On Campus

A man can oversee a Women's Studies department

Professor Pettigrew on watching a discipline come of age


It was recently pointed out to me that the new director of the Institute of Women’s Studies at the University of Ottawa is a man, Michael Orsini. According to this interview, Orsini thought there might be flack from fellow scholars. Instead, got only bad jokes in the elevator. Not only do I not have a problem with a man running a Women’s Studies centre, I think it’s a positively good thing.

When I was an English major at the University of Western Ontario in the early 90s, the Women’s Studies Program there was just getting going. The new department was given swanky digs in historic University College and issued glossy ads with an elegant lavendar colour palette. Clearly the university was taking this seriously.

One day I found myself in conversation with a disgruntled friend who was complaining about two students in her Women’s Studies class who were ruining the course because, as she explained, they didn’t “accept that there’s patriarchy” and without everyone accepting that the world had always been run by men for the benefit of men, the course kept getting bogged down in arguments over basic assumptions.

At the time, I found her remarks troubling, because it seemed like the class was being asked to accept certain positions that might well have been matters for debate. And isn’t open debate what any university class should be about?

I have more sympathy now. After all, even twenty years ago, one could get through a BA with a fairly strong impression that women had done little or nothing of consequence in human history. Female writers were often ignored in literature classes, and the contributions of women to historical and philosophical discourse were often ignored or downplayed in a wide variety of ways. Needless to say, female students and scholars of the era were awfully curious as to why few were, it seemed, speaking to and about people like them.

So the discipline of Women’s Studies was, in those days, fighting to build a space where women could learn about women and where female academics could help create a fairer and more realistic portrayal of human history and thought.

And a couple of smart ass guys who didn’t even have a stake in the debate and who wanted to deny the whole raison d’etre of the enterprise weren’t helping.

Two decades later, I think it’s safe to say that, while many important issues related to women have yet to be adequately addressed, much has improved. It would now be, for instance, unthinkable to offer a survey of British literature without including a significant number of female authors, nor could one responsibly offer a course in Shakespeare without talking about feminist modes of reading that author and those plays.

At the same time, scholars from a variety of fields have noted that women’s issues cannot be understood in isolation, for they always intersect with other important questions about race, social class, and even whether the standard division between male and female even makes sense.

Moreover, analysis of the gender norms of women has led to inquiry related to the gender norms of men and the social construction of masculinity. Indeed, so far has this discipline come that when my current university recently created a minor related to women’s studies, there was considerable debate as to whether it should be called “Women’s Studies.” Some argued that “Gender Studies” or even “Social Justice Studies” would be better (it’s now called Women and Gender Studies).

Michael Orsini’s position at the head of a Women’s Studies institute, then, seems, ironically enough, to mark an important milestone for the discipline itself. When I was listening to my friend complain twenty years ago, such an appointment would have been outrageous: male power was exactly what they were trying to fight against.

Today, thanks to those who built Women’s Studies in the first place, we have a broader perspective on the issues: building a fairer society for everyone. And everyone—men, women, something-harder-to-define—all have a stake in that.

Todd Pettigrew is an associate professor of English at Cape Breton University.

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