Women’s Studies

Margaret H McFadden. New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz. Volume 2. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.

In its short history (from the late 1960s in the United States) women’s studies has moved around the world as an idea, a concept, a practice, and finally a field or Fach (German for specialty or field). As late as 1982 in Germany Frauenstudium was not considered a Fach and therefore could not be studied in the university but only in special or summer courses. By the early twentieth century women’s studies was recognized in higher education from India to Indonesia, from the United States to Uganda, China to Canada, Austria to Australia, England to Egypt, South Africa to South Korea. In its short history (from the late 1960s in the United States) women’s studies has moved around the world as an idea, a concept, a practice, and finally a field or Fach (German for specialty or field). As late as 1982 in Germany Frauenstudium was not considered a Fach and therefore could not be studied in the university but only in special or summer courses. By the early twentieth century women’s studies was recognized in higher education from India to Indonesia, from the United States to Uganda, China to Canada, Austria to Australia, England to Egypt, South Africa to South Korea.


Women’s studies is the study of women and gender in every field. Its basic premise is that traditional education is based on a study of men—usually upper-class, Caucasian, educated men—while other groups of men and all different groups of women are erroneously subsumed under the category “mankind.” Early on courses drew especially on history, literature, and sociology, but they quickly expanded to the other humanities (philosophy, religious studies, comparative literature, art, music) and the social sciences (anthropology, political science, economics, psychology, geography). Science and technology have been slower to embrace women’s studies, but biology, math, technology, computer science, chemistry, physics, and medicine have all begun to examine their assumptions for sexist bias, and courses in “gender and physics,” “women geologists,” or “sexism and science” are de rigueur in most programs.

Over the years the term itself and the naming of the enterprise have been contested and changing. The first name was “female studies,” but “women’s studies” quickly found more adherents. The name “women’s studies” has been criticized for its ambiguous apostrophe (the study of or by women?), for its (supposed) assumption that all women can be studied together, and for its “hegemonic narrowness” that does not take into account transgendered or lesbian identities. Some programs have changed their names to “gender studies,” “women and gender studies,” or “feminist studies.” And of course in the exporting of “women’s studies” around the world, various languages are unable to translate “gender” or “women’s studies” in satisfactory ways. It is safe to say, however, that all permutations share some commonalities—that women matter and that their own assessment of their experiences is the starting point for description and analysis; that the history of women’s subordination is differently experienced but commonly shared; that the elimination of that subordination is a common goal. The concept of gender as a social construction that reflects and determines differences in power and opportunity is employed as the primary analytic category.


Women’s studies, as a concept and a site of learning, really began with the second wave of the women’s movement in the late 1960s. But generations of work and information gathering preceded that time, particularly in the nineteenth-century penchant for writing stories of “great women” and gathering them in collections of “women worthies.” A later, more democratic strain of the study of women was begun by the historian Mary Beard, who in her 1946 volume Woman as Force in History took a different tack. If one looks at “long history,” one finds not “great women” only but everyday women, not women as victims but women who influenced their worlds, women who had agency, even within the confines of a limited sphere, within the private realm. Simone de Beauvoir wrote of women as “other” in The Second Sex(1953), while Betty Friedan analyzed “the problem that has no name,” the malaise and victimization of middle-class women, in The Feminine Mystique (1963), and Helen Hacker compared women’s position to that of minorities (1951). Yet all these important precursors did not initiate women’s studies.

It took a combination of the civil rights movement, the New Left, the peace movement (especially the protests against the war in Vietnam), and the various open university movements in the 1960s to help women coalesce and organize themselves into the women’s liberation movement. Many more women were attending colleges and universities, many women were participating in the radical youth movements of the 1960s, and many women students and faculty were leaders in the civil rights and antiwar movements. It was thus almost inevitable that women would begin to question their role in those movements if they always had to make the coffee, do the typing, and be available as sex objects. Stokely Carmichael of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) famously said, “The only position of women in the movement is prone,” infuriating many young women. The second wave of the women’s movement began with hundreds of small consciousness-raising (CR) groups in many cities and towns; as women collectively started to understand and then study their situation, they initiated courses and classes on women’s history, literature, and culture, first on a community, ad hoc basis but quickly moving to the college classroom. There were hundreds of women’s studies courses offered at colleges and universities in the United States in the late 1960s, and by 1970 formal women’s studies programs were launched, first at San Diego State University in California and then at Cornell University in New York. Every year after that saw an increase, from 276 programs in 1976 to 680 in 1999. Most of these programs offered minors, certificates, concentrations, or majors. A Campus Trends report for the American Council on Education in 1984 found that women’s studies courses were offered at a majority of four-year colleges and universities and at 25 percent of community colleges; there are more now. Women’s studies at the beginning of the twenty-first century enrolled the largest number of students of any interdisciplinary field. The Department of Education estimates that 12 percent of all undergraduate students in the United States have received credit for a women’s studies course. But the growth in formal programs does not tell the whole story; many more students enroll in separate courses than choose to major or minor in the field.

