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Women, Gender, Sexuality and Beyondleft

Women, Gender, Sexuality and Beyond

The Program in Women’s Studies launched in 1975. That was just the beginning of a larger conversation that continues to this day, as conceptions of gender and sexuality continue to evolve 

It was 1969, and change was in the air.  

Six years after the publication of Betty Friedan’s blockbuster social commentary The Feminine Mystique, and three years after the founding of the National Organization for Women, a group of female Northwestern faculty members and graduate students began asking the same kinds of questions that were reverberating throughout society.  

Nearly half the students at Northwestern were female, but why were there so few tenured female professors? How did their salaries compare with those of their male peers? What could be done to support the graduate students who wanted to have children and a rewarding academic career?  

At Northwestern and elsewhere, these informal discussions became an organized movement for change, resulting in the founding of the Women’s Studies Program in 1975. But that was only the beginning of a larger conversation that continues to this day, as conceptions of gender and sexuality continue to evolve.  

Those changes are reflected in the very name of the program, which became known as the Gender Studies Program in 2000 and then the Gender & Sexuality Studies Program in 2012. As the program has broadened its scope, other programs and departments at Northwestern have followed suit, weaving discussions about gender and sexuality into courses far afield from the social sciences.  

“Women’s studies programs transformed just about every discipline in the United States,” says professor Janice Radway, director of the College’s Gender & Sexuality Studies Program and the Walter Dill Scott Professor of Communication. “Feminism became more than activism. It gave scholars and students a framework for analyzing society.”  

Real-world relevance 

The College’s Women’s Studies Program of the 1970s was by nature interdisciplinary. It offered a handful of courses in its early years, and they were taught by faculty from a variety of departments who presented straightforward, female-centered classes in their area of expertise — “Women in Literature” and “Women in European History,” for example.  

Even so, the burgeoning feminist movement infused classes such as “Women in Politics” with real-world relevance. Questions such as “Do women determine their political choices independently, or as members of a voting unit with their husbands?” and “How does the distribution of power in the larger society reflect the distribution of power in the family unit?” inspired lively debate — and prompted students to consider how these issues manifested in their own lives.     

In response to rising student interest and growing scholarship in the field, the discipline expanded throughout the 1980s and ’90s. “Students who were persuaded by feminist theories in those early women’s studies programs began demanding that similar classes be taught in graduate school,” Radway says. The rise in graduate-level programs, in turn, produced an increasing number of scholars who wanted to teach and research women’s studies. 

By 1995, students at Northwestern could minor in women’s studies or choose it as an adjunct major. And rather than studying women’s iswomens studiessues as a tangential matter, the courses became more centered on the perspectives and experiences of women themselves.  

The entry-level class originally titled “Introduction to Women’s Studies” became “Life as Women Know It” and addressed gender in relation to race, class and sexual orientation. “The Roots of Feminism” gave students a historical overview of feminist thought, while “Feminism: Voices and Visions” offered an expansive view of literature and art across different cultures.  

“Feminist theory gave students a way to analyze how a society reproduces itself,” says Radway. “What does it mean for medicine if all the patient samples in a research study are male? What role do gender stereotypes play in your choice of career after you graduate?”  

Discussions that started in women’s studies classes continued across the University, prompting more professors to consider their course material from a gender-conscious perspective. But even as that approach became the norm in many classes, the scholars emerging from the women’s studies programs of the 1980s and 1990s were pushing the frontiers of their discipline even further.  

Provocative new questions emerged. Could one word — “feminism” — encompass the entirety of women’s experiences? And who, exactly, ought to be defined as a “woman?”   

The most publicly visible early leaders of the women’s movement, Radway points out, were overwhelmingly white and middle class, focused on getting good jobs outside the home — and their priorities, such as securing childcare and reproductive rights so that they could thrive in the workplace, seemed to dominate the feminist agenda for many years. 

But those concerns ignored the experiences of working-class women and women of color, some of whom were also active in the women’s movement and vocal about the ways that race and class had shaped and limited their opportunities and lives.  

“Black women started speaking up, saying, ‘We’ve always worked!’” Radway says. “They introduced the idea of intersectionality — that it’s impossible to think about the category of ‘women’ in one, simple abstract way.”   

The AIDS epidemic of the 1980s also shone a light on non-traditional sexuality and highlighted the different ways that gender and sexuality are expressed across society. It became clear to scholars and others that women weren’t the only people whose lives were influenced by expectations around gender — and that gender itself was a much more fluid concept than many had previously assumed.  

“People working in feminism and race started talking about gender in much more complex ways,” Radway observed. 

