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Women lost in the academy: why we need gender studies

La Trobe University’s proposed budget cuts to its Arts Faculty and planned discontinuation of its Gender Program sparked student unrest in 2012. Channel 10 News

In his response to the Steubenville rape case, musician Henry Rollins suggested that women’s studies should be incorporated into high school curricula. Rollins proposed that if young people were to understand that women, as war heroes, politicians, writers and revolutionaries, “have been kicking ass in high threat conditions for ages” that it would help to improve respect for women.

As we express outrage at rape culture and other manifestations of misogyny in a supposedly “postfeminist” age, it makes sense to support the study of gender in classrooms. In this context, it is astounding to see Australia’s universities dismantling their gender studies majors.

The University of Queensland houses a 41 year-old gender studies program. It plans to discontinue its undergraduate major from 2014. This will mean the loss of the last gender studies major in the state. Students at the university have planned a rally to protest the decision.

The program itself, as at many universities, has no dedicated staff member. It relies on committed staff in disciplines including history, English and philosophy to teach subjects within the major.

This year has already seen the elimination of the gender studies major at the University of Wollongong. In 2012, La Trobe University began to restructure its Arts faculty, and gender, sexuality and diversity studies was targeted for discontinuation and inspired significant student protest.

The University of Melbourne abandoned its gender studies major in 2008. In response to continued student interest, a new gender studies lecturer was appointed in 2011 and the major was recently reinstated.

Overall, however, the trend toward the reduction of the number of majors within Arts degrees is endangering the formal existence of gender studies within Australian universities.

Enrolments for subjects in these programs are healthy, but the number of students who undertake gender studies majors are usually small.

More than 80 students are currently enrolled in UQ’s introductory gender studies subject. Yet Executive Dean of Arts Fred D’Agostino justified the program’s axing because only 13 students have declared a gender studies major this year. Despite the phasing out of gender studies at Honours level in 2005, the students are committed to the major.

D’Agostino maintains that “most” gender studies subjects will continue to be offered at UQ. The primary difference is that students will no longer graduate with a gender studies major and their ability to pursue postgraduate research in the area at other institutions will be compromised.

If the subjects will continue to be taught, what are the savings that the removal of the major will generate? The price is the erasure of an important, interdisciplinary field. Nevertheless, the gradual dissolution of gender studies programs cannot be viewed purely as economic or demand-based decisions.

These courses arose out of the women’s movement in the early 1970s. They were sparked by activism for women’s rights and aimed to counter and critique the heavy male orientation of academic disciplines. In many instances, battles were fought to launch the study of women and feminist scholarship as legitimate areas of inquiry.

Activist and academic Merle Thornton taught the first women’s studies subject at UQ in 1972, establishing the program with Professor Carole Ferrier in the following year. It was as much of a challenge to the status quo as when Thornton chained herself to the bar of Brisbane’s Regatta Hotel with Rosalie Bogner in 1965 to protest women’s exclusion from public bars.

Links have been established showing the increased teaching of women’s and gender studies can lead to less violence against women. EPA/Jagadeesh

When a women’s studies course was put forward at a Humanities Board meeting at Flinders University in 1972, it was mocked. A Spanish Professor circulated a joke proposal among the male members of the Board for a course on “The Philosophical, Social, Sexual and Artistic Transcendency of Tauromachy [bullfighting]”. It belittled the very concept of the women’s studies bid.

Universities often suggest that the pioneering feminist scholars who initiated these courses have been so successful that “gender” is now integral to most subjects. Clearly there have been transformations in Australian society and university culture since the 1970s. However, simply because English departments, for example, no longer set entire courses devoid of women writers, it does not obviate the need for a distinct space for a focus on gender in the academy.

Today we grapple with the continued realities of misogyny and sexism even though our nation has achieved formal gender equality. Now is not the time to dismantle the courses that help us to understand how gender impacts upon us all.

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