Opinion: The Women’s and Gender Studies major encompasses more than you think

This is an opinion article. Any views expressed belong solely to the author and are not representative of The Cluster.

A reputation for easy classes, emotional female students and little practical application plagues the Women’s and Gender Studies department — the major everyone loves to hate. 

While it’s easy to write off WGS courses as “fluff,” that hasn’t been my experience. WGS is an interdisciplinary field of study that helps students understand how gender underlies all that we see and do. WGS students are diverse in terms of gender, sexual orientation and career goals, and the major offers flexibility to choose the classes that matter to us most. It’s also just as academic as any other social science. By the end of my sophomore year, I engaged in service learning with a community crisis center for survivors of domestic violence and completed a formal research project that was accepted for presentation at two undergraduate conferences.

That’s just one of the misconceptions about my major. The three most prevalent ones deserve to be addressed individually.

The WGS major is an echo chamber

Opponents of “social justice” love to disparage WGS and related fields as echo chambers, where the teachers’ only goal is to turn us all into radical, man-hating feminists who spout ideologies we don’t understand. Tamer critiques of WGS suggest that it’s a purely discussion-based field of study without an academic basis. In actuality, the major is comprised almost entirely of cross-listed courses, and majors are required to fulfill humanities, social science, natural science and multicultural blocks, making it an expansive education that includes a range of disciplines, cultures and viewpoints beneficial for anyone regardless of career goals.

Classes like Women, Law & Politics, Women, Crime & Justice and LGBTQ+ Politics allow students to consider whether and how gender and sexual orientation affect one’s experience in the legal system. For those aspiring to enter policy fields, courses like these can open their eyes to gender disparities in law application. For example, women receive shorter sentences for sex crimes than men, and federal courts tend to be more lenient with women overall. However, this is only true for white women, according to a 2015 study in the Journal of Criminal Justice; black women are more likely to be incarcerated and are disproportionately granted longer sentences for the same crime. An aspiring policymaker or lawyer should be aware of disparities like these going into their field, and a WGS education guarantees that they will be.

Even students of the hard sciences can benefit from a WGS major or minor. Classes like Biology of Sex & Gender, Health & Gender, Maternal & Child Health and AIDS: Narratives of Disease can sensitize students to gender biases in the medical field. For example, according to a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, women are less likely to survive major medical problems like heart attacks when their physicians are male because male doctors are more likely to dismiss or misdiagnose women’s symptoms. Health care discrimination persists against gay and lesbian patients as well, according to a 2015 National Library of Medicine report finding that 81% of healthcare providers exhibited some level of bias against gay and lesbian patients. The study found that gender bias in the medical field reduces the likelihood that marginalized persons will seek treatment, despite experiencing higher rates of cancers, HIV/AIDS and eating disorders. If a healthcare provider had a WGS education that taught them to empathize with gender and sexual minorities, perhaps these disparities would not be so great.

The WGS major also requires a multicultural education, which can be satisfied through courses such as Gay Rights & Human Rights in Africa, Black Feminism, Race, Gender & Media, Women in Developing Countries and Queer Cinema. Gender isn’t the only personal identifier that matters in systems of oppression, and a WGS major will expose you to that through analyses of how race, class, religion and other identities overlap with the experience of gender (this is called the theory of intersectionality). WGS graduates, therefore, are exposed to a wide variety of perspectives and become more well-rounded as a result. 

WGS is exclusive of and antagonistic toward men

This argument is not only tired, but painfully inaccurate. WGS classes do not exclude men, but they do not center them, either, which I understand is a new and shocking concept in academia. The truth is, gender roles affect everyone in some way, regardless of their gender identity—that’s why the major isn’t simply called “Women’s Studies.” Plenty of male students (and transgender and nonbinary students!) enroll in WGS courses, and the classroom experience is stronger for it.

Coursework does focus on men’s experiences when relevant. We’ve learned about toxic male beauty standards and men’s higher rates of depression and suicide, especially among middle-aged white men, who comprise 69.67% of suicide deaths, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. We also studied the lack of access to services for male victims of rape, domestic violence and sexual assault. These disparities are all predicated on the idea that men shouldn’t show emotion or ask for help, which is as damaging a gender role as any. 

You’ll never get a job with a WGS major

I don’t blame you if you think this; the WGS major is considered a niche field of study without much meaning or influence. The Cluster even described a course as “hidden away in the Women’s and Gender Studies department” last semester. However, WGS majors and minors learn to think critically, and our courses provide strong academic foundations. Gender Theory & Feminist Thought, which is required, is a theoretical course drawing from rigorous and diverse texts ranging from Michel Foucault to Roxane Gay. Methods in Gender Studies Research, another required class, provides hands-on experience in social science research, academic writing and formal presentation skills with an emphasis on ethics.

Mercer WGS students have gone on to do amazing things as students and post-graduation. I’ve personally had classes with folks who were preparing for medical school, political advocacy roles and jobs with sexual health organizations like Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity, but that’s not all.

In 2017, WGS, Spanish and international affairs triple-major Alayna Williams received a Fulbright Award to serve in South Africa. The year before, WGS major Heaven Woods was accepted to Peace Corps service in Cameroon.

Jaz Buckley, Mercer Debate Team’s most accomplished member in University history, attends UCLA School of Law after completing an internship with the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, a Mercer on Mission trip to South Africa and a writing preceptorship. 2019 graduate James Stair spent two of his four years at Mercer researching and advocating for gender-neutral housing on Mercer’s campus and served as president of Common Ground, the LGBTQ+ and ally student organization. Now, he’s pursuing a Ph.D. in chemistry in Rochester, New York.

Any liberal arts degree can strengthen your writing, analyzing and arguing skills, help you understand the perspectives of folks who aren’t like you and challenge you to reflect on your own positions and viewpoints. A WGS major can bring you all that and more by helping you understand yourself on a level you probably wouldn’t have considered without it.