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Women’s studies programs fight for recognition

Though more relevant than ever, the field seems to have to continually justify its existence.
MAR 08 2017

Women’s studies programs fight for recognition

Though more relevant than ever, the field seems to have to continually justify its existence.


Editor’s note: it has been brought to our attention that the author did not contact anyone within the academic administration at Mount Allison University for this article. This has resulted in an incomplete presentation of the situation at Mount Allison. See a full explanation of the university’s concerns at the end of this article. We regret the error and apologize for any inaccuracies.

The bad news broke on a Monday night in February 2016. Earlier that day, Lisa Dawn Hamilton, acting director of Mount Allison University’s women’s and gender studies program, had received a glum surprise. Nearly two decades after its 1999 founding, funding for the interdisciplinary program was on the chopping block – a move that would effectively eliminate all four of the school’s core women’s and gender studies classes, despite a consistent waitlist and burgeoning enrolment. Although the university administration did not equate the budget cut with an official termination of the program, it was hard to see how it could survive without funding. In an email to students, Dr. Hamilton reluctantly rang the death knell: “This means that, currently, there are no plans to offer any women’s and gender studies courses in the coming academic year.”

Backlash against the cuts was swift, and not only from the 192 students who’d filled women’s and gender studies classrooms that academic year. By the next morning, an online petition to save the program’s funding had garnered more than 2,000 signatures. Within two weeks, it reached more than 7,000. Students protested. Overwhelmed by the attention, the program’s steering committee launched a website to act as a hub for information. Open letters poured in from women’s and gender studies programs across Canada, each pressing Mount Allison to reconsider its cuts. Fellow faculty at Dalhousie University and Saint Mary’s University penned a damning letter urging the school to consider how the cuts might affect the campus, noting that “rape culture is on the rise.”

In other words, the lessons of women’s and gender studies go far beyond the classroom. “To ignore women’s and gender studies as some fringe field or a trend that comes and goes is really wilfully naive in some circumstances,” says Allyson Jule, co-director of the Gender Studies Institute at Trinity Western University and current president of Women’s and Gender Studies et Recherches Féministes, the national professional association for women’s and gender studies in Canada.

In their protests against the cuts, faculty members across the country argued that universities needed to confront campus crises, including rape culture, through every available venue, including their curriculum. As universities try to make their campuses more equitable and “culturally competent,” wrote the Dalhousie and Saint Mary’s supporters, it made little sense to axe programs that encouraged critical thought and challenged social inequalities. After all, what kind of message did a university send when it silenced its loudest counter-narratives to gender-based violence?

In the end, the support across Canada saved Mount Allison’s women and gender studies program, albeit temporarily. In the face of growing pressure, the university gave the program a 12-month McCain Postdoctoral Fellowship for the 2016-17 academic year. Funded through an endowment, not the university’s operating budget, the teaching fellowship provides enough funding for one teaching salary for one year. The Mount Allison program and its supporters welcomed the reprieve, but the program’s future remains a question mark – not to mention the possibility of women’s and gender studies activists having to re-enact their own version of Groundhog Day once the fellowship funding expires.

Photo courtesy of The Cannon.

It’s likely a dismal thought for scholars in the field, who already feel they have to grapple with gender-based campus violence and, to a wider extent, a seeming rise in anti-feminist narratives in mainstream society. “We would say it’s more critical now than ever to have robust gender studies programs,” says Dr. Jule of Trinity Western.

Take recent events at Dalhousie, home to one of the many women’s and gender studies programs that protested the Mount Allison cuts. In 2015, Dalhousie experienced its own damaging sexist culture after male students in the fourth-year dentistry class posted misogynistic and sexually explicit comments on a Facebook group. The ensuing outcry included protests, an online petition with more than 50,000 signatures calling for the students’ expulsion and, eventually, a comprehensive report on misogyny, sexism and homophobia on campus. The next year, enrolment in Dalhousie’s Introduction to Gender and Women’s Studies class rose by 20 percent to 200 students, the largest ever. Many women’s and gender studies programs have seen similar enrolment spikes in recent years.

Yet, if the battle to save Mount Allison’s program highlighted strong national support for feminist work on campus, it also revealed a more uncomfortable observation: when it comes to budget cuts, contend feminist scholars, women’s and gender studies programs tend to be early sacrifices, even though they are often among the leanest and smallest programs. Mount Allison’s, for instance, had a budget of $24,000.

