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Is Women's Studies Too Negative?

The following WMST-L discussion addresses students' complaints that Women's 
Studies courses focus too much on "negative areas of women's experiences." 
The discussion took place on the list in May 1993.  For additional WMST-L 
files now available on the Web, see the WMST-L File List.
Date: Tue, 4 May 1993 10:10:11 -0700
From: Sharyl Bender Peterson <SPETERSON@CCNODE.COLORADO.EDU>
Subject: Too much "downside" emphasis in WS?
I've just read my student evaluations from my Psychology of Women course,
and found a theme that had also appeared in the evaluations the last time
I taught the course.  While students overwhelmingly found the course
worthwhile, interesting, informative, etc., several commented that there was
"too much emphasis on the negative areas of women's experiences."  They
seemed to feel that talking about issues like wage discrimination,
educational practices that marginalize women and that have subsequent
negative effects on them over the long-term, gender biases in mental
health diagnosis and treatment, etc. was "just too negative."  They
wanted more coverage of "all the great stuff in women's lives" -- no-one
specified what that "great stuff" might be, but they seemed to feel it
was out there, and courses that present a lot of negative information are
pretty depressing.
    I agree -- and want to point out that I do talk about empowerment,
and women's courage, and women's strengths -- which apparently got lost
(at least for some students) in the other data.  I was wondering whether
others of you have had similar experiences, and how you have responded.
I'm trying to decide whether I should somehow try to dramatically revise
the course the next time I teach it, or what.
    Sharyl Bender Peterson, The Colorado College
Date: Tue, 4 May 1993 12:52:53 -0400
Subject: Re: Too much "downside" emphasis in WS?
Although I agree that it is very important to talk about problems, I
would suggest that a simple emphasis on individual empowerment is not the
only way to make students perceive women's condition in a balanced way.
Even more important I think is to project a vision of change - to explicitly
discuss what might the alternatives to the present situation of oppression
look like and explore with the students how we can together work to get
there. It's all too easy to simply critique the present. That needs to be done
but the real work begins when we take seriously our responsibility for
creating change and eliminating women as victims. This also avoids the
currently popular goal of testifying as to who is the most oppressed victim.
Rather, we need to focus much more on the potential for and mechanisms for
creating a vision of real liberation. The goal is NOT to be victims. That is
a too rarely heard message and is the real source of empowerment.
Joan D. Mandle  Women's Studies  Colgate University
Date: Tue, 4 May 1993 13:39:46 -0400
From: Sarah Elizabeth Chinn <sec8@CUNIXB.CC.COLUMBIA.EDU>
Subject: Re: Too much "downside" emphasis in WS?
        I agree that talking about empowerment is important in any women's
studies class, but I wonder what's behind the students' demand for more
"positive" material.  It smacks too much of "post-feminism."  Several of
my students, male and female, talk in class as if (or even say explicitly)
women and men have equal standing in this culture, racism is a function of
history, not the present, and we should all just try to fit in and get
along.  They don't feel comfortable learning that women earn 63 cents to
men's $, that sexual, economic and racial violence are alive and well in
1993,  that the history of the US is based in slavery and expansionism.
It's my job to give them as much in
Date: Tue, 4 May 1993 14:15:50 -0500
From: Barb Marshall <BMARSHALL@TRENTU.CA>
Subject: Re: Too much "downside" emphasis in WS?
Our intro to Women's Studies students also expressed a sense of depression
at all the 'down' stuff that was covered in the course, even though they
recognized that there was no easy way to present the facts on poverty,
violence, etc.  The two instructors for the course, decided to have a class on
 feminist humour to end the course on a more positive note.  This has been a
tremendous hit with the students. A former WS student who is now a teacher and
 part-time professional stand-up comic comes in and does a 'show', and seminars
 follow up with readings on women's humour.  Its a great way to end the course
 with a sense of real
empowerment and dispenses with any notion that feminists have no sense of
humour!  This year was the second year this was part of the course, and the
classroom was overflowing with 'visitors' on humour day.
Date: Tue, 4 May 1993 10:49:20 -0700
From: Karen Anderson <KARENA@CCIT.ARIZONA.EDU>
Subject: Re: Too much "downside" emphasis in WS?
In addition to talking about models and visions for women's empowerment
in ws classes, it is also important to analyze the ways in which a culture
that "blames the victim" in various ways makes it uncomfortable for us
to talk about oppression.  Students believe that women and other
oppressed groups are being represented as "weak" and complicitous in
their own oppression, even when that is not our intention.  It helps
to frame such discussions with analysis of structure/agency,
complicity/resistance, and victim-blaming discourses.
