Women’s Studies On Decline In Britain?

“Women’s Studies is about to disappear as an undergraduate degree in the UK” reads an astonishing line from a recent Times Higher Education (London) story. I assumed it was a joke. Not so.

The article profiled the “last stand-alone undergraduate degree in women’s studies” in the UK at London Metropolitan University, the remnant of what was once a fair empire of programs. How could this be? Several explanations were offered in the piece – the increasing force of arguments that women’s studies were simply politicized relics, the alternate suggestion that such programs have achieved their aim and that “feminist-inspired ideas have been absorbed and are now debated within mainstream subjects.” Both factors seem a likely influence, but another seems far more telling for a university system without American riches – “that studying feminism is seen as an indulgence, an irrelevance for young women who want degrees that lead to jobs.” Women’s studies programs withered as students veered away, despairing of job prospects; many universities simply shut down the programs. American universities seem insensate to the enduring question/unacceptable reactionary joke “who, exactly, would want to hire a women’s studies major?”

It’s a considerable irony that it’s not any misogynist current or the coming of Sharia law that’s brought an end to women’s studies programs (although that’s coming along well enough on its own) but the commercial instincts of British female undergraduates. Rather than study their oppression, young women would clearly prefer to gild their job path out of it, and deserted women’s studies classes in large numbers. Astonishingly, the interests of the undergraduate body were then acknowledged by university administrations.

A paucity of students in women studies’ courses at most American universities would have offered proof of an andocentric curriculum, and likely demands for more professors and a better-advertised curriculum. Look to any recent flap surrounding women’s studies, queer studies, or minority academic programs. The Summers slight at Harvard secured $50 million for faculty “diversity” efforts. The ludicrous Columbia hunger strike brought a novel approach to problems of non-western classes; now it seems that the core curriculum will be changed to force students to take more of them. Don’t try staying away from women’s studies classes here!

How to explain this bizarre discrepancy; canonization for Women’s studies in the US and a rapid decline in Britain? It seems doubtful that British university administrations are any less craven or sympathetic to modish causes than their American counterparts, but they differ in one essential particular – American universities enjoy wealth that dwarfs nearly all British institutions. It’s simple for American universities to drop millions on women’s studies departments in order to stifle complaint; it’s not nearly so easy for their far-poorer UK counterparts. Oxford and Cambridge have large endowments, but over 150 American colleges are richer than the third best-endowed British university. There are, clearly, fewer resources for academic frills in Britain, and, whatever the weight of academic factors, it seems unavoidable to conclude that some burden of financial necessity has hastened the (amply-justified) fade-out of women’s studies. Meanwhile, our fabulously wealthy universities seem perfectly situated to expand women’s studies for all eternity.

Anthony Paletta

Anthony Paletta is a freelance writer.

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