Jenny Higgins UW-Madison Gender and Women's Studies

As If the World Was Male

“At a fortieth anniversary, it’s very easy to be nostalgic for the good old days. Women’s studies did some radical things early on,” says Judy Houck MA’84, PhD’98, current chair of the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies. The name change — adding Gender — came about in 2008 when the women’s studies program became a department. The added word is both a reverent nod to the pioneering history and the still-relevant need to center women as a marginalized community, and a modernized reflection of the rapidly evolving scientific understanding of gender.

Today, fourteen faculty members teach twenty-eight undergraduate classes to around one hundred majors and two hundred and fifty certificate students, not including the one hundred cross-listed courses. Last year the department graduated forty-five majors, seventy-five GWS certificates, and twenty-two LGBT certificates.

“These are still thriving research areas, and our students still demand these courses. We are still doing field-changing work when you add a feminist lens to biological questions,” says Houck. “We are trying to hold on to something from our past as we go forward. But other ways that we’re moving forward are brand new.”

UW-Madison faculty committee forming Dept. of Gender and Women's Studies, 1975
A faculty committee meets for the formation of the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies (then Department of Women’s Studies) in 1975

Today’s department has evolved to reflect and analyze a changing world. It is developing a new disability-studies curriculum, including Ellen Samuels’s work on the intersectionality of race and disability. Nonbinary [?] gender and transgender experiences are arguably the biggest shift in recent years, permeating departmental courses at all levels.

And science continues to play a foundational role. Just last year the department launched the new Witting Postdoctoral Fellows Program in Feminist Biology, a two-year endowment encouraging a biologist to utilize feminist perspectives.

“If women are better informed about their bodies, they should have better health outcomes,” says professor of psychology Janet Shibley Hyde, director of the Center for Research on Gender and Women, who’s currently pioneering research on gender differences — with surprising results.

“My work over the last ten or fifteen years has shown that males and females are actually much more similar than they are different,” says Hyde, offering the example of math performance. One of her recent studies showed that second- through eleventh-grade public school girls performed as well as boys. “And if you look at bachelor’s degrees in mathematics today, 48 percent of them are going to women.” But when Hyde asks her students to estimate that percentage, most guess between 15 and 20 percent. The stereotype that men are better than women at math and science is a self-perpetuating one, keeping girls from taking these classes in the first place.

“At a fortieth anniversary, it’s very easy to be nostalgic for the good old days. Women’s studies did some radical things early on.”

Moreover, according to Higgins, the fact that GWS 103 counts as a science credit is a big draw for students who are avoiding, say, organic chemistry.

“There’s still a lot of science-phobia among our young women students — this notion of, ‘Yeah, I’m bad at science,’” says Higgins. Capturing them at the 100-level not only dispels that myth, but it also gives them a greater understanding of where that line of thinking came about in the first place.

“The way we think of the world, the way we think about bodies, about health, is culturally constructed,” says Higgins. “What we’re trying to get students to increasingly recognize is that all bodies have social influences placed upon them.”

At the end of each semester, Higgins asks her students to reflect back to the first day of class when they each wrote down learning goals. The iClickers come back out when she asks if they were successful — and the answers are positive. As for her goals, Higgins hopes that her students will find their own passions and carry them forward into careers, whatever they may be.

“I want them to love and take care of their own bodies and their health, no matter what kind of bodies they have, or their gender identity,” says Higgins. “I want them to be critical consumers in their own health seeking, and I want them to be critical, in general, of how our society influences health.”

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