The disappearance of women’s studies programs from college campuses across the U.S. is a trend that matches the women’s movement itself. As author Susan Faludi pointed out last weekend in New York, it’s an ebb and flow that often appears fatal.
Faludi described a pattern that has been marked by conflict since the smoking and drinking flappers of the 1920s denounced the “humorless prudes” who were their suffragette elders. The current craze of women who don’t want to be called feminists clearly follows the pattern. But there might yet be hope on the horizon.
Faludi was in town to address a crowd gathered to herald the return of gender-based curricula to the New School. Yes, that reads “return.”
When women’s studies programs started gaining currency in the mid-1980s, the New School set up just such a program. By the early 1990s, this had been folded into cultural studies, which was then absorbed by media studies, which then ceased to be about women at all. In its current iteration the program is called gender studies. It’s not a major, or a master’s (as it once was), but a minor.
Kudos for this are owed to Ann Snitow, a leading voice in the women’s movement for decades and now director of the new program. Her refreshingly frank comments about the creation of the New School’s gender studies program detailed troubles from a “lack of administrative support” to an inherent skepticism in the field. Surely getting even this far was no easy task.
Yet the formation of such a department begs the question, why fold women’s studies into this much larger category? Has history not shown that this field has not become more meaningful by becoming more generic? The suggestion that broadening the field will bring gender to the fore in new areas is unsatisfactory. Everyone, male female or trans, has a gender. Current course offerings run the gamut from art theory to media psychology. Will the female factor be pushed to the margins again?
Perhaps this is how, some 90 years since a woman’s right to vote was ratified, our representation in the media is so often so desperately narrow. Why these questions and the gender studies programs that look at them are so important. And why the “f” word is just as dirty as ever.