The changing world of women's studies

Demie Kurz, co-director of Women's Studies and The Alice Paul CenterPhoto credit: Candace diCarlo

Sociologist Demie Kurz recalls a story, when a Penn colleague once claimed that Women’s Studies was a fad, and a discipline that would soon disappear.

Today, 22 years after Kurz arrived at Penn, the field is thriving.

Between 1,300 and 1,400 undergraduates enroll in Women’s Studies courses, and major, minor or get graduate certificates in Gender, Culture, and Society. The field is interdisciplinary by mandate (and by nature), and the program offers more than 50 courses per year cross-listed with the departments of history, religious studies, English and nursing, among others. In fact, the field has expanded so much that Women’s Studies will soon be known as the Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies Program.

“That [growth] was due to a lot of hard work by the early people who wrote grants and got some money from the federal government, just to try to demonstrate that this was a highly legitimate area of study, research and teaching,” says Kurz, the program’s co-director.

Kurz is also co-director of The Alice Paul Center for Research on Women, Gender & Sexuality, which supports faculty and contributes to Penn’s intellectual life, hosting seminars dedicated to faculty works-in-progress, global gender issues and the study of gender and sexuality. The Center also sponsors four lecture series. Past speakers have included the scientist Vandana Shiva, writer Margaret Atwood, director Mira Nair and philosopher Martha Nussbaum.

Kurz is quick to praise the other members of the Women’s Studies and Alice Paul Center team—Faculty Director Rita Barnard, Associate Director Shannon Lundeen and Program Coordinator Luz Marin—stressing that the field is a dynamic one that has expanded to include multicultural and international gender issues.

After all, she says, gender is one of the major organizing principals in every society. “It affects everything—major economic issues and questions, interpersonal relations, public policy, how institutions are organized and how the labor market is organized, which determines why women get lower pay and come out with the short end of the stick. It’s not a surprise that gender would be relevant all across academia and all across Penn.”

Q. Can you talk a bit about the history of Women’s Studies at Penn?
A.
Women’s Studies came before The Alice Paul Center. Women’s Studies at Penn was founded in 1973 at a time when there were extremely few women faculty and course material that dealt with women was extremely limited. Mostly women were invisible in academic disciplines. It’s hard to imagine now, but that was definitely the case.
What happened at Penn in ’73 was that four or five Nursing students were raped on campus and women students, staff and faculty had formed a group to attend to women’s concerns. They felt that the University did not respond quickly or sympathetically, so they held a sit-in in College Hall. The demands of the group included better lighting on campus, [and] a victim’s services program, a Women’s Center and a Women’s Studies Program. Those things all happened, fortunately.

Q. It seems like the field of Women’s Studies has expanded significantly.
A
. Initially, the idea was just to get women on the agenda and integrated into the study of humanities, social science and science and medicine. When you bring half the population onto the record, things begin to look different. You get a different view of what religion is about, how the labor market is really organized, family dynamics.
In the late 1970s and early ’80s, different groups of women—women of color, primarily—in the U.S. began to say, ‘Wait a minute, why are you just talking about women as if all women are the same? We have rich and poor, we have African-American, Hispanic, Chinese-American.’ It was white women who first got into the academy, but as these women began to get into academic positions, and began writing on their own as independent scholars, they began to challenge and expand the field. Around the world, different scholars and activists began organizing and thinking about feminism, and non-Western women began to say, ‘Wait a minute, you’re making assumptions about women and basic things about how societies are organized that don’t apply to us.’ They began enriching the field by contributing perspectives on how the world works from societies that are dominated or exploited by Western interests or that have different cultural traditions.
Q It seems like many young people are reluctant to label themselves as ‘feminists.’ Why do you think that’s the case?
A In a culture like the United States, things move very fast. What feels to some of us like just yesterday, when women had so few opportunities, doesn’t feel that way to young people today. ... Some people have a very stereotypical view of some kind of angry feminist, but in reality, I meet lots of students who talk about their interest in women and gender and then they say, ‘Gosh, I guess those are kind of feminist ideas.’ So, I think the important thing is whatever words people use, that young women and men graduating from Penn understand that there are major gender issues that are going to affect their lives.

