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The Birth of Women’s Studies

 

Throughout the lengthy development of historical academic fields, there has often persisted the notion of an underlying patriarchal bias. The scope of research being conducted has often had an institutionalized predisposition to focus upon male scholars, figures and ideas, leading to the neglect of the vital roles women have played throughout history.

 

Women campaigning for abortion rights, photo via Wikimedia Commons.

 

The pursuit of greater rights and recognition within society has been a necessary struggle for women throughout history, a fight perhaps most recognizably acknowledged in the interpretation of the three waves of feminism that swept worldwide during the twentieth century. Numerous female, as well as male, activists have long fought for the rights of women, perhaps most notably during the suffragette movements stemming from the Victorian era. Fundamental rights, such as enfranchisement, were sought and eventually achieved through the 1918 Representation of the People Act and further legislation both in Britain and across the world.

 

While the achievements of first-wave feminists were substantial, women’s issues remained prominent and in need of addressing in the second-half of the twentieth century. Second-wave feminism was rooted in tackling existing inequalities found in the workplace and in the private and public spheres. As second-wave feminism found its feet during the 1960s there emerged a growing acknowledgement from within the academic circles of the movement that there existed little in the way of history focusing primarily on women and their achievements and struggles. As such, scholarship in this field began to emerge at a rapid pace.

 

Female identity holds significance in the phrase, ‘the personal is political’, which emerged during second-wave feminism. It highlights the relationship between private life expectations of the woman as a domesticated wife and mother, and the state which endorsed these values either knowingly or unintentionally. Carol Cohn found similar patriarchal themes in government language being overly-sexualised. Scholarship sought to challenge these notions, and part of Cohn’s work thereby analyzed the relationship between the patriarchy and women, finding that through male-domineered institutions, women were often subject to expectations of domesticity and virtue that were forced upon them. She argued that it was the prerogative of women to call out these forms of oppression; this was crucial in challenging warped perceptions of gender within institutions.

 

The influence of other academic fields and historical movements cannot be understated in the origin of Women’s Studies. Sheila Rowbotham argues that Jean-Paul Sartre aligned black consciousness and “identity as part of the political process” with the feminist school of thought. That is to say, feminism, both in terms of activism and scholarship, could draw upon the shared plight of inequality experienced through discrimination and create new perspectives through which to examine the role of the female gender. Where the Birmingham Feminist History Group notes feminism is often thwarted by the ‘semi-autonomous’ and differing nature of issues under one umbrella of feminism, bell hooks identifies in her work the importance of the field in being ‘inclusionist’. Despite women’s issues being widely different in terms of class, social status and race, she argues that for true equality to emerge, a conciliation of ideas and authors, regardless of background is essential.

 

Although the advent of Women’s Studies as an academic field has been lauded by many, there still exists criticisms of the subject. The aforementioned Birmingham Feminist History Group, formed in the 1970s specifically to address the lack of 1950s feminist historiography, and make compelling arguments for the state of feminism during the period. One particular concession they make in their writing is the existence of a ‘middle-class centric view’; their work and the limited work of their predecessors are typically written from the perspective of higher-educated women. While they can display a certain appreciation and sympathy for female working-class issues, many academic publications within the field suffer from articulating primarily a more elitist perspective, with key aspects of women’s issues experienced by the lower-classes not always as readily identified.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

That being said, the global significance of Women’s Studies is huge. The creation of new dialogues focusing on issues that have persisted throughout history but have never been truly addressed has shaken academic scholarship in the best of ways, allowing intellectuals to construct ideas and challenge existing arguments. Where early scholarship focused upon the relationship between women and the patriarchy, newer thinking has seen Women’s Studies expand into other disciplines and explore the important role women play in the social sciences and other fields today.