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Women's studies, also known as Feminist studies, (sometimes called Femininity studies) is an interdisciplinary academic field that explores politics, society, media, and history from women's and/or feminist perspectives. Popular methodologies within the field of women's studies include standpoint theory, intersectionality, multiculturalism, transnational feminism, autoethnography, and reading practices associated with critical theory, post-structuralism, and queer theory. The field researches and critiques societal norms of gender, race, class, sexuality, and other social inequalities. It is closely related to the broader field of Gender studies.


Women's studies were first born as an academic rubric apart from other departments in the late 1960s, as the second wave of feminism gained political influence in the academy through student and faculty activism. As an academic discipline, it was modeled on the American studies and ethnic studies (such as Afro-American studies) and Chicano Studies programs that had arisen shortly before it.[citation needed]

The first accredited Women's Studies course was held in 1969 at Cornell University.[1] The first two Women's Studies Programs in the United States were established in 1970 at San Diego State College (now San Diego State University) and SUNY-Buffalo. The SDSU program was initiated 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.[2] Carol Rowell Council was the student co-founder along with Dr. Joyce Nower, a literature instructor. The SUNY-Buffalo program was also the result of intense debate and feminist organizing led by Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy, and it was eventually birthed out of the American Studies department. In 1972, Sarah Lawrence College became the first institution to grant Masters degrees in Women's History. Throughout the later 1970s many universities and colleges created departments and programs in women's studies, and professorships became available in the field which did not require the sponsorship of other departments.[citation needed]

By the late twentieth century, women's studies courses were available at many universities and colleges around the world. A 2007 survey conducted by the National Women's Studies Association included 576 institutions offering women's studies or gender studies at some level.[citation needed] As of 2012, there are 16 institutions offering a Ph.D. in the United States.[3][4] Courses in the United Kingdom can be found through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.[5]

In Canada, one of the first women's studies courses was offered in Toronto at the University of Toronto, as well as at universities in Montreal and Waterloo. The evolution of these programs are well documented in "Minds of her own: Inventing Feminist Scholarship and Women's Studies in Canada and Quebec, 1966-76", edited by Wendy Robbins, Meg Luxton, Margrit Eichler and Francine Descarries, published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press (2008).

The University of Toronto through the Institute of Women's Studies and Gender Studies is poised to celebrate the 40th anniversary of its program. In 1971-72 the first course was held there. Two of the co-founders of the program are Ceta Ramkhalawansingh and Kay Armatage. In 1970 while still an undergraduate and a member of the University's Inter-disciplinary Studies Committee, Ceta worked with a team of graduate students to mobilise for the program. A group of graduate students along with a Faculty member taught the first program in the fall of 1971. The story of this program is partially documented in two essays in "Minds of her own". Kay Armatage contributed "Blood on the Chapel Floor: Adventures in Women's Studies". The title comes from the fact that the office and seminar room for the program was in an old chapel in a former mansion at 97 St. George Street on the St. George Campus of the University of Toronto. Ceta Ramkhalawansingh contributed "Women's Sight: Looking backwards into Women's Studies in Toronto".

Methodologies and curricula

Women's studies faculty practice a diverse array of pedagogies. However, there are common themes to the ways that many women's studies courses are taught; ideally, teaching and learning practices draw on feminist pedagogy. Women’s studies curricula often encourage students to participate in service-learning activities in addition to discussion and reflection upon course materials. The development of critical reading, writing, and oral expression are often key to these courses, which can be listed across curricula in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences. [vague]

The decentralization of the professor as the source of knowledge is often fundamental to women's studies classroom culture.[6]  Courses are often more egalitarian than those in traditional disciplines, stressing the critical analysis of texts, the development of critical writing, and the assertion of well-reasoned personal experience as a source of knowledge. Not dissimilar to gender studies, women’s studies employs feminist, queer, and critical theories.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed]

Women studies programs are involved in social justice and design curricula that are embedded with theory and also activism outside of the classroom. Some Women Studies programs offer internships that are community-based allowing students the opportunity to gain a better understanding of how oppression directly affects women’s lives. This experience, informed by theory from feminist studies, queer theory, black feminist theory, African studies, and many other theoretical frameworks, allows students the opportunity to critically analyze experience as well as create creative solutions for issues on a local level.[citation needed] 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, arguing 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."[7] It is important to note, however, that many Women’s Studies curricula engage with a variety of different epistemological and methodological practices.[vague]