Q. There are so many great examples of women leaders, but plenty of examples of inequities, too. It seems like a Women’s Movement is still necessary.
A.
Lots of things have changed for the better in terms of women and gender in American society, and that’s happened because a lot of women and men have worked to make those changes. But the rates of rape and domestic violence are still very high. The poverty rate of women is very high. Single women with children are extremely vulnerable to poverty; 25 percent of children in America live in poverty. One would hope that taking Gender, Culture, and Society courses would make students aware that while Penn students are going to lead more or less privileged lives, millions of Americans are not, and some of that is directly related to gender.
We’re seeing the beginnings of decent family-friendly policies, but access to childcare is still extremely difficult. Women bear the burden of managing the home and working in the labor force. So, if anyone thinks that, ‘Oh, we already did that. We had a Women’s Movement and we solved that because we have Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State,’ they just don’t know the way in which our society is still very much organized around traditional male-female roles.

Q. Why do you think those traditional roles persist? Is it just difficult to change years of the status quo?
A.
Wonderful feminist scholars debate this. It’s some confluence of deep-held cultural beliefs that don’t change quickly. Some people—men and women—are still threatened by the idea that women are equal and equally capable to men. If everyone believed that, why would we have unfair pay and sexual violence? Historically, women have been excluded from the workplace. Then, when they were included, they served as a kind of reserve labor force. When the economy needed more workers during World War II, the government started telling women, ‘It’s wonderful to work for the war effort.’ After the war, the same outlets told women it was time to go home. And some women really didn’t want to and couldn’t afford to and suffered greatly, although actually, it’s a mistaken belief that in the ’50s, after World War II, all the women went home and stayed home. I think a third of American women were in the labor force by then and it just continued to grow because of a huge economic shift. ... [In the 19th century] there was the Family Wage System, which stated that men would get paid to support a family. That idea still persists. But it has been eroding slowly, and in the last 30 years, it’s very much eroded.

Q. Are there differences between conservative feminism and liberal feminism? I’m thinking about Sarah Palin here, who is a complicated figure for some women. She’d never call herself a feminist, and yet she manages to have both a career and raise a family.
A
. In the second wave of the Women’s Movement [in the ’70s] there were women who strongly identified as conservatives who formed groups. There are other smaller groups in academia who also would identify as conservative feminists, and so, in the sense of these activist groups, Sarah Palin fits right in. ... I’m sure she wouldn’t use the word ‘feminist.’

Q. There seems to be a shift among some younger women to eschew a career in the workplace in favor of staying home to raise a family.
A.
There was a cover story in The New York Times Magazine four or five years ago by one of their prominent family writers that caused a huge uproar. Lisa Belkin interviewed this very small number of women in a Starbucks coffee shop and they were with their little kids, or they were pregnant. One had gone to Yale Law School and one had gone to Harvard Business School and here they were ‘dropping out.’ So Lisa Belkin was like, ‘A whole new trend now—dropping out.’ A lot of people did very serious work showing that was really not the case. A friend of mine, a sociologist, wrote a book called ‘Opting Out?’ and interviewed a cross-section of top business and law school women graduates, who were not in their fields at that moment. They had all tried to get their employers to make some accommodations to a schedule that wasn’t really demanding. In a few cases, the women had succeeded, but then a new boss came in and said, ‘I don’t know why they let you do that.’ The numbers showed it was more like pushing out rather than opting out.

Q. Can you talk about your journey to feminism?
A.
I went to a women’s college. I went to Wellesley. Half the department chairs were women. All the leaders were women. No one talked about women not being equal or fairly treated. The year after college, I went to India on a Fulbright, and then I went to Northwestern to get a Ph.D. in sociology, and that’s when the scholars at Northwestern and students were starting to form the Women’s Studies Program. If I was going to survive in academia, I had to know about these issues and also, they were just incredibly interesting.
When I was growing up, I had been influenced, as many women were, by the Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Rights Movement alerted us to the rights that were missing for African Americans. This happened in the 19th century, too. The first wave of the Women’s Movement grew out of the anti-slavery movement. Female leaders, primarily [Quakers] from Philadelphia, were booed and called promiscuous for speaking in public. They began to go, ‘Oh—we don’t have rights either.’
The situation relatively recently was that women couldn’t independently have credit cards, divorce laws really disadvantaged women, there were rules about managing finance, owning property. Certain younger women today say, ‘Look, we really accomplished a lot.’ They need to know that if they were born in the previous generation, they wouldn’t stand for it. They would make these changes, too.

Originally published on March 4, 2010