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Varying Opinions Bring Different Perspectives to Women's Studies Programs - 2002-03-28

The month of March is Women's History Month in the United States, set aside by the U.S. Congress in the late 1980s to recognize the historical achievements of women. But this kind of celebration actually goes on all year long - in an academic setting.

Courses on women's studies were first introduced at a few colleges and universities in the early 1970s. Today, nearly every institution of higher learning in the United States has a women's studies program, generally a set of courses that look at the humanities, especially the woman's role in history and literature. And the vantage point is a woman's perspective.

"'Why is there no women's history? Why do we not know anything about the sociology of gender? Why is there no women in literature [taught]?' These sort of questions were the questions that the first generation of women studies people were asking at the institutions of higher learning across the country," says Nancy Theriot, chairperson of the women's studies department at the University of Louisville in Louisville, Kentucky. "A woman's studies major blends various approaches together to look at the women's place, women's accomplishments, gender issues in general, and society."

Professor Theriot, who teaches a course on women in the early 20th century, recently assigned her class the autobiography of Jane Addams. Most Americans have never heard of Jane Addams.

"She was among the first-generation, college educated women, and this generation, educated in the late part of the nineteenth century really had no professions to go into," she said. "They were barred from most of the professional fields. It was in the timeframe they were living: they wanted to do something with their lives and do something positive for the world. What Jane Addams and many of her contemporaries did was to go into the 'slums' of the city, the major cities, and try to do something helpful for the people who lived there. She did childcare. She did English language classes. She set up recreational activities for young people."

Nancy Theriot of the University of Louisville says her course takes a positive approach to women studies. She focuses on the contributions of women like Jane Addams rather than criticizing historical scholars of the past - the majority of whom tended to be men - who, as she sees it, minimized women's achievements.

Professor Maria Gonzalez at the University of Houston takes a different approach to women's studies. "It's a critique of patriarchy in all of its forms," she says.

Ms. Gonzalez describes how - as she sees it - American literature was taught before women's studies appeared on the nation's campuses.

"For a long time there, American literary studies was what I called 'New England Genius Studies.' The only authors we studied were from New England," she says. "They were all men. It was a very narrow group. We haven't escaped much of those conceptions. But there are more writers, more conceptions. The thing that women's studies, fundamentally feminism, did was expose one of the first assumptions in that kind of knowledge - and that was that only men could be geniuses."

One of the more controversial aspects of some women studies programs is open discussion of sexuality. Ms. Gonzalez has no problem with that sort of openness.

"In women's studies, sexuality is not a taboo field. If you look at American literature, there's a whole question about, for example, the great American literary classic, Henry James," she says. "There's a question about his sexuality. There's a question about Shakespeare's sexuality. We don't discuss it. We won't discuss it. I don't know why. Women's studies is a field where you can discuss sexuality."

But some argue that women's studies can go too far.

"Things like: 'Black Lavender: a Study in Black Lesbian Plays and Dramatic Construction.' This [example] is a class at Brown University, and this class takes the place of [introductory course] English 101, your typical English class," says Lisa De Pasquale, spokeswoman for a conservative women's group, the Clare Booth Luce Policy Institute, which is based outside Washington, D.C. "To me, that is probably the most atrocious thing: you can pay good money and go to a college like that [Brown University] and leave with no understanding of the English language and traditional English poets and writers and American poets and writers," she says.

Ms. De Pasquale also claims that some women's studies professors appear to have little tolerance for women who disagree with them.

"You know, if I wanted to go to a school and teach a class on conservative women and have it be part of the women's studies department, they would laugh me out of the room," she says.

But one expert on women's studies programs, Professor Claire Moses at the University of Maryland, says she isn't so sure. As she sees it, in the modern women's movement, there's room for varying opinions - and that goes for women's studies programs, too.