In debates about the value of a liberal arts education, women’s studies sometimes gets discussed as if it’s a suspect academic stepchild. Higher education and the world has benefited from forty years of women’s studies. Women’s studies courses are offered at more than 700 institutions of higher learning in the U.S. and flourishes globally. In North Carolina, the field of women’s studies is well-represented within the UNC system and many private colleges and universities.

BY MICHELE TRACY BERGER     I often feel that I am a self-appointed ambassador for women’s studies.

When I signed up to become a professor, more than 20 years ago, I never thought that I’d have an elevator speech at the ready or become savvy about responding to misperceptions about my field of research and teaching. But I have.

In late January, Gov. McCrory expressed skepticism about the value of “gender studies” at a public university and the ability of “gender studies” majors to get jobs. Although surprised, like others, by his remarks, I recognized them as part of an incomplete and cyclical story that rears its head from time to time.

Despite women’s studies’ 40-year history in U.S. higher education, its global reach, and that since the millennium it continues to be one of the fastest-growing majors on college campuses, many do not know what it is, its value, or what graduates can do with their degree.

For the last 11 years, I’ve been a faculty member of UNC’s Department of Women’s and Gender Studies. I have a doctorate in political science and a graduate certificate in women’s studies.

On the road to getting a graduate degree, one realizes that it is not something that most people pursue (about 22 million Americans have masters and Ph.D.s); being African American, female and in women’s studies brings those numbers down sharply.

I’m not what some people imagine a professor looks like or what a professor studies. But, that’s OK, because I’m passionate about the research I conduct and the young women and men I teach. I feel lucky to watch students apply what they learn in the classroom to change the world in big and small ways. And, I celebrate how they use their degrees in fields as diverse as the biofuels industry to the health professions.

A brief tour of Hollywood is a reminder I can’t rely on popular culture to set the record straight. There are slim pickings when it comes to portrayals of women’s studies professors.

Forty years ago it was unusual to even see a woman portrayed as a college professor. Traditionally, stock images of college professors were most often rumpled and befuddled (i.e., the absent-minded professor) men who lectured to a classroom of (often of other men). And they were almost always white.

Female characters interested in women’s studies or “women’s issues” who showed up in movies later during the 1990s (like the film “PCU”) were often one dimensional and/or offensive (i.e. vegetarian, cheerless and, of course, “man-hating”).

Media representations have changed some for both students and professors. In films such as “The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps” (2000) and “Something’s Gotta Give” (2003), Janet Jackson and Frances McDormand play smart, witty women who challenge the main male character’s ideas about love and life.

In 2009, I was excited by the news that HBO had initiated conversations about developing a comedy series entitled “Women’s Studies,” which would follow the day-to-day life issues experienced by a women’s studies professor and her colleagues. (Note to self: I wonder if they need a consultant?).

Three things
I won’t hold my breath for a cable show or a Hollywood film to portray women’s studies as an integral part of the academic landscape. In the meantime, I’m sharing my list of the top three things that I want everyone to know about women’s studies.

•  Women’s studies is an interdisciplinary academic field

Forty years ago on the heels of multiple social-justice movements, feminist activism spilled onto college campuses forcing new questions about academic study. Women’s studies began with an eye toward challenging what each of the academic disciplines took as common knowledge about human experience – demonstrating, through research and theory, that much of their knowledge base was biased and omitted female experiences. Women’s studies is interested in producing knowledge that challenges existing notions about women’s and men’s lives, capabilities, and relationships. Women’s studies seeks solutions while tackling some of the most pressing global problems of inequality.

Women’s studies research intersects the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities and employs diverse methods. For example, in my department we have archeologists, historians, literary scholars, filmmakers, studio artists and social scientists all taking up innovative questions about how gender (with the intersection of other identities like race, nationality, and sexuality, etc.,) operates in complex societies.

•  Women’s studies students graduate with marketable skills and find employment

You can find women’s studies graduates in every sector of employment. Research conducted over the last two decades makes it clear that women’s studies students gain marketable skills and find employment. My own research conducting a global survey of 900 women’s and gender studies graduates (1995-2010) found that women and men graduate with credible skills, find fulfilling work in key areas including law, the health professions, entrepreneurship, academe, and the non-profit sector. They also demonstrate a commitment to gender equity over the course of their lives.

Women’s studies students are taught to ask the “unasked questions” about gender and power. Asking and answering such questions creates an interdisciplinary dexterous and self-reflective student. Graduates pursue (and create) career pathways that take up gender issues directly (e.g. becoming a domestic violence counselor) as well as indirectly (e.g. public relations director). Our department’s graduates work in North Carolina as doctors, lawyers, scientists, archivists, and teachers who have the tools, competencies and confidence to succeed and to lead in their organizations and communities.

•  Men are an integral part of women’s studies

Maybe you’ve heard of college basketball star D.J. Gay? He made news not only for being a great point guard for San Diego State University but also for majoring in women’s studies. Like so many others, Gay found his “Introduction to Women’s Studies” course to be powerful and “eye-opening.” Gay represents a growing trend in women’s studies: men declaring it as their major or minor. Many enter women’s studies classrooms to understand their complex role in society and tackle critical questions about gender and masculinity.

From now on, let’s tell a more complete story about the measurable difference women’s studies has made in higher education, the world, and North Carolina. Will you join me?

Michele Tracy Berger is a professor, creativity coach and writer. Readers may contact her at >>

This article was re-posted with permission from the >>Chapel Hill News.