A Committee By Any Other Name ...

This week, Harvard has the opportunity to recognize formally the place of gender and sexuality studies on campus. On Friday, the Faculty will vote on a proposal that would change the name of Committee on Degreess in Women’s Studies (CDWS) to the “Committee on Degrees in Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality.” This proposal has already been unanimously approved by CDWS and is also supported by the Harvard BGLTSA.

The proposed change has been long in the making. Since the beginning of women’s studies, issues of gender and sexuality have been integral to the discipline and are currently at the forefront of scholarship in the field. Even a glance at the Committee’s website shows that a huge number of the faculty affiliated with Committee have research interests in questions of gender and sexuality. In the last several years the overlap has become even more striking: Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures Bradley S. Epps, a member of the Committee, has published papers in the journal Homosexuality and Psychoanalysis, and Senior Lecturer in Women’s Studies Kath Weston has contributed to works like Gender Me and Families We Choose.

And this demand is also driven by clearly demonstrated student interest. Last year, fully four out of seven senior theses presented to the committee had gender identity and sexuality as a major focus of their inquiries and the remaining ones wove those issues into a more traditional women’s studies framework.

Our peer institutions, including Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Princeton, Yale, Duke, University of Chicago and NYU, all have programs that include gender and/or sexuality in their titles. Scholarship in women’s studies has in recent decades turned toward an increased focus on the ways in which identities are socially constructed. Theories that today deconstruct the role of gender, race, sexuality and class identity, employ similar approaches as those initially used to explore the role of women. This includes the recognition that gender regulates the behavior of both men and women, and that it is consequently difficult to study women independently of questions of gender and sexuality.

Scholarship on women has always included perspectives of gender and sexuality in order to understand the historical and theoretical position of women. It is therefore not a coincidence that when a movement of students and faculty at Harvard tried to gain recognition for gender and sexuality studies as a valid discipline, the majority of the faculty members supportive of the initiative were already affiliated with CDWS.

Some have argued that combining women’s studies with gender and sexuality studies will dilute the two fields, and that it would be a better idea to have two separate committees. While this is a valid concern, the deliberations of the CDWS’s full faculty revealed that this would serve only to hinder the interdisciplinary nature of the field and construct artificial boundaries. After all, when the list of instructors for any new department would be nearly identical to that of the current CDWS, it is clear that the administrative cost would needlessly increase without any appreciable academic gain.

CDWS is committed to enhancing the study of gender and sexuality without compromising students’ ability to engage in a serious study of women’s history or feminist theory. We are confident that in the long run this change will represent more than a semantic shift, but one that allows CDWS to expand its offerings without sacrificing its current strengths.

Further, some faculty members have questioned whether the word “women” should be dropped from the new name. While some other schools have done this, we do not want to forget or make invisible the role of women in current scholarship, nor do we want to neglect the history of CDWS. Preserving the word “women” in the title is particularly important in light of the history of women at Harvard, one of the last leading universities to admit women as equal students (it was only in 2000, after all, that female graduates of Harvard didn’t have a Radcliffe seal singling out their diplomas as ‘separate but equal’), and one of the last to legitimize women’s studies with a standing committee. By keeping “women” in the title, we wish to emphasize that a focused study of women is still necessary in academic discourse.

This name change for womens’s studies is only one more step in a decades-long enterprise of bringing academic recognition to the study of women, gender and sexuality at Harvard and beyond. But we still have a long way to go in order for this change will infuse the spirit as well as the nomenclature of the committee. As the offerings expand in gender and sexuality as well as traditional women’s studies, as the faculty and University support increases and as the field continues to innovate, we look forward to the day when women’s studies becomes a full department. After all, on Nov. 18, when the faculty considers the committee’s most recent proposal for name change, many members of the committee who are experts in the field will be unable to even attend the meeting, because CDWS, after 21 years, still has not gained the departmental status that would allow them to be granted voting tenure-tracked positions.

On Friday, it is our hope that the Faculty will take into account the importance of recognizing women, gender and sexuality studies as a crucial element of academic study and vote in favor of this proposal.

Margaret C.D. Barusch ’06 of Dunster House, Christopher R. Hughes ’06 of Kirkland House and Elise D. Wang ’06 of Adams House are women’s studies joint concentrators.