Why Women Studies?

Yesterday on CBC's 'The Current', one of the topics was the number of 'Women's Studies' departments in Universities across Canada that have changed their names to 'Gender and Sexuality Studies' or something of the like. The guests, strangely enough, were columnists from the Toronto Star and National Post rather than directors of or professors in women's studies departments. Barbara Kay, columnist for the National Post, spouted off her view on why women's studies programs are unnecessary and, she seemed to say, actually dangerous and unethical. Having taking many women's studies classes, studied feminism and women's history, worked for many feminist organizations, and being a proud feminist myself, I found her viewpoint absolutely stunning. I kept shaking my head wondering where this woman actually lives. It certainly isn't our planet. But the sad fact is that her view is one shared by many women today. So many women today think that feminism is about hating men and trying to prove that women are better. They believe that feminism is no longer necessary as we've achieved the equality the feminists were fighting for. It would be great if this was true, but it's just not.

Although, as The Current always does, they had an opposite viewpoint, expressed by Catherine Porter of the Toronto Star, I was still frustrated that Barbara Kay was not challenged even more vigorously on some of her arguments. It's clear to me that she is a product of her society who is so immersed in it that she cannot even entertain the idea that perhaps things could be different.

She maintains that women's studies programs are merely a recruitment camp for feminists that teach biased information and that they are not places of serious study. This is ridiculous and unfair. The purpose of the women's studies programs is to bring into the universities viewpoints and information that are not taught in other courses. It is a fact that regular history courses all but ignore the contributions of women throughout history unless those women happen to have become world leaders. There is no discussion of the contribution of women in society, politics and economics. Almost all the information covered relates to the contribution of men. And if anyone would like to argue that with me, I welcome it because I majored in history and I can tell you what I learned. Women have contributed and truly changed the course of history in many ways but those things often happen in the sphere of the home and community, not on the grand stage of world politics. And because of that, they are ignored. Women's history courses seek to teach that. They don't alter history or teach a biased view, they simply provide a place to learn about vast chunks of our human history that are ignored. Of course, there are may other aspects to women's studies courses than history but this is what I know so that's what I can talk about more easily. The same can be said of economics (I took a course that looked at alternate views of what actually constitutes 'work' in our society - utterly amazing because we never get to hear these ideas), and philosophy, and sociology, and political science. Barbara Kay maintains that the courses she took in University were good 'objective' courses free from the bias that is found in women's studies, but that is utter bullshit. Every course has a bias, the only difference is that women's studies programs are usually clear about theirs.

She also talked about how feminism is not relevant to women today because we've already acheived equality of opportunity. Women, she says, can have any job they want and the only reason for the vast under-representation of women in our government, in the head office of our corporations, and among the partners of our law firms is that women self-select out of those positions because they don't want to put in the hard work and hours required. She doesn't even consider the idea that maybe the fact that those crazy hours that preclude having and raising children are required for those types of positions is actually the problem. When Catherine Porter raised the idea that perhaps those things needed to change, perhaps we needed to change the values of our system so that wanting and needing time to raise a family is not considered a career liability, she was accused of being an idealist. Why? Why is not permissible to posit an alternate way of doing thing? Why should we simply accept that the way it is is the way it must be? Women do not self-select out of these positions, the system selects them out because they cannot participate in the same way men can. And if they choose then, not to have children or not to spend any time with their children, they are forced into making a choice and a sacrifice that men simply do not have to make. And yes, men have children too but the vast majority of child-rearing is currently done by women. It just is not the same.

She also said that feminism is no longer promoting equality but rather women's interests and that men are suffering because of that. That almost made me puke. I am so sick of hearing this. She accused feminists of setting up and 'us' and 'them' mentality and then went and used the same argument herself. Boys are suffering in schools because there's so much emphasis on education for girls. Bullshit! Why does the advancement of women have to hurt men? And if men actually are falling behind, they need to do exactly what women did, and fight for their rights WITHOUT taking away rights from women.

She mentioned that feminists are so concerned about violence against women but they don't care about violence against men. Says who? Pretty much all of the feminists I know who are concerned about violence against women (and I know a lot of them) are against violence in general and are peace activists on many levels. She questioned why there are no men's shelters. I'll tell you why there are no men's shelters. It's because we don't need them. Yes, I'm fully aware that there are some men out there who are abused by their partners who have nowhere to go but it's a small number. Most of the men who experience abuse in their homes will either not be forced to leave their home or if they are, they will have the resourced to pay for a place to stay because they have more economic power in their relationships (ie. they are usually working and not staying at home with their kids). The fact of the matter is, domestic violence happens much more to women because of the inequality of women in our society. Men who experience it usually have more options. and if they don't, they should be working together and making the shelters happen, just like the women did! Don't whine that you don't have a shelter and the women get all the shelters, make it happen! Women didn't just get shelters, they worked hard for them and they continue to fight hard for their funding to keep them.

Women everywhere, and particularly young women need to understand that feminism is not a question of 'us versus them'. It's a question of valuing, protecting, and nurturing women's contributions to our society and to our world. We have come so far in Canada to making that happen but we're not done yet. And their are women all over the world who are just beginning and deserve our support. Feminism is not a relic, it's alive and vital. And women's studies programs are not recruitment camps for feminism, but they are an important part of the effort to value, protect, and nurture women's contributions. Because if we don't know what those are, how can we ever nurture them and how can we move forward?