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Some people believe that women's studies programs marginalize women and are obsolete. The fact that women are already marginalized in contemporary Canadian society belies this assertion. Over 60 percent of university students may be female, but Parliament barely represents women, one in six women in Canada lives below the poverty line, and many women working full time in Canada still earn only 71 percent of what men earn. Documentaries such as Patricia Gabel's Her Brilliant Career (2005) demonstrate how seldom female faces appear in circles of power, dazed and concussed from banging their heads on the glass ceiling. Violence against women and the feminization of poverty don't disappear because theoretical debates suggest the issues are complex.
Women's studies courses validate the lived experiences of women. Feminist scholarship promotes research into women's material conditions, encourages academic and grassroots activism, and offers a life-changing analysis of oppression. If feminist scholarship were fully honoured, funded and integrated into academe, women's studies programs would be respected and supported.
When Shaunagh Stikeman, McGill's first Women's Studies honours graduate (2002), was asked, "What is women's studies, where are men's studies and what will you do with a women's studies degree?" she answered:
(1) "Women's Studies is an interdisciplinary program that seeks to analyze and critique existing systems of knowledge and construct new gender-sensitive approaches to knowledge, theory and practice;
(2) "That's everything else. In a political science course, for example, the relationship between politics and women's status was never discussed, and
(3) "I leave McGill not only with a well-rounded education and a specialization in gender analysis in any context, I have a new and more meaningful understanding of how the world works and a deep motivation to make a difference for women in this world."
This sounds more like critical thinking than marginalization to me.
Shaunagh echoes the passion that informed the second-wave women's movement during which I marched for abortion rights–"Keep your laws off my body" read one placard–penned reviews on theatre, books and art by women, and articles on racism and classism in and out of the women's movement. I learned how profoundly gender as a social category impacts law, religion, the media, politics and business practices. I noticed that advocating for women's full and equal participation as citizens triggers denial, resistance, mockery and outrage. For a while, my car boasted a feminist bumper sticker until a threatening note was left on my windshield. When I took a women and law course in the early '70s, the professor was skeptical about my concern that most men harbour rape fantasies. She decided to test the idea with her all-male law class and when the anonymous responses were unanimously positive, our class took on a decidedly more impassioned tone.
Women's studies courses and programs pass on how social movements embody change, how research can be socially relevant and how powerful ideas can change public and private discourse. Why would they be singled out as reductionist and redundant when gender-based analysis is now being adopted more and more by public institutions?
Cy-Thea Sand works at the McGill Centre for Research and Teaching on Women.