Feminist scholarship is diverse and utilizes positivism, critical realism, and standpoint theory in its interdisciplinary scholarship.[8][vague]


Feminist activism not only focuses on women’s issues but has spread throughout many other movements including (but not limited to) environmental issues, body politics, feminist art, identity issues, reproductive rights, gender issues, animal rights, homosexual rights, and ethnic minority rights. These forms of activism can include letter writing, boycotting, protesting, the visual arts, bodily demonstrations, education, and leafleting. In current feminism, the focus has shifted to encompass an outlook and desire for equality for all—identifying oppressive systems and forces around the world that affect all types of beings. Feminist activism explores the intersections of social, political, and cultural histories (among various others denominators), their implications, and dedicates time and energy to the liberation of all people from injustices.[citation needed][vague]

Simply studying or being a student of women’s studies can be seen as activism in it of itself. Therefore, for most students of women’s studies, an activism status is already engaged. To foster the growth of the study body, one of the key aspects of women’s studies classes and programs is to connect the classroom to social change. Women’s studies classes and programs focus on power structures, oppression, inequality, and social suffering. Students are encouraged to bridge their learning and community involvement and take action in the world to foster positive social transformation. Students and feminist activists not only learn about oppression in society but also look at the possibility for a global unity in difference.[citation needed]


As a part of activism,[citation needed] most colleges in the United States[citation needed] have opened Women's Studies and related Gender Studies departments. A majority of the classes teach thought by either separatist feminists or gender feminists[citation needed] which has led[citation needed] to feminism as a whole to be viewed as misandrist by most outsiders of both genders. Some of the most predominant institutions to have women's studies programs at the undergraduate or graduate level include the University Of California system, Emory University, and universities in Michigan, Wisconsin, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and New York.[9]

Many women's studies courses are designed to explore the intersectionality of gender and other topics. For example, in gender and science research, the sciences are explored and critiqued through feminism, as when Anne Fausto-Sterling, Professor of Biology at Brown University, explores biology through the feminist lens. Through her research, she has published many books on the topic including Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality in 2000 and The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female Are Not Enough.

See also


  1. Kahn, Ada P. (2006). The Encyclopedia of Stress and Stress-related Diseases, 2nd, Facts on File. URL accessed 29 September 2012.
  2. SDSU Women's Studies Department
  3. NWSA searchable database
  4. Artemis Guide to Women's Studies in the U.S.
  5. Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, United Kingdom
  6. Shrewsbury, Carolyn M. (1987). What Is Feminist Pedagogy?. Women's Studies Quarterly 15 (3/4): 6-14.
  7. Patai, Daphne Why Not A Feminist Overhaul of Higher Education?. Why Not A Feminist Overhaul of Higher Education?. Chronicle of Higher Education. URL accessed on 2007-05-04.
  8. Sprague, Joey. Feminist Methodologies for Critical Researchers: Bridging Differences. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira, 2005.
  9. "Women's History." U.S. News & World U.S. News & World Report, 2009. Web. 20 Nov 2012.

Further reading

  • Borland, K. (1991). That's not what I said: Interpretive conflict in oral narrative research. In Giuck, S. & Patai, D. (Eds.), Women's Words: The Feminist Practice of Oral History (pp 63–76). NY: Routledge
  • Brooks, A. (2007). Feminist standpoint epistemology: Building knowledge and empowerment through women’s lived experiences. In Hesse-Biber, S.N. & Leavy, P.L. (Eds.), Feminist Research Practice (pp. 53–82). CA: Sage Publications.
  • Florence Howe (ed), Mari Jo Buhle (introduction), The Politics of Women's Studies: Testimony from Thirty Founding Mothers, Paperback edition, New York: Feminist Press 2001
  • Gabriele Griffin and Rosi Braidotti (eds.), Thinking differently : a reader in European women's studies, London etc. : Zed Books, 2002
  • Ellen Messer-Davidow: Disciplining feminism : from social activism to academic discourse, Durham, NC etc. : Duke University Press, 2002

External links

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