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What Is Women’s and Gender Studies? Ivy Schweitzer Can you imagine a time when a woman could not win a major party’s nomination for US president? Hillary Clinton shattered this glass ceiling in June 2016, but it was, in fact, the reality ever since our democracy was founded over two hundred years ago.Think about it: despite the famous declaration that “all men are created equal,” it has taken over two centuries for a major political party to even consider a woman as a candidate for the highest elected office in the land. I highlight the word “men” in Jefferson’s iconic phrase from the Declaration of Independence because I don’t think our Founding Fathers meant to include women in their vision of equality. Listen to this exchange from letters written by John and Abigail Adams,one of our founding “couples,”from March/April 1776.They are writing during the tense run-up to the Declaration. John is attending the Continental Congress in Philadelphia and preparing to publish an essay titled “Thoughts on Government ,” which proposes new laws for the new nation. Abigail, who remained at home, writes, “I long to hear that you have declared an independency.” And in the new set of laws her husband will propose, she asks him to “remember the Ladies . . . Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands” as did the laws and customs of the time,which she felt made women practically “vassals of your Sex.” In his response, our future second president fends off Abigail’s plea in a joking tone that flatly refuses her request and, more infuriating, makes men into the victims: Depend upon it,We know better than to repeal our Masculine systems.Although they are in full Force, you know they are little more than Theory. We dare not What Is Women’s and Gender Studies? 329 exert our Power in its full Latitude. We are obliged to go fair, and softly, and in Practice you know We are the subjects. We have only the Name of Masters, and rather than give up this, which would completely subject Us to the Despotism of the Petticoat, I hope General Washington, and all our brave Heroes would fight. Could women really be “masters”over men and “despots in petticoats”when they didn’t have the vote and were unable to elect their representatives and determine their political fate—which was the entire point of fighting the American Revolution? Let alone not being able to attend college or get training in a profession, give evidence in court, own property after marriage or have custody of their children? Furthermore, does “men”here include all men, such as Native Americans and enslaved Africans, or just the white men in power? If not, do women want to adopt that as our standard of equality? The tools developed in Women’s and Gender Studies (WGS) allow us to analyze the power plays in John’s charmingly dismissive response and also resist the sexist and racist worldview it assumes, in which white men are the universal—and also the particular. These tools help us understand how John’s attitude toward women, what we now call “male chauvinism,” shaped the development of this country and its people. Origins of Women’s and Gender Studies Women’s and Gender Studies is an academic field and an interdisciplinary approach that seeks to make visible the lives, concerns, and impact of the half of society that had been effectively overlooked and silenced for centuries. The field began around 1970 as “Women’s Studies” (I will discuss the name change later on), the academic arm of the growing women’s liberation and feminist movements, which had their origins in the maelstrom of social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. I use the plural here because the loosely affiliated groups and organizations that made up these movements were never homogeneous or linear. While the media made middle-class white women, like Betty Freidan and Gloria Steinem,the official faces of feminism,in reality women of different ethnic identities, classes, and sexual persuasions brought a range of issues to public attention and advocated different strategies for action. As we will see, this diversity resulted in contention and ongoing, heated debates. Many young women, black and white, joined the civil rights movements of the 1950s and the anti–Vietnam War,free speech,student power,and New Left movements of the 1960s, where they learned about grassroots organizing...


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