Why Most Men Won’t Take Women, Gender and Sexuality Classes

April 27, 2015
Photo from https://www.flickr.com/photos/garryknight/5829081556
Taken at the Slutwalk meeting at Trafalgar Square in London on Saturday 11 June 2011. These protestors demonstrate the all-inclusive attitude in regards to gender that Kendall Siewert argues the WGS program should adapt by changing its title.

Story by: Kendall Siewert

Most majors don’t have nomenclature issues. Math majors study math, French majors study French, sociology majors study sociology. It seems obvious when put in such simplistic terms. But when we apply the same line of logic to U.Va.’s Women, Gender and Sexuality major, it gets blurry.

WGS majors study women, but they also study men, genderqueer and gender non-conforming individuals, transgender men and transgender women. Singling out women in the title places an unequal emphasis on what makes up one portion of a larger picture. And herein lies the problem.

U.Va.’s WGS major hasn’t always been titled as such. This is the third attempt at getting it right.

The major first emerged in 1979 as Women’s Studies, and later changed to Studies in Women and Gender in 2000, before finally settling on Women, Gender, and Sexuality in 2012. Two name changes and 35 years later, it’s still not quite a perfect fit. For a major so deeply rooted in diversity, the title is hardly inclusive.

I’m not the first student to notice this, either. Ben Rudgley wrote an article for The Cavalier Daily in February of 2014 calling for the end of WGS programs. While I clearly do not agree with this argument (which, by the way, he later recanted after taking a WGS class), he makes some salient points regarding the exclusivity of the name.

Rudgley analyzes the stigma that occurs when placing the word “women” at the beginning of a course title, which alienates those who “could benefit most from its teachings.” However, Rudgley places the responsibility on our culture, not the WGS program, and this is where we differ. I believe it is the responsibility of the WGS department to initiate the shift in culture, to create inclusive territory, and to preach equality and diversity as it has always done.

Faculty members are also aware of the discrepancy in the WGS department name and the actual content being taught. Dr. Charlotte Patterson, the director of the WGS program, observed that over time, WGS faculty members have realized “they are teaching courses really not about women, [and] really more about gender.”

So why guard the title?

Patterson points to U.Va.’s rooted tradition in historicity as a tentative answer, claiming the title is “mainly historical, because [the program] grew out of Women’s Studies.” There is no doubt that the original Women’s Studies major provided a strong foundation to the study of gender and sexuality at U.Va.

But now the program is struggling to cling to tradition while also committing to diversity. I argue that a change in naming to Gender and Sexuality Studies would be a step forward in fostering diversity at U.Va., and there are three primary reasons why I advocate for this change.

First, and perhaps most obviously, WGS majors study all genders, sexualities, sexes, and identities.  Although I do appreciate that Women’s Studies was founded in part to specifically emphasize women’s experiences, not all classes directly revolve around the “female experience,” nor should they. I maintain that WGS classes are some of the most open environments at U.Va. The inclusion of the word “women” does not reflect this openness. It recognizes a socially structured gender binary that most WGS classes seek to dismantle, and consequently does not legitimize enough differing experiences.

Secondly, the title of the major dissuades students who do not identify as women from choosing it. And this makes sense. I would be hesitant to major in Men, Gender, and Sexuality. I clearly believe there is value in studying women’s unique history, but there is equal value in analyzing how other genders have influenced this history and forged their own path. It is easy to see female as oppressed and male as oppressor. In some cases, this is undoubtedly true, but it again reinforces a dichotomous gender binary that constantly leaves those outside of it feeling on the outskirts.

Thirdly, it implies that there is a collective female experience. Placing the word “women” at the front of the WGS major insinuates that most women have had similar exposures. It also implies that there is something inherently different about women that others them. But there is no collective female experience. It is impossible to quantify, whether or not it is slapped on the title of a textbook or a class title. There is no right way to be a woman, and even if there were, trying to classify that in concrete terms just serves to distance the group in question.

Maybe we’ll never find a perfect fit to accommodate all the necessary diversity. As a WGS major, I admit it is sometimes exhausting to take into account the political correctness of terminology and nomenclature. However, it’s essential to legitimizing identities and creating safe spaces.

Patterson likens title changes to home renovations, where it may be easier to “add rooms to an old house as opposed to simply tearing [it] down.”

An old house might be filled with tradition and memories, but if the family has outgrown it, it’s time to build something new. But you can’t build a house in a day. So let’s start with changing the name to Gender and Sexuality Studies, a small but important step into creating the inclusive home that U.Va. students deserve.

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