Not every women’s and gender studies program has won the fight to survive. In 2009, the University of Guelph closed its women’s studies program, citing budget pressures. The savings reportedly represented 0.17 percent of the university’s budget shortfall. U of Guelph students responded by holding a mock funeral with headstones inscribed: “R.I.P. Feminism: Apparently We Don’t Need You.” Events like this expose a deep schism when it comes to defining feminist values within academia and on campus, sometimes placing university administration on one side and faculty and students on the other.

From the start, women’s and gender studies scholars have fought to gain and then maintain a position in academia. Feminists managed to get women’s studies into the Canadian university curriculum in 1970, with the University of Toronto’s first for-credit course. That year, the first degree-granting women’s studies program in North America was established at San Diego State University. A year later, courses in women’s studies were offered at the University of British Columbia. It took UBC 20 more years to establish a degree-granting program in the field.

Those early classes were often taught by activists, creating women-centred learning spaces and engaging in research that would advance the burgeoning women’s rights movement. The subject matter and approach in those early classes would be unrecognizable now – and that’s a good thing, according to many women’s and gender studies professors today. As feminism has evolved from its second-wave focus (and its prioritization of white, middle-class women), women’s and gender studies has moved with it, often giving the field a needed push toward inclusivity and diversity.

“There was this question of who is this woman we’re talking about in women’s and gender studies,” says Annalee Lepp, chair of the department of gender studies at the University of Victoria. As a result, she says, the field has embraced a never-ending process of self-reflection. It’s a deliberate method of assessment that has led to a plurality of feminisms within programs, with a particular focus on intersectionality (the layered interactions of oppressions, such as race, ability, sexuality, social class and so on). It makes for a field that’s indefinable, says Dr. Lepp, precisely because it isn’t trying to achieve fixed definitions.

What women’s and gender studies is trying to accomplish is much more intangible: new theoretical and empirical ways of understanding the world. For Dr. Lepp, much of that work requires the players to challenge systems of discrimination, which are becoming more entrenched.

“I would say the question of what is the core of women’s and gender studies is an ongoing debate within the field,” observes Susanne Luhmann, chair of the department of women’s and gender studies at the University of Alberta. “And I actually have to say I love that. I love that we are in this constant process of deciding who we are, what we want to do, and what our core values and core knowledges are.” As soon as a field is defined, she says, boundaries of inside and outside are set. That leads to alienating arguments of who and what is classified as feminist.

To Dr. Luhmann, the strength of women’s and gender studies is the way it invites discussion, creating a field that’s a sum of disagreements and debates. For a discipline rooted in feminism, this reluctance to follow the status quo fits: it offers a lens through which to view, and challenge, the world. But when feminism itself is challenged, problems arise, and that, many argue, is what is happening right now.

“On some level within the popular imagination, there is a belief that there is no longer a need for a gender analysis, or an analysis of oppressions,” says Carla Rice. “And that programs, policies and laws focusing on gender equity are no longer needed – that essentially we’ve arrived.”

Illustration by Cristiana Couceiro.

Dr. Rice is an associate professor, and holds the Canada Research Chair in Care, Gender and Relationships, at the University of Guelph. She argues that such sentiments influenced U of Guelph to close its women’s studies program and are responsible for similar moves at other universities. At U of Guelph, she adds, students tell her they feel cheated after finally encountering women’s and gender studies material later, saying they wish they’d discovered it earlier. She says that sexism is continuing in overt and covert ways, globally and locally, and these programs are meant to give students the tools to face this reality. While other fields aim to deliver career-oriented graduates, say academics in the field, women’s and gender studies wants to form agents of change.

Some of the challenges these programs face are tied to damaging, sexist stereotypes about feminism, say scholars – namely, that it is rife with man-hating, hairy-legged women who don’t wear bras. To help move away from these tired, yet remarkably persistent, perceptions, many women’s studies programs have undergone name changes in recent years, adding, for instance, gender. Others chose a more complex name that signaled the many layers of feminism’s current commitment to pluralities. UBC’s program became the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice. Nipissing University’s program was remade as the gender equality and social justice department. At the University of Prince Edward Island, women’s and gender studies became diversity and social justice studies.

“Names are like an invitation,” says Ann Braithwaite, professor and coordinator of the UPEI program. “They’re a way to say to people that you are welcome here. This is a place where certain kinds of things are going to be talked about.” For her, the name change at UPEI acknowledged the broadening and deepening parameters of both feminism and of women’s and gender studies. The trend might be seen as recognition of feminism’s own changing definitions, away from gender binaries and towards equality for everyone.

