Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

2nd Web Event: Where are the Women?

MargaretRachelRose's picture

In the 1960s and 1970s, teachers and scholars asked, “Where are the women?”

This question echoes the second-wave mantra that turned attention to the rising issue that women were facing in regards to sexuality, familial expectations, discrimination in the workplace, and many legal inequalities. Women’s Studies was born from the student, civil rights, and women’s movements of the 1960s and the 1970s.

San Diego State University is credited as the first college in the United States to offer Women’s Studies courses. Cornell joined in the movement in same year, 1970. This came to fruition when students from SDSU’s Women’s Liberation Group, along with faculty and other women from the community, formed an Ad Hoc Committee for Women’s Studies. The committee, who felt women’s voices had little representation on campus or in the curriculum, collected signatures from over 600 students in support of establishing a Women’s Studies Program. They hoped the program would address issues such as political equality and questioning gender roles. In the spring of 1974, the Faculty Advisory Committee undertook a nationwide faculty recruitment campaign to develop women’s studies as a strong academic department. The initial course offerings mirrored the concerns of first-wave feminism. Some of their mission statement reads, “We will continue to host engagements that increase awareness surrounding issues of gender and sexuality, acknowledge the social change we hope to foster, and celebrate the transformations we have accomplished.”

However, some opposed the creation of separate departments for Women's Studies. They felt it was more important to challenge the lack of women's perspective throughout the university curriculum. They worried that relegating Women's Studies to a separate department would not change any of the existing institutional flaws.

Nevertheless, by the mid-1970s, there were at least 80 Women's Studies programs across the United States. As of a 2007 survey conducted by the National Women's Studies Association, there are 576 institutions that offer women's studies or gender studies at some level. By 2012, there are 16 institutions offering a Ph.D. in women and gender studies in the United States

The National Women's Studies Association was established in 1977 as a professional organization to support scholarship, professional development, and publications of Women's Studies experts. Since the 1970s, scholars of women’s studies have taken post-modern approaches to understanding gender as it intersects with race, class, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, age, and (dis)ability. Focusing on the intersectionality of gender propels the production and maintenance of power structures within mainstream society. Now there has been a focus on language, subjectivity, and social hegemony. At the core of these theories is the notion that, however one identifies, gender, sex, and sexuality, is not inherent to that individual—it is socially constructed.

Today, those second-wave notions have expanded to consider gender as a lens of analysis, and feminism now includes more focus on identity, power, and privilege to go far beyond the category “woman.” Another modern approach is that of Third World women of color, who created intersectionality, wherein identity consists of categories considering race, class, gender, age, and ability. Lastly, scholars now consider transnationalism as a part of Women’s Studies, as there is a focus on culture, structures, and relationships that are formed from people and resources across geopolitical borders.

Over the years, Women’s Studies has taken on different names to accommodate the material that it encompasses. In 2002, Cornell's program was renamed Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Other names that have described Women’s Studies include: Gender studies, Women and Gender Studies, Gender and Sexuality studies, Feminist and Gender Studies, and Feminist Studies. All highlight the ever-developing, multifaceted definition of what essentially comprises Women’s Studies, and furthermore, women.

Women’s Studies has undergone changes since its second-wave feminist upbringing, so should we too consider renaming this institution, which is devoted to upholding a higher education for “women” but  fosters a community where there is a spectrum of genders that cannot be solely classified as women anymore?

This question was posed in the Serendip post called “Women’s Colleges that Exclude Women, Feminism Colleges, and Queer Colleges.” The author asks, “Would Bryn Mawr be a more inclusive place for women if it wasn’t labeled as a “women’s college,” but something like a “feminism college”?” The author also considers “queer college” as another name that could possibly be more accommodating to individuals with intersectional identities.

Calling this institution a “women’s college” as a way of depicting the student body is no longer accurate. Not when the community is comprised of gender spectrum that includes trans*, genderqueer (individuals who do not subscribe to conventional gender distinctions but identifies with neither, both, or a combination of male and female genders), and cisgender individuals. Alissa Quart, writer of the “When Girls Will Be Boys” article, notes that, after meeting and talking to the Barnard transmale Rey, as “femaleness [does] not automatically produce femininity and maleness [does] not produce masculinity: gender [is] fluid and variable, something to be fashioned, and could shift in character depending on the culture or the time period. As some see it, the presence of trans* students at single-sex colleges is simple logical of this intellectual tradition.”

Bryn Mawr’s mission statement reads:

"The mission of Bryn Mawr College is to provide a rigorous education and to encourage the pursuit of knowledge as preparation for life and work. Bryn Mawr teaches and values critical, creative and independent habits of thought and expression in an undergraduate liberal arts curriculum for women and in coeducational graduate programs in arts and sciences and social work and social research. Bryn Mawr seeks to sustain a community diverse in nature and democratic in practice, for we believe that only through considering many perspectives do we gain a deeper understanding of each other and the world."

The word women is only mentioned once. The language of this mission statement, too, does not seem to be exclusive to other genders. Bryn Mawr is, inherently, an institution that has, since 1885, stood for providing “a rigorous education and to encourage the pursuit of knowledge as preparation for life and work.” This began as a mission for women specially, since at the time, women were the ones that needed the safe place free of the society-imposed exclusion from education and liberation. Now, as time has gone on, I believe that this institution should, as Women’s Studies has grown to encompass gender and sexuality studies, also be inclusive in terms of how it is named of gender and sexuality of its students and continue a safe play for a underrepresented gender.

