Women's studies: as crucial today as ever

Monday, December 1, 2014

By Shannon Dea, director of the Women's Studies program, Arts Teaching Fellow, and professor of Philosophy.

As I write this, we are one week into 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, an international campaign that begins each year on November 25 with the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, ends December 10 on International Human Rights Day, and in Canada encompasses the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women on December 6.

For many of us, the 16 Days campaign is doubly resonant this year. For much of October, the Canadian media was given over to reports of former CBC Radio host Jian Ghomeshi’s alleged assaults of a number of women, and to related discussions about consent and some of the reasons so few sexual assault victims ever report their assaults. 2014 also marks the 25th anniversary of the murder of fourteen women at l’École Polytechnique de Montréal. Across the country, this year’s iterations of the annual December 6 memorial will no doubt be deeply moving as young women whose mothers were the same age in 1989 as the Montreal Massacre victims gather to remember.

News stories like the Ghomeshi affair and anniversaries like December 6 drive home just how crucial it is that university Women’s Studies departments continue to foster teaching about and research into gender and the role that gender plays in creating and sustaining social inequities. Indeed, one could fill a whole calendar with reasons to support strong Women’s Studies scholarship.

In April, the world watched in horror as 300 Nigerian schoolgirls were kidnapped by Boko Haram. In October, media critic Anita Sarkeesian was forced to flee her home after online misogynists issued death threats and publicized her address. In November, federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau suspended two M.P.s from the Liberal caucus for alleged sexual harassment; a few days later, retired Liberal M.P. Sheila Copps reported having been raped and sexually assaulted during her time in office. In the past month, the University of Virginia was shaken by Rolling Stone allegations of an endemic campus rape culture. Year-round and worldwide, it is still dangerous to be a woman. This danger is exacerbated for First Nations women, trans women, and disabled women, who are disproportionately victims of violence.

Moreover, women continue to earn less than men, and to be underrepresented in government and in positions of leadership in all sectors (including academe).

For four decades, Women’s Studies programs throughout North America (including the one at University of Waterloo) have provided students and researchers with an interdisciplinary feminist lens to train on the role that gender plays in politics, history, industry, society and culture. The methodological tools and the theoretical framework students acquire in Women’s Studies are as crucial today as ever. However, in our increasingly beleaguered post-secondary system, Women’s Studies programs are often vulnerable.

Shannon DeaOn November 16, I was appointed Director of Women’s Studies and charged with developing an innovative, sustainable “made in Waterloo” plan to keep our Women’s Studies program strong. Over the coming months, I will be consulting widely with stakeholders across the University and beyond to learn how Waterloo’s Women’s Studies program can continue to equip its students and alumni to make a difference in a world that still, to a great degree, judges worth by gender. I am humbled and excited to play what I hope will be a transformational role that will both honour the program’s history and chart a strong course into the future.

If you, as students, faculty or staff members, have a vision for a strong, vital Women’s Studies program attuned to Waterloo’s distinctive pragmatic character, I want to hear from you. You can reach me at sjdea@uwaterloo.ca.

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