But some disagree with these changes, arguing that women’s and gender studies shouldn’t need to make itself more palatable and, with its history full of erasure, the word “women” matters. Chantal Maillé, a Concordia University women’s studies professor and former principal of its Simone de Beauvoir Institute, says the fight over names is part of the field’s “border wars” – what women’s studies is, and isn’t. While she agrees that women’s studies is having a good moment – enrolment is up at many universities, including Concordia, where it has almost doubled in the past five years – she argues that the field is also being invaded in many ways. She says stitching together women’s studies with a very different field like sexuality studies, with its traditionally male point of view, risks diluting and changing the field in detrimental ways.

Those who argue against the discipline’s title changes are also concerned that the concessions undercut the field’s radical roots in favour of friendlier-sounding names that will get more bums in seats. On the other hand, perhaps catering to new audiences isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Nipissing’s program, for example, experienced a tenfold increase in students after its name change. “We all have to be the audience,” says UPEI’s Dr. Braithwaite. “And our role is now to find ways to reach the audience that never saw themselves as part of this conversation to begin with.”

Meanwhile, as some programs close or change names, others are being added. Université Laval announced in January it is opening a new feminist institute called l’Institut Femmes, Sociétés, Égalité et Équité; and Université de Montréal confirmed that as of this fall it will be offering a new minor in women’s, gender and sexuality studies.

UPEI’s Outrage Tree. Photo courtesy UPEI.

In early November, when Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election, those who were devastated by the news included many students and teachers of women’s and gender studies – understandably, given Mr. Trump’s many disparaging comments and actions toward women. This feeling was underscored by a deeper disappointment: that, in 2016, a woman still could not break the highest of glass ceilings. Discussion on what this meant dominated classroom talks. At UPEI, Dr. Braithwaite helped organize a Social Justice Week, featuring an “outrage tree” where students could write their concerns on giant paper leaves.

In the U.S., Barbara Bickel, an expat Canadian professor and director of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, wrote a note to her women and gender studies listserv in the early morning after the election; she says she needed to get her feelings out so that she could go to work that day. In her note, she spoke of recovery, love and compassion, and she urged her colleagues not to give in to fear. “I feel overwhelmed and ill-prepared for what is to come,” she admitted, but added: “It is time to get to work.”

That’s true in Canada, too. Though Prime Minister Justin Trudeau may have declared himself a feminist, both women’s rights advocates and scholars in the field argue that Canada’s problems with women also run deep. Besides rape culture on campus, there is the unresolved crisis over murdered and missing Indigenous women, which the federal government has been slow to act upon. Other evidence includes the still pervasive wage gap; discrimination against women in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics; and rising poverty, which disproportionality affects women, particularly single mothers.

Universities have also experienced a rise in anti-abortion and men’s rights movements on campus. Many women feel these groups mobilize people against feminist work, sometimes violently. “If we thought that men and women were becoming more and more equal, I don’t think we can make that claim anymore,” said Trinity Western’s Dr. Jule a few days after the U.S. election.

Optimistically, this leaves women’s and gender studies programs in a prime position to lead conversations on campuses and in classrooms, if they can continue to eke out an existence among what Dr. Bickel of Southern Illinois University calls a pernicious rise in neoliberalism within the academy. To her, this means an emphasis on financial efficiency, quick graduation rates and job outcomes, all leading to the death of learning for learning’s sake – which is as apt a description of women’s and gender studies programs as any. Women in the field might argue that it’s hard to find a space within institutions that were never meant for them in the first place. But, it doesn’t mean they will stop trying, as the fight to save Mount Allison’s program showed.

Many academics in the field would like to see every university in Canada implement a women’s and gender studies program. Dr. Rice, not surprisingly, would first like to see U of Guelph reinstate its program. Professors also want to see women’s and gender studies break out of the social sciences and influence learning in such disciplines as mathematics, science and business.

As well, some would like to see women’s and gender studies become a core introductory course for first-year students. Dr. Jule maintains that it is as critical to understanding the world as core English or science classes. If Canadian universities did make it a mandatory course, she says, they would be taking a stand on the side of human rights and social justice. “To keep women’s and gender studies as a side issue or a special interest group is a shame. It could just be so much more.”

Lauren McKeon is a former editor of This magazine. Her first book, F-Bomb: Field Notes from a Post-Feminist Future, is due out this fall.

Not an accurate portrayal

The University Affairs article, “Women’s studies programs fight for recognition,” is not an accurate portrayal of the women’s and gender studies’ situation at Mount Allison University.


Regrettably, the author did not consult with the university’s academic administration prior to writing the article, and this has resulted in a very imbalanced presentation. We write to provide readers of University Affairs with a more complete picture of our commitment to the women’s and gender studies program. This can be demonstrated in a number of ways.


First, the university’s across-the-board, short-term staffing challenge of 2016-17 was not presented as a desire to terminate the women’s and gender studies program, nor was this ever a prospect considered by the university.


