Correction: In a previous version of this story, the number of students in the women's studies program was incorrectly reported. At the time of publication, there are currently 21 women's studies minors, five students with a women's studies emphasis and 33 women's studies graduate students. The current rate of increase for the 2012-2013 school year is 100 percent for minors/emphasis students and 140 percent for graduate students.
When Caroline Dillon tells people she is a junior double majoring in communication studies and writing with a history minor, she said she usually receives responses of approval.
But if the junior adds that she is also minoring in women’s studies, she said she often faces skepticism and predictions that this minor is pointless and will never lead to financial success.
Women’s studies is an academic discipline that was born in the 1960s as part of the first wave of the feminism movement. This movement raised awareness that universities lacked a woman’s perspective. In the 1970s, the first major universities created accredited women’s studies programs. Through these programs, students were able to re-examine all fields of studies with a female perspective.
According to the National Women's Studies Association Inaugural Report for 2012, women’s studies was ranked as one of the fastest-growing majors in the nation. Over 700 institutions of higher learning offer women’s studies classes, and TCU is one of them.
Theresa Gaul, the university's director of the women’s studies program, said women’s studies, in contradiction to its name, is not only about women. Women’s studies is an academic discipline that focuses on the analysis of gender and its effects. It is an interdisciplinary minor that students can construct to fit within any major.
The university's department of women’s studies is on the third floor of Scharbauer Hall. The minor requires students to complete 18 hours of related women’s studies courses while the emphasis requires 15 hours.
Kaleigh Wyrick, the women’s studies' graduate assistant at TCU, said she would have missed declaring women’s studies as her minor as an undergraduate if she had not been looking for it. She was paging through the course catalogue one day during her undergraduate years at Abilene Christian University when she discovered her school offered a women’s studies minor, she said. When she went to ask talk to her adviser about it, her adviser had no idea it existed either.
“I had to pave my own trail when it came to pursuing my women’s studies minor,” Wyrick said. “There was no program in place whatsoever. It was just a little minor housed in some random department, and all the work was left up to me.”
Wyrick said this lack of awareness about women’s studies as an academic field is common. She said there are several factors that contribute to why women’s studies programs at schools tend to disappear.
“There’s a huge stigma in our society surrounding women’s studies and feminism. There is a stereotype that feminism is all about taking power from men and giving it to women when really it is not about lowering men,” Wyrick said. “It’s about raising up and empowering women, and there’s a myth that we have achieved equality within our society so women’s studies just is not needed anymore.”
Criticism of program
“Most attitudes toward women’s studies are really damaging because they undervalue the benefits of education and knowledge on an important part of our society,” Dillon said. “It’s important to study those who have been underrepresented in history if we don’t want to repeat the same mistakes.”
Since the majority of people either seem to be misinformed about what women’s studies is or are just oblivious to its existence, there is a need to clarify what it is about.
According to Gaul, many students immediately assume that women’s studies is focused on feminism. While feminism and women are definitely a part of the program, Gaul said its focus is broad on gender as a whole and how gender impacts the society and world.
“You can’t talk about women without talking about men,” Gaul said, “and you can’t talk about what it means to be a women [and] how that image is constructed without also considering what it means to be a man.”
According to Gaul, misconceptions and lack of awareness about the program are the main reasons why TCU’s program has remained so small thus far.
“There’s a huge potential for growth in our program,” Gaul said, “but our numbers are small when compared to universities of similar sizes.
“We currently have 21 students with declared minors, five students with an emphasis and 33 graduate students here. Other women’s studies programs at universities of comparable size to TCU and their programs are enrolling eight to ten times as many students.”
Gaul said the program’s numbers are lower at TCU for several reasons. TCU does not require students to declare minors so that makes it difficult to track exactly how many students will graduate with certain minors, Gaul said. She also said that she believes more students would pursue a women’s studies minor or emphasis if they understood how it could be relevant to their chosen majors.
One huge advantage of the women’s studies minor is how flexible it is, Gaul said.
“No matter what career path a student wishes to follow, they will have to interact with both men and women,” she said. “Having a women’s studies minor or emphasis will help them to navigate gender differences within the workplace, and this will put them that much further ahead of those in the same field without that experience.”
When a student graduates with a degree in women’s studies, Gaul said, it shows employers that he or she is engaged in the world and its concerns. It gives that student an edge and shows employers that student cares about values such as justice and equality, Gaul said. In addition, it shows that student has an awareness of multiple perspectives and knows how to negotiate differences, which is crucial to any business.
Mimi Woldeyohannes, a junior political science major, said she did not come to TCU thinking she would end up minoring in women’s studies. After taking an introductory course in women’s studies during her freshman year, she realized how passionate she was about the issues the class covered.
Woldeyohannes said she did not consider herself a feminist before coming to TCU; she grew up thinking that feminism had a negative implication.
Now she said, “I would not only classify myself as a feminist but as an avid activist, as well.
“I came to TCU thinking that I wanted to be directly involved with the government, but I also knew that there were many negative attitudes about women and politics. Through my women’s studies discipline, I realized I would rather avoid the government-side of politics and instead establish my own non-profit organization that will help to empower young girls.”
Not only have her required courses for women’s studies inspired her to new goals for her future but they have also changed her present outlook on life, she said.
“I am more comfortable in talking about ways we can challenge the system instead of simply conforming to it, and I’m much more active both on and off campus,” she said.
Dillon said she was always interested in feminist theory, so it was natural for her to get involved with women’s studies and declare a minor.
She said she is well aware of the stereotypes that surrounded women’s studies.
“There is an unfortunate link in the public consciousness between striving for equality of women and man-hating,” Dillon said. “People need to realize that feminism is not intended to be divisive; it is only intended to unify.”
“Men can be feminists, too. It’s not a girls club only.”
And to those who still feel they would have no use for a women’s studies degree, Dillon said, “Everything has been impacted by sexual politics: business, biology, history, medicine and everything in between. At the very basic level, half of the world is populated by women, so clearly it couldn’t hurt to understand what a few of them have to say.”
Although the TCU program is still small in comparison to other schools, it is growing at a fast rate. In the 2012 fall semester, undergraduate minors/emphasis increased 100 percent and graduate numbers increased 140 percent, Gaul said.
Because of this increase in numbers, Gaul said the program will be increasing the number of course sections they offer for their introductory courses, increasing their faculty members and offering summer courses, as well.
Gaul said she has been working to increase the visibility of the program by holding events, showing a larger presence on campus, making face-to-face contact with students and making sure all students are aware of the opportunities this program can offer them.
“These steps are all means to an end,” Gaul said. “We hope to eventually create a community of people who care about the issues surrounding gender differences—a place where people can exchange ideas, develop their own sense of identity and then share that identity with the community.”