When I tell people that I’m taking a Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies class, the response is almost always split down the middle. Women say something along the lines of “that’s interesting.” Guys typically roll their eyes or crack a joke.
I guess it makes sense. The word “women” is in the title, not “men.” Women also make up the vast majority of the classes. Women’s rights and literature written by women make up the bulk of the coursework. However, I am decidedly against the idea that GWSS classes are just for women. Men can also learn and have a positive experience. The reason this doesn’t usually happen is because there are many negative connotations and confusion associated with women’s studies, feminist perspectives, queer theory and all forms of thought that question gender and sexuality.
For women’s studies in particular, there is the belief that women are already equal with men and are now just playing the victim. Connected to this is the assumption that the material must be biased and work to demonize all men. Consequently, it is imagined that every female walks out of the classroom brainwashed, eager to burn their bras and shave their heads, blissfully unaware for the time being that a GWSS major will land no worthwhile job after graduation. After all, if a woman really wants to prove herself, she should major in something truly beneficial like science, math or engineering.
What bothers me most about these assumptions is that they are consistently made by people who have never taken a GWSS class and swear never to even consider it. A GWSS classroom environment is one of discussion and debate. Women are not the only subjects — the true nature of the courses is to examine how culture, history, race, religion and all the other multifaceted sections of life intersect, and in turn, produce gender identity. Literature by women is read and analyzed more often because it is not as recognized in general school curriculum. By reading it, a more complete knowledge and scope of the world is better achieved. The stereotype of the “anti-man” attitude comes from the fact that the classes are mostly female. This could be fixed if more men were willing to take GWSS classes and challenge that. The thing is they don’t. This is because most men think GWSS classes are unimportant and ridiculous. This only heightens the importance of GWSS classes by asserting the prevalence of misogyny in today’s society.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2011, women working fulltime in the U.S. earned 77 percent of what men earned — a gap of 23 percent. Certain aspects of this gap have been explained, such as the higher propensity of women that go into teaching, social work and nursing — jobs that tend to pay less than other occupations. Yet, the reasons as to why a teacher earns less than a lawyer, a social worker less than an accountant or a nurse less than an engineer, have not been explained. A 2007 study by the American Association of University Women found that after accounting for college major, occupation, industry, sector, hours worked, workplace flexibility and other similar factors, a 5 percent difference remained in the earnings of male and female college graduates one year after graduation.
Gender inequality is not only in the U.S.; it is all over the world. In Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to travel without written permission from their closest male relative, nor are they allowed to drive. In countries like China or India, a male child is much more valuable than a female child. This has resulted in surges of female infanticides and abortions. Commonly referred to as the “missing girls,” China and India account for 85 million of the nearly 100 million missing girls estimated to have died from discriminatory treatment in hospitals, nutrition access and neglect.
Men are not evil but society is and has been structured as a hierarchy with men on a higher rung than women. The pattern of men having more freedom legally, religiously and sexually throughout history is impossible to ignore. Attacking men isn’t the point. What is important is analyzing the implications this structure has on us — how it affects our views of the world, each other and ourselves.
The belief that a GWSS major is equated with unemployment is a myth. The cross section of history, political science, English literature, psychology and other elements present in the major can prepare any student for a job in politics, education, human rights advocacy and many other areas. It may not guarantee an immediate desk job with a full-time salary and benefits, but perhaps that’s not what everyone wants. And maybe some women — far from brainwashed — will end up wanting to burn their bras and shave their heads. Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with that.
Though I am not a GWSS major, the classes I’ve taken have had a profound impact on me. Far from hating men, I’ve come out of every class with a better, albeit more complex, understanding of what it means to be me. This experience is valuable to anyone, regardless of gender. GWSS classes and the forum they open are hard to find outside of a college environment, so take advantage. The discussion of gender identity is an important one to have, but it can’t reach its potential until men get involved, too.
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