What’s in a name?
I always start the first lecture of WMS 150: Introduction to Women’s Studies by tackling what seems to be the most obvious of questions: “What is Women’s Studies”? The majority of students sign up for the course with little knowledge of the discipline or what is expected of them. This is not surprising; most high school curricula do not cover the topic, and outside of academia Women’s Studies seems to fall victim to the same misconceptions and abuses that feminism does. Students do usually seem to have a vague sense that Women’s Studies has something to do with feminism, but again, without actually knowing what feminism is, this knowledge doesn’t provide them with much insight. This discussion of “definition” has become even more relevant this semester as WMS 150 has finally been approved as “Introduction to Gender and Women’s Studies,” an exciting development that accompanies a faculty vote to begin the process to change the program’s name here at the University of Rhode Island to Gender and Women’s Studies. While courses in the Gender and Women’s Studies Program will still be committed to investigating women’s experiences, perspectives, and contributions, our proposed name change represents the program’s study of how the social construction of gender and the social relations of women and men structure our politics, culture, and everyday lives (or, as one student suggested on Thursday, our “self-identity” in a gendered world). Our new name also better reflects the ways that Women’s Studies has, and continues to, address issues of ethnicity, race, class, and sexuality, along with the fight for social justice and equality.
This question of “naming” has been on my mind for some time, and apparently I am not alone in my thoughts. In the recently published Rethinking Women’s and Gender Studies (Routledge 2012) editors Catherine M. Orr, Ann Braithwaite, and Diane Lichtenstein have compiled a strong collection of essays that address this very question. In exploring the “genealogy” of key terms associated with Gender and Women’s Studies (such as “feminism,” “activism,” “interdisciplinarity,” and “institutionalization”), the essays in the collection not only speak to the changing dynamics of the field of Gender and Women’s Studies, but also asks those engaged in this field of work to consider how “questioning any of these terms lead[s] us to issues we may not want to face, stakes we might not want to acknowledge, conclusions that may challenge us too deeply” (3). It’s a provocative challenge, and one that I hope to purse over the course of the semester, particularly in my instruction of WMS 320: Feminist Thought Into Action.
With this course, again, I’m brought back to this idea of “naming” as I, along with my students, consider the implications of “feminist thought” and “action.” What can be expected from such a course? My query speaks directly to Orr’s, Braithwaite’s, and Lichtenstein’s concerns, as they ask, “Why, for example is a term such as ‘feminism’ so easily assumed to be a requisite” for Gender and Women’s Studies, and likewise, why do “we repeat so widely and often” that Gender and Women’s Studies “is ‘activist’ yet seldom articulate exactly what we mean, or do not mean, by that term, or how it might function to propel the field in directions that should, at the very least, require further investigation” (2). While the catalog description of WMS 320 as “political thought, analysis, and activism campaigns for women’s rights” offers some direction, it seems to me that true “feminist thought into action” should require some type of active component, while at the same time, interrogate the very assumptions that Orr, Braithwaite, and Lichtenstein draw our attention to. Therefore, in this course I hope to not only have my students engage in their own forms of personal activism, but to push analysis even further into a critical engagement that questions the very relationships of feminism, activism, and Gender and Women’s Studies. That is, what is the value of these terms on their own, and how do they (or not?) contribute to the changing dynamics of Gender and Women’s Studies here at the University of Rhode Island and beyond?