Women’s Studies examines the scholarship and theory on the history, status, contributions, and experiences of women in diverse cultural communities, and on the significance of gender as a social construct and as an analytical category. Women’s Studies challenges the gendered knowledge base that was assumed to be universal. As an interdisciplinary course of study, Women’s Studies encourages the appreciation and understanding of gender as the basis of social relations of power, individual and collective identity, and the fabric of meaning and value of society. It is a study that is academic and activist. The activism component of Women’s Studies comes from its political roots in feminism, a product of late 1960s women’s liberation movements called the Second Wave. Feminism refers to the commitment to actively engage in political and social change that promotes equality in all aspects of life for those who are historically subordinated and oppressed by gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, disability, or other differences. The term feminism originated in 19th-century France and combines the French word for woman, femme, with the suffix meaning political position, ism. According to feminist historians, the French used feminism as it referred to those who defended the cause of women. During the 1ate 1960s and 1970s, women took up the expression as it was associated with the work of the French philosopher Simone De Beauvoir, whose classic work The Second Sex (1949) was one of the early texts that considered how women have been thought about, and how women can think about themselves. The word gender refers to the socially constructed set of attitudes and behaviors usually organized as masculine or feminine. On an international basis, the heightened awareness of gender as a social construction was a result of the many activities by governments and organizations during the United Nations Decade on Women (1975-1985) and the UN-sponsored Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing (2000). During Beijing Plus 5, thousands of women from across the globe conferred around issues of feminism, the state of material conditions of women and girls, and the growth of women’s and gender studies. According to the National Council for Research on Women, there are more than 300 centers in 80 countries that focus on women’s issues and gender equality, and many of those units are located in universities. However, the majority of Women’s Studies departments and programs in higher education are found in the United States. As a contributing field of inquiry to women’s studies, feminist anthropology incorporates the perspectives of feminism in its contribution to the study of the meanings and relationships of gender across the subfields of the discipline, following and influencing the paradigmatic shifts in intellectual inquiry and directing social policy.
Second Wave Feminism
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Women’s Studies courses appeared in colleges across the United States, with the first academic units founded in 1974 at San Diego State University and University of Maryland. The groundswell of interest came from the social movements of the times—Women’s Liberation, the Civil Rights Movement, Black Power, Native American and La Raza-Chicano-Latino movements, and the 1960s student unrest and protests against the United States’ involvement in South East Asia. This time period marks the rise of what is called the Second Wave of feminism. Over time these forces of social change were joined by the activism on behalf of Asian Americans and gay, lesbian, transgender, and bisexual rights groups. At the very outset, however, Women’s Studies contested the gendered system as institutionalized in places of higher learning, but also opposed the prevailing ideology of culture and society in which the dominant message was that the human experience equals male experience. One hundred years of struggle on behalf of women’s rights and issues were necessary to the founding of Women’s Studies as academic units in higher education.
In the United States, feminism as a form of activism on behalf of women’s rights began in the mid-19th century with a women’s rights convention held in 1848 at Seneca Falls, New York. Among the grievances identified at Seneca Falls were the equal treatment of women and men under the law and voting rights for women. These goals were fraught with racial and class contradictions, as proponents assumed that these objectives implied that only White, middle-class women could claim equality and enfranchisement. On another plane of existence and activism were the Black women who were part of the abolitionist movement. As Carla Peterson notes, these women traveled throughout the northern part of the United States “insisting on their right to preach the gospel, to lecture, and to write on such topics as religious evangelisms, abolitionism, moral reform, temperance and women’s rights.” Among this group were Maria Stewart, Jarena Lee, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and a former enslaved woman who took the name of Sojourner Truth. In her anti-slavery, pro-woman’s speech during a Woman’s Convention in Akron, Ohio, in 1851, Sojourner Truth used the legendary phrase “Ain’t I a Woman?” in claiming her rights of emancipation and enfranchisement. Following the Civil War, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucy Stone, among others, focused on gaining voting rights for women and formed the National Woman Suffrage Association. In 1896, the National Association of Colored Women was formed, bringing together more than 100 Black women’s clubs. Leaders in this group were Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, Mary Church Terrell, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and Anna Julia Cooper. As a unified force, the National Association of Colored Women agitated for equal rights and the vote for all women across the color line. Typical of the racial divisions of the society, even suffrage parades mirrored this situation, exemplified