Why broadening gender studies is necessary

It is no longer just about the women's movement

Princeton University is taking the right approach when it comes to revamping their women’s studies department. The program, previously known as Study of Women and Gender, will now be called Gender and Sexuality Studies after a unanimous vote of the department’s faculty.

The latter half of 2009 saw many similar moves by Canadian universities. Queen’s University renamed their program Gender Studies, while Simon Fraser University’s program is now called Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies. Catherine Murray, SFU’s program chair, hit the nail on the head regarding the titular change movement:

“We’re not abandoning women’s studies, or saying the women’s movement is dead. We’re saying things are changing. It’s about moving forward, staying ahead of the game and recognizing the need to include broader discussions surrounding gender,” she told the National Post in late January.

The National Post found itself in hot water a day later when their editorial board tried to claim that “these angry, divisive and dubious programs are simply being renamed to make them appear less controversial.” The national response only proved that discussions around gender are still necessary.

Women’s studies are important, and the firestorm that surrounded the Post in January proved just that. But there’s also room for other discussions that surround gender and sexuality to be addressed as well. Princeton’s latest move is showing us that it has no intention of reducing its focus on women; they are simply including more voices. The department is keeping most of its original course names, but adding some new ones to address a wider scope of gender issues that are part of modern discussions.

It’s about evolution.

“The newly renamed Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies at Princeton will continue to address each phase of the field’s development, maintaining its historical commitment to the specificity of women’s experience while offering feminist analytic tools across disciplines,” program director Jill Dolan told the Daily Princetonian.

Women’s studies programs first came on the scene over 40 years ago — the first at San Diego State University in 1970 — to address many of the same concerns that are facing other areas of the gender discussion now — gay, lesbian and transgender people are just some examples of the groups whose voices now need to be heard. At first, it was the result of pressure from women’s liberation movements to include female perspectives in education. Modern discussions around “Don’t ask, don’t tell” and “It gets better” are proof that gender discussions are still an important part of our daily lives.

“The first women’s studies programs were created as scholars attempted to re-examine history, literature, anthropology, psychology and other subjects, and to explore the missing perspective,” explains an article on And today, it’s more missing perspectives that are propelling the expansion of gender programs at universities.

Margaret, a Maclean’s commenter, sums it up beautifully: “I would love to see the day come when women’s contributions (and the contributions of people of colour, alternative sexualities, etc etc) are given the same airtime as the contributions of white men. Until that day comes, we need programs such as women’s studies and first nations studies to bring other perspectives to higher education.”

And while detractors like the National Post’s editorial board will always be around to try and stop those perspectives, universities are right in rising above their ignorance and trying to lend a hand to bring them along for the ride.

Looking for more?

Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.