Karen Anderson, Univ. of Arizona.  karena@ccit.arizona.edu.
Date: Tue, 4 May 1993 15:01:39 -0400
From: Jean Potuchek <jpotuche@CC.GETTYSBURG.EDU>
Subject: Re: Too much "downside" emphasis in WS?
When I first began teaching Intro to Women's Studies, I too was struck by
the fact that we seemed to spend much of the course sticking pins in
students' balloons (a necessary exercise) and ran the risk of leaving them
at the end of the semester feeling deflated rather than pumped up and ready
to make change.  In conjunction with a number of wonderful co-teachers, I've
developed several strategies for offsetting this tendency.  The last
couple of times I've taught the course, we've begun and ended with a
discussion of feminist visions of the future, using Marge Piercy's *Woman on
the Edge of Time* as a jumping off point.  We've also developed the strategy
of having a unit late in the course that focuses on feminism as a social
movement and on examples of women acting collectively to make change.
Recently, I've discovered the book *Seeds: Supporting Women's Work in the
Third World* (Ann Leonard, editor, Feminist Press, 1989), which provides
up-beat and very concrete examples of women acting collectively to improve
their lives in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Jean L. Potuchek
Women's Studies
Gettysburg College
Date: Tue, 4 May 1993 14:56:40 EST
Subject: Re: Too much "downside" emphasis in WS?
The thread on ws as a "downer" is an interesting thing.  Two very different
things may be going on here, I suspect.  One is the whole questio of perception
that was raised last week in the men and alienation thread.  That is students
may "perceive" the course was depressing and negative even if half of what you
said was negative and half positive.  They may be selectively remembering what
they heard.
The second is that they just may want to see women being effective. I have
tried to address this in my introductory courses by including women's poetry on
a daily basis.  At the beginning of each class we all read around a poem by a
woman.  They are chosen from all over the place, different races, classes,
nationalities, etc.  And their only purpose is toshow that despite everything
women have always produced culture, they have always been agents in the making
of history.  This tactic may not take care of the first problem at all (tht is
my students may still think the course too negative).  But it can make the
point that women are not "simply" victims.
Date: Tue, 4 May 1993 14:16:00 CDT
From: Virginia Sapiro <SAPIRO@POLISCI.WISC.EDU>
Subject: Re: Too much "downside" emphasis in WS?
I agree that while we can't trivialize issues of oppression, etc. in
women's studies courses, there is still a widespread tendency toplace
victimization at the core of women's experience to define women that way, and
create an epistemology of victimization. Many women's studies courses do not
just cover the problems of violence, for example, but make this one of the
largest, most pervasive topics. No wonder students get depressed. Some have
told me that they feel like the imbalance hollows that arguments that women
must develop more of a sense of agency.
This problem of balance is one of the reasons why, when I teach our
introductory course, I use "feminisms and feminist movements" as the final
topic. Although I have talked about feminism and women's organization and
activity  throughout, a concentrated focus on this at the end leaves them with
women as people who actively work to shape their lives and construct their
Virginia Sapiro
Dept of Political Science/Women's Studies Program
U of WI-Mad
Date: Tue, 4 May 1993 15:18:41 CDT
Subject: Re: Too much "downside" emphasis in WS?
Sometimes it helps to make comparisons with other courses, where students seem
to miss the downside.  In teaching women's literature, for example, I've often
drawn comparisons with "modern" literature generally -- students quickly see
the downside to the "traditional" canon of T.S.Eliot, Pound, DH Lawrence, Joyce
and on and on.  Or there's the concept of the "humanities" at work, the "thus
but for the grace of God, go I" approach that assures us we seem to have come
along despite the odds.  What's so "up" about Shakespeare's tragedies? or even
good old Ibsen?  The next comparison might be with what we call "realism,"
which we are recognizing more and more for the construction it is.
Bob Bender
Date: Tue, 4 May 1993 16:35:00 EST
Subject: Re: Too much "downside" emphasis in WS?
 In response to students feeling overwhelmed by the "downside" of women's
studies or feeling newfound anger and not knowing what to do with it once
they leave my classroom, I have designed a group project done on the last
or next to last day of class.  Students have many group projects to choose
from, but this one is called "What Can I Do?"  The four or five students in
this group have to share with the class what anyone can do once the
semester ends.  They talk about volunteer opportunities in the community,
other classes on gender/race/class/sexuality on campus, curriculum
inclusion issues, women's music, political activism, etc.  It's a way for
the students to state and to hear that this classroom is not the only arena
for change.