when Ida B. Wells-Barnett was not allowed to accompany the Illinois contingent but was instead delegated to march at the end of the entire procession. Nevertheless, it was not until 1919 that the federal suffrage amendment, originally written by Susan B. Anthony in 1850, passed both the House of Representatives and the Senate and was sent to the states for ratification. On August 26, 1920, the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution, granting women the right to vote, became law. Historian Rosalyn Terborg-Penn looked at the ways that United States Commonwealth territories acted on the passage of the 19th Amendment. Among Puerto Rican women, women’s suffrage was political leverage to fight economic oppression. Labor organizer Genera Pagen, a Puerto Rican and United States citizen, demanded the right to vote once the 19th Amendment had been ratified. As a New York resident, she could vote, but not as a woman on the island of Puerto Rico. Although the women’s suffrage amendment passed in the Puerto Rican legislature in 1929, it enfranchised only literate women, the significant majority of whom were members of the White elite, leaving women of color to continue their suffrage struggle. In 1935, all women, regardless of race or literacy level, were enfranchised in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
During the 1930s, the Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor was formed to collect information about women in the workplace, and 10 years later the dissemination of contraceptive information through the mail is no longer classified as obscene. In 1935, Mary McLeod Bethune organized the National Council of Negro Women, a coalition of black women’s groups that lobbied against job discrimination, racism, and sexism. There were still mixed messages about women and work. Throughout the Depression, a great deal of propaganda told women, meaning White women, that entering the workforce took jobs away from men. Men were the idealized breadwinners for households and families. During World War II, similar to efforts during World War I, women were implored to work in heavy industry and in other non-traditional areas of employment, a history that is documented in the film The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter. In the postwar era, women were told that work away from the home was unfeminine and harmful to family life. These prescriptive measures only applied to middle-class White women. The poor and working class Whites, immigrants, and women of color could not often afford not to work outside of the home, as their income was a necessity for their own and their family’s survival. Nonetheless, middle-class women disregarded the long-standing customs and steadily entered the workforce. It was not until 1961, during John F. Kennedy’s presidency, that the federal government concerned itself with gender inequality, particularly in employment practices. A Presidential Commission documented the substantial discrimination against women in the workplace and made specific recommendations for improvement, including fair hiring practices, paid maternity leave, and affordable childcare. The disclosure of the levels of sexism within the society on institutional, social, and cultural levels in the 1960s through 1970s accelerated the Women’s Liberation movement that eventually gave rise to the Second Wave of Feminism. This Second Wave took hold of the minds and politics of the people in the United States and elsewhere in the world. The establishment of Women’s Studies as an academic and activist program was one feminist outcome that moved society toward embracing the ideal of gender equality.
In the first instance, Women’s Studies challenged the content and form of education on all institutional levels, but particularly in higher education. It was not uncommon for girls to strive for traditional occupations, such as teaching on a kindergarten-12 level, nursing, and secretarial work, whereas boys were encouraged to focus on areas in mathematics and the sciences. As Women’s Studies scholars note, there was a tendency to reward girls who were compliant and passive rather than assertive and inquisitive. Furthermore, because it was men who historically exercised authority in educational institutions, especially in the postsecondary levels, they determined what were valid fields of inquiry and the legitimate methods of analysis and research. This was the situation that women scholars and activists faced in bringing the study of women into the academy. Theirs was a different agenda than the one in place. Not only were women’s scholarly contributions placed at the center in the learning process, but also individual women’s lives and experiences were made important aspects of this knowledge. The feminist slogan “The personal is political” was embedded in the educational process, as traditional domains of what was considered “female” and “male” were understood as a process of the gendered system that was socially constructed and institutionalized on the basis of the designated sex. Margaret Mead’s (1935) study in New Guinea distinguished gender, womanhood, and manhood from sex as a biological concept. The gender of a member of a society had implications for the division of labor, including domestic labor, and the regulation of sexuality. Furthermore, the differential valuation of male over female, called sexism, was deemed “natural” at best, “God given” at worst. In the United States and many other cultures, patriarchy is the ideological political construct. This means men dominate women, thereby what is masculine is more highly valued than that associated with women. This ideology is the foundation of Western theories of thought and institutionalized in the three major religious practices of the world, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Furthermore, gender is at the heart of these socioreligious systems, feeding into issues of procreation, marriage, family, birth control, abortion, sexuality, homosexuality, and other main debates in Women’s Studies.
