Women’s Studies

Women’s Studies

The field of women’s studies aims to decenter the dominant narratives of history that traditionally favor men, and replace the patriarchal viewpoint with the voices of the marginalized, making women the focus of study and the agents of change in history. The growth of the field women’s studies has beyond the critical understanding of women, however. Queer communities, women of color and other political communities and movements, such as Marxism and anti-colonialism, are also included in the curriculum. The politicized nature of women’s studies also seeks to confront present-day sexism, racism and imperialism. By situating the movement not just within the academy, but beyond, women’s studies challenges injustice in the workplace and in the political system. Its very intersectionality, in other words, goes beyond borders, not just in terms of disciplines of study or constructed identities, but beyond nation, making the study of women, gender, and sexuality transnational in scope.

Genesis of the Movement as an Academic Field in the U.S.

Women’s studies owes its existence to feminism, which began with the great reform movements of the early nineteenth century, when women were animated by movements like the American and French Revolutions. Whether they worked alongside freed African American women in the abolition movement or joined the Chartists in England to clamor for universal suffrage, women’s movements have embraced other social movements in the past. This process created feminism in three distinctive phases: the First, Second and Third Waves.

Like the creation of the ethnic studies programs of the late-1960s, the creation of women’s studies on U.S. collegiate campuses in the early 1970s occurred during the Civil Rights era. Its very conception was similar to the way the Free Speech Movement or the Ethnic Studies programs operated. Feminist scholars in the 1960s challenged academic administrators by staging free classes and experimental seminars on college campuses. In 1970, two big successes marked the ascent of women’s studies as a recognized discipline: the State University of New York-Buffalo created the first women’s studies program; and on the other side of the nation, at the future San Diego State University, another women’s studies program arose.

Areas and Topics Covered within Women’s Studies

The successes of these programs led to a successive timeline of events, which created future women’s studies programs. Generations of feminists can look at the 600 programs that offer undergraduate and graduate degrees, with 15 universities offering doctorate degrees, too. They can feel pride in knowing that the inclusion of women’s studies programs on college campuses is a result of the tireless work of the feminist movement.

Today, when a 18-year old woman decides on a major or minor in women’s studies, she is entering an academic field that features an intersectionality of areas and topics that reflects how much feminism has changed since 1848. A young student will learn how the movement began at Seneca Falls in upstate New York during the heady days of social revolution, when women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony worked along side abolitionists, many of whom were women who had escaped slavery. Later, this same generation shared the movement with volunteers of the urban poor who worked to improve conditions for women in poverty, or aligned with the African American woman Ida Wells and her fight against Jim Crow and the tactics of lynching blacks. Their work with women from different classes and races points to the success of women’s suffrage and the inclusion of women like Frances Perkins in the presidential administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose own wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, was a feminist.

The First Wave passed to the Second Wave during the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s and ‘70s. While some argue that feminism took a backseat to the other movements of the period, the origins of the Women’s Liberation Movement predated some of the more recognized social protest movements. Books like The Feminine Mystique, champions like Betty Friedan and organizations like the National Organization of Women propelled feminism onto college campuses as a legitimate field of study. Yet it was the women’s movement’s inclusion of the lesbian and queer communities, many of whom were of color, and its embrace of the anti-imperialism of the Third World Front that inspired the inclusion of radical theories and pedagogies into the curriculum of women’s studies. This intellectual tradition created Third Wave Feminism.

Today, the Third Wave of Feminism is informed by the radical work of the first two waves. This explains why “gender studies” is another name for the discipline of women’s studies, as the movement of feminism has grown by its understanding of how society constructs ideas about the behavior of women, and by doing that, had further created ideas of gender and normative sexuality. “Queer culture,” which is feminist in its political orientation, challenges the social constructs of gender and sexual “normative.”