These group projects have been very positive.  One student last year went
to the pro-choice march in Washington.  She made a videotape of the
planning meetings for the march, the bus ride down, and the march.  She
showed it to the class and told them, "If I, as a mother of three, can do
this activism thing, so can all of you!"  It was terrific.  This is one way
to end at least on a positive note.
Jennifer Scanlon
Date: Tue, 4 May 1993 17:05:21 EDT
Subject: The "upside" in WS!
Women's studies should not be gloomy!
The existing history of patriarchal society is what is gloomy: long
dreary millennia of slavery, oppression, exploitation, tyranny, and
random terrorism; dull uninspiring "revolutions" that just change the
faces of the bosses who are in charge; no hope of the world ever really
being any different because this is just "the way things are".
Women's studies is what comes along and says: But these assumptions
about human nature are based on an assumption that sex and gender will
continue to exist the way we know them-in other words, that "men" will
continue to be "men", for the same reasons and motivations; that the
public, political world will continue to operate primarily according to
"male" principles of domination, competition, coercion, "hardness".
But, hey, kids, what if it ain't necessarily so?
Eye-opener #1-An amazing number of people are able to visualize a
friendlier, more cooperative, less hostile world with ease if you tell
them that this hypothetical "world" will only have women in it. Debate:
is it due to an essential difference, or is this "difference between
the sexes" caused by having different, polarized sex roles?
The modern women's movement has (at least in its most public voice)
taken the side of minimal built-in sex differences, which means it is
throwing away the essentially-gentler-woman model. So you get angry
feminist responses to Ronald Reagan saying that if it weren't for women
we'd still be living in caves and carring around clubs, because they
resent the bio-as-destiny subtext there, along with the chivalrous
chauvinism it supports. But your students may enjoy considering the
devil's-advocate position of essentialism: if women and men are NOT
identical outside of role indoctrination, isn't it true that women
should be running the world, and that if they were, WE COULD FIX MOST
hypothetical world and let the students argue (as they probably will)
that if women ran the world they would emulate men and masculine
behavior /conduct, etc., and that things would be no different.
Eye-opener #2-If the students make such arguments, you are ready to
invert their arguments by pointing out that if it is true that women
differ from men (i.e., less competitive, less aggressive, etc.) because
of their different social roles, not because of "nicer" female nature,
the same case may be made for men and male behaviors, (which are
usually taken for granted as "inevitable human behavior" since men are
confused with the species generically). Is militarism, industrial
cutthroat competition and the profit motive over all, and the general
sense of the public world as a hostile place...are all these things
perhaps due to the ways that their primary controlling actors (men)
have been socially constructed? If it makes no sense except for
hypothetical discussion to talk about a world with only women, what
about a world where "being a man" no longer means what it currently
There is where your optimism lies: only feminism offers an alternative
to the modality of social behavior we have known so well for so long.
The optimism of women's studies is that we have here an entire category
of people (not even a minority, at that!) whose practiced way of being
in the world, for all of its problems (inculcated dependency,
passivity, etc.), is nevertheless much more in keeping with the modern
needs of the species, on a large scale, and the feminism movement is
all about brining those principles out onto the public stage of
world-level social organization.
- Allan Hunter
Date: Tue, 4 May 1993 17:54:00 EST
From: Christine Smith <CSMITH@VMS.CIS.PITT.EDU>
Subject: Re: Too much "downside" emphasis in WS?
I responded privately to Sharyl, but I decided to post this
to the whole list.  I, too, get evaluations commenting on
how depressing the material is, even though I really do try
to talk about the positives of being a woman.  Last semester,
I decided that the last class would be "all woman-positive day".
Students are invited (and given extra credit) to bring in
anything woman-positive.  They've brought in poems, songs,
articles, girl scout calendars, to name a few.  Nothing negative
can be said during the entire class period.
It has been quite successful (I did it again this semester),
and it ends the class on a positive note.
     Christine Smith
Date: Tue, 4 May 1993 18:18:13 -0700
From: nancy felipe russo <ATNFR@ASUACAD.BITNET>
Subject: Re: Too much "downside" emphasis in WS?
One strategy for countering the "downside" aspects of learning about women's
  issues is to include a project as part of the course that involves collective
   action on an issue or problem, either on campus or in the community.
    People who have had success with particular issues might want to share
   their successes.
Nancy Felipe Russo, Ph.D.
Director, Women's Studies
ASU, Tempe, AZ 85287-1801
(602)965-2358 FAX:(602)965-2357 BITNET: ATNFR@ASUACAD
Date: Wed, 5 May 1993 08:58:29 EST
Subject: Re: Too much "downside" emphasis in WS?
