This is a guest post by Danielle Nelson. Danielle is a 20 year old Spanish and Women’s Studies major at Duke University. She writes for Develle Dish, Duke’s feminist blog and on her own personal blog at www.danielleknelson.com. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via twitter @elleeenel. This piece was originally posted at her blog.
On Tuesday January 29, North Carolina Republican Governor Pat McCrory attacked Women’s Studies as an expendable and unproductive site of state educational funding as part of his commitment to more vocational training in higher education.
“If you want to take gender studies, that’s fine. Go to a private school and take it, but I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job,” McCrory said on a national radio show.
But by determining the value of a higher education solely on its ability to prepare college graduates with a vocational training that prioritizes career preparedness and physical labor power over the cultivation of theoretical frameworks and critical analytic skills, McCrory demonstrates the very need for a Women’s Studies program.
2013 is an important year for feminist scholarship as it marks the 50th anniversary of Betty Friedan’s landmark text The Feminine Mystique and the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Women’s Studies Program at Duke University. Betty Friedan and her controversial “pioneering” text have been hailed as the inspiration behind this movement, empowering young women with an academic space to engage in the historical legacy of women intellectuals as well as acquire the tools and the vocabulary for analyzing socio-political power structures through a feminist lens.
Historically, women didn’t always have a voice. They had to demand to be heard, to demand a place for themselves in college lectures and in the history books. In 1963, Betty Friedan diagnosed “the problem that has no name” as the “feminine mystique,” an exposé of the great distress of American housewives that in effect unraveled the 1950’s suburbanite fairytale. By identifying the “problem that has no name,” she inspired women to take a critical look at gendered cultural norms and break free from the feminine prototype that celebrated the devoted housewife and mother of patriarchal tradition. But most importantly, as women from all corners of the country poured over her text, they saw themselves in the “feminine mystique;” it allowed them to speak about their experiences of being a woman in and of the world.
Now fifty years later, with Steubenville, Sandberg’s Lean In, a sexist Oscar host singing a song that celebrates rape on film, rampant racist and sexist scandals on college campuses, rape survivors facing possible expulsion for speaking out, and the politicization of protecting women and other marginalized groups from violence, liberal arts programs such as Women’s Studies are vital as they delve into the structural roots of these issues by examining the role of race, gender, class, and sexuality in modern society through the feminist framework of intersectionality.
Jean O’Barr, the first director of the Duke Women’s Studies program noted that one of the goals of this program was to “provide students, female as well as male, with a knowledge of their past; from such knowledge empowerment would grow.”
This empowerment includes training college students to think critically about the ways in which social and cultural perceptions of women impact the daily experience of being a woman as proven by the ever present national debate on reproductive rights, sexual violence, women in the workplace, and the sexual commodification of women in the media.
But although these programs also serve as a source of resistance and intellectual protest against structural gender inequality, it is in such a way that provides value to society in critiquing the essentialism of gender and other binarized modes of thinking. Women and scholar, woman and thinker, woman and career professional are not mutually exclusive. Like other liberal arts programming, Women’s Studies trains students to think beyond a ‘this or that’ approach to problem solving.
But perhaps the fatal flaw of a Women’s Studies program isn’t its perceived lack of vocational training, but rather the analytical training that such a program does offer its students.
McCrory sees the purpose of education as twofold: “I think there are two reasons for education. One is, as my Dad used to say, to exercise the brain, but the second is to get a skill.”
Beyond numbers or job creation, maybe the danger lies in the potential of a Women’s Studies program to imbue impressionable college students with a deeper understanding of oppression that transcends divisions of race, gender, class, and sexuality.
Maybe the danger is the possibility of a new Feminine Mystique to incite a new movement. Maybe the danger is that, because of my Women’s Studies coursework, I feel entitled to my voice. And maybe that is threatening.
The personal is political.