The first major that I chose at Michigan was Women’s Studies. Many people are surprised when I tell them, because in the minds of many, the major ‘Women’s Studies’ often conjures images of man-hating lesbians, students seeking an easy A, or hippies sitting in a circle discussing their feelings all day. However, this just isn’t the whole picture, especially in this day and age. In it’s very basic and cursory function, Women’s Studies seeks to discover who holds the power and, when appropriate, how to change it. In more direct terms, feminism and Women’s Studies have found an institutionalized, gendered power structure in society and its scholars are trying to correct the sociopolitical and economic inequalities between men and women. The field has advanced beyond gender and, using Columbia and UCLA Law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality, Women’s Studies now uses the lenses of race, class, sexuality, ability, nationality, religion, and many other social categories to better analyze our world. As any social science, that is the purpose of Women’s Studies: to understand humanity using a particular methodology, in this case a feminist one. Below I articulate 5 reasons why I—a male in both gender and sex at the University of Michigan—chose to study Women’s Studies.
1) The name is misleading, as “women’s issues” are also men’s issues
Oftentimes people associate Women’s Studies and feminism with whiny millenials complaining about trigger warnings and safe spaces. Pushing those controversial subjects aside (for now), they are also associated with issues universally seen as problematic: sexual assault, domestic violence, our racially biased justice system, sexual harassment, the wage gap, the feminization of poverty, women’s healthcare, etc. However, these issues also directly affect men. Look at sexual assault: 99% of reported assailants are men, and most of these men knew their victim. This is seen as a women’s issue because women are the main targets (and yes, these are planned crimes), but men are the ones committing the crime! This is a men’s issue, because men are perpetrating the problem. You can continue on: men are victims of non-lethal domestic violence more than women, men of color are overrepresented in jails, the wage gap and gender inequality in general hurts everyone. We can also go over issues that disproportionately affect men, like the waning but still present societal pressures in favor of being the household’s breadwinner, the toxic suppression of feelings as part of masculinity, and the disproportionate loss of children in custody battles.
Some of these issues, like the suppression of male feelings and women’s healthcare, do explicitly affect only men or women (and their children!) by definition. But is it not enough that women make up half our population? I refuse to use the “they’re our mothers, sisters, and daughters” argument, because this ties women’s human value to their relationship with men. Why can’t women just be people disproportionately facing problems we can help fix?
One key component of feminism is that those with power can use their privileged status to shine light on the problems of those without privilege, and let those people speak for themselves. This is called being in ally. In practice, this means that men should help women with their issues, and women- balancing childcare with the father and encouraging men to genuinely explore and discuss their emotions and frustrations – can help men. Thus, men benefit from feminism as much as women, and it’s up to men to realize this and do something about it.
2) The field is established but still developing
Part of the reason that Women’s Studies was looked down upon was because of its original teaching pedagogy. As I intimated above, original Women’s Studies courses encouraged students to sit in a circle and figure out why certain social phenomena didn’t sit right with them (literally a circle, because this way the teacher didn’t exude so much authority and the students were able to freely discuss). Thus, the image of the Women’s Studies class as the feelings circle was born. However, that is no longer the case. In all the Women’s Studies courses I’ve taken, I have yet to pour out my feelings in a journal and get an A (wouldn’t that be nice?). Rather, it has been a structured, more traditional curriculum with the bonus of learning about the social discomfort that haunts us to this day instead of the history of disproved scientific thought.
Furthermore, in choosing majors, I considered the Social Theory and Practice major, which started this year in the Residential College. While I’m inspired by the thought of studying burgeoning new social programs, I also want some sense of institution, something that someone can point to and say, “I’ve heard of that before!” Women’s Studies satisfies both of these desires in that it is a legitimate academic field and it is still metamorphosing. The first program only appeared in 1970, and it has diversified and responded to surfacing social issues in the form of gender studies, men’s studies, and LGBTQ studies, to name a few. It is still evolving, as seen by the department’s recent hosting of #BlackLivesMatter founder and activist Alicia Garza, and I think the field’s quick adaptation to our current political environment is cool. It may not have the prestige of a Harvard economics degree, but I find value in a major that reflects the world’s changing needs.
3) It’s very interdisciplinary and easy to curate to your academic desires
Women’s Studies can be viewed as the application of feminist theory to other fields. It has its own courses, sure, however by my cursory count, I found 72 out of 109 courses were cross-listed with other majors. That’s 2/3! What this means is that in studying Women’s Studies (and it is truly a Women’s Studies class, because the classes count for both majors) I am also studying Asian Studies, Anthropology, American Culture, Psychology, Sociology, African and Afro-American Studies, English, History… The list goes on. Thus, Women’s Studies is its own separate discipline, it’s just that this discipline is incredibly broad and crosses over with many others.