Growth and Institutionalization

Because American educational institutions, especially newer, less-traditional ones, are very flexible in curricular change, women’s studies grew and expanded in the United States more quickly than anywhere else. But very soon there were women’s studies programs in Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Finland, Sweden, India, South Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines. By the 1980s there were programs in all countries in Western Europe, plus Thailand, South Africa, China, the Caribbean, and Uganda. Finally, after the change from communism in Eastern Europe, programs were instituted in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Russia, Ukraine, and others, in addition to Malaysia, Vietnam, and other African nations. Two series of international conferences gave impetus to the growth of women’s studies, both within universities and in community-based organizations worldwide. The International Interdisciplinary Congress on Women began in Haifa, Israel, in 1981 and has met every three years since—in the Netherlands (1984), in Ireland (1987), in New York (1990), in Costa Rica (1993), in Australia (1996), in Norway (1999), in Uganda (2002), and in South Korea (2005). Two to three thousand delegates, mostly women, both academics and community organizers, attend to present their work. Each conference draws especially on that continent’s practitioners. Thus the Costa Rica conference brought together many indigenous women from Central America as well as Latin American delegates. Languages that year were Spanish, English, and a variety of Indio languages. That this congress continues to meet, without governmental or formal organizational support, is testimony to the personal importance to women all over the world of global scholarship on women.

The United Nations has sponsored four international conferences as a part of its “Decade for Women,” in Mexico City (1975), Copenhagen (1980), Nairobi (1985), and Beijing (1995). The nongovernmental organizations (NGO) forums held in conjunction with each conference brought together thousands of activists and women’s studies groups from all over the world, thus reminding those from the developed world of the connections between education and broader social justice issues.

Research and Publication

Scholarly journals in women’s studies were begun in the United States early on (1972 for Feminist Studies; 1975 for Signs: A Journal of Women in Culture and Society; but not until 1988 for the National Women’s Studies Association Journal), and soon there were journals published around the world. In 1999 an informal International Network of Women’s Studies Journals (now the Feminist Journals Network) was formed, meeting first in Tromso, Norway, then in Halifax, Canada, in 2001 and in Kampala, Uganda, in 2002. Thirty editors from twenty-seven journals in twenty-one countries were represented in the membership in the early twenty-first century. Joint publishing projects, including a book series by Zed Press, reprinting of articles from journals in the “economic south” (developing nations) by journals in the “economic north” (industrialized nations, mostly in the north but including Australia), a Web site, and a listserv to make members aware of current issues are all part of their work.

Ellen Messer-Davidow surveyed the number of books and scholarly monographs available in English between 1980 and 1998 and estimated that 10,200 feminist books were published during that period. As she says, the print knowledge is so voluminous that scholars cannot keep track, much less read it all. And the topics are superabundant: “everything and anything is gendered, … gendering is narrated, quantified, or modeled, … and ‘gender’ as an analytical category is interrogated” (Messer-Davidow, p. 167).

Theories and Assumptions

Even though some practitioners of women’s studies disavow any attempt to theorize universally about women or women’s studies, most others will subscribe to a discussion of the following kinds of theories. Women’s studies course material depends largely on various feminist theories, although these assumptions may not always be made explicit. Most feminist theories can be divided into two basic kinds, based on the answer to the question: How important is the physiological or biological difference between males and females? Put another way: What should one make of the sex-gender difference? Should this difference be noted and positively valued for its unique perspective? Or should it be downplayed in a system that recognizes the common humanity of men and women and attempts to unite women with institutions from which they have historically been excluded? These two basic strains of feminist theory have been variously called equality feminism and difference feminism, minimizer feminism and maximizer feminism, or individualist feminism and relational feminism. In each case, the first term includes those who seek to deemphasize difference and press for the integration of women into masculine institutions, usually emphasizing the individual; the second term includes those who seek to stress and value difference, to transform or abandon masculine systems, often emphasizing the relational qualities of women, especially in regard to children and extended families.

