Friday, August 22, 2008

Silly Lawsuits, but More Importantly: Gender

A few days ago, Roy Den Hollander, a lawyer who has filed a series of misogynist lawsuits, came out with this gem: he has filed an antifeminist suit against Columbia University for offering women's studies classes, arguing that Columbia uses federal funding to support a “religionist belief system called feminism.” Now, part of me would like to dismiss this as the silly lawsuit it is, but sometimes such trivial things are important for us to reexamine the larger issues at stake.

As an undergraduate at Columbia, the debate on women's studies and on adding women writers to such classes as Literature Humanities (the great literary works from Homer to Woolf-- one of two female authors in the series) and Contemporary Civilization (the great philosophers-- from Plato to, well, Woolf once again, this time the only female writer), reared its head from time to time. In navel-gazing online college forums, such as Columbia's The Bwog, where commenters are anonymous and misogynist remarks rampant, the debate ran along these lines: someone starts off with a misogynist remark, someone asks why there aren't men's studies if there are women's studies, someone else points out that the past two thousand years were "men's studies," someone else ignores this somewhat cogent remark to take the opportunity to make a few jokes about "boobs" and other funny female body parts, and someone else rounds it off by saying that it is all moot as humanities majors are generally wasting their money on unemployable skills.

High-minded stuff, for sure. The point being that even those who try to get past the boob jokes are unable to articulate the purpose of women's studies beyond a call for balance. Which makes me think maybe the trivial isn't so trivial. Maybe it's time to rearticulate some of the values of women's studies. But more importantly, perhaps it's also time to make a wholesale change over to Gender Studies, which would undermine the whole of the lawyer's invidious accusations. Because in the end, with courses not only called "Feminist Texts" but "Gender, Culture, and Human Rights," and "Sexuality and the Law," and an institute called the Institute for Research on Women and Gender (IRWAG), that's what we, and Columbia, are really talking about.

Gender studies is very much the evolution of groundwork laid out by Women's Studies. While we now recognize that inquiring into women's role in society is imperative for an understanding of power dynamics and social relationships, we also recognize that it is just as important to understand how definitions of masculinity may shape men's approach to women, each other, and themselves. Even more so, we see that there is difference within difference: that seeing the world from a gay male perspective overturns traditional notions of maleness. The theory behind women's and gender studies goes further to a better understanding of class and race. We are no longer shackled with a simplistic grouping of "working class" as a faceless mass of singular experience, recognizing that women's and men's roles differ significantly within that group. We recognize that citizenship may also be defined along gendered lines (historically, women give their reproductive systems and males their lives to the state--but how does that definition change now that women are also on the battlefield?)

The intersection of race and class helps us to understand that women are not one "sisterhood" of victimhood throughout history, that women are actors in the past and today--both the perpetrators and the perpetrated--divided along lines of racial, ethnic, economic, sexual differences. Even at the seemingly strict dichotomous line of "body," we can overturn a male/female divide by recognizing that women have experienced their bodies differently throughout history: those who have reproduced, those who haven't, those who have undergone forced sterilization, and so on.

Ok, but enough of Gender Studies 101. What's the practical application? Well, a little thinking about gender might lead you to question a few things. For instance: Single sex public education, Gender testing at the Olympics, The effect of birth control pills on your love life, and to bring us full circle: Diversity in academia.

But maybe I'm jumping the gun of the whole Gender Studies thing. Is there still a place for "Women's Studies" (single gender) in today's colleges?



Deborah Siegel said...

I'm so glad you raise this Kristen -- eager to hear what folks think. As I'm starting on my book on, well, men, I've started wondering actually if our tagline over here at GWP ("Bridging Feminist Research, Popular Reality, and the Public") should change to "Bridging Gender Research, Popular Reality, and the Public." So far, I've heard one vote yay and one vote nay, so so far it's a toss be continued, I'm sure!

Anonymous said...

I am sure if the history books had to be rewritten to include women, african americans, latinos and other marginalized groups and white men started to be erased off the pages, people who agree with this lawsuit will support a separate gender studies progam.

Personally, I think the books need to be rewritten.

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