When I tell people that I am majoring in Women and Gender Studies (WGS), it seems to be commonplace to get one of two responses. There is the snide remark that goes along the lines of “What type of things do you talk about in those classes? How to burn bras, start abortion rallies, and hate on men? Har Har!” Sometimes, for the fun of it, I like to reply, “Yeah, that’s EXACTLY what I’ve learned over the past four years I have been at college. I can throw a bra burning bonfire like it’s my job! There’s one at my place tonight and we’re having s’mores! You should stop by!” But thankfully, the most typical response I come across is, “Oh, that sounds interesting, but what do you learn and what you can you even do with a degree like that?”
To be quite honest, I never get annoyed by that question. From my experience, people typically ask this question out of genuine curiosity and a desire to explore new areas of interest. Therefore, I think it’s incredibly important for those of us going into the field to educate others about what our programs are all about and the many benefits of getting a degree in WGS.
Before getting more in-depth on the topic, I think it’s important to note that universities across world offering degrees in WGS differ on what they believe to be the most essential knowledge for their students to walk away with, and what type of benefits one is most likely to obtain from their studies. With that being said, I want to give everyone a look into our WGS program at Grand Valley State University and insight into what some of those involved have to say about the importance and benefits of the program.
Grand Valley State University Women and Gender Studies Program Mission Statement:
The Women and Gender Studies Program [at GVSU] is a community of excellent faculty and students who share a vision of diverse gender justice, providing a theory-based and broadly engaged curriculum that focuses on transforming the campus and the larger community. We foster a learning environment where students are liberated from the oppression of gender stereotypes and are prepared to re-envision their individual and social environments and where faculty and students engage in rigorous scholarship as a foundation for teaching, learning, vocation, and civic life. – http://www.gvsu.edu/wgs/
If you have any amount of passion for recognizing oppression within our world, a desire to understand the mechanisms behind it, and a yearning to make changes through hands-on activism, then the field of WGS is a wonderful way to begin moving toward that goal. Since I was a 12 year old Girl Scout, I had the ultimate goal of making changes in our system. While I had the best of intentions, I made the mistake of truly believing that I was more in touch with the realities of social justice issues than I actually was. Thanks to the WGS program at GVSU, I have learned that I, believe it or not, actually don’t know everything! I lacked serious insight before going into WGS, but thanks to my studies and outside experiences, I have a firmer grasp on the best ways to go about making those changes and the realization that I can never stop learning techniques through hands-on activism and advocacy. I believe that my experience is a common one that most feminist activists of any age or wave can relate to. The director of the WGS program at GVSU, Dr. Kathleen Underwood, reflects on her journey and development as a feminist activist:
I have been a social justice advocate since my teens and my advocacy has taken many forms. As someone fortunate enough to grow up in the 1960s, I experienced first-hand the civil rights movement and was among the first VISTA Volunteers, serving in rural North Carolina. There, out of my safe space as a white middle class woman from a small Colorado town, I was transformed. Since then I have been more and less active in politics (anti-Vietnam War, 2nd wave feminism, presidential politics), but my activism now is teaching and guiding students interested in social justice find the strength within themselves to bring about necessary change. From my perspective, there is no place in the academy that provides a better platform for social justice than Women and Gender Studies, with its determination to underpin action with theory.
Within the journey of activism and being a WGS student, comes the opportunity to advance one’s skills, which is a MAJOR benefit in the job market and our awesome economy. The knowledge of theory and social justice issues along with the chance for research and hands-on work in the field through WGS programs are invaluable and extremely marketable in many different careers paths. My WGS major (along with my psychology major) have landed me internships, volunteer positions, and now a job at a domestic violence shelter. Another great example is given by Brittany Dernberger, recent GVSU WGS and Sociology alum and housing resource specialist at Community Rebuilders in Grand Rapids, MI, says it best:
“I think the biggest thing I took away from my experience in the WGS program at GVSU is the intersection between theory and activism, and the need for both in a successful movement of social change. As a recent graduate who now has a “big girl” job, (yay!) I find that many of my experiences outside the classroom relate most to what I’m doing now. In addition to the standard college internships, I was fortunate (and privileged) enough to study abroad in Egypt and analyze gender roles and the feminist movement there. However, these experiences would not have been as meaningful if I didn’t have the conceptual and theoretical frameworks to back it up.”
Along with all of the above, it’s important to note that being a WGS Major gives you such a strong appreciation for diversity. And really, with WGS courses at GVSU being offered such as Sexual Orientation and the Law, Gay/Lesbian/Queer Literature, Global Feminisms, Gender and Popular Culture, and Women’s Community Collaborative, how could you not? All of these courses offer different materials and views of theory, along with enough reading and writing assignments to make your head spin … but, hey, they’ve turned me into the developed writer that I would like to believe that I am and have prepared me for graduate school (another benefit +1!). On the flip side of diverse material, they are connected at the root of ways in which one can get a better understanding of social injustices. What more could you ask for?!
My biggest hope is that this helps answer the question of “what can you do with a degree in WGS and how does it benefit your future?” I could write an entire book on it, but I feel like skimming the surface is a great start! Please feel free to share your opinions and what you believe a WGS degree has to offer!