NEW YORK — Elissa Haskins sometimes dreads telling people she majors in women's studies. "I'll stay away from you," is one response she occasionally hears. "You must hate men," is another.
Such reactions are based on ridiculous stereotypes, the junior at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., insists. "People assume that you want to stomp on everything, that you must be antitradition, antimarriage, antireligion." Of course, on the positive side, she says with a laugh, "At least people have heard of it!"
Welcome to the world of women's studies in the 1990s. As this field heads toward its 30th anniversary (the first women's studies program was launched at San Diego State University in 1970), its status reads like the old joke: There's the good news and then there's the bad news.
On the positive side, says Sandra Morgen, head of the Center for Study of Women in Society at the University of Oregon in Eugene, "Women's studies are thriving as never before. Programs have more depth, more faculty, more students."
Then there's the bad news. Not only do women's studies programs labor under the negative image Ms. Haskins complains of - angry, antimale, anti-establishment - but they're also grappling with more recent charges that the discipline is separatist, outdated, and irrelevant. What's disturbing for some in the field is that many of the attacks come from other women.
The numbers paint a rosy picture. The National Women's Studies Association in College Park, Md., estimates that today there are at least 720 women's studies programs on US college campuses - a number that has grown by 100 over the past eight years. At the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, several hundred students sign up for introductory-level courses in the field each semester, while at Ohio State University in Columbus, almost 4,000 students took women's studies courses this year.
At the same time, in the academic world, the recent popularity of books such as "Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women," by Christina Hoff Sommers, and "Professing Feminism: Cautionary Tales from the Strange World of Women's Studies," by Daphne Patai and Noretta Koertge, have shaken basic assumptions about the solidarity of the women's movement. "We've faced criticism from the start," says Professor Morgen. "But not that kind of critique from other women academics before."
At some schools, the opposition from other women has set into motion some ironic scenarios. At the State University of New York at Oswego, Barbara Gerber, distinguished service professor and organizer of the women's studies program, says the most serious threat Oswego's program faces today is an attack from a university trustee - a woman who is convinced studies focusing on women are unnecessary.
But some say the attack on women's studies is part of a larger trend. A number of professionals in the field say they feel chilled by an overall bias against liberal arts, and anger about affirmative action and "political correctness."
Caren Kaplan, an associate professor of women's studies at the University of California at Berkeley says such attitudes have hurt enrollment in the field. Women's studies are viewed as "icing on the cake, rather than something necessary," she says, in addition to being being perceived as a hotbed of "political correctness."
Downsizing and discrimination
Diana Scully, professor of sociology and director of women's studies at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, recently did a survey of women's studies programs across the country to measure the damage being done to the field by such negative perceptions. Of the women's studies groups responding to Professor Scully's questionnaire, 36 percent said they had recently suffered from downsizing, budget cuts, lack of representation in campus affairs, and various kinds of harassment - including in some cases hate mail and threats of physical harm.
The field is also dealing with charges of discrimination. On some campuses departments are changing their names to "Gender Studies" in an effort to reach out and include men. (The majority of students involved in women's studies are still women, although some schools report as much as 15 percent male enrollment for certain courses.) But even among women, there is a feeling that the discipline has spoken for and to only a restricted group - white, middle-class women - and that it needs to broaden its scope.
Most women's studies programs are, in fact, currently working hard to demonstrate more diversity in what they teach, who's teaching it, and who's being taught, but, "there's still plenty of room for improvement," says Beverly Guy-Sheftall, director of women's studies at Spelman College, a school for black women in Atlanta. The Virginia Commonwealth University survey reveals that only 1 percent of the directors of women's studies programs are African-Americans, while Hispanics account for about 2 percent.
But perhaps the field's brightest hope remains the students who study it. Patty Cunningham, a sophomore at Ohio State who picked a women's studies minor along with her astronomy major, says, "Those who ridicule women's studies are ignorant and react out of fear." Michelle Montagno, a classmate of Ms. Cunningham's, dismisses the idea that the women's movement is no longer relevant. "Women have come a long way, but change is slow," she says. "There is still much more to be done."
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Yesterday's classics have become today's history. Just 20 years ago, in the first generation of women's studies, many of the following were considered core texts:
AGAINST OUR WILL: MEN, WOMEN, AND RAPE
Susan Brownmiller (1975)
Kate Millett (1970)
THE FEMININE MYSTIQUE
Betty Friedan (1963)
THE SECOND SEX
Simone De Beauvoir (1953)
OF WOMAN BORN: MOTHERHOOD AS EXPERIENCE AND INSTITUTION
Adrienne Cecille Rich (1976)
A list of today's classics (the "second generation" of women's studies) is more likely to include:
FEMINIST THEORY: FROM MARGIN TO CENTER
YEARNING: RACE, GENDER, AND CULTURAL POLITICS\
Bell Hooks (1990)
GENDER TROUBLE: FEMINISM AND THE SUBVERSION OF IDENTITY
Judith Butler (1990)
IN A DIFFERENT VOICE: PSYCHOLOGICAL THEORY AND WOMEN'S DEVELOPMENT
Carol Gilligan (1982)
WHOSE SCIENCE? WHOSE KNOWLEDGE?: THINKING FROM WOMENS' LIVES
Sandra Harding (1991)
BORDERLANDS/LA FRONTERA: THE NEW MESTIZA
Gloria Anzalda (1987)
BLACK FEMINIST THOUGHT: KNOWLEDGE, CONSCIOUSNESS, AND THE POLITICS OF EMPOWERMENT
Patricia Hill Collins (1990)