Encouraging Diverse Enrollment in Women's Studies Courses

Encouraging Diverse Enrollment in Women's Studies Courses

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Encouraging Diverse Enrollment in Women's Studies Courses

What stands in the way of a more diversity in Women’s Studies classes such as Feminism 101? The posing of this question is in and of itself a step to increasing diversity, for in the answers we find, we may also expose solutions to these roadblocks. I will therefore, be discussing causes of the current white, female, young, middle-class, and non-disabled majority in Women’s Studies’ class rosters. Once I've established what is causing a majority to be present, I will then attempt to answer those problems with possible solutions, or at least steps in the right direction.

Cross-racial hostility keeps minority races from interacting effectively with each other. Racism in general separates the white feminist community from everyone else. Internalized sexism tells us that we are just women, prone to bickering and infighting, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Heterosexism and lesbian bating (accusing a woman of being a lesbian if she is independent and freethinking) keep potential women’s studies students far away from our classrooms. Everyone is held back by the labels which separate us.

Now I don't agree that these are the only oppressive forces dividing the feminist population and keeping new people from joining, but I would postulate that these conflicts function the same in Women's Studies as they do in the feminist movement in general. These are the central expressions of oppression that make cohesive, equal, cooperation seem beyond our grasp.

bell hooks, a black feminist writer, wrote in her book Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, "Women in lower-class and poor groups, particularly those who are non-white, would not have defined women’s liberation as women gaining social equality with men, since they are continually reminded in their everyday lives that all women do not share a common social status." (19).

This passage contains they key that answers the question of why people of color are not represented equally in our women’s studies classes with white people. Because Women's Studies (and Feminism) had been cast as the arena of white women, who had the time and money to start the movement, women of color are less likely to think the classes are relevant to them. And they are overwhelmingly female.

How then, armed with our understanding of this problem, can we get a more racially diverse student body interested in what Women's Studies has to offer?

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I think the answer to that question lies in the curriculum. Who are we reading? Whose issues are addressed and who is addressing them? Until recently the issues of marginalized women were addressed by women in the majority (if they were addressed at all). This is problematic because these writers don't know anything about what they are writing about and their writing is inadvertently oppressive.

Strides have been taken in changing the curriculum from mostly about white women, to include work written by women of color and women from many cultures and economic levels. The interest in and acceptance of the intelligence, creativity, situations and possibility of multiple types of women as creators of theory) will serve women’s studies well in attracting the attention of a more diverse segment of the student body.
People are passionate about what they can relate to. The inclusion of black feminists such as bell hooks and June Jordan keys the struggle for white wealthy women's rights into the bigger picture. The new picture is much more complicated than the earlier narrow focus of the movement. It goes beyond the struggles inherent in femaleness, and tries to address the interlocking web of oppression which is behind not only the subjugation of the female half of the world, but also the exploitation aimed against those who are poor or gay or lesbian or transgender or colonized or a member of on of those races which has been treated as inferior, or one of those who are physically different than the norm.

Many people in the groups we should try to reach are afraid of the repercussions of being connected with feminism in any way. While surfing the web, I recently found is an excerpt from Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards:

“The inadvertently humorous descriptions by Right-wing ideologues such as Pat Robertson don't help, either: "Feminists encourage women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, become lesbians, and destroy capitalism" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000).

Clearly, people are afraid of being seen as a part of a group that has goals so divergent from the American ideals of consumerism, nuclear family-worship, puritan religious tyranny, and capitalism. The problem is that people are taking their heterosexuality, their place in society, their gender roles, and their economic system for granted. They make these huge decisions under the influence of an immensely powerful propaganda crusade perpetrated by those who would lose privilege and power. The propaganda crusade keeps the general public blind to any alternatives to the proscribed choices. It also keeps people not of the female gender uninterested in women’s studies, and makes them doubt alternative knowledge such as that offered in those classes.
An important segment of the population not represented in women’s studies classes seems to be men. There could be many reasons for this, like the aforementioned ignorance of the severity of women’s freedoms in today's world, or a fear of being considered gay or weak for being in women’s studies. Male students often complain that professors who focus on a feminist perspective are taking away from time that should be spent on the basics.

In a message dated April 13, 1993, educator Patricia A. O'Donnell recalls how one of her students felt about her feminist approach to teaching criminal justice. "In the course description I mentioned that the focus of the course would be to critique the criminal justice system especially in respect to gender and racial discrimination. I also mentioned on the first day of class that I would be teaching from a feminist perspective. This student argued that he is not getting the "basics" he needs for law school" (O’Donnell, pars 1).

The fear that there is not enough time in the educational arena to include women’s issues and that the issues of other marginalized groups is one commonly espoused by critics of feminist-perspective teaching styles. It is important to answer this statement with a strong assertion that these issues are basic and must be considered as such. The reason that men feel that Women's Studies classes are "fluff" or "bird" classes without intellectual merit comes from their immersion in a culture which systematically devalues the contributions of women and other marginalized people.

Everyone keeps making the point that if we include all perspectives; we will run out of time. I say good! Let's keep going, keep pushing our knowledge outside its previous boundaries. The goal is massive. We must start from the beginning and keep on working until we get there. Too many of my feminist sisters say lets limit our scope so we can accomplish just one thing. They think if we tackle everyone’s issues we will not be a cohesive force. They don’t understand that we must tackle everyone's issue, to bring together everyone on the outskirts. This will create a majority more powerful than the white males who own the world. Yes it is a lot of work, yes it is complex, and yes it must be done.

It is only when Women's Studies becomes truly inclusive that we will attract a more diverse student population into our ranks. The Women's Liberation movement and the Black Liberation movement gave us our first feet to stand on. Now we can stand and we must walk all over the world, and get everyone’s input. The work seems so complex, so intimidating, so massive, but every river begins with water molecules. Do not give up because it is hard, because it is confusing, because we might offend each other. Be bold and go forward teaching the truth (as best we understand it,) and listen to everyone’s contributions.

Works Cited:

bell hooks. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, Cambridge, MA: 2000

O’Donnell, Patricia, “Alienating Men in Class” (Apr. 1993) n. pag. Online. WMST-L Homepage. Internet. 20 November, 2002. Available:

Richard, Amelia & Baumgardner, Jennifer “Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future” (Aug 2001) n. pag. Online. Feminist.Com. Internet. 20 November, 2002. Available:
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