As an interdisciplinary course of study, Women’s Studies relies on the scholarship emanating from its own domain and that produced in other fields of inquiry. Equally influential were the political divisions within the Second Wave of the feminist movement. In the early years, scholars—particularly the critics of both the academic and political aspects of the women’s movement—viewed Women’s Studies and feminism as a single, unified approach. This was never the case, as the plurality of feminisms is one of its discursive strengths. However, there were at least four political perspectives identified with Women’s Studies and feminism during the 1960s and 1970s: They were liberal feminists, Marxist feminists, socialist feminists, and radical feminists. These strains of thought bridged the viewpoints coming from different contributing disciplines and political groups at the time. Liberal feminism viewed gender inequality as a form of discrimination. Many mainstream programs, including those aimed at ending sex discrimination in the workplace, took this position. For Marxist feminists gender inequality was rooted in hierarchy of social class. Socialist feminists noted that gender oppression cuts across social class boundaries. Finally, for radical feminists, gender inequality was rooted in the nature of traditional heterosexual interpersonal relationships in both the private and public sphere. Some radical feminists advocate separatism and recommended women-only spaces, free of male domination. For well over a decade these four early positions were taken up individually and in combination. Overall and in an assortment of ways, each set of early theories ignored or sidestepped the significance of historical, sociological, and cultural differences among various groups of women in the United States and often offered very inaccurate and paternalistic representations of women’s lives in other regions of the globe. As paradigms shifted and, more importantly, Women’s Studies scholars and activists engaged in self-criticism, the range of established theories was thoroughly analyzed and examined for various shortcomings and exclusionary practices.
One of the significant pieces that challenged 1970s feminist scholarship based in the United States and the west was Chandra Talpade Mohanty’s scathing essay “Under Western Eyes” (1984). That influential article charged that the universal images of “Third World Women” constructed a reductive and homogeneous notion of what she called Third World difference. According to Western feminists at the time, women constituted a coherent group with identical interests and desires, regardless of class, ethnic or racial background, or contradictions implying a notion of gender or sexual difference or even a patriarchy that was universal. The oppressed Third World Woman from the underdeveloped regions of the globe was defined as bound by traditions of religion and family, unsophisticated, not conscious of her rights, illiterate, backwards, and sometimes revolutionary. This image of “the other,” meaning non-White, non-Western women, possessed all of the seemingly negative attributes just listed. The Third World difference provided a binary, predicated on assumptions that Western women were liberated, secular, and in control of their own lives. Paraphrasing the title of a popular text of the time, sisterhood was far from being global.
The question still remains for Women’s Studies academics on how to include all of the voices and experiences of women. Feminist scholars Carole McCann and Seung-Kung Kim note that feminist theories provide intellectual tools with which to examine the injustices they confront and build arguments to support their particular demands for change. On the basis of this knowledge, the seemingly overwhelming job left to do includes developing strategies for resisting subordination and to improve women’s lives. Some of the questions that feminist theorists respond to include: How are women subordinated as women? How can we understand the ways in which specific events might be part of social oppression based on sex, rather than unique individual misfortunes? How can we be sure that we have clear understandings of oppressive situations? How can women resist subordination? How should we work for changes that will improve women’s lives? In what arenas of life should we focus efforts for change? What kinds of changes are needed? How is women’s subordination as women connected to related oppressions based on race, ethnicity, nationality, class, and sexuality? These questions rest on ontology, epistemology, and politics, as the ultimate goal for feminist theories is to help make sense of women’s situations and effect change. Overall, Women’s Studies, like the women’s movement itself, is deepening, refining, and broadening its scope of understanding of how gender inequality operates, how it intersects with other systems of domination wherever they are found, and how to make some universal claim. Women’s lives and experiences are located in context on local (indigenous and regional) and global (transnational) levels. How those in positions of power and privilege differentially subordinated and oppressed women by class, race, ethnicity, sexuality, disability, and other distinctions that may be marked and unmarked continues to engage feminist scholarship throughout the world.
