Women’s roles & rights
Growing student interest in SWAG program
|Photo by Dan Addison
|Lecturer Tiffany Gilbert (bottom), who just received her English Ph.D. from U.Va. last May, teaches “Feminist Theory & Methods” to Studies in Women and Gender majors. Her spring seminar, “Chick Films and Chick Lit” already has a waiting list of about 60 students.
By Anne Bromley
“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open,” wrote Muriel Rukeyser in a poem published in 1968.
U.Va. women’s studies and history professor Ann Lane uses that quote to open her introductory class, “Women’s Lives in Myth and Reality.”
Although the world has changed some over the years, if women spoke genuinely about their beliefs and experiences all the time, it would still be shocking in our male-dominated world, she said. Things haven’t changed as much as early feminists thought they would in terms of women’s equality, she explained.
After the world on Grounds changed radically with the full admission of female undergraduates in 1970, the addition of women’s studies courses followed before the decade was out. Although still small, the interdisciplinary women’s studies program — renamed Studies in Women and Gender (SWAG) in 1999 — has become increasingly popular.
The program also has developed a strong international emphasis, lauded in a recent external review. Faculty who study women’s roles in other parts of the world bring the truths about other women’s lives to the SWAG classes they teach.
While the University has taken more aggressive steps to address diversity issues over the past three years, the women’s studies program has been exposing students to the academic side of diversity and global studies since the academic program and outreach efforts were split into two separate entities 15 years ago. It was there that Sharon Davie, who was the first director of the Women’s Studies program, became director of the Women’s Center, which offers services such as workshops, counseling and guest lecturers.
Lane, who was hired in 1990 as director of women’s studies and led the program for 11 years, said the first time she taught the introductory course, there were nine students; now she has 160 and a waiting list. Most SWAG classes are oversubscribed. Many more students than the 51 SWAG majors and 14 minors are taking the classes, some of which have to be restricted to make sure the majors can take them. Lane said the number of male and minority students is on the rise after a slight downturn about five years ago.
Added Farzaneh Milani, who will finish four years as director in the spring: “We are bursting at the seams.”
Undergraduates are well familiar with other disciplines in a college curriculum, such as English, biology, math and foreign languages — but not usually women’s studies, Milani said. The introductory courses often draw students who have never before studied the topic. In addition, students with other majors may take SWAG courses that are cross-listed with their departments.
“When women’s studies began, we thought that gender would be fully
integrated into all fields by now,” Lane said, “but there are no schools where this has happened, so we still need women’s studies.”
At U.Va., SWAG faculty each hold a joint appointment in another department where their tenure track is located. Milani, for example, is professor of Persian literature and women’s studies, and specializes in comparative literature with an emphasis in Iranian women’s literature. Ellen Fuller, also in the Asian & Middle Eastern Languages & Literatures department, combines her M.B.A. and degrees in social sciences with a focus on women working in Japan, China and Korea. Denise Walsh, a new assistant professor in the politics department, concentrates on South Africa in her study of women’s political roles and struggles for equal rights.
In an external review submitted earlier this year, two consultants from Duke and Georgia Tech noted, “many women’s studies programs would envy the variety of international perspectives available at the University of Virginia.”
These international perspectives lead SWAG faculty to explore myriad cases in which women are faced with deciding between their culture and their rights. In France, for example, the government outlawed the Muslim practice of females wearing headscarves in school, which it sees as violating the separation between state and religion. Walsh also cited the cultural practices of female genital mutilation in some African countries and the lingering practice of dowry murder in India, as well as heterosexual marriage and whether gay couples should have the right to marry.
“The idea of what ‘woman’ means is not as simple as it seems,” said Tiffany Gilbert, who teaches one of the required courses for majors, “Feminist Theory and Methods.” In her class students explore assumptions about what is biological and what is cultural, and how other factors such as race, class, religion and culture determine how different women are treated.
“Men need to learn about feminism and feminism needs to reach out to men,” said fourth-year religious studies major Todd Aman. He took courses such as “Gender Politics” in the politics department and “Gender and Society” in the sociology department, which count toward the SWAG major courses, and he’s also an intern at the Women’s Center. Society doesn’t just teach women that they should be thin, submissive and unambitious, it tells men that they should be buff, aggressive and self-centered,” Aman said. “Changing society’s construction of the ideal woman, therefore, is only half the battle.”
“People don’t see the connection between their little actions and the big schemes of oppression,” he said, adding that the courses helped him develop an awareness of the political dimension of everyday activities.
Among courses approved for the SWAG major are: “The Feminine ’50s, Border Crossing: Women, Islam and Literature in the Middle East and North Africa,” “From Cinderella to Barbie” and “Feminist Publishing and Scholarship.” Karlin Luedtke, an assistant dean in the College of Arts & Sciences, teaches “Sexuality and Gender in Popular Media.”
Walsh said she makes sure to present different views in her class, “Rights, Identity and Gender Justice in Comparative Perspective.” She has seen her students this semester open up to “the reality that the issues are more complex than they thought … and that not everyone agrees,” she said.
Milani and other SWAG faculty praised the students who choose it as their major, saying they often go on to jobs with nonprofit organizations.
SWAG majors are “top-notch students,” Fuller said. “They’re not taking it because they have to or think they should. They’re intellectually committed.”
“Women students are still finding themselves,” Lane said. “They discover they have foremothers and a past, and it changes them.” She said SWAG faculty regularly get student comments that the courses changed their lives.
Fourth-year SWAG major Whitney Pollock said that taking SWAG “saved” her education. “For the first time in my academic career, I am passionate about issues that I can continue to explore long after I leave U.Va.,” she said.
Studies in Women And Gender — in its own words
Studies in Women and Gender, a concentration or major open to all undergraduates, is an interdisciplinary program that seeks to study history and culture from women’s perspectives and to deepen methods of academic pursuit by acknowledging the critical places of gender. By examining issues raised in SWAG, students develop a fuller understanding of their options as human beings than they have previously recognized, living as we do in a culture divided by gender stereotyping that defines and limits both men and women. Offering a critical perspective, SWAG encourages a re-examination of traditional methods and concepts, supports new kinds of research, and permits students to understand better the changing roles and behavior of men and women in the contemporary world. Acknowledging the central place of women’s experience widens the entire base of our understanding of past and present to encompass the wholeness of life.