It’s not easy to encapsulate such an interdiciplinary field as women’s studies. The product of second-wave feminism, women’s studies classes often delve into issues of racism, class prejudice, and homophobia while borrowing from more traditional disciplines like sociology, anthropology, and history.
In an effort to reflect this wide mandate, many women’s studies programs across Canada have changed their names to women and gender studies or simply gender studies, with Queen’s University as the latest addition. The change is a signal that their curricula focus on constructions of masculinity as well as femininity. A few schools, such as Guelph University, have eliminated their women’s studies programs altogether.
Observers have wondered whether women’s studies programs are just keeping up with the times, or whether they are making their programs seem more palatable to the mainstream while diluting their focus on women’s issues. Some say that the change is a step forward, an acknowledgement in the tradition of third-wave feminism that issues of oppression go beyond sex and gender.
“The UTM program was initiated in 1996 and had ‘Gender’ in its title from its inception,” said Joan Simalchik, professor and coordinator of UTM’s Study of Women and Gender Program. “It was not named to attract more students, but came from a more precise understanding of the content of the discipline as taught on this campus.”
U of T first established a women’s studies minor at St. George in 1974, and the women’s studies program joined New College in 1977. A graduate program followed in 1994. In 1998, the Women and Gender Studies Institute, the current face of women’s studies at St. George, was established. UTSC also has a women’s studies program, though a representative could not immediately be reached for comment.
“‘Women’s Studies’ sounds gender-specific, and that can be a deterrent for men,” Ian Desjardinsan, an honours thesis student in the Gender Equality and Social Justice program at Nipissing University, told the National Post. “At Nipissing, I think that because there is an emphasis on social justice in the title, more men are inclined to partake.”
“We’re not abandoning women’s studies, or saying the women’s movement is dead. We’re saying things are changing,” said Catherine Murray, chairwoman of the Department of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University. “It’s about moving forward, staying ahead of the game and recognizing the need to include broader discussions surrounding gender.”