Introduction: Fifty Years of Women’s Studies

By Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Spelman College

Illustration of author Beverly Guy Sheftall with her orange glasses slightly below her eyes, and her chin resting pensively resting on her right hand
Beverly Guy Sheftall by Nicole Carter

Women’s Studies, as a distinct entity within US higher education, made its debut in 1970 with the establishment of the first program at San Diego State University.[1] (See Russell et. al, this collection.) Fifty years later, there are more than nine hundred programs in the US, boasting well over ten thousand courses and an enrollment larger than that of any other interdisciplinary field. And Women’s Studies[2] has gone international in a big way: Students can find programs and research centers everywhere from Argentina to India to Egypt to Japan to Uganda, to Ghana – more than fifty countries in all, from nearly every region of the globe. (See Darkwah and Ernstberger essays, this collection.)

As it has developed on individual campuses, Women’s Studies has also reached out to a wider audience by creating a wealth of scholarship in print. The US can now boast more than eighty-eight refereed Women’s Studies journals, and hundreds of monographs in the field have been published by university press and trade houses.

Want to earn a doctorate in Women’s Studies? You have twenty-two choices of programs in the US, plus those in Canada, Australia, and England. Want to teach? Colleges and universities across the nation routinely advertise faculty searches in Women’s Studies programs and departments, and award prestigious endowed professorships in the field. Want to put your degree to work outside of higher education? There is a growing domestic and international market for Women’s Studies graduates in government, policy and research institutes, foundations, and nonprofit organizations. (See Radeloff and Berger, this collection.)

During the 1970s, the pioneers of Women’s Studies focused on establishing the field as a separate discipline with autonomous programs. In the 1980s, the focus expanded to include “mainstreaming” Women’s Studies throughout the established curriculum, incorporating feminist scholarship within many academic disciplines. In that way, Women’s Studies wouldn’t remain in an academic ghetto, but could begin to transform and gender-balance every aspect of the curriculum.

Also in the ‘80s, women of color began to critique both Women’s Studies and gender focused curriculum projects for their relative lack of attention to questions of race, ethnicity, class and cultural differences. One of the hardest-hitting examinations of the insensitivity of Women’s Studies to difference can be found in the pioneering work of feminist theorist bell hooks, especially her book Feminist Theory from Margin to Center (1984), in which she illuminated the impact of employing a monolithic conception of women’s experiences in the new scholarship on gender and sexuality.

Responding to such critiques, a new field of study emerged—Black Women’s Studies, which now provides a framework for moving women of color from the margins of Women’s Studies to its center. (See Sears and Stevenson et al. essays, this collection.) The 1982 book All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave (edited by Gloria Hull, Patricia Bell Scott and Barbara Smith) helped catalyze this transformation of Women’s Studies, providing a theoretical rationale for incorporating “minority women’s studies” and “intersectional” analyses into all teaching and research on women.

In the fifty years since its inception, Women’s Studies has revamped and revitalized major disciplines in the academy. It has challenged curricular and pedagogical practice. It has disrupted the male-centered canon. It has altered or blurred the boundaries between disciplines. It has introduced the social construction of gender and its intersections with race, class, ethnicity, and sexuality as a major focus of inquiry. And it has experienced phenomenal and unanticipated growth, becoming institutionalized on college and university campuses, spurring the hiring of feminist faculty, adding graduate courses of groundbreaking content, generating a large body of educational resources and providing the impetus for the establishment of feminist research centers. It has stimulated the development of other academic fields as well: queer studies, cultural studies, gender studies, men’s and masculinity studies, disability studies, peace studies, and more.

Even more compelling, perhaps, are the profound changes that have occurred over the past fifty years as a result of the feminist activism, teaching and research stimulated by Women’s Studies. There is heightened consciousness and advocacy around rape, incest, battering, sexual harassment, sex trafficking, the feminization of poverty, and health disparities related to race, gender, and class. In addition, there is more intense dialogue about government-subsidized child care, health-care reform, gender equity in education, and spousal leave. It is unfortunately still the case that empowerment strategies for women do not necessarily address the particular experiences and needs of women of color or poor women, but this just gives Women’s Studies scholars and activists a challenge for the future.

Because of its potential for societal transformation, Women’s Studies should be supported more than ever during this paradoxical period of assault or backlash, on the one hand, and increased demand from students plus the growing imperatives of diversity and inclusion on the other. A well-organized right-wing movement, emboldened by the president and his education secretary, both inside and outside of higher education, continue to employ outmoded racist, misogynist, and homo/transphobic schemes to try and reverse progressive reforms. We cannot let that happen. We need to advocate even more loudly and clearly for the revamping of mainstream curricula that remain insensitive to racial, ethnic, cultural, sexual, and class differences–a campaign in which Women’s Studies plays a crucial role. (See Shayne, 2020.)

Women’s Studies must also work more closely with other interdisciplinary programs, and provide expertise–along with ethnic studies—to the important multicultural initiatives taking place on many campuses. Feminist scholars must continue to conduct research and generate data to inform public policy debates and decision-making that will affect women and families in the US and around the globe.

This is the greatest challenge for our field: to transcend the boundaries of race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, age, geography and language in the interest of a feminism that is expansive and responsive. After fifty years, we know that Women’s Studies is more than up to it.


An earlier version of this Introduction appeared in Ms. Magazine. It is edited and reprinted by permission of Ms. magazine, © 2009.


Works cited:

hooks, bell. 1984. Feminist Theory: from margin to center. Boston, MA: South End Press.

Hull, Gloria T., Patricia Bell-Scott & Smith, Barbara, eds. 1982. All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies. New York, NY: The Feminist Press.

Shayne, Julie. 2020, Feb 24. “The Trump Era Proves That Women’s Studies Matters.” In Ms. Magazine online. [Accessed: 6/2/2020]

  1. I would like to thank Estephanie Guzman for locating the updated statistics for me and Sarah Valdez for transcribing the magazine article version back into a word document for me.
  2. Many programs and departments have since changed their names to some version of “Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies.” (See Bhatt essay, this collection.) To remain consistent with the field’s history I use “women’s studies” in this essay.

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