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Women's Outreach and Resource Collective | A collaborative community for advocates of gender equity and social justice

“What the Hell is Women’s Studies?”

By: Savannah Downing

During my freshman year, I enrolled in “Introduction to Women’s Studies” because my advisor thought that, based on our conversations, I’d be interested in it. On the first day of class, our instructor asked us to get into groups and answer the question, “What is women’s studies?” I had no real understanding and wrote something about how I thought we would be studying women in history. Since then, I’ve completed the major and over and over again I’ve been asked “What the hell is Women’s Studies?” outside of that introductory classroom. Perhaps this article can shed some light.

The Institute for Women’s Studies at the University of Georgia offers undergraduates a major or a minor, and graduate students can enroll in the certificate program. Housed in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, this Institute provides an interdisciplinary education that pays special attention to the treatment of race, class, gender, and sexuality in a number of fields of study. According to their website, this program of study stems from the work of “feminist scholars [who] have contributed to the reinterpretation of existing data and to the presentation of new knowledge about the diversity of women’s experiences.” Although I’m biased as a Women’s Studies major in asserting that such an approach is highly rewarding for its ability to engage a student’s mind in thinking much more than just “outside of the box,” I actually want to demonstrate how such an approach to our education can be a radical way of addressing systemic oppression otherwise associated with privileged educational structures.

As students at a university, we all exist in a privileged atmosphere that can place us in a position of power that further distances us from a large portion of the population that doesn’t have access to higher education. On the other hand, it can be a space for us to exercise that privilege to the extent that it becomes possible to “question the man,” so to speak. The very existence of the Institute for Women’s Studies legitimizes a space for us to question and reinterpret those bodies of knowledge that for too long have served to reinforce oppressive hierarchies that spill out into streets far beyond the university. If I’m not clear as far as what I mean there, let me suggest that dominant groups of people have been writing about our “history,” teaching us about our bodies, and analyzing our cultures from a standpoint completely irrelevant to many of us who are nevertheless subject to those speculations. And this, no doubt, has affected how our bodies are treated in lived realities.


Because the program of study is interdisciplinary and is structured in a way that encourages its students to declare majors and minors in other departments, women’s studies students are able to sit at the intersection of academics that teaches us how to conduct feminist research and understand feminist theory, while the other provides us with the tools to think very critically about a specific area of academics. Let me remind you, I have been asked “What the hell is Women’s Studies?” too many times to count since I declared the minor, and then later the major, in my sophomore year. After a while, I began to consider declaring a major unfamiliar to many students simply has a mystical quality, but women’s studies in particular might be questioned so readily because it’s radical. Of course I caught hell freshman year over “English being so easy,” too, but for everyone buried in four novels a week in Park Hall, we know that no, you’re not going to make an A on a half-assed paper, and yes, it’s actually necessary to read all of the assigned material.

I don’t want to spend article space examining the assumptions and misconceptions many people on campus have about the humanities, but I do want to point to what women’s studies means and what it does. One can easily access the institute’s homepage to find a concise, accurate definition of how it’s interdisciplinary and reevaluates and reimagines knowledge. However, it is what I have discussed here that explains what I hope will be taken from this piece.  As an institution that many times reinforces social hierarchies, the university, through this field of study, can become a place that questions the very systems that maintain an oppressive status quo and actively engages its students in the obligation that we have to change it.

To everyone who’s asked, “What the hell is Women’s Studies?” — now you know.

Women's Studies

worcuga • April 12, 2014

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