The Invisible Labor of Women’s Studies

Historians in the News
tags: women history, Womens Studies



Noël Duan is a writer, editor, and researcher based in San Francisco and New York.

Only fools pay for their champagne at Oxford. As a women’s-studies graduate student at the British university, I could always count on my professors stocking a bottle or two of bubbly in their offices, happily pouring me a glass whenever I walked in. Students of other graduate programs at Oxford had reserved seats in the library, educational field trips, or allotted funding for research materials, but the 15 women of Oxford’s women’s-studies program during the 2013–14 academic year made do with drinking in medieval-era buildings we would’ve been banned from a century ago.

“I'd felt like I'd been let into this cultural club because so much of English culture, things like Brideshead Revisited and that sort of thing, is based around Oxford,” 27-year-old Isobel Laing, a classmate from Cheltenham, told me. Lisa Bernhardt, a 24-year-old Ph.D. candidate at Cambridge, shared similar sentiments about her university: “I was just really enchanted from the outside looking in—it was so grand.”

If you had just joined a club that took centuries to grant you membership, would you dare ask for more? We were grateful that a women’s-studies master’s program existed at Oxford at all, especially after learning our professors, who taught in other disciplines as well, weren’t getting paid for the additional work they did for women’s-studies students. Sure, my classmates and I were confidently theorizing in seminars about women’s unpaid labor, but addressing these discrepancies in real life proved to foreshadow future disappointments in the devaluation of women beyond the stone enclaves of Oxford.

A classmate recently shared a link to Feminist Formations, a peer-reviewed journal about feminist scholarship, published by Johns Hopkins University Press. I immediately delved into the back archives of the journal, where I discovered, to my dismay, that women’s- and gender-studies programs began as volunteer commitments by scholars and activists in universities both in the U.K. and the U.S. “It has been a long struggle to get support from universities for them,” Lila Abu-Lughod, a professor of anthropology and women's and gender studies at Columbia University, confirmed. At Columbia, with a grant from the Mellon Foundation, professors took it upon themselves to found the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality in 1987, but salaried positions in the program—a “faculty line” in academic jargon—weren’t established until 1998. The budget only covered basic operations, and faculty members had difficulty getting permission from their departments to commit time to teaching and developing the program.

The first women’s-studies program in the United Kingdom wasn’t established until 1980 at the University of Kent in Canterbury, with a Master of Arts degree offered in gender studies. The gender-studies degree programs in Britain are affiliated with interdisciplinary research centers, which means that their work isn’t guaranteed to be recognized, supported, or funded as are dedicated faculties in English, philosophy, or economics. In other words, they will always be secondary to the traditional departments because there isn’t a gender-studies department—just a gender-studies research center. ...




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