Renaming women’s studies rightfully broadens program’s potential

By Simon Brown / Columnist

Contrary to what some may think, the Women’s Studies Program at Pitt isn’t all about studying women — or women studying, for that matter. And by next semester, its new name, the “Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies Program,” will express its focus more accurately.

This contentious renaming reflects an ongoing trend among scholars to not only consider the distinct experiences of women throughout history, but to study them alongside men, transgender people and gay and lesbian communities. It proves a particularly appropriate introduction to the first male program director, whose leadership of a specifically “women’s” studies program would prove at best ironic and at worst contradictory.

Academics are right to widen their perspective and look beyond the simple opposition between men and women. Much of the feminism of popular culture, however, has a ways to go. Until we can get beyond the us vs. them mentality, neither us nor them — whomever they may be — will make much progress. In this sense, we must abandon gender stereotypes for men and women in order to achieve the ideal of gender equality.

I realize that introducing a word as volatile as “feminist” into a newspaper column is potentially explosive, especially if I only have a few hundred words to diffuse it. For an exceptionally thorough discussion on the origins and meanings of this word, I direct you to the course descriptions page on Pitt’s website and a class in the aforementioned program.

To some, the very possibility that I, as a man, have any right to express a possible ideological path for feminism is altogether unacceptable. That sentiment, perhaps more than any other, is a prime example of the outdated and detrimental form of feminism that we, as self-identifying feminists, must leave behind.

The exclusion of men and men’s experiences was appropriate for the feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s, which saw the university curriculum of the time as one big exercise in men’s experiences — and they were right. The books read in English classes were written by men and mostly about men, and social scientists assumed men as the default population for scientific inquiry. So women’s studies programs and departments arose to give voice to the other half, which was too often silenced by traditional narratives. 

Why, then, should we let men into the club 40 years later? The marginalization of women, which was so palpable in the 1960s and 1970s, certainly has not vanished. No one can deny the simple mathematical fact that the average full-time male employee makes 18 percent more than the average female employee. And the discrepancy doesn’t only come in clean, simple numbers. Culturally, women have still not entirely escaped the expectations of family commitment, regardless of their career aspirations.

The narrative of opposition — between domineering men and maligned women — seems to fit these current conditions at first glance. But rather than foisting these hurdles before women and reaping the competitive benefits, men are bound by the same crippling cultural expectations imposed on their female counterparts, and we will make no progress toward dismantling the constraining culture for women until we understand how it limits men, as well.

We can see this dynamic at work in the quintessential image of women’s subjugation: the housewife of the 1950s and 1960s. Women rightly protested this culture, which inextricably associated them with child care and pigeonholed them into that one legitimate occupation.

That expectation of women, however, translated into a reciprocal expectation of men: that they only find validity in their careers, and that they leave the care of their children and households to their wives.

While many have since succeeded in labeling this image demeaning to women, especially as they have entered professional careers en masse in the last few decades, men have seen little of such progress.

One need only look to the “Daddy Proof” line of baby clothing and countless commercials depicting clueless or borderline negligent fathers to see that it’s still not yet culturally acceptable for a man to choose to dedicate his life to his family.

I can only hope that no national retailers sell briefcases or laptops decorated with adorable “woman proof” slogans.

This isn’t a competition to determine which gender is the most stereotyped. As long as men are continually denigrated as caregivers, it only follows that women will be expected to fill that social role in their place. 

These social norms not only influence culture, but also policy. Unless we consider this history of men’s expected separation from their home lives, we won’t be able to grapple with the glaring discrepancies in men’s access to paternity leave after the birth of a new child.

By challenging the expectation that men ought to be working while their children enjoy the care of a mother with some — though not sufficient — maternity leave, we can call into question the mechanisms that continue to unfairly compensate women. International studies conducted by the World Economic Forum have shown that the strength of a nation’s paternity leave program correlates to the equality of women’s earnings, since employers will no longer consider the disproportionate unpaid leave granted to women as grounds for undercompensation. 

When we, as feminists, can recognize that men do not often benefit from the cultural expectations placed on women, then we can advocate for a social policy that is a little less “Daddy Proof.”

Write Simon at [email protected]