On the subject of including projects, presentations, readings, etc. that
focus on women's empowerment and collective action, I would add taht it
is very useful not to bunch all this "positive" stuff at the end of the
term.  I heard a description of one excellent Intro to WS course in which
each unit included readings analyzing the issues, and also readings that
explored different forms of resistance in which people have engaged or
could engage.  Providing a large number of such examples gives students
a view of the many forms that feminist resistance takes, and also gives
them a variety of models for themselves.
Lisa Heldke
Gustavus Adolphus
St. Peter, MN  56082
Date: Wed, 5 May 1993 15:13:56 EDT
From: Liz McMahon <ME#0@LAFAYACS.BITNET>
Subject: Too much "downside" emphasis in WS?
On my last day of WS101 in the fall, I brought in the book
*How To Make the World a Better Place for Women in Five Minutes a Day*
by Donna Jackson, and read a few of the ideas.  It sparked good
reactions from the students, and several even went right out and bought
the bookfor themselves or a sister, friend, etc.
I recommend it for those of us on the list in general - a great way to
empower *us* as well as our students.  And this time of year, we can all
use empowerment.
Good luck with finals....
Liz McMahon, Math, Lafayette College
Date: Wed, 5 May 1993 15:36:53 EDT
From: "Diane M. Samdahl" <DSAMDAHL@UGA.BITNET>
Subject: Downside of women's studies
In my class on women and leisure we read both British and North American
feminist writings.  The British authors are more strongly socialist; their
discussions of patriarchy and power are indeed a bit frustrating because
the required change is so radical (and beyond our personal control).  The
N.American authors draw from social psychological paradigms and give more
emphasis to the creation and labeling of private experience (which indeed
is within our ability to change).  I point out this distinction to the
students and try to help them see the distinct paradigms that each tradition
is drawing from.  To some extent, I hope that this helps counter the
"squashed ant" (cf. Wearing & Wearing 1988) perspective that broader
socialist criticisms sometimes convey.   I also draw upon Peter Berger's
Invitation To Sociology (1963) which lays out the dialectic of "the
individual within society" and "the society within the individual".  While
addressing the domineering influence of culture, he states  that society
does not forcibly compel us into submission but rather entices our
cooperation through processes of socialization: "our own cooperation is
needed to bring us into social captivity" (p.125).  "Long before social
systems are brought down in violence, they are deprived of their
ideological sustenance by contempt.  Non-recognition and counter-definition
of social norms are always potentially revolutionary... Social institutions
can be transformed or at least sabatoged by a refusal to accept their
previous definitions"(p. 130).  I think by balancing the power of labeling
against structural dominance there can be a less-fatalistic understanding
of feminist issues.
Recreation & Leisure Studies         INTERNET: DSAMDAHL@UGA.CC.UGA.EDU
228 Hardman Hall                       OFFICE: 706-542-5064
University of Georgia                     FAX: 706-542-7917
Athens, GA  30602-2302                   HOME: 706-613-2406
Date: Sat, 8 May 1993 01:34:46 -0400
From: Jessica Phyllis Weinberg <jessicap@WAM.UMD.EDU>
Subject: Re: Too much "downside" emphasis in WS?
This is not about a intro course per se.  At the University of Maryland
we have been fortunate enough to have Minnie Bruce Pratt, author of
_Rebellion_, _Crime Against Nature_, and _We Say We Love Each Other_
(the last two are books of poetry), teaching Theories of Feminism.
Minnie Bruce is an activist/theorist/poet, and brings a particular
activist-oriented style to her teaching.  The class is very grounded
in the student's everyday lives and personal experiences; the class
develops into a sort of CR group.  But also, the students are expected
to work in groups to organize actions around issues related to women
on campus.  Some themes/projects this semester were: returning women
students (the group put together a bookmark with a list of useful
phone numbers from campus aimed at returning students to be available
at the campus book store and the returning student orientation, etc.);
sexual harassment/rape (the group put together a flier listing all the
standard "I'm not sure" sort of phrases, that men also need to listen
for besides NO; the flier said, for example, No means No, I'm not sure
means No, We've had too much to drink means No; Maybe we should OD OD OD wait
 means no, etc.--basically expanding the meaning of the word
NO); the image of feminism (the group put together a panel discussion
using the group members as panelists, of the meanings of feminism, that
was presented in a highrise dorm, with the support of the Resident
Assistant).  There have been many wonderful projects to come out of
this class including several Take Back the Night marches.  At the end
of the semester the students turn in individual papers about the
experience of organizing.  It's by far the most popular course in the
department and almost everyone who takes it thinks it's the most useful
course they've ever taken.  Unfortunately, Minnie Bruce is moving to
New Jersey because the University wouldn't give the department the
money to hire her on more than a temporary part-time basis.  Our
department just past a vote on its proposed new major (until now it's
been only a certificate program), which will probably be in place in
Fall 1994.  However, the department will be far less without Minnie
Bruce Pratt.
