A Crucial Test for Feminism

Joan Mandle figured she had a problem on her hands when, as the new director of women's studies at Colgate University in New York, her goal of making the Center for Women's Studies "inclusive" ran into a small roadblock. Mandle was determined that both sorority members (gasp) and men (double gasp) would be welcome at the center, so she was delighted when, at its 1991 grand opening, a male student ventured in. He hesitantly walked up to a group of women students who had been discussing women's athletics. Silence descended. After a few uncomfortable moments, Pete gamely asked what the women had been talking about. To which Samantha lied, "We were talking about menstruation--something you'll never understand."

So much for inclusiveness.

Thirty years after the first women's studies program arrived on campus, at San Diego State University, the field is under attack--and not only from feminism's usual foes on talk radio and the right wing. This time, a small band of feminists, citing incidents like the one at Colgate, is railing against women's studies programs in colleges and universities. Some of the accusations are almost petty (a women's studies professor refused to enter a sorority house where she had been invited to speak on sexual harassment), but others go to the heart of what a liberal-arts education should be. Mandle, for instance, in her new book "Can We Wear Our Pearls and Still Be Feminists?" claims she lost her job as head of women's studies because she insisted on rigorous academic standards and rejected such "feminist orthodoxies" as the rule that at least half the readings in women's studies courses be written by women. And in a Web chat hosted by The Chronicle of Higher Education this month, Daphne Patai of the University of Massachusetts, a longtime foe of women's studies, accused the field of "ideological browbeating and indoctrination passing as teaching." Women's studies, she charged, is "academically illegitimate."

If you think "women's studies" means women's achievements, welcome to the 21st century. The field today is not a high-level version of Women's History Month. Instead, courses examine how language that makes God a "He" affects men's and women's relationship to the deity, or how sexual harassment evolved into a legal category, or why women were long barred from clinical trials of new medications. They teach students to recognize the influences of gender even in seemingly unlikely places, such as science. For instance, courses explore how sexual stereotypes might have blinded biologists to the fact that, in conception, the egg plays an active role and is not a passive target for sperm, as scientists assumed. "We try to teach students to think and read critically, to recognize that perspectives are influenced by gender," says Londa Schiebinger of Penn State, a leading scholar of gender in science. Some students welcome that. Says Amber Gattis, a junior at the University of North Texas, "I began to see things differently after my women's studies classes. They teach you to question the way you look at everything, from movies to the ads in magazines."

Women's studies was founded as the academic arm of the feminist movement. Patai, who left women's studies several years ago and now teaches in the Spanish and Portuguese department, charges that that legacy endures, with the result that "women's studies has as its goal getting students to think particular thoughts. If they do not, professors describe them as being 'resistant' or 'in denial,' so convinced are women's studies faculty of the ideological rightness and righteousness of their position." Indeed, it's easy to find students who grumble about lectures asserting that every time a man looks at a woman he is viewing her as a sexual object. But it's also easy to find classes where open discussion of different viewpoints is the norm. At the State University of New York at Fredonia, Adrienne McCormick's women's studies students are preparing presentations on both the pro-life and the pro-choice movement. And in a class Katrin Schultheiss taught at the University of Illinois at Chicago, a student defended pornography freely. "This is not to say that no one in women's studies is ideologically driven," says McCormick. "But there are people like that in other fields, too. They're just not targeted like women's studies is."

Since women's studies often emphasizes the history and persistence of discrimination, critics charge that young women get beaten down by the message that they have long been victims. Yet many students don't see it that way. One, for instance, had a boyfriend whose Halloween costume was a wife beater; after her women's studies course, she didn't think that was so funny. And Amanda Moody, at North Texas, says she felt "not victimized so much as more sensitive to the world around me, in what people say in words and in nonverbal communication." Diana York Blaine, who taught both students, says, "Of course young women get mad when they see how pervasive sexist assumptions are. But I've watched as students, learning this for the first time, take control of their lives."

Even supporters worry that some women's studies programs are more about solidarity than scholarship. "Most of them are academically solid," says Deborah Nord, director of Princeton University's program. "But I think there are institutions where women's studies is not an academic endeavor but serves as a support group." For whatever reason, criticism of women's studies does not seem to be having much effect on the ground. From 78 women's studies programs, centers or departments in 1973, the number has grown to 736 today. Here and there, a student changes plans. Jessica Ambrose, a Hamilton College junior, decided to minor rather than major in women's studies because of "the negative connotations associated with it." (Men's Health magazine advises readers to ID "male friendly" colleges by "how cranky" the women's studies department is.) But signs of erosion remain the exception. Even Mandle concedes that "without a distinct women's studies program to push, the history department might not offer a course on Women in Antiquity." Besides, no other course made that young woman in Texas wonder whether a wife-beater costume is so funny after all.