The term sex-gender is used here to refer to the biological and social difference between males and females. In the early days, the two words were used separately and distinctly. Sex meant the physiological difference between male and female, while gender meant the social overlay of education and socialization, constructed differently in different eras and societies. The two terms have become conflated in everyday speech, and many use gender where sex would have been used earlier. For many theorists, both terms are constructed—that is, the particular culture gives its own meaning to sex and gender. Additionally, we now have much more research and experience with transgendered individuals, such that the binary of male-female is problematic at best. Any particular “sex-gender system” is of course an artifact of a particular historical time and place. Still, the two major types continue to be a useful way of understanding the various forms of the theories that underlie women’s studies.

Each one of the two major types of feminist theories includes several subtypes, from conservative to radical, from positions that imply few changes in the status quo to ones in which the whole society is altered by the shift in women’s status and conceptualization. It is useful to envision the positions—minimizers and maximizers of difference—on two lines that move from the more conservative to the more radical, from right to left. The most conservative feminist position on both continua is that view of women that offers a rationale for the present structure of society. The most radical position offers a call for a future society totally transformed either by the extreme of making males and females no longer different physiologically (for example, by the abolition of female reproductive capacities) or, for the maximizers, the extreme of totally separating the two sexes—physically, geographically, and socially. Beyond the conservative feminist pole, one finds reactionary positions: for the maximizers, various sociobiologist positions; for the minimizers, the position that fails to recognize that human rights may be an issue. This latter view is based on an unstated assumption that might be expressed thus: “We are all alike; we all stand in the position of white privileged males; we all have equal rights.”

The Minimizers

Along the “minimizers” continuum, one moves first from the “human rights” position to “women’s rights,” the stance of various reformist groups and theorists that advocate granting equal rights to women in all areas by working within existing political systems. This nineteenth-century egalitarian position of the first women’s rights activists, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, is also known as liberal feminism. It is the point of view of John Stuart Mill in his important work The Subjection of Women (1869) and that of Mary Wollstonecraft in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). The stance is found most conspicuously in the early twenty-first century in views of the U.S. National Organization for Women (NOW).

Next along the continuum are various types of socialist feminists: those who advocate the primacy of socialist revolution, those who advocate wages for housework and other solutions to equate being a housewife (or a househusband) with working outside the home, and others who attempt to make new syntheses of feminist questions and socialist or Marxist answers that begin with an economic analysis. Historically the socialist position on women is stated most dogmatically by Friedrich Engels in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884), but many other theorists have used economics and class as a starting point. This approach is illustrated by Sheila Rowbotham’s influential Women, Resistance, and Revolution (1972); Juliet Mitchell’s four interlocking female structures (production, the reproduction of children, sexuality, and the socialization of children) in Woman’s Estate (1971); and Zillah Eisenstein’s grid pattern for understanding sex and class in concert in Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism (1979). What has come to be called “state feminism” in Europe, especially in the Nordic countries, fits into this position. A women’s or equality minister is a part of the government, and socialist solutions to women’s traditional inequality are made a part of the law.

The next position on the minimizer continuum is one that advocates the sharing of traditional gender characteristics. In order to remedy the psychosocial tyranny that oppresses both men and women, exclusive female parenting that produced “momism” (as well as the fear and hatred of women) must be ended, these feminists argue. This gender difference is a cultural product, not an inherent biological distinction. The psychologists Nancy Chodorow, in The Reproduction of Mothering (1978), and Dorothy Dinnerstein, in The Mermaid and the Minotaur (1976), both weigh in with this view, although in different ways. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Women and Economics (1898) is an early work with this perspective. Traditional masculine (and valued) characteristics had been mistakenly monopolized by one sex, she believed, while the “feminine” virtues also needed to be shared.

Those who want to abolish gender distinctions completely, creating a gender-free (but not sexless) society, are next on the continuum. Males and females are more similar to each other than either is to any other species, these theorists claim. The anthropologist Gayle Rubin proposed this view in her influential article “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the Political Economy of Sex” (1975). Simone de Beauvoir’s renowned Le deuxième sexe (1949; The Second Sex, 1953) can be read as arguing this point as well. Her goal is for women to become the independent, “transcendent” human beings that men have always had the choice of becoming. Ursula Le Guin’s fictional The Left Hand of Darkness (1977) posits an androgynous society in which people belong to a particular sex for only a few days a month; for most of the time they function androgynously in both physical and psychological ways.