Bigger questions 

As the new millennium approached, the Women’s Studies faculty and staff realized that the program needed to make room for these bigger questions. In mid-2000, the Women’s Studies Program was renamed Gender Studies in order to broaden its focus and offer classes that weren’t solely centered on women.  

“Assumptions about gender and gender differences are so pervasive that we can’t help but live our lives as gendered human beings,” Radway notes. Gender Studies provided a way to reassess — and resist — those gender stereotypes.  

And just as the gay-rights movement and pop culture brought terms such as “queer” into the mainstream, an increasing number of academics began studying and writing about sexuality as distinct from gender. In 2012, the program was renamed Gender & Sexuality Studies to reflect that growing scholarship.  

“It gave us a way to include even more people,” says Amy Partridge, associate director and associate professor of instruction in the Gender & Sexuality Studies Program. “It was a moment to really be in conversation with other departments and programs.”  

Today, more than 400 students enroll in Gender & Sexuality courses each quarter. About 60 students per year declare a major or minor in the field. Recent classes have explored the role that gender plays in language; how sex and desire are portrayed in English Renaissance literature; the life and work of African-American feminist and poet Audre Lorde; and health activism, from 19th-century eugenic movements to AIDS marches.  

Students and faculty are persistently curious about the ways that gender and sexuality have shaped society and culture — and their curiosity continues to push the field forward. 

‘Central to their lives’  

Such studies can have a profoundly personal impact on students, making age-old subjects relevant to their lives in new ways, observes Jeffrey Masten, a professor with joint appointments in the Department of English and the Program in Gender & Sexuality Studies.  

“I’ve been teaching the Shakespeare poem ‘Venus and Adonis’ for years,” Masten says. “It’s an old text, and a complicated rhyme scheme, and it’s about mythological characters, yet the narrative of that poem speaks electrically to students at this moment, when the culture is engaged with questions of sexual consent. They want opportunities to talk about these issues, because they’re central to their lives.” 

In his Introduction to Shakespeare seminar, Masten includes discussions about gender and sexuality as a matter of course, and he says that kind of straightforward approach can be life-changing for students. The Shakespeare comedy As You Like It, for example, features female characters who disguise themselves as men, and Masten addresses those gender-bending, cross-dressing elements in his discussions about the play.    

“Once, after giving my standard lecture, I got an email from a student who wanted to talk to me,” he says. “His parents didn’t want him to come home for Thanksgiving because he’d told them he was gay, and I was the only person he felt he could talk to about it.  

“You never know when you’re going to touch on topics that are intensely personal for students and open up those possibilities for discussion.” 

Re-evaluating assumptions  

Jessica Lee Mathiason ’07 came to Northwestern in 2003 intending to major in creative writing as well as to explore her interests in science and technology. In the fall of her first year, she signed up for the Gender & Sexuality class “Cyberqueer,” an examination of how race, sexuality and gender are depicted in virtual technologies.   

“I had no idea how intellectually rigorous or transformative it would be,” she says. So transformative, in fact, that Mathiason eventually majored in gender and sexuality studies and is now an assistant research professor in the Department of Women’s Studies at the University of Maryland.  

“From the very beginning, classes like ‘Cyberqueer’ challenged me to question the world view I had brought to college, and ultimately to revise it. I learned how to evaluate all aspects of society, from what routinely counts as common sense to ‘objective’ scientific knowledge.”  

As an example, Mathiason cites the widespread assumption that women are better multi-taskers than men because their brains are wired differently. Mathiason learned that there’s no biological basis for such claims.  

“Cultural expectations demand that women do domestic work in addition to their jobs, which gives women more experience multi-tasking than men,” she said. “Any observed differences in skill sets can be shown to be the result of social learning and brain plasticity.”  

But stereotypes about women’s “natural” abilities continue to justify the assumption that women can manage extra tasks, “thereby perpetuating more gendered inequality,” Mathiason says. “My undergraduate training taught me that gender and sexuality aren’t simply identities that we have, but social institutions and political systems that vary across time and cultural contexts.” 

A new lens 

Today, Gender & Sexuality Studies is best understood not as a separate academic discipline, but as a new lens through which to examine virtually every subject.  

“We’re giving students a set of intellectual frameworks,” says Radway, “and they’re exhilarated by the project of thinking through how gender construction and sex-gender systems change over time.”  

Partridge says that faculty new to the Gender & Sexuality Program often tell her how impressed they are by the students in their classes.   

“I think it’s because these students have learned to be supple in their thinking and to ask the big questions,” she says. “There are so many methods for studying gender and sexuality: philosophical, historical, sociological, archival. We offer classes that not only allow you to think through these core issues, but also really engage you in different methods of study.  

“It can be deeply personal, but it’s also challenging, exciting intellectual work.”  

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