Jessica Weinberg
University of Maryland
Date: Sat, 8 May 1993 08:14:52 EDT
From: Barbara Scott Winkler <Barbara.Winkler@UM.CC.UMICH.EDU>
Subject: Too much downside in WMST?
Like Karen Andersen I also frame discussions in my Intro class here at
WVU around structure/agency and internalization of oppression/resistance.
On the final this semester I had the students give at least one example
of women's organizing/resistance or suggestions for such with each
question. (Take home final.)  Also, for last day of class I brought
in three living, breathing feminists with different backgrounds,
political perspectives, for each of the two lecture sections.  The
panels were quite different from each other, but each were successful
in showing the students that feminists DO THINGS THAT MAKE A DIFFERENCE!
The law professor who had just helped hire a new woman dean for the
law school was quite a hit, while the artist who works on peace and
justice stirred up a good controversy on women only organizations.
(Course fulfills a university 'diversity' requirement and most
students coming into it are not very knowledgeable about feminism.)
Date: Mon, 10 May 1993 13:36:05 -0700
From: hcbolak@CATS.UCSC.EDU
Subject: empowering projects
on the subject of counteracting the downside of women's studies:
after I show the film "Still killing us softly" I encourage students
to do petitions protesting an offensive ad in a magazine and I give
them credit for the project. some students have writen individual letters
to the powers that be and some hve even gathered more signatures.
Students seem to enjoy this project. Having them write a biography of
their mothers or of a woman they admire is another way to get them to
appreciate women and their strengths.
Date: Sun, 9 May 1993 08:20:08 EDT
From: Barbara Scott Winkler <Barbara.Winkler@UM.CC.UMICH.EDU>
Subject: Action projects and W.S.
I have also done projects that require action on an issue or problem
on either campus or community with two rather different student
populations and I find that it really works very well to help students
have a sense of effectiveness even as they see how slow making social
change can be.  I highly recommend them.  I require 15 hours of either
organizational or independently designed work and a follow-up paper
of 7 to 10 pages due toward end of course.  I ask students to address
themes of course (gender, race, class, sexuality, etc.) in their
feminist theme analysis and to explore what they learned about social
change.  First did this as part of teaching collective at Univ. of
Michigan, Ann Arbor. barbara.winkler@um.cc.umich.edu
Date: Sun, 9 May 1993 23:08:32 CDT
From: "Pauline B. Bart" <U17334@UICVM.BITNET>
To:           Multiple recipients of list WMST-L <WMST-L@UMDD.BITNET>
I would like to comment on two controversies appearing on the List.
First concerning the "upbeat-Downbeat" happy hour v. truth telling
orientation and effect of women's studies classes, it's not either-or.
When some students in my class complained that it was disempowering to
hear so much bad news, others fround the same information empowering.
For people who have internalized the dominant values of our society
optimism is part of patriotism and the fact of existential unhappiness
is ignored.  All problems must have solutions, preferably easy ones.
After all we have a businessman's club called The Optimists but not one
called The Pessimists.  When I originally did my research on depression
I coined the phrase meta-depression for people who were depressed about
being depressed--as if the normal state was happiness.  It is not
accidental that the New Testament, as I understand, is called "The Good
News".  But our lives are not always, in fact  not usually the good
news.  To return tomyoriginal point about the same material being
perceived in opposite ways, itseems it is not necessarily the content
that needs to be changed.  I had the students write  on an anonymous
piece of paper which sections in their textbook , Feminist Frontiers,
they were most and least intersted in and designed the course
accordingly.  They were most interested in violence against women.  Not
unexpectedly this topicd brings out strong feelings.  I do not
necessarily think it is an unfortunate outcome if a woman leaves the
class llerss naive and trusting, and this statement is empirically based
on my research on rape avoidance as well as other research about
women's behavior.  They may find it depression but it mkay save them
from rape.  We are not running "The Power of Positive Thinking" courses
And, as a poster in my office says, "The truth will make you free.  But
first it will make you miserable."
[rest of message deleted]

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