Second, the assertion that “the program’s future remains a question mark” is not accurate. The university has advertised two tenure-track assistant professor positions in women’s and gender studies with cross-appointment to related disciplines. We are also finalizing a third tenure-track assistant professor position in women’s and gender studies.


Third, the university is continuing its longstanding policy of supporting and strengthening interdisciplinary studies, from women’s and gender studies, to Canadian studies, and environmental and global studies.


The above steps reflect the excellent work pursued by our colleagues in regenerating the women’s and gender studies program with new ideas and new resources. By year’s end, this program will be the strongest that it has ever been.


Jeff Ollerhead
Dr. Ollerhead is provost and vice-president, academic and research, at Mount Allison University.

Lauren McKeon
Missing author information
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  1. Eileen Herteis, Director, Purdy Crawford Teaching Ctr, Mount Allison / March 8, 2017 at 14:05

    Just to update the article, Mount Allison is currently seeking candidates to fill a new tenure-track appointment in Women’s and Gender Studies.

    • Jim Clark / March 8, 2017 at 20:47

      Eileen … has it been announced what department that hire is coming from? A challenge for small, niche programs is that they often can only be supported by other departments with larger classes. Students in the bigger departments are subsidizing smaller programs, arguably weakening their own educational experience (e.g., larger classes).

  2. R. Craigen / March 8, 2017 at 16:24

    The level of public approval of feminism is on the decline and, depending on how that opinion is measured and how the term “feminism” is delineated, a large minority or a majority of women no longer identify by that label and do not see “feminism” (or at least what some call “third-wave feminism”) does not represent their interests or perspective. And this tendency is more prevalent among younger women.

    For this reason and others I think there’s a better argument that proponents of the feminist movement would be better served by asking some introspective questions about you’re doing to love the sympathies of that demographic than continually seeking for more ways to articulate how you believe you’re marginalized, oppressed or mischaracterized by shadowy villains.

    In point of fact a large proportion of men and women feel that whatever feminism was in the past, more and more the movement going by that name does indeed reflect — or at mimimum provide a home and sanctuary for, and nurture to, base impulses toward — misandry, “reverse sexism” and forms of entitlement, tribalism and obsession with victimhood repellant to liberal minds of all stripes in our world.

    It is certainly a step in the right direction that nowhere in this article do you deliberately spell “women” incorrectly as a form of self-righteous, pearl-clutching protest against “patriarchy”. Now please come to our campus and explain why that’s a bad idea to your colleagues here. They won’t listen to me.

  3. Kathy Lokhorst / March 8, 2017 at 17:32

    When I began my doctoral studies on ways to encourage young women in high school physics to consider pursuing careers in physics and engineering, I deliberately avoided use of the f-word. I did not want to be associated with the efforts of early militant feminists, although their actions were necessary to highlight gender inequity. I did not understand that women’s issues are feminist issues.

    The women’s marches of 2017 will effectively replace the 1970’s angry imagery with today’s positive and peaceful global movements. I am thrilled with the breadth of support for women’s rights.

    Perhaps my avoidance of the term feminism is the reason women’s studies programs are not as well-supported as they should be. I hope we all soon learn to leave our fear of feminism behind, so to easily stand together and celebrate women’s accomplishments.

  4. Adam Bestaatniet / March 15, 2017 at 12:07

    The crux of the problem is identified in the astute statement “Universities have also experienced a rise in anti-abortion and men’s rights movements on campus”. This is what we see in the US as well, at an alarming rate. Such reprehensible ideas are completely unacceptable, and should be purged; and the people who are advocating them should be silenced. We are hoping that Women’s Studies programs will work to achieve that. This is our only hope.

  5. Allison Redford / March 15, 2017 at 20:59

    If this field was shutdown we would be deprived of the immensely important papers such as below. We should never attempt to erase the importance of hobosexuals and black anus’

    Mapping the hobosexual: A queer materialism

    Black Anality
    ““Black Anality” argues that “black” and “anal” are rendered ideologically, discursively, and representationally synonymous, and that black female flesh becomes the material space on which this convergence occurs. Drawing on an archive of online, widely accessible black pornographies, I develop the term black anality to describe how black pleasures are represented as peculiarly and particularly oriented toward the anus, and thus as peculiarly and particularly attached to anal ideologies. In doing so, I depart from black feminist scholarship, which has long examined the buttocks as an imagined locus of racial-sexual difference and which has developed a set of analytics ”

    • Richard Reich / August 26, 2021 at 15:50

      Gookum Perley Bear, Janet Silman, Enough Is Enough