Women's studies is about to disappear as an undergraduate degree in the UK. But is it because it is no longer relevant or because it has done its job by putting the issues in the mainstream? Esther Oxford weighs up the arguments.That's an interesting development.
It is all a far cry from the heyday for women's studies in the late Eighties and early Nineties. In the past two decades, departments across Britain have been forced to integrate into other departments or to close outright. Only MAs and PhDs appear to be surviving the cull.
One problem has been the sustained attack on women's studies as a "soft" subject appealing to fringe elements and perpetuating old-fashioned, irrelevant debates. Women and society have moved on, say critics, but women's studies remains framed by the politics of a particular time, namely the feminist movement of the Seventies.
"The work of women's studies classes is very sophisticated," counters Mary Evans, professor of women's studies at the University of Kent and also a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics. "There has been a great deal of openingup of ideas that weren't previously discussed and a lot of diverse conclusions as a result of the pedagogy of women's studies."
Jackie Stacey, who was director of the now-defunct Institute of Women's Studies at the University of Lancaster, says women's studies courses are "far from being confessional or intellectually sloppy" and that universities lose out by closing women's studies programmes. "I would say to vice-chancellors: you clearly misunderstand the centrality of feminism and its relevance in global debates such as the West versus Islam and world security."
But women's studies has many detractors, including some high-powered female critics. Christina Hoff Summers is former professor of philosophy at Clark University in the US and author of Who Stole Feminism? She argues that women's studies encourages "paranoid theories about patriarchy" and "gets its power from false statistics on how bad things are for women".
Far from coming up with new, invigorating ideas, women's studies professors tend to be "a little intellectually cohesive clique that has never recovered from the Seventies, when that rhetoric of oppression - women as subordinate class - was fashionable," Hoff Summers said in an interview with The Dartmouth Review.
Hoff Summers argues that women's studies appeals to a person who is "hypersensitive and chronically offended" and who wants to view women as a "subordinate class" and men as "oppressors". As a result of this rhetoric, she suggests, students have come to associate feminism with women who are intellectually stilted and angry with men. Feminism has lost its force as a mainstream political movement.
Karen Lehrman, a US author of a book on post-ideological feminism, has also been a pointed critic of some approaches to women's studies. She attended classes at institutions in the US, including Dartmouth College, the University of California, Berkeley, and Smith College, and was disappointed at the "confessional" nature of a "therapeutic pedagogy" that valued students' feelings and experiences "as much as the texts themselves".
Now, if we could just get more conservatives academe!