Making the Invisible Visible

If you think nobody needs a women’s and gender studies class, you need a women’s and gender studies class.

Illustration by Mouni Feddag

The bane of professors’ existence—especially calculus professors—is the frequently asked question: “When am I ever going to use this again?” If we rank courses on usefulness, one unexpected class might well be the most relevant one a college student can take: women’s and gender studies. For this class, the answer to that often posed question is: “Always!”

Just as you would take a biology or economics course to help you comprehend the living or financial world around you, women’s and gender studies provides you with the tools to understand the explicit and implicit roles that gender plays in everyone’s life every day. By exploring the complexities of gender—from history, theory, and current events—we begin to understand gender’s powerful effect and its inherently mutable nature. These courses draw gender out; name it; dissect it; and, most importantly, encourage students to challenge what they thought they knew.

Women’s studies programs grew out of the women’s liberation movement, with San Diego State University and Cornell University establishing two of the first departments in 1970. Activists pushed for these programs, along with others such as Chicano or Latino studies and African American studies. They were established as a corrective to the traditional focus of the white- and male-dominated academy. As Alice E. Ginsberg, editor of The Evolution of American Women’s Studies, explained to Inside Higher Ed, the purpose of these courses has always been “to make visible what has been invisible and to make conscious what has been overlooked or silenced.”

The classes address the traditional absence or seeming absence of women in history, science, the arts, and politics, and they also offer new perspectives of reflection and analysis. In women’s and gender studies, students are introduced to a range of important thinkers, such as Audre Lorde, Bell Hooks (written as bell hooks), and Gloria Anzaldúa. They scrutinize trends that ripple through history and uncover tropes that appear in popular culture. Importantly, the discipline is an ever changing and adapting one—it encourages examination of debates within feminism, such as the tendency to prioritize white women’s perspectives and experiences over those of women of color. It’s instructive to understand the work that early activists undertook to change this focus and apply these lessons to contemporary activism.

Since their inception, such programs have been met with suspicion, and as any women’s and gender studies major can tell you, plenty of derision. And people continue to discount the subject for a wide range of reasons. They believe the classes are only for radical feminists or that the courses lend themselves to unproductive bickering or bullying. Even those who support women’s and gender studies in theory often opt out, because they think they already know enough about the subject by virtue of their identity as female, queer, trans, or gender-neutral.

At my alma mater, a women’s college where discussions about gender echoed through the dining hall and were a source of college-wide debate, plenty of students were hesitant to take such classes. I spoke with some former classmates who were initially reluctant to enroll in a women’s and gender studies class, but they were thankful they did and wished others would too. As one student put it, the “classes are challenging, but I loved it, and I’ve become an improved version of my younger, more naive first-year self as a result of taking that risk.”

Some critics incorrectly argue that we are in a post-feminist society and that women’s studies courses are passé, but these are the people who most need to know what women’s and gender studies is really about.

To any doubters, a quick glance at the news highlights the need for the study of gender dynamics. Women’s issues—including pay inequality, campus sexual assault, representation in politics, and access to health care—are frequent subjects of discussion. But how we talk about these topics is as important—if not more so—than that we’re talking about them in the first place. Many of the debates lack knowledge and depth, and all of these subjects demand more informed discussion and would benefit from feminist analysis.

One of the mainstays of women’s studies is the concept of intersectionality—how different forms of discrimination and oppression interact. Intersectionality tells us that there is no one singular experience for women because of the way gender works in conjunction with race, ethnicity, social class, and sexuality. If we applied this lens to debates about pay inequality and reproductive rights legislation, our conversations would be more nuanced, meaningful, and productive.

Further, as Ginsberg highlighted, “In women’s studies classes, teachers do not claim to be the only ‘expert’; student voices count for a lot.” These courses allow students the chance to be in direct dialogue with others they might not otherwise socialize with and the chance to discuss topics they might not otherwise approach. While we might sit with the same classmates in lab or in lecture, women’s and gender studies courses rely on fostering dialogue and breaking down barriers of communication. Being encouraged to talk openly and to listen respectfully to another’s lived experience in a women’s and gender studies course is an education that cannot be overrated. And it’s one, I promise, you’ll use again and again.

Read more of Slate’s collection of classes you should take