Identity crisis for women’s studies
Lisa Downing on why the erosion of women’s, gender and sexuality studies in UK universities is cause for concern
It is precisely because of the increase in social divisiveness in education that young people need to be taught to think critically about how power works with regard to categories including sex, gender, race, (dis)ability and class
When lunching in London a few weeks ago with an American colleague over here on a research trip, I found myself without a good answer when she asked me, “What has happened to all the women’s studies programmes in this country?” It is true that there are few remaining named programmes of this kind, yet gender, sexuality and feminist studies are still widely taught under the auspices of more traditional degree programmes throughout UK higher education. But I have been wondering ever since that conversation about the effects of the erosion of their distinct academic identity on students and researchers in these areas.
Widespread in US academia since the 1970s, numerous women’s studies programmes were later established in UK universities, the first named programme being the MA in women’s studies, established in 1980 at the University of Kent at Canterbury. In the 1990s, the concept of “women’s studies” was criticised by some post-structuralist academics as being too narrowly concerned with female identity, and therefore ignoring broader issues that impact on, and intersect with, sexism (such as cultural expectations of masculinity and the stigmatisation of non‑heterosexual, non-monogamous, disabled and transgendered people).
The discipline then underwent the partial transition to “gender studies”, aided by the widespread influence of the work of US-based theorists such as Judith Butler and Susan Stryker. In a parallel way, the academic study of sexuality moved from a focus on “lesbian and gay studies” towards “queer” (the branch of theory that, after French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault’s work on the history of sexuality, views identity categories as socially constructed fictions). Within both of these academic fields and activist communities, rigorous debate has centred on the ways in which identity politics might be balanced with analysis of how different types of oppression intersect with each other. As a result, the lines between women’s studies, gender studies and sexuality studies are far from clear-cut, and all three encompass many methodological and theoretical differences.
Today, variations of all of these branches of study are taught within UK universities. But, as my lunch companion’s query suggested, very few institutions offer undergraduate degrees in them, or have departments with an undergraduate population named after them. And, at postgraduate level, the struggle to ensure the survival of such programmes can be intense, stressful and seemingly never-ending for those who convene them. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to learn from a colleague the other day that the University of Hull has a named BA programme in gender studies. Yet the “find your course” application on Hull’s website made no mention of it; I only found it later within the department of sociology’s pages.
The common practice of incorporating taught elements of women’s, gender or sexuality studies within a traditional discipline means that the flavour of the subject will differ vastly from university to university, depending on the (humanities or social sciences) department within which it is housed. Thus, it is not easy to define what is currently constituted by these subjects.
And this identity crisis exists too for those of us who research and teach in these areas. My degrees were in modern languages and continental philosophy and, throughout my academic career, I have always had a modern languages department code on my payslip. But when people ask what my academic specialism is, I usually answer “sexuality and gender studies”. And when I was promoted to a readership within the French department at Queen Mary, University of London in 2005, I chose the wording “reader in French discourses of sexuality” to describe my specialism (a “brand” I have carried with me to my subsequent chairs at the universities of Exeter and Birmingham).
My academic title, then, reflects the very hybrid identity many sexuality and gender studies scholars have, by necessity, to adopt. I feel I need the “French” in there to show where I come from and where I “belong” in disciplinary terms, but the part of the title I care about is the second half. Indeed, beyond being methodologically influenced in my research by the work of Foucault, much of my published work has nothing to do with French per se.
So, is this dual or multiple identity that many scholars of women’s, gender and sexuality studies feel forced to adopt an advantage or a burden in the academic marketplace and workplace?
Jason Hartford, a doctoral graduate from the University of Oxford, who also works on queer theory from a modern languages perspective and who is currently seeking his first permanent post, thinks it is a burden. “There being no structural recognition of the subject to speak of among university departments, it remains very difficult to market yourself as an emerging sexuality studies scholar unless you have another specialism (or two or three) that does have a department named after it,” he told me.
Where programmes and modules in sexuality and gender are not contained within more traditional departments, they are instead often affiliated to staff research networks or centres that (nominally) straddle disciplines, schools and colleges. In such organisational situations, the delivery of provision often relies on the goodwill and personal passion of colleagues whose teaching for the cross-departmental MA or MRes may not be recognised in department-based workload allocation models (especially if they are not from the department – usually that of the centre’s director – that bureaucratically “owns” the programme and centre). Senior managers are often keener on the idea of interdisciplinarity, as the buzzword du jour, than on ensuring that those whose research and teaching is properly interdisciplinary are enabled to pursue it straightforwardly within the institutional infrastructure. Similarly, many colleagues report that, while such networks and centres are encouraged, there is seldom any financial investment from institutions to help them flourish; centres are typically expected to generate their own income – and to make a profit for the university – from the outset.