By: Maggie Fridinger, Program and Policy Intern
National Council of Women’s Organizations
Ever since I can remember, I have had an informal, anthropologic fascination with people watching. Today, the office that I occupy in my graduate women’s studies program feeds my amusement. From its basement level, I look up to watch commuters, current and prospective students, alumni, locals, and university administrators hustle past. Occasionally, pedestrians will slow their pace to stop and read the “women’s studies program” placard, only to elicit a facial or verbal response. More often than not, the response produced is a sort of heckle, scoff, or pooh-poohing of the relevance of women’s studies. I wish I were kidding.
At first, witnessing such reactions incited me to the point of wanting to open the window and shoo them away. However, as my aggravation subsided I began to think that for many people, the relevance of women’s studies and feminism faded along with the mustard yellows and avocado greens of the 1970s. Many people just don’t get it.
In my excitement to enroll in a graduate women’s studies program, I occasionally met interrogation about the relevance of such a degree. In fact, a friend once lectured me about the interdisciplinary nature of any “studies” program, inferring that “studies” are not taken as seriously nor do they carry the same importance as disciplines such as history, biology, anthropology, or political science. I beg to differ.
Women’s studies cannot be confined to one academic discipline or discourse. Instead, it teaches us how to use a distinct lens to view the world. In recent years, the discipline has sought to better include a diversity of genders, sexualities, and races, permitting us to understand the intersection of various forms of oppression. Contrary to popular belief, a background in women’s studies does not require one to become a professional feminist. While advocacy work is crucial, the incorporation of the gendered lens within other disciplines is just as necessary.
How does this work? Let me give a few examples of how one might incorporate a gender consciousness and sensitivity into various professions. People with a background in women’s studies may become:
- The CEO who makes corporate culture more conducive to women and families by offering flex schedules, paid sick days and maternity leave, and promotes entry level hiring of women that encourages vertical movement in the company.
- The high school counselor who informs young women that vocational schools offer technical career training for jobs that pay higher wages than careers as beauticians.
- The historian who includes influential and important women in textbooks.
- The doctor who has taken the time to research and understand that gender and sexuality are more than a strict dichotomy.
- The school teacher who refuses to reinforce masculinity and femininity in the classroom, and eschews the frequently touted expression, “boys will be boys.”
- The marketing specialist who speaks up in a boardroom when advertisements espousing sexist or racist undertones are being included in an advertisement campaign.
- The government official who brings gender and race consciousness to policy-making decisions.
I hope this short reflection of mine dispels the notion that women’s studies and feminism are a thing of the past. Instead, it’s time to reflect on the relevance and practical application of employing a gendered lens to the world around us.