Thursday, April 11, 2013

Why pick on gender studies?

In another post, my colleague Chris Ferguson made excellent points about the value of higher education that goes beyond very narrow job training while still keeping in mind that education is an investment in the future (but an investment of a particular kind).  In that post, he quoted Governor Pat McCrory’s comments about his desire to use public money to fund education that trains people for jobs:

“If you want to take gender studies that’s fine, go to a private school and take it. But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.”

Chris pointed to the fact that gender studies is singled out but then left it aside hoping that someone would tackle it.  So, here is my two cents on that issue.

I think it is absolutely not accidental that gender studies was singled out.  This isn’t just a matter of not seeing how it could directly translate into a job.  Many liberal arts majors would fit in the category of “useless” if direct job training is the goal.  Rather, I think it is related to broader ideas that are related to how some people still think about differences between men and women and their relative value in our society. 

I would argue that McCrory’s comment is related to the subtle (and sometimes overt) devaluing of women in our society.  Broadly, gender studies is often stereotyped as studying “women’s issues” and these issues are still considered trivial in many ways.  Women are still not always taken seriously or are seen as “less than.” For example, think of the assumptions made about differences in male and female abilities and the different values placed on those skills (either in terms of prestige or in terms of pay).  Men dominate “important” fields like business, economics, sciences, computers, and engineering.  Women “just” take care of children or are concentrated in less well-paid “caring” fields like teaching and nursing (as a side note this is absolutely related to the wage gap).  Or, think of the ways in which female politicians are too often judged by how they look rather than by their qualifications (something that would pretty much never happen to a male politician).  It is still the case that media coverage of male politicians is almost entirely focused on issues and qualifications while discussion of women focuses on dress and looks.  [The documentary Missrepresentation makes this point extremely well.  A recent example of this phenomenon occurred when President Obama called CaliforniaAttorney General Kamala Harris the “best looking attorney general.” Although it could be argued that this was simply a compliment and, to be fair, he also praised her qualifications and toughness, it is emblematic of a broader pattern in the way female politicians are viewed.  There is also evidence that comments about a female politician’s looks or dress, whether positive or negative, hurts them in the polls so this is a real issue.]

In addition to viewing women’s issues as somewhat trivial, there is also the idea that gender issues are not worth studying because they are somehow individual or private and thus less important.  I’m thinking of here of the ways in which androcentrism (i.e. male-centered thinking and an exclusive focus on male perspectives) is still visible in the curriculum (although it is fading, especially at the college level) and in discourses about what is important to study.  I have had students complain, for example, that they were expecting a class about cultural anthropology, but that we “talked about women all the time” as if women aren’t half of human beings and necessary to consider if one is studying culture and “human nature.”  I’m also thinking of the still-existent (but fading) idea that “real history” is what happens in “public” (wars, politics, the economy etc...) while questions of family and daily life are less important.  I think this is part of the reason some would see gender studies as particularly “useless.”  [Ironically, issues of androcentrism and the hidden curriculum have been studied at length and are regularly taught in gender studies.] 

Finally, I think that the attack on liberal arts education goes beyond simply championing the idea that direct job training is the most important (or only) criteria of worth.  Maybe this is extremely cynical, but I often wonder if these attacks are partly motivated by the desire not to have too much critical thinking, too many people who question social norms and social inequalities, and too many people who can evaluate what they are being told by media, corporations, and political leaders.  This is related to why I think gender studies was singled out in a couple of ways.  First, gender studies, as Nels Paulson pointed out in his comment on Chris’s original post, is very much about critical thinking.  Second, it is (at its best) specifically about thinking critically about social structures and social inequalities (not just of gender, but also of race, class, ethnicity) on a global scale.  Third, gender is fundamental, as Nels also points out, in huge issues such as poverty.  It is also fundamental to our norms about family and the structure of the workplace.  It is important in understanding a host of social problems. 

What would happen if more people were informed about and questioned the gender pay gap, lack of family leave, lax of enforcement of laws pertaining to domestic violence, how gender norms affect men, etc... How might things change? Who wants those changes and who might resist them?  Questioning ideas and practices surrounding gender is often especially scary since it can hit “close to home” both literally and figuratively.  If I’m correct in thinking that some in our society would prefer a less-informed populace and that this is part of reason for attacks on liberal arts, I think it makes sense that gender studies might be an especially important target.  After all, “feminist” is still used as an insult as feminism is viewed as trivial at best and dangerous to the social fabric at worst (feminists hate men and want to destroy the family, right?).  It thus makes sense that a field inspired by feminism would be under attack.  

Two final notes: I think that many of the points I have made could also pertain to ethnic studies majors (African-American Studies, Native American Studies, etc...).  Tom Pearson pointed out to me that in the Western United States ethnic studies would have been the more likely target.  I think these fields are perceived in different (but related) ways and this deserves its own post (Tom?).  I would have been surprised to hear someone like McCrory single out African-American studies but I was not at all surprised to hear gender studies in his comments.  Also, anthropology has been singled out by Forbes as the “worst college major” but I like what Jason Antrosio has already said about that at Living Anthropologically:  So I won’t take that one up. 


  1. Thank you, Dr. Lee, for this insightful post. I notice that Forbes, in identifying the "worst" college majors, drew uncritically from a university's "Center on Education and the Workforce," although the very name of the Center should raise red flags about assumptions (btw, the U.S. House of Representatives education committee is also called "Education and the Workforce").

    Since Forbes is a corporate shill sheet, it should not surprise us that they are simply wrong, even by their own measure of a degree's worth. Jason Antrosio points out that liberal arts majors do very well.

    The same "writer" (it makes me cringe to give such a lofty description to a lackey who simply posts pro-status quo screeds) of the Forbes piece on the alleged worthless of liberal arts degrees also posted an article titled "The 20 Best Jobs FOR WOMEN" [emphasis added]. The tacit point of the article is that women should become pharmacists not doctors, etc. If it were not 1:44am I would write an indignant post about the article.

    Education has always been about social control. UW-Stout was explicitly created in the 1890s to teach people driven off their farms by corporate industrialism to accept their fate and the new social/economic order: men taught to work in factories, women taught to stay at home and bake stews for them (Stout had a "practice house" on campus; one night each week the women had to cook dinner for the chancellor. And, they had to raise a baby--a real baby, an orphan obtained by from the state. No, seriously).

  2. To follow up and expand upon your suggestion that perhaps there is an interest in limiting critical thinking, there is a politician in Utah, I believe, who is pushing for elimination of funding by NSF for political science research. I am very concerned about the motivations of a politician who wants to limit research on politics.