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Women's History Month 2013: A History Of Women's Studies

March is Women’s History Month, and it’s a great time to look back at achievements women have made over the years. No conversation about women’s advancement in college settings would be complete without mention of women's studies as an academic field of study.

The first accredited women's studies program was formed at San Diego State University in 1970 after much organizing and activism by feminist scholars. Most women’s studies programs existed as their own separate departments of study, independent of other university departments.

As more and more women joined universities as faculty and students, women’s studies departments, feminist activists, and women's centers grew concerned about the climate women faced in broader university settings. In 1997, the University of Connecticut formed a coalition to tackle gender issues on college campuses called the American Council on Education's Commission on Women in Higher Education. The Council would evolve into an organized group, with four to seven representatives from the Universitiesy of Maine, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island.

The coalition eventually released “Vision 2000,” a document identifying problems women faced on campus and recommendations to improve their status by the year 2000.  The coalition called Vision 2000 “a call to our Presidents and Chancellors to ensure full and equitable participation by women in the New England Land Grant Universities. Through nine broad recommendations, the document sets forth a vision of where women at our six institutions can and should be at the beginning of the next century.” The coalition’s recommendations included suggestions that universities take steps to end harassment of women and to increase diversity among tenure-track faculty.

While these seem like reasonable solutions to obvious problems, not everyone was sold on the coalition’s findings. In a 1998 article for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Daphne Patai, professor of Brazilian literature at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, called Vision 2000’s recommendations “a stunningly imperialistic move to put in place a questionable feminist agenda, thinly disguised as a plea for equal opportunity and fairness.” 

She cites the increases in female graduation rates and women's entry into professional schools as faculty an indicator that programs like Vision 2000 were not only unnecessary, but that they allow “feminist cadres to override educational concerns.”

She alleges that Vision 2000’s recommendations would result in “policing insensitive language, championing research methods deemed congenial to women (such as qualitative over quantitative methods), and conducting classes as if they were therapy sessions.”

While Patai might be correct that more and more women have been steadily enrolling in college over the years, she overlooks the fact that women are all but absent in science, math, technology, engineering and Mathematics. Patai rather uncritically suggests that women simply aren’t interested in going into these fields, rather than asking why that might be. She also takes issue with the coalition’s concerns about sexual harassment and violence against women on college campuses, maintaining that the authors of Vision 2000 relied on “inflammatory rhetoric that tends, for example, to assume that sexual violence is widespread. (‘Women face sexual violence and sexual harassment in the classroom and in the workplace, and are too often silenced by a system that protects the perpetrators of these crimes.’)”

She goes on to ask, “Are rape and sexual assault indeed routine occurrences at universities? Is harassment really widespread?” Her omission of any useful numbers regarding sexual assault and harassment on college campuses is particularly glaring, as sexual violence on college campuses is a shockingly “common occurrence.” Any attempt at correcting these issues faced by women is necessary to foster lasting gender equality on college campuses. 

Today there are over 900 women's studies programs on campuses across the country. Many offer certifications, bachelor’s degrees, master's degrees, and doctoral degrees. The number of women’s and gender studies doctoral programs has more than tripled since the 1980s.

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