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Women & Gender: A Program Outgrows its Name

By Carol Brévart-Demm

This spring, Swarthmore’s Women’s Studies Program reached the end of a long process of reshaping itself and its name—to accommodate the changing needs, requirements, and wishes of 21st-century students. Henceforth to be known as Gender and Sexuality Studies, the program offers a minor in course or honors as well as special major options.

Women’s Studies was first created as a concentration at the College in 1986—several years later than at many of Swarthmore’s peer institutions, says Sunka Simon, associate professor of German studies and film and media studies and former coordinator of the program. Interdisciplinary by nature, the program emerged as an outgrowth of 1970s emancipatory feminism, to promote thinking and teaching on topics of gender and women’s issues that were unavailable in the existing disciplines.

The name of the program became an early source of controversy, criticized in the 1980s by the ethnic and African American communities as a label for a “bourgeois, white women’s discipline.” Moreover, course offerings have expanded to the extent that Women’s Studies no longer adequately describes the program.

“Women’s Studies, as a name, is a study about women,” said Simon in an April 26, 2007 Phoenix article. “When you look at the content of our current courses, it’s really no longer about women specifically. It’s about the categories of gender, class, race, and sexuality and how they’re all connected.” In a later interview, she stressed the importance of including the study of the interrelationships between gender and sexuality and local and global politics in the program.

Among the new appellations considered were Feminist and Queer Studies, Gender Studies, Critical Feminist Studies, and Gender and Sexuality Studies.

“For the long run, Gender and Sexuality Studies won out because it encompasses both what the faculty are doing in their scholarship—some are heavily invested in queer studies, others in feminist scholarship, others on postcolonial projects, and so on,” Simon says. “At the same time, we’re hoping the new name will inject additional impetus into the program.”

One Response to “Women & Gender: A Program Outgrows its Name”

  1. Just wanted to let you know that feminists Ariel Levy and Robin Morgan will be having a dialogue on "Intergenerational Feminism" at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster on October 7 at 7 p.m. in Roschel Performing Arts Center (College Avenue).

    I know it's a trek up to Lancaster, but this is the first time these two women have sat down and had a public conversation about feminism — where it's been, where it is now, and where it is going. This event is the kick off for the celebration of the 40th anniversary of coeducation at F&M.

    Here's a Web link with the details:
    Let me know if you need additional information.

    Judy Pehrson
    The Alice Drum Women's Center
    Franklin & Marshall College