Until Matt S. Brown ’14 walked into his first Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding 26: “Race, Gender, and Performance” class in the first week of sophomore year, he says he was not aware that Harvard had a Women, Gender, and Sexuality concentration.
Brown says the course—taught by WGS Associate Professor Robin Bernstein—was highly recommended by his teammates on the football team, who described the class as “a breath of fresh air.”
Brown is among the growing ranks of non-concentrators taking WGS courses—a number that has jumped from 388 to 545 in the last two years. But despite the surge in enrollment numbers for WGS courses, the number of primary and joint concentrators has seen a much more gradual growth. As one of the College’s smallest concentrations approaches its 25th anniversary, the concentration still finds itself battling misconceptions about its nature.
“People think it’s only women, and that it’s just ‘crazy feminists,’” says Reed E. McConnell ’15, who is launching a feminist magazine at Harvard.
But feminism is only one focus of a department that has gradually taken on “the category of gender” as its field of study, according to Afsaneh Najmabadi, who chairs the Committee on Degrees in Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality. And as the discipline has broadened and diversified, so has the body of students who have chosen to study it.
FROM WOMEN’S STUDIES TO WGS
As academic fields go, WGS is a relative newcomer. Under the original title of “Women’s Studies,” the field first began to develop as a separate program in colleges and universities in the early 1970’s and found its way to Harvard in 1987.
Initially, Women’s Studies scholars primarily concerned themselves with the historical role of women in different societies and cultures, but it was not long before they began asking more fundamental questions about the concept of gender itself.
“The category of gender as the category of analysis developed into what became a redefinition of the field,” says Najmabadi.
Major shifts in scholarship continued with the gradual emergence of sexuality as an area of research in the 1980s, and with the rise of LGBTQ studies in the 1990s.
“By the time I arrived here [in 2001], if you went back and looked at course catalogs, the kinds of courses that were still what Women’s Studies was offering wasn’t really what the name connoted,” Najmabadi says. “It was not giving the right signal to the student body.”
According to Najmabadi, students would often approach the concentration late in their academic careers, saying that they would have chosen the field had they known it covered a broader area of scholarship that included gender and sexuality.
In 2003, the Committee on Women’s Studies petitioned to change its name to the Committee on Degrees in the Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality—but still found itself suffering from popular misconceptions.
For its small size, the nature of its course offerings, and its unique academic approach, WGS has earned its concentrators a variety of stereotypes outside the classroom.