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Florence in Words

What's in a Name?

On my recent trip to the west coast, in part I was the guest of four “women’s studies programs,” though I must say at once that none of them are “programs,” and none of them call themselves “women’s studies.” Indeed, they are each departments, though they began life in the 1970s as programs. What is the difference? Does it matter what a university unit is called? And who cares? Briefly, it matters a great deal internally, since departments may hire faculty on tenure-track lines, an advantage usually denied to programs, which often depend either on the generosity of other departments or on part-time adjuncts to staff their courses. But these are academic questions of interest perhaps only to people like me who theorized forty years ago about strategies for changing the academic curriculum. (If you’re interested in these questions, see my early book, Myths of Coeducation: Selected Essays 1965-1984, out of print, but available in second hand copies or in libraries. It contains a running history of women’s studies.)

On the other hand, what may be generally fascinating is the question of naming these departments, for to my surprise, two of them already call themselves Feminist Studies and a third has petitioned to change its name from Women and Gender Studies to Feminist Studies. Members of the department at the University of California, Santa Barbara told me they were responding to the fact that two of the five candidates they have recently accepted into their doctoral program are men, and the men have asked the department to change its name. (Note: This previously listed the University of Washington as the source of this story. That has been corrected.) I found this personally delightful, because I was—41 years ago—one of the founders of the Feminist Press, aware then that “feminist” is a non-gendered word, totally inclusive of all persons who working on behalf of women’s rights. But, of course, as those of you who are feminist know, the word still carries a load of associated meanings that emerge when young women say, “I’m not a feminist, but….”

I regret that I did not talk with faculty at the University of California, Santa Cruz or the University of California, Santa Barbara about why they call their departments Feminist Studies. On the website of Santa Barbara’s program, however, I found “A Letter from the Chair,” Eileen Boris, called “The ‘F’ Word: What’s in a Name?” She has written a long and complex essay, and I do not want to over-simplify her thinking. You can read it for yourselves, of course. What I found fascinating, however, was that Professor Boris sees “feminist” as a word more complex and inclusive than the words “women” or “gender,” though she does not really discuss the part of the word I find most important—the “ist,” which suggests political movements for change. And if I were choosing a label that included the gendering of women and men, so that one might consider not only the history of those relationships but the possibilities of future change, I would certainly choose “feminist.”

Let me conclude merely by mentioning that Stanford University’s early women’s studies program was the first to call itself “Feminist Studies” back in the 1970s—quite an unusual choice then. And of course there were then hardly any B.A.-granting programs, let alone Ph.D.-granting ones. Three of the four departments on my visits—Santa Barbara’s, San Francisco State’s, and the University of Washington’s—offer the doctorate. San Francisco’s department is called Women and Gender Studies and is, unlike the others, located in the College of Humanities. Next time, I will write about my unusual visit to San Francisco State.

Please feel free to respond to this blog by expressing your views of women’s studies past, present, or future.
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