the solutions to these problems developed in the West (for they were all problems in Europe and North American as well) necessarily meet the needs and priorities of women elsewhere. Contact with women in many different cultures has immeasurably enriched both the scholarship and the curricula in women’s studies.

To those who imply that we live in a post-feminist time, I suggest that they read the works of young feminists who are articulating a “third wave” feminism that deals with issues of sexuality, the media, and other social and cultural phenomenon here and now. I may add that universities across Canada are joining Simon Fraser University and UBC in offering master’s and PhD programs, and that young women and men are enrolling in these programs. And if these people seem surprised that men take women’s studies, I whip out our statistics on our undergraduate and graduate enrollment, which show that a still-small but growing number of young men enter and usually flourish in women’s studies. The world has changed, just not in a post-feminist way.

Finally, if an academic, student, or scholar inquires why women’s studies is still necessary—very few do—I explain that women’s studies, as an interdisciplinary field of scholarship, has developed useful methods and considerable theoretical sophistication over the past 30 or 40 years, and that these methods and theories are relevant to the study not only of women today, but of other groups that have not been accorded adequate attention by other disciplines. Over these decades, feminist methods and theories have been both critiqued and changed by contact with women of colour, who felt left out of second wave feminism and early women’s studies scholarship and curricula, as well as by interactions with queer theory and with gay, lesbian, and trans communities. Quite simply, it is still a vibrant and exciting field of intellectual investigation, one that I personally find informative and exhilarating, even after several decades.

And if the poor soul who asked me what they may have thought was an innocuous question shows signs of being overwhelmed by the detail and vigour of my response, I simply suggest that they look at the Web site of the women’s studies department at Simon Fraser University to see the wide array of programs and courses we offer, and the conferences, seminars, and talks we sponsor.

Mary Lynn Stewart is the chair of the department of women’s studies at Simon Fraser University. She has published seven scholarly books and is a member of the Royal Society of Canada.

The Straight is publishing a series of International Women's Day-related commentaries on-line in the lead-up to March 8.