Differing Experiences Within Women’s Studies
One of the ways that feminist scholars explored the differences and commonalities of women’s experiences was to examine how this occurs in what particular situations. As anthropologist Johnnetta B. Cole remarked in her classic piece “Commonalities and Differences” (1986), “while oppression of women knows no limitations, we cannot therefore, conclude that the oppression of all women is identical.” Intersectionality highlights how social groups are positioned within unjust power. According to Patricia Hill Collins (2004), a group’s history and location can be seen as points of convergence within structural, hierarchical, and changing power relations. An example of how this underlies everyday life in 21st-century middle-class America is in the use of the term JAP. Jewish women, like women throughout the United States, are “trying to find their own paths and their own voices.” What better way to deter a strong woman than to label her a princess? Calling her a princess diminishes her and negates her ambition and her success. Further, the total phrase underscores stereotyping of Jewish women and men. The term JAP, therefore, is a code word that symbolically articulates anti-Semitic messages. It is connected with women, the Jewish American Princess, because women are achieving in many arenas of the society that threaten many men, Jews and Christians alike.
Over the years, a growing body of literature illustrates the complexity of women’s lives across the various boundaries that divide and bind them. The power of an interdisciplinary approach allows scholars and activists to use their particular focus in consort with other methods in addressing these issues. Poets and cultural producers have led the way to illustrate what appears in their lives. Gloria Anzaldua’s prophetic essay “La Conciencia de la Mestiza” speaks in multiple voices. Written in Spanish and English, it addresses the multiple identities of Chicana-Chicano life, the mestiza—products of Native American and Mexican—situated in the United States. She writes, I am possessed by a vision . . . that we have taken back or uncovered our true faces, our dignity and self-respect. Seeing the Chicana anew in light of her history. I seek an exoneration, a seeing through the fictions of white supremacy, a seeing of ourselves in our true guises and not as the false racial personality that has been given to us and that we have given to ourselves. I seek our woman’s face, our true features the positive and the negative seen clearly free of the tainted biases of male dominance.
Audre Lorde, a Black woman warrior, mother of two children, educator, Poet Laureate of the State of New York, lesbian, and activist described what was critical for the future: “We must recognize differences among women who are our equals, neither inferior nor superior, and devise ways to use each others’ difference to enrich our visions and our joint struggles.” These calls for understanding commonalities via understanding the differences became a benchmark in postmodern thinking in feminist discourse, bridging the humanities and the social sciences. Sociologist Chela Sandoval (1990) advocates “a theory and method of oppositional consciousness” that denies any one ideology or identity as the final answer. In this democratizing practice, ideologies and identities move freely, engaging one or another, or several at the same time. In a similar vein, Egyptian feminist Nawal El Sawaadi argued,
men and women everywhere have struggled against foreign invaders and economic and cultural oppression. They make distinction between their minds and bodies. Dissidence is a natural phenomenon in human life. We are all born dissident and creative. Dissident people liberate themselves from fear and they pay a price for this process of liberation.
Actions taken by women on their own behalf or as a member of a group are ways of challenging the status quo and are an actual method of the oppressed. An early declaration of lesbian politics and identity in the United States by Charlotte Bunch (1972) addressed the source of oppression faced by women who personally reject heterosexual sex. The lesbian threatens the ideology of male dominance in its most individual and common form. By challenging patriarchy, a sex-gender system in which men dominate women and that which is considered masculine is more highly valued than that which is considered feminine, lesbians confront homophobia on cultural grounds and in societal institutions. In the volume This Bridge We Call Home, Max Valerio explains his transformation physically, mentally, and spiritually from female to male. He buried his male gender identity for years by cross-dressing and identifying as a lesbian and entered same-sex relationships. After undergoing surgeries and medical treatment, Valerio slowly emerged as a man, a transsexual person who now sympathized with feminist and lesbian issues, but identifies with transgender concerns and that particular community. Gayatri Gopinath questions universality of the Queer Nation as a counterhegemonic model of transgression and resistance. The concept of the Queer Nation does not fully address the limitations of citizenship faced by many queers of color. The term queer is gender-neutral shorthand that signifies a range of alternative sexual activities and sensibilities in a way that lesbian or bisexual or gay do not. Addressing circumstances of queer south Asians in the diaspora, “citizenship,” queer or otherwise, is not something that they can ever take for granted. Queers of color, in various diasporic settings, enact a complicated navigation of state regulatory practices and multiple national spaces. Queer South Asian practices are evidenced in popular cultural forms, such as bhangra, folk music originally from the Punjabi province of India. Bhangra has been transformed through other musical performances of the African diaspora, such as house, reggae, and rap, in counterpublic spaces in New York, London, and Toronto. These transgressive activities might be acts of resistance to hetero-normative practices and ideology, but they are also particular to the histories and situations of queers of color who interact on multiple levels of society.