Whether by the name women’s studies, or gender or sexuality studies, the fluidity of gender and sexuality is recognized and examined. Identity, then, which under the power of society creates rigid boundaries of male/female and heterosexual/homosexual, no longer has its former rigidity, but instead is recognized as a condition of classification with permeable divisions. The identity of women is no longer bound by societal constraints that define identity, which support the power of patriarchy. The Third Wave of feminism has given women’s studies fully articulated theories to challenge modern civilization’s ontology of, what the French philosopher Michel Foucault called, “biopower.”

The end result of the recognition gender and sexuality’s fluidity has moved women’s studies not only across the demarcations of social constructs, but across the borders of nations. As the new forces of neo-imperialism are studied, so too are the issues of poverty, birth control, and environmental destruction simultaneously examined. It is with this knowledge that one issue defines another that women’s studies finds its true explanatory power of today’s world.

Additional Resources

  • San Diego State University: The Women’s Studies program at San Diego State University has been “pioneering in scholarship, activism and internationalization since 1970.”
  • Rutger’s, the State University of New Jersey-New Brunswick: Professors in this department also teach specialization in the arts, anthropology, philosophy, sociology, political science and comparative languages.
  • University of Wisconsin-Madison: Founded in 1975 and unique for its openness to men: “. . .for [men], too, have been limited by narrow traditional concepts of ‘women’s roles’ and ‘men’s role.’”
  • Yale University: Yale’s Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality program recognizes that gender and sexuality are “fundamental categories of social and cultural analysis.” The program focuses on an interdisciplinary perspectives of history, literature, cultural studies, social science and science, to understand the diversity behind the normative process of social construction.
  • University of Michigan-Ann Arbor: Founded in 1973, this program works beyond the barriers of gender, race, religion and nations, to men and women of all genders, races, and sexualities, can improve their lives.
  • University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill: The Department of Women’s and Gender Studies employs professors whose interests are transnational and international in scope and represent a “broad range of academic fields,” such as History, Sociology, Political Science, Media Studies and Literary Theory.
  • Harvard University: Studies of Women, Gender and Sexuality at Harvard University begins with the assertion that gender and sexuality are created by society for the organization of people and are “inseparable from race, ethnicity, class, nationality, and other categories of difference.”
  • University of California, Berkeley: The Department of Gender and Women’s Studies is “transdisciplinary and transnational” in emphasis, as well as a smaller program size, so faculty can personally work with students.
  • University of California, Los Angeles: This program emphasizes the ways that gender relations are a complex labyrinth of structural choices embedded within society, influencing the lives of students.
  • Princeton University: Princeton’s program in the Study of Women and Gender looks at the past and the present for an examination of the intersection of femininity, masculinity, sex roles, and families with gender and sexuality.
  • Duke University: Duke’s program emphasizes the formation of interdisciplinary as the legacy of new methodologies and critical vocabularies, themselves a product of the purposeful reorientation of feminist scholarship and its work with “gender identities, relations, practices, theories and institutions.”
  • University of California, Santa Barbara: The Department of Feminist Studies at UC-Santa Barbara offers women a deeper understanding of their own lives and the lives of others, through the transnational study of diverse lives, cultures and histories, reflected through a curriculum of multiple disciplines.
  • University of Minnesota-Twin Cities: The Department of Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies at UM-Twin Cities offers a program to help students understand their world with “tools to understand, negotiate, and communicate” as leaders.
  • University of Pennsylvania: UPenn’s program explores how the role of gender impacts and order human affairs is the special province of this program’s intellectual opportunities.
  • New York University: NYU’s Gender and Studies Program asks students to look at the meaning of “male” and “female,” and sexual norms around the world, to uncover how culture is informed by ideas of gender and sexuality, and how they shape social roles and identities, in the context of how race, class, and ethnicity function.
  • Stanford University: The Program in Feminist Studies, along with the Humanities faculty in Feminism and Gender Studies, looks at the intersection of the power politics of  class, race, nationality, disability and age and how these intersections organize gender roles, relations and identities, with a specific focus on LGBTQ studies.


Women’s studies programs study the diversity of  women’s experiences
in order to understand how ideas of gender and sexuality construct society.

(Image created by Wichita State University. Courtesy of Wichita State University, Center of Women’s Studies/Religion.)