The extreme pole of the minimizer position is represented by those intensely controversial thinkers who want to abolish not only gender and sex roles but also female reproduction (including conception, pregnancy, and birth) or at least their exclusive ownership by women. Gilman wrote one of the first explorations of such a society. Her fictional Herland (1915) envisioned a female-only culture where women conceive by parthenogenesis (without male sperm). In the more recent past, both theorists, such as Shulamith Firestone in The Dialectic of Sex (1970), and feminist science-fiction writers, such as Marge Piercy in Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), have advocated the abolition of exclusive female reproduction. Many believe that reproductive technology, with its artificial fertilization and implantation of a fertilized egg, is close to making this a reality. The film Junior (1994), in which Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character becomes pregnant, explores this fantasy in a humorous manner.

The Maximizers

All feminists on the maximizer continuum are interested in seeking out, recognizing, and valuing sex-gender difference, especially as it relates to women. Women’s specific talents and unique ways of contributing plead for their having a larger role in society. A bumper sticker reading “A Woman’s Place is in the House—and in the Senate” uses this maximizer or difference argument, as does one that says “Clean Up Politics—Elect Women.”

One notes first the historical “separate spheres” position—that women and men inhabit different physical places in society (private and public) and have different roles, virtues, aptitudes, sensibilities, and “ways of knowing.” The nineteenth century saw the first clear use of the separate-spheres philosophy to help ameliorate women’s position, in such thinkers as Catharine Beecher and Frances Willard. Later Jane Addams, in Newer Ideals of Peace (1907), enunciated the “municipal housekeeping” argument for giving women the vote: women should manage the household, but if they were to do this well, they must be concerned with clean water, pure milk, garbage disposal, and safe streets and parks for their children. They must therefore participate in municipal government by voting and standing for office. People promoting separate spheres in the twenty-first century include conservative women on the New Right and fundamentalist Christians.

The next group on the continuum wants to glorify the “feminine,” wherever it may be found, often in writings of male poets. Sometimes identified as postmodern feminists, many of these thinkers are French or influenced by Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and other French deconstructionists. Opposed to binary oppositions such as male-female, these feminists wish to assert multiple modes of being and gender. Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva are important writers here, as are Jane Gallop, Joan Scott, and Teresa de Lauretis in the United States and Toril Moi and Gayatri Spivak internationally. Additionally these thinkers would be opposed to the very idea of the two continua, since they often assert that neither “woman” nor “man” can be defined.

Cultural feminists and maternalists occupy a middle position on the maximizer continuum. Cultural feminists celebrate women’s spirituality, art, music, and writing, especially in women’s bookstores, cafés, theater groups, galleries, holiday centers, and support groups. Both the feminist art movement and the women’s music movement, with its annual festivals, have been important in articulating these viewpoints. The maternalists cherish motherhood as the source of woman’s difference and superiority. Both practical groups—lesbian parenting, natural and home-birth groups, and the women’s health movement—and theorists such as Adrienne Rich in Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976) and Sara Ruddick in Maternal Thinking (1989) are connected to the maternalist position.

The “woman-as-force” position rejects “woman-as-victim” stances and argues that because of women’s close connection to nature—historically, biologically, mythologically, and psychologically—women can save humanity from the destructive path that men have begun. The historian Mary Beard enunciated the woman-as-force position in 1946, while Carol Gilligan’s argument that young women take different ethical stances than young men, articulated in her In a Different Voice (1982), has influenced psychological and learning theories on gender differences. Another important work in this vein is Mary Field Belenky and her colleagues’ Women’s Ways of Knowing (1986).

Ecofeminism is an important subcategory of the woman-as-force position; the views of various theorists, such as Ynestra King, Susan Griffin, and Karen Warren, have been influential. The Indian nuclear physicist Vandana Shiva’s work, especially Staying Alive: Women, Ecology, and Development (1988), explores ecofeminism on the global stage and makes connections with postcolonial and development concerns.

The female supremacists occupy the most radical position on the maximizer continuum. Either lesbian or celibate, these most extreme of the separatists advocate a complete partition of the sexes, believing that only with their own institutions can women find freedom. How far separatism is taken depends on the individual, but some advocates call for separate geographical areas for women, attempting self-sufficiency in various communal living situations. Most influential in this argument are Mary Daly, in Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (1978) and Websters’ First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language (1987); Sonia Johnson, in Wildfire: Igniting the She/Volution (1989); Marilyn Frye, in Some Reflections on Separatism and Power (1981); and various science-fiction proposals, such as Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (1975). It should be noted, however, that lesbians are found in all categories of feminism.