Sexuality of whatever form—heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender—all calls to question gender role expressions. The ideological heteronormative, male-dominant construct puts a stamp on the way a society and culture perceives and orders certain experiences. Symbols of society give meaning to objects, including colors; words housed in the prevailing ideology construct reality. Images—a medium of expression—depend on the symbolic association of the perceiver gradually shaping his or her reality. Images of women influence conduct and the cultural representation that govern the behavior of others. Signaled in language, gestures, and actions of the dominant discourse, Women’s Studies contests the prevailing notions and images of women across the commonalities and differences that are sources of oppression.
Images, Bodies, and Symbols
The media constructed an image signifying the threat of the Women’s Liberation movement to United States society. This image was the “bra burning” by feminists who protested the 1968 Miss American Pageant. But, in fact, there was not one bra burned at that event. During the protest, a 10-point proclamation of issues and concerns were presented to the press outlining what that pageant really represented, which was the “ideal” woman artificially constructed for commercial purposes. What this media invention, “the bra burner,” created was a heightened awareness of how women’s bodies were objectified in the culture through all kinds of media and mythologies. The brassiere, a 20th-invention made popular by the Maidenform Corporation, controlled and contoured a woman’s body into a shape that she did not necessarily possess but perhaps desired to have so as to be attractive and beautiful. “The beauty myth” permeates United States culture as women seek this physical ideal to be successful and to attract men. Standards of beauty vary from culture to culture and change over time, but in the United States, the prevailing notions of beauty emphasize being young, thin, White, and Anglo-Saxon. There are thriving businesses in liposuction, intestinal bypass surgery, gastric stapling, and jaw wiring to achieve the ideal body. In addition, there are eating disorders that bridge the physical with the psychological needs to fulfill expectations of what makes one beautiful in the eyes of society. As a symbol of femininity, beauty standards are controlled by the images that govern behavior. Nellie Wong conveys the power of this beauty myth in her poem, “When I Was Growing Up”: “When I was growing up, I read magazines and saw movies, blonde movie stars, white skin, sensuous lips and to be elevated, to become a woman, a desirable woman, I began to wear imaginary pale skin.” Like the Chinese Nellie Wong, other women of color could not fit that ideal either. Images of stereotypes, degrading ideologies of race, ethnicity, and social class were all interwoven in the racism faced by women of color in the United States. Noliwe Rooks studied the constructs and history of how Black women perceived notions of beauty and what they need to meet the ideal: “The presence of blackness precludes gender identification as well as the possibility of femininity for African American women. The beauty standard here is not merely proximity to whiteness but whiteness itself.” Continuing this conversation, Leith Mullings remarked, “The mammy and jezebel stereotypes, evoked at different historical periods and applied to women of different ages and phenotypes, are variations of the Madonna/whore dualism.” The “hot woman” image persisted for African Americans that also included the stereotype of the tragic mulatto Jezebel. As a product of sexual aggression on the part of her progenitor, the tragic mulatto was presumed to be promiscuous, thereby continuing a set of behaviors as an almost genetic predisposition. Another version of this stereotype is the “Latin spitfire,” whose fiery temperament was caused by mixed-race parentage. Throughout most of the 20th century, the servile, defeminized Mammy, whose media image appeared as Aunt Jemima on pancake boxes, still conveyed images of the faithful, obedient domestic. African American women working outside of the home, often in servant roles, were vulnerable to sexual exploitation. In a similar situation, Euro-American working class women who worked outside of the home also became symbolic of “whorish behavior.” Stigmatizing the subordinate also functions to constrain women of the dominant group. “Women, who by accident or design threaten the hierarchy of the social order are labeled ‘bad women.'” Who are those bad women? They are women engaged in the struggle against oppression in their own location and on the transnational levels where movements of people, ideas, and resources cross national boundaries. No longer is the label “Third World Women” applicable, as feminist activists and scholars from the global South (including marginalized groups in the North) represent themselves in global forums and form linkages, networks, and alliances within a global civil society. They are the ones El Sadaawi acknowledged as the time-honored dissidents who have always struggled against oppression.
Women’s Studies validates the potential for change in society, it challenges the assumptions that women’s inferior status is natural, biologically determined, uncontested, and consistent throughout the history of humankind. Because women live in so many different social, economic, cultural, and political circumstances, there is no best strategy for change, but hope is an underlying theme of such activities.
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