Involvement in women's and gender studies programs has increased by over 300 percent nationally

<p>Nationally, the number of students enrolled in women's and gender studies majors has increased by more than 300 percent in the last few decades. Rutgers is home to the highest ranked women's and gender graduate program in the country.</p>

Nationally, the number of students enrolled in women's and gender studies majors has increased by more than 300 percent in the last few decades. Rutgers is home to the highest ranked women's and gender graduate program in the country.

Student interest in women’s and gender studies programs is growing exponentially each year at universities across the country, according to an article published in USA Today College. 

The article, which cited a study performed by the National Center for Education Statistics, reported that since 1990, the number of women’s and gender studies degrees conferred has increased by more than 300 percent.

At Rutgers specifically, women’s and gender studies has been the only unit in the social sciences and humanities to show consistent growth over the past five years, said Mary Hawkesworth, a distinguished professor in the Departments of Women’s and Gender Studies and Political Science.

“It adopts a wonderful matrix of gender, race, class, sexuality, age, ethnicity, ability, disability, nationality and geopolitics as categories for analysis,” she said. “So it really enriches how we understand social, cultural, economic, historical and political life, and it relies on interdisciplinary inquiry, which means that students learn to think across disciplines.”

Students are also highly attracted to women’s and gender studies’ social justice focus, which expands the evidentiary base of what individuals think we know, and challenges the knowledge bases that many traditional disciplines have claimed as fact, Hawkesworth said.

“We’ve been one of the only departments in the (School of Arts and Sciences) that has more students every year, and now 4,000 students every single year take a women’s and gender studies class at Rutgers, which is a huge number,” said Kyla Schuller, an assistant professor in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies.

Students over the past few decades have become more interested in women’s and gender studies because the field has evolved to include not only analysis on gender, race and class — but also on how power itself materializes within these categories as part of a broader epistemological critique, she said.

“We’re seeing a resurgence of interest in feminism in general right now, and a lot of that is driven by really excellent online writing and larger activism around women’s rights,” Schuller said. “I think people want to work on intellectual and political frames for understanding why it is that issues of race, sex and gender discrimination are at the heart of U.S. culture and power.”

As popular as the field has become to students today, it was not always this way.

At the University of Kentucky, Hawkesworth was teaching some of the first experimental courses on feminist theory.

“When I moved to shift feminist theory courses from just experimental courses, to add it to the permanent curriculum, I had to go before the departmental curriculum committee then a college curriculum committee and they all thought women couldn’t possibly have any insights into how the world worked,” Hawkesworth said.

These committees believed that feminist theory could not be counted as objective knowledge because objective knowledge could not have anything to do with race, sex, class or gender, she said.

When women’s and gender studies was just getting started as an official area of academic inquiry in the 1960s and 1970s, it was also very different in that it primarily focused around women’s social movements, Schuller said.

“It has evolved from being a place that extended the consciousness-raising strategies of women’s social movements and has now extended that into a knowledge project where we continue to put women’s rights and political oppression front and center, but through developing a larger analysis of power,” she said.

Today, women’s and gender studies, as both an academic program and a field of professional study, embodies a much larger analysis of the world and power structures, she said. 

“The battle to create this field was intense, but it has been growing by leaps and bounds — there are now over 100 scholarly journals in the field of feminist studies that publish just in English alone,” Hawkesworth said. “It’s a global discipline, and it has demonstrated so many ways of understanding the world that are absolutely vital.”

The field extends into critical analyses of global issues from warfare, to poverty and receiving insight from women on these matters greatly helps us understand globalizations differently, she said.

These classes offered within the department offer opportunities for students to explore these concepts, while also cultivating analytical and speaking abilities through intensive writing courses.

The above factors have attracted many students, regardless of their specific area of study, Hawkesworth said.

“Students are really interested right now in taking classes that help them understand the world that they live in in terms of culture, politics, economy, science — all of it,” Schuller said. “Women’s and gender studies is a great place to develop critical analysis of the world that we’re all in — people want a relevant education.”

Emma Fletcher is a School of Arts and Sciences junior. She is a contributing writer for The Daily Targum.

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