Problems with the Model; Or, Mediating the Dichotomy

The dichotomy of equality-difference or minimizers-maximizers is difficult to maintain and often false, asserts the German critic Gisela Bock, since dichotomies are often hierarchies in disguise. Arguing strongly on the side of difference can lead to the dangerous “difference dilemma” because it can confirm women’s inferiority. Yet strong arguments from the equality stance produce the “equality dilemma,” in which gender differences are completely erased and everyone is presumed to be the same.

The most fruitful way to deal with the two kinds of arguments is to mediate between them, as some contemporary thinkers have done. There is a suggestive link made by African-American and multicultural feminists who argue the need for forms of socialism (a minimizer strategy) while identifying and celebrating the unique assets supplied to the struggle by strong women of color (a maximizer strategy). “The Combahee River Collective Statement,” in Home Girls(1983), edited by Barbara Smith, and This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1983), edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, are essential works in this vein. Likewise the historian Gerda Lerner’s conceptualization of “woman as majority” in The Majority Finds Its Past (1979) connects maximizer arguments about women’s different strengths and special institutions with the minimizer insistence on the necessity of abolishing the sex-gender system and sharing gender.

Other creative thinkers have written of “difference in unity” or “equality in difference.” Virginia Woolf, in Three Guineas(1938), proposes that women need to belong to a society of outsiders who have the same goals as men but must work in their own way on the borders of the patriarchal system, both inside and outside. In a spoof on the religious vows of monks and nuns, she says that women who belong to this society must take vows of poverty, chastity (of the brain), derision of honors, and freedom from the “unreal loyalties” of nation, class, sex, family, or religion. Members of the Society of Outsiders would agree to earn their own livings “expertly,” not engage in any profession that promotes war, and criticize the institutions of education and religion. Only in this way can women help prevent war. Contemporary thinkers, especially Latinas and other bicultural women, such as Gloria Anzaldúa in Borderlands: The New Mestiza La Frontera (1987), or African-American women, such as bell hooks in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (1984), also explore this “border” position. So-called Third or Developing World feminists (also known as postcolonial feminists) clearly mediate the two strands of theory, with their call for support for nationalist struggles (“all issues are women’s issues” and “if it’s appropriate technology, it’s appropriate for women”) and their recognition of women’s continuing “double day” work (housework, child care, and productive or economic activities) at every level of society around the world.


As “the most powerful force affecting women in higher education today,” according to Mariam Chamberlain of the Ford Foundation, women’s studies stands at the cusp of several controversies. Many of the criticisms of the early days (the standard retort from men in power was “When are we going to have men’s studies?”) have disappeared into internal controversies among practitioners: Should women’s studies attempt to integrate into the regular curriculum or remain an autonomous outsider? Should women’s studies opt for discourse theory, forsaking political action on which women’s studies was built? Can you teach what you have not experienced? Can a white woman teach multiculturalism? Should people give priority to transgendered and other sexual concerns over against the concerns of postcolonial and developing nations?

The dangers of identity politics and the threatening allegation of essentialism have fractured the unity of women’s studies programs. But disciplinary identities can be as dangerous, such that the feminist literary critic or the feminist sociologist hearkens back to her disciplinary language and methodology, even as she is opposed to those disciplines’ contents. What often happens now in women’s studies programs is that the senior faculty continue their disciplinary identity, leaving the junior faculty to be the “identity reps” of Chicana, Asian, or African-American ethnicity and prey to the charge of essentialism.

Another difficulty is the ubiquitous presentism that is now everywhere in women’s studies. Although women’s history was one of the earliest and strongest supporters of women’s studies, women’s and gender history have moved largely into their own field, with dedicated journals and conferences. Few sessions on history are to be found now at National Women’s Studies Association conferences or at the International Interdisciplinary Congress on Women. Both the history of the discipline and women’s history itself therefore stand to be marginalized or ghettoized from women’s studies. Worse, the disciplines have so embraced women’s studies that “translation” is now necessary in moving a course from women’s studies to, say, literature or sociology.

There is often a conflict between those faculty who “privilege gender or gender and sexuality, as analytical frameworks, and those who also incorporate race, colonialism, and class,” say Laura Donaldson, Anne Donadey, and Jael Silliman, in their article in Robyn Wiegman’s edited collection, Women’s Studies on its Own (Donaldson, Donadey, and Silliman, p. 439). And often in the United States, globalization is little more than “a Cold War production of knowledge,” which compares other areas to the United States to their detriment, continuing a dangerous U.S.-centrism.

Still, with all the fragmentation, the “center holds.” Women’s studies as a concept and a practice is here to stay. It has been so institutionalized, there is so much new knowledge and new scholarship, there have been so many hearts and minds changed through this study that the various splits and positions can only help to proliferate the ideas.