Indiana Creates First Gender Studies Ph.D.

As doctoral programs in women's studies spread, one university takes a different approach.
November 10, 2005

The last decade has seen the number of women's studies Ph.D. programs grow to at least 10 -- most of them relatively new. Last week, Indiana University's board approved the creation of a program that will be both similar and different from those 10: the first doctoral program in the United States exclusively in gender studies.

Suzanna Danuta Walters, chair of the program, said that while gender studies should not be seen "as in any way in opposition" to women's studies, the Indiana program would be different in key ways: a strong interdisciplinary emphasis, core courses that focus on gender broadly, extensive connections with biology and other hard science departments, and courses and research projects on topics -- such as sexuality, masculinity and transgendered people -- that might not fit as neatly in a women's studies rubric.

The Indiana program will also feature faculty members and research projects from the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, which is also located on Indiana's Bloomington campus.

The three areas of concentration in the new program, Walters said, reflect its approach. They are medicine, science and technologies of the body; sexualities, desires and identities; and cultural representations and media practices. All students will complete five required courses, of which one is on feminist theory, with the others focusing on gender more broadly. For example, Walters along with a biopsychologist will be co-teaching a course on sexualized genders and gendered sexualities.

The breadth of approaches to gender is a big part of what will set the Indiana program apart from women's studies Ph.D. programs, Walters said. "We're going to have what I would call a deep interdisciplinarity or a transdisciplinarity," she said. Walters acknowledged that women's studies has almost by definition been interdisciplinary, but she said "what often happens is that there is a nod to interdisciplinary work and then you have your women's studies humanities course and your women's studies social science course and you take a little from column A and a little from column B and that's it."

Walters expects to have about seven students admitted in the fall, with five to seven students following each year. Asked if she expects to have more men -- as students and faculty members -- than a women's studies Ph.D. program would, she said, "there's no question about it," adding that the department's undergraduate program attracts both male and female students with courses on topics such as masculinity and "gender in all of its permutations."

On the importance of calling a program gender or women's studies, Walters said the different name reflects "a somewhat different direction," but she said that what many women's studies programs study is in fact gender. "The analytic category we are working with is gender, so I think there is more intellectual logic in calling it gender. I see it as the beginning of feeling a little more secure in the academy, about being inclusive, about broadening the horizons."

Of the existing Ph.D. programs in women's studies, one of them -- at Rutgers University -- includes gender studies in its name as well. Joanna Regulska, the chair at Rutgers, said that faculty members there included the gender name to reflect the research and teaching agenda it reflects. But she said that faculty members felt strongly about keeping women's studies in the name.

"I think what these names reflect is the larger debate in the field: Are we at the moment when we can afford to subsume the name women under gender?" Regulska said. "Many of us felt we should retain both. Given the obvious struggles that women have continuously fought to achieve visibility, this is not a moment when we can concentrate on gender and make women invisible in the process."

Regulska and other women's studies professors stressed that they had a lot of respect for the Indiana faculty and had no doubts about its commitment to feminism and scholarship about women.

Judith Roy, coordinator of the women's studies program at Century College and president of the National Women's Studies Association, said that some scholars fear that a shift from the women's studies name will result in "a change in emphasis," although she said that she believed that in Indiana's program, "women-focused studies will be a very strong part."

Roy said that other programs calling themselves gender studies instead of women's studies may have motivations beyond scholarly focus. "There is a political element to this," she said. "Sometimes I think we find that higher education institutions administratively prefer the term gender studies, thinking that it is less politically charged and has a broader, more inclusive meaning."

Allison Kimmich, executive director of the women's studies association, said Indiana's move was smart marketing. "They can establish their niche in a field that is becoming crowded by identifying themselves in a different way," she said.

Kimmich said that of the 400 departments that are in her association, the vast majority are called women's studies, followed by women's and gender studies, with gender studies a distant third. She cautioned against reading too much into the different names of different programs. While there are "larger philosophical debates" about the direction of the field and how it should refer to itself, there are plenty of courses, professors and research projects that would fit in programs with different names, she said.

"There is a spectrum of how the field perceives of itself and what kind of work is done in the field. There may be certain kinds of work that is more characteristic of what we would call women's studies and certain kinds that are more characteristic of gender studies," but some of each type of that work can be found in either program, she said. So being named one thing or another "may mean something or may mean nothing."


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