Quart believes, “[Women’s colleges are] caught between wanting to embrace a campus minority that their own interrogation of gender roles has helped to shape and defending the value of institutions centered on the distinct experience of being female.” But the presence of trans* students is in no way devaluing the mission of this intuition. The students, despite how they chose to represent themselves in terms of gender performance, still carry out the mission of this institution and are valued members of our community.

As it stands as a women’s college, renaming this intuition something like a queer college, although it promotes gender ambiguity so that not only one gender on the spectrum present here is prominent, there is still focus on gender. Queer, although it essentially is defined as a deviation from the norm, has a connotation rooted in sexuality that I fear would intimidate prospective students unaware of the true meaning of the term. The name “feminist college” derails both “women’s college” and “queer college,” as it takes on a more political standpoint, and gender is no longer a point of contention. Feminism is fairly more encompassing because is echoes the original intention of this intuition, as it was created in the first-wave. The term feminism has the historic past of social, political, and legal movement, and echoes the anti-patriarchal era sentiment in which it was established.  

Renaming this institution a “feminist college” erases the polarization to be just for cisgendered females or to just be for those who deviate from the norm, because it still offers a safe place for both trans* and female students.

I think, although renaming this college might better accommodate intersectional identities, I fear it may be too radical. The fallout of this suggestion would be that alumna who attended this institution and that contribute to it in terms of funding might not approve of this change. Bryn Mawr still holds dearly to its dated reputation of being a place for high-society white women looking for a higher education. If we changed the name from “women’s college” to something like “feminist” college it might derail everything that this institution was established. But we, at the same time, would be updating and improving the terminology to integrate the new wave of feminism, this post-modernist, intersectional, transnational movement. Needless to say, if any change were to be made, it would take a great deal of active support, public information sharing, and legislation.    


Works Cited

Amophrast. “Women’s Colleges that Exclude Women, Feminist Colleges, Queer Colleges.” Serendip Studio. January 29, 2012. Web. </exchange/node/11741>

“Bryn Mawr College Mission Statement.” Bryn Mawr College Website. Bryn Mawr College, 2013. <>

Quart, Alissa. “When Girls Will Be Boys.” New York Times 16 March 2008. Print.

“Women’s Studies: Pioneering in Scholarship, Activism, and Internationalization since 1790.” San Diego State University Website. Department of Women’s Studies, 2013. Web. <>


sschurtz's picture

Restructure the college

I really enjoyed your essay. I think that you made a great argument but also brought in the objections that changing the school would create. What you wrote about the older alumna being hesitant about changing the name was very interesting. I think that the alumna and many people who know and are impressed by Bryn Mawr as a college see the college in a different way that many of the students here see Bryn Mawr. Both a feminist and a Queer college are accurate ways to rename the college. Even though in class we identify queer as outside the norm most people I know who do not go to Bryn Mawr only think of it in regards to sexuality. I would be hesitant to rename the school queer in the sense that it might alienate and confuse some perspective students at to what the college is. If we were to become a feminist college would you allow cys -men in as well? If a cys man was focused on a gender and sexuality major and we became a feminist college would there be an issue letting men in? Both our papers deal with the issue of restructuring the college. Mine focuses on how to restructure the school to better accommodate disability. I think that what we both proposed would be met with opposition because they are big changes for the school. This paper laid out the history and your opinion about what we can do in a very fascinating way.

Anne Dalke's picture

Evolving names

Last month you described yourself
as a copy, “mirror,” “reflection,” “emulation” of others. This project is of a very different sort: charting the “ever-developing, multifaceted definition” of the field of women’s studies, as a guide for thinking about what name schools like BMC should use--now that they “foster a community where there is a spectrum of genders that cannot be solely classified as women.” “Calling this institution a ‘women’s college’ is no longer accurate,” you claim, “not when the community is comprised of the gender spectrum.”

There are a couple of spots along the way where I’d love to have more explanation. For instance, in your review of the history of Women’s Studies programs, you mention the worry “that relegating Women's Studies to a separate department would not change any of the existing institutional flaws.” This notion of the power—and marginalization—of segregation is a powerful one, and I’d like to hear you think some more about it. Would you say that your reimagining “women’s colleges” as “queer” or “feminist” colleges is an attempt not to segregate….? Or….?

Of course the great unexamined middle here is the history of the Program of Gender and Sexuality Studies @ Bryn Mawr. When was the program founded? (Why was it founded so late?) What was it called then (and why)? And when-and-why did the name change? You can find some of these details @

Another spot where I’d like to hear more is your saying that “focusing on the intersectionality of gender propels the production and maintenance of power structures within mainstream society”—I don’t understand what you mean.

I don’t actually think that changing our name “from ‘women’s college’ to something like ‘feminist’ college might derail everything that this institution was established” to affirm; I think rather that such a re-naming, like the presence of trans* folk here, is the “simple logical extension of our intellectual tradition.” I do not think that BMC’s originary vision, for example, was of  “safe place” from exclusion; it was rather imagined as a place where women could get the kind of rigorous, classical education that was only available to men in 1885—the goal was less “safety” than giving women access to larger ambitions.

How, today, to signal our increasing inclusiveness? This is a fine question, and I am very glad you raised it.

I had a little trouble finding a writing group for you, but have put you together with Cat and sschurtz, who both wrote about accommodations @ BMC. I’m hoping you’ll find some common ground in thinking together about re-shaping the college—so please read their papers and come to class ready to talk…