Gender Studies Clears Hurdle

The Faculty Council voted yesterday to approve the Committee on Degrees in Women’s Studies’ proposal to change its title to the “Committee on Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies,” in a vote that was unanimous save for two abstentions.

Committee chair and Professor of History and Women’s Studies Afsaneh Najmabadi and Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures Bradley S. Epps presented the proposal to the council. Najmabadi said the change in name would do nothing more than reflect what members of Harvard’s women’s studies community study.

“If you look at the courses we teach, at the kinds of scholarship our faculty members do, it is very much at the intersection of women, gender and sexuality studies,” she said. “Student interest has also shifted since the 1980s in that direction. What we’re doing is largely trying to reflect those changes that have happened in the larger field.”

Najmabadi added that the title change would also bring Harvard in line with several of its peer institutions, which have renamed their women’s studies departments in similar ways. She cited Brown, Cornell and Yale in particular, all of whose programs now include either the term “gender” or “sexuality.”

Harvard’s women’s studies program is relatively new—it has existed since just 1986, whereas several other schools have housed such departments since the 1970s.

Though several Faculty Council members would not comment substantively on the meeting—the Council was rebuked again yesterday for talking to the campus media—Welch Professor of Computer Science Stuart M. Shieber said it was a lengthy discussion.

“It was a pretty straightforward proposal,” he said. “People had some questions. The questions were talked about. It didn’t seem problematic.”

Epps said the tone of the discussion was “friendly” and “engaged” and that “people raised very good questions.”

He said most of the concerns raised had to do with the wording of the title, rather than questioning the validity of gender or sexuality studies.

Najmabadi named two concerns she heard at last week’s Committee on Undergraduate Education meeting, where the proposal was first presented. First, there was the issue of clarity—that the terms “gender” and “sexuality” might be too academic for some.

Another concern was over the meaning of the word “gender,” and whether it encompassed both the masculine and the feminine—and whether that might therefore render “Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies” redundant.

She said the committee had discussed the latter issue and deliberately chosen to retain “women” in the title so as not to erase the emphasis on the study of women and women’s history.

“We think it is important to keep women in focus and not lose it as a focus of study and teaching,” she said. “The situation of women at Harvard at many levels...is not a situation in which it would be very wise to make women invisible at one other site.”

Along with a possible new name, the concentration will see a restructuring that aims to define additional tracks, called “foci,” that students may pursue within the committee. The two new tracks will be called “Gender” and “Gender and Sexuality.”

Epps said the new tracks would help ensure that students in the concentration will be able to find courses of study to suit their intellectual goals.

The issue will now be put to a vote before the full Faculty at its Nov. 18 meeting for a final decision.

Epps called the council’s vote a “wise and respectful decision” and said it will be of benefit both to students in the concentration and the University.

“It’s going to accommodate more students,” he said. “It’s going to put us in concert with our peer institutions. It’s going to render more visible the ties and tensions between [studies of women, gender and sexuality].”

Discussion about the place of gender and sexuality studies began seriously last year, with an unofficial Faculty committee that convened to hash out ways of centralizing those studies at Harvard. Epps said he convened the group after he was approached by several students from other departments seeking ways to plan courses of study that included issues of women, gender and sexuality.

—Staff writer Laura L. Krug can be reached at krug@fas.harvard.edu.