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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

WGS Fosters Community

By Matthew T. Lowe and Kevin J. Wu, Crimson Staff Writers

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.

UNDERMINING STEREOTYPES

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.

Sociology concentrator Samantha A. Meier ’12, who has taken a number of WGS classes, says she is acutely aware of how WGS concentrators are perceived around campus.

“There’s this idea that only people who already care about ‘women’ and ‘women’s issues’ would want to be WGS concentrators. That if you’re interested in the study of women, you probably are a woman, and it’s also probably your thing,” Meier says. “Gender is your thing and you can’t talk about anything else.”

Meier further describes how concentrators who identify as men are commonly assumed to be gay.

“The fact that it is ‘gender and sexuality’ leads people to believe that if you’re a guy interested in it, then probably your sexuality is not mainstream,” Meier says.

But while these stereotypes may reflect an element of truth, they do not encompass the full breadth of the discipline and the undergraduates who study it. It is true, however, that well more than half of the 19 junior and senior concentrators identify as female.

In addition, some concentrators agree that the focus on sexuality in the concentration does indeed attract students whose sexuality is “not mainstream” but say that the stereotypes regarding concentrator sexuality have become exaggerated.

“In terms of how [WGS concentrators] identify their sexual orientation, WGS is very diverse,” says Jia Hui Lee ’12, who identifies as queer.

What ties WGS concentrators together, however, is not just a spirit of feminism or interest in LGBTQ issues.

WGS concentrator Teake ’12 says that WGS has evolved from its roots in feminism to incorporate a broad spectrum of identity issues.

“It’s not just orientation that people bring to the table, but also maybe racial background or citizenship status,” he says. “People come to these classes to explore many, sometimes overlapping, issues of marginalization.”

MORE THAN A CONCENTRATION

Although the concentrators may vary in their use of identity as an academic lens, they attest to the way in which the WGS concentration facilitates a welcoming community.

By the end of four years, all the concentrators are quite familiar with one another, according to concentrator Keith W. Grubb ’13. Even WGS Director of Undergraduate Studies Caroline Light knows everyone by name.

“Our program’s faculty have worked over the years to provide a welcoming intellectual environment for all kinds of students,” Light says. “My hope is that people of all gender identities and orientations—not to mention races and ethnicities, class backgrounds, and nationalities—will recognize the value of gender and sexuality as categories of analysis.”

Lee describes the intimate nature of the concentration as one of its greatest strengths.

“It’s a very small community, so you do get a lot of personal attention with professors and your colleagues. You work together and think about questions together,” he says.

Concentrators say that WGS is different from other disciplines for the personal nature of the questions it asks about gender, race, and identity. For them, the open and tolerant way in which these questions are examined makes WGS a safe haven for individuals whose values and interests might otherwise be marginalized by traditional social constructs.

“It’s important to create a space where you’re not going to be ostracized,” Teake says. “I feel like a lot of people who do WGS are disillusioned that they can’t bring up these issues in other concentrations.”

—Staff writer Matthew T. Lowe can be reached at mlowe@college.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Kevin J. Wu can be reached at kwu@college.harvard.edu.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction.

CORRECTION: OCT. 15, 2011

The Oct. 14 article "WGS Fosters Community" incorrectly stated that Women's Studies was established at Harvard in 1978. In fact, the program was established in 1987.

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