Throughout history, stigma towards women’s studies has been slow to fade. In the past, many people were opposed to the idea of women’s studies, seeing it as too radical, anti-intellectual or political. But today, Western is experiencing a boom in the enrolment of this traditionally polarizing department.
Wendy Pearson, undergraduate chair of women’s studies and feminist research, says that 220 students were taking first-year courses offered by the women’s studies department in 2011. This year there are nearly four times as many, with 826 students enrolled in these courses.
This increasing enrolment can be attributed to a number of things.
First and foremost, the increase in women’s studies enrolment is partially due to the fact that feminism has become more mainstream in society.
“More and more young women are realizing that feminism isn’t dead," Pearson says, "and that the issues we were fighting for 40 years ago are still some of the issues we’re fighting for today."
Hannah Feagan, a first-year FIMS student taking a first-year Women’s Studies course, shares her perspective.
“I was compelled to take a Women’s Studies course because I wanted to increase my knowledge about feminist values,” says Feagan.
Another reason that explains the growth in enrolment may be that students are looking to understand social constructs within a theoretical framework.
“I think people are looking to make meaning out of the social relations they see on a day-to-day basis," says Darani Urgessa, a fifth-year women's studies student. "People experience interactions of racism or sexism or ableism and are looking for ways to better understand and explain and eventually dismantle those structures.”
However, even at the height of political awareness, the distaste for the department still lingers.
Kelli Prince, a first-year Faculty of Information and Media Studies student, believes that the department should be called gender studies instead of women's studies because of the stigma attached to the program. This is one of the reasons Prince has not taken a women's studies course this year.
“Stigma still exists [towards women’s studies], particularly from the people who are more inclined to the men’s rights activists view of the world,” says Pearson, agreeing with Prince.
Another challenge that remains is that department name isn’t fully representative of the topics that are taught. While women’s studies is a multidisciplinary, critical theory program, people may not be attracted to the department because they believe it is limited to only “women’s issues."
“I think a lot of people have a limited understanding to what we do in a women’s studies program," says Urgessa.
Urgessa says the program strives to get its students to think at a critical level about social structures that society exists in and not be passive receptacles of the media, education or other influences.
"We need to think critically about what certain things actually mean and the racist or sexist subtextual messages that exist within the structures,” she says.
In order to attract more people, the women’s studies department has increased the number of first-year courses. The department offers courses like Introduction to Sexuality Studies, Gender, Justice and Change and is introducing two new courses next year called Introduction to Diversity, Equity and Human Rights and Introduction to Gay Male Culture. These new courses have been introduced in hopes of catering to people’s broader interests while still pertaining to women’s studies.
Pearson explains that women's issues are more diverse than people think and affect more communities. Many facets of life like poverty, the wage gap or the way gender and race interact are all factors that affect different individuals on different levels.
Women’s studies is more than what its name suggests. Whether you decide to shy away from women’s studies courses or not, understanding the history of our social constructs and unpacking oppressive barriers enables us to gain a better perspective on the issues in today’s society that remain unresolved.