I want to take this opportunity to correct mistakes in John Merrill’s Nov. 3 column in which he reveals little knowledge about the discipline of women’s and gender studies.
The discipline is not a newcomer in higher education. Its first program was founded in 1970, and now undergraduate and graduate programs and departments have developed in every state at every level of higher education, from community colleges to major research universities. Students now receive doctorates in women’s studies. Virtually all university presses have special lists in women’s and gender studies. Establishing a department at MU reflects the development of the field and its strong institutional status in major universities across the country.
What questions does the discipline undertake? While there is nothing monolithic or uniform about the answers or approaches, the approaches do share a focus on discerning how structures of gender (i.e. identity, allocation of resources, economic and social rights and representations) are developed and challenged. While scholars in many departments undertake this study, the new department at MU reflects the strong disciplinary core that has developed over the past three decades.
The new department welcomes anyone who wants to participate in this field of study. It compares in many ways to the last “new department” established in MU’s College of Arts and Science about 30 years ago. Religious studies as a field was established when the study of religion became based in interdisciplinary research about religious groups and movements rather than being located in faith traditions. Just as the students and faculty in the religious studies department feel it is important to understand religion in today’s world, quite apart from their own affiliation, students and faculty in women’s and gender studies feel that it is important to understand the institution of gender, regardless of one’s body or gender identity.
Mr. Merrill says that the department faculty has “big plans” for the future. These are not plans — they are already underway, and much of the research has been supported by national research foundations, including Rockefeller, Ford, Macarthur, and the National Science Foundation. Research includes projects on: Hurricane Katrina and the consequences for women, the role of churches in preventing domestic violence, the status of sexual minorities in post-apartheid South Africa, United Nations outreach on human rights, the literary traditions of sexuality in developing capitalism, World Bank policy on economic development and its impact on women, political culture and gender in globalization, and the significance of AIDS in caring for children in effected households in South Africa. Moreover, the department was awarded a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation in 2007 to study the institutional practices that promote or hinder the advancement of women faculty in the science, technology, engineering and math fields.
Does the new department reflect a decentering of disciplinary and canonical institutions at the university? I hope so. For many of us, the university is precisely the place where students should be exposed to diverging methodologies, competing intellectual traditions and multiple “canons.”
Jacquelyn Litt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.