Needless lament for the loss of a name - Macleans.ca
 

Needless lament for the loss of a name

“Women’s studies” becomes “gender studies” . . . and rightfully so.


 

What’s in a name?

Is it, “That which we call a rose?” Or, “Bee to the blossom, moth to the flame?” How about, “A history of structural and psychological oppression wrought with prejudice and inequality to capitulate only through ongoing and relentless insurgent pressure?”

Or, maybe it’s just a name.

Related: The National Post editorial board hates women’s  studies

Queen’s University has become the latest school to change the name of their “Women’s Studies” program to “Gender Studies.” And some people, such as Toronto Star columnist Catherine Porter, aren’t celebrating the rechristening.

Recalling her time as a student at McGill University, Porter writes:

I’d spent the summer flipping through the course catalogue, stomach down on my bed. There were all the history and English literature courses I would end up taking, the descriptions filled with names including Plato, Charlemagne and Shakespeare.

Then, turning the page, I saw the word that was missing elsewhere — woman. It was empowering.

It still is.

I’m very glad to hear Porter had a fulfilling class selection experience, but I’m more pleased to see universities shifting with the times. If that means swapping “women” for “gender,” so be it.

While I will explain why I’m in favour of the name change, I don’t seek to examine the merits of a women’s/gender studies program, nor do I wish to undermine the history of enormous struggle heaved by the women before me to bring society where it is today. But “today” is just what I’m going to focus on. And, in my opinion, “Gender Studies” is the more appropriate and relevant program title for contemporary study.

I’ll start with the obvious. To properly understand the role of women in society you have to understand the role of men. The history of one gender can’t be contextualized in a vacuum. “Gender Studies” better encompasses that idea; it is simply the more correct term. Furthermore, I think the name change will entice a greater breadth of student applicants. Those who have studied feminist literature know it often goes beyond the study of women, incorporating theory on many other forms of oppression (such as religious, racial and ethnic). “Gender” speaks to a wider audience. It is more inclusive (yes, I’m using that word) and doesn’t reek of an “us” versus “them” dichotomy.

Which brings me to some of my more general views on gender politics. (I’ve touched on some of these ideas in previous posts, but I’ll reiterate.) To be frank, I applaud dropping the “women” from “studies” because in doing so, I think it purges a very unnecessary proverbial “crutch.” Women want to be treated equally, right? So why call for special attention? To be perceived as equal, women need to present themselves as equal. After all, men are disadvantaged too, just in different ways. Women don’t need to victimize themselves by calling for special consideration. I think to do so is to insult all the progress we’ve made.

What a luxury it is to have these nomenclature debates. Nellie McClung, Jessie Gray, Dorthea Palmer wouldn’t believe.

I want my achievements to be successes for me as an individual, not as a woman. But if I keep reminding you how disadvantaged I am as a female, you’ll never see it that way.


 

Needless lament for the loss of a name

  1. Another good one Robyne.

  2. So how come History is still called HIStory if times have changed so much? Gender Studies addresses a different set of issues, whereas Women’s Studies addresses different ones. Maybe the program is not for everyone, but then no program can claim to be. Anyone who has taken a Women’s Studies course will know that we don’t just talk about the victimization of women, but also their empowerment, and neither do we talk about menstrual cramps and exchange baking recipes. And if indeed, ‘what’s in a name?’, then why is there so much discussion about Women’s Studies remaining Women’s Studies? Isn’t it also just a name? It shouldn’t be heralding the exclusion or the inclusion of anyone.

  3. All right, we sometimes exchange food recipes. But thats part of the charm of Women’s Studies…

  4. Not to be pedantic, but the word “history” comes from the Greek “historia”, meaning inquiry, or knowledge acquired by investigation. “Herstory” is a silly neologism, an ethnocentric bit of word-play that relies on a wilful misunderstanding of the word’s root.

    (Yeah, that was pedantic – sorry)

  5. I am trying to do geneological research on my Grandmother “Jessie Downie Gray” who was a professor of Dairy Sciences at McGill University around 1915. Is this the Jessie Gray you refer to and if so can you direct me to more information about her? She passed when I was only 6 years old.
    Thanks,