Also, just as the Women’s Studies courses at Michigan are interdisciplinary, you can concentrate in courses to fit your needs. There is a new Women’s Studies major called Gender and Health which obviously orients you toward pre-medicine or pre-public health, however by my count there are 10 courses that can be classified as pre-law or pre-public policy (I only know this because that’s how I am concentrating), there are a total of 7 Practicum courses that you can choose as electives if you desire real-world application of feminist principles, and there’s a plethora of courses if you want to look at global social justice issues. The breadth and versatility of Women’s Studies both as a field and at Michigan make it the perfect addition to my political science degree by adding the human element of social justice, all while honing liberal arts skills.
In fact, from the very beginning of feminism, liberal arts skills like strong intra- and interpersonal qualities were crucial in becoming aware of the different forms of oppression people face, and writing and critical thinking were necessary to spread the idea out in the world. These skills are what every liberal arts student learns in the course of their study, however to me it becomes more clear how Women’s Studies teaches this than, say, our Residential College major Drama. Innovation arises at the intersection of many fields, and Women’s Studies is that intersection. And what about the liberal arts in itself? Well, I firmly believe that these transferable skills are necessary for intellectual growth and for the workplace, and Forbes, an Association of American Colleges & Universities study, and a US News piece all agree with me.
4) It’s geared toward social justice
Women’s Studies as an academic field continues feminism’s legacy of driving political, economic, and social change in encouraging (and, as a requisite, demanding) praxis of feminist theory in the real world, which at Michigan is known as the Practicum requirement. Examples of feminist praxis include organizing microfinance so women in developing countries can support themselves, lobbying for better parental leave, and being a more understanding social worker when handling undocumented citizens. Women’s Studies was literally created to study and solve these pressing social issues, and thus make our world a better place through social justice.
Furthermore, there has never been a better time in history to explore this field and support social justice than right now. The ability to examine issues from many difference perspectives is crucial in helping the United Nations eradicate AIDS by 2030, for example, and the recent terrorist attack at the Pulse gay nightclub reminds us that the fight for LGBTQ acceptance is not over even with a marriage license. Women’s Studies puts all of this on the forefront and prepares me to take on the world, whatever I end up doing. Which reminds me…
5) Undergraduate major really doesn’t matter
In the long run, whatever major I choose simply doesn’t matter. I’m going to continue my education anyway, and whether that’s public policy, law, journalism, social work, or something else completely, I don’t have to know right now. Electing a broad array of Women’s Studies will introduce me to these fields and help me decide which one to enter after my undergrad, and besides, to really get into these occupations requires a professional or master’s degree, and since for any of these programs I can choose whatever major I want, why not choose something in which I do well and I truly like? My undergrad major doesn’t tie me down, it’s just the first step in my professional journey.
But what about landing that first job in between the schooling? Is having Women’s Studies on my diploma really going to help? I think so, mostly because I like this stuff and I want to work in it. Any potential employer will only view it as a boon to have the major than to not have it, and if they’re scared away by a guy studying Women’s Studies then I probably wouldn’t fit in at their workplace, anyway. More important than the diploma is how well I do in the courses, the extracurriculars I choose, and that I can show potential future employers that I have some passion for what they do, and I think both sides of the aisle would agree that feminists and Women’s Studies majors have passion. Just as important in what you know is who you know, and that’s more determined by luck and how well I branch out in the coming two years. Thus, what major I choose is just one small piece in the larger pie that’s, well, me, and employers and schools will both realize and weight it accordingly.
What it really comes down to is this: is it better to suffer and be average in a more “practical” major like Statistics or to excel in and enjoy Women’s Studies? The answer, in my mind, is Women’s Studies. I’m gaining a bachelor’s degree that’s teaching me how to think, and employers will have to train whoever they choose to hire, anyway. Some fields, like programming, will inevitably choose the Computer Scientist over me who has yet to take any coding classes. But others, like journalism, advocacy, public policy, law, public health. All of these would hopefully prefer the liberal arts major who spent his days learning how to keep an open mind when meeting new people and who worked on the official UMich sexual misconduct policy on the side. They’re looking for the well-rounded student who has a little experience in the field from extracurriculars, good grades, and knows an acquaintance who introduced them to the position. So in the end, Women’s Studies will not make or break me, it’s just something I really like and I’m really good at. And in the end, I’ll fit the bill, because my persistence and hard work will get me there.