What is the point of studying gender?

This week former LSE student Tom Martin went to the Evening Standard with his story of ‘sexism’ in the university’s Gender Institute.

I say ‘former student’. He was there for six weeks. Not really enough to get to grips with the course let alone reject it outright but that’s by the by. I am not concerned with defending the course per se. Jonathan Dean has already done so here and for the most part I agree.

What I am interested in is the baffled messages on the comments board about what it was he was studying and moreover why he was studying it. As a feminist who has studied gender in an academic context, I suddenly find myself beset on all sides. Not really, of course. No one who wrote those comments is having a go at me although like any aspiring antagonist I like to think they would if they knew me. In the meantime I can’t work out what’s annoying me more: those who misunderstand feminism or those who misunderstand academia.

Alongside the predictable trail of reductive comments such as,

“Men are Bastards” That’s all you need to know about gender studies,

there seems to be some confusion between feminism as a political movement and gender studies as an academic subject. “In my experience of studying feminism,” begins one man, while another asks why, if gender studies is not about promoting the line of “men bad, women good”, feminist writers continue to do so. First of all, feminists and gender studies students are not the same thing. That’s like assuming anyone who reads widely has an English Lit degree. Or that people with a National Trust membership are history grads.

A feminist is anyone who believes that women should have the same prejudice-free access, opportunities, and lifestyle choices as men. Gender studies draws on culture, race and class; it looks at art and politics and the ways in which gender is embodied and interpreted by and within these; it examines sexuality and discusses identity; it turns inwards and probes the gendered nature of its own discourse and that of other academic institutes. That’s a brief summary. If you want a course outline, go and read the prospectus.

Gender studies is also not the study of feminism although you will encounter feminist thought within it and it stands to reason that most gender studies students will also be feminists. But that doesn’t tell you anything about what else they are likely to be. Gender studies students, like students of any discipline, are not a homogenous group and I disagree with Dean when he says:

Gender studies is invariably more sociable than other academic settings, and all kinds of people are welcome, so long as you are willing to engage with people and ideas in a considered and respectful manner.

This is just silly. A generalisation to counter the generalisation that the courses are full of self-righteous morons. The truth is, gender studies courses attract friendly, sociable types and self-righteous morons. They also, in my personal experience, have a few truly awful people who shun you for being a ‘tourist’ from another department. They ignore your ideas, condescend you at every opportunity, and, in your absence, find it amusing to sign you up to ‘lead the discussion’ during your group presentation, arguably the least fun and most scary part of the project… but I digress. The point is this is not symptomatic of gender studies students, it is symptomatic of people. You get cool people and you get arseholes. It’s a rule you can apply without fail to every aspect of life.

Let’s move on.

“What is the point of gender studies?” demands one angry comment.

What does it contribute to the country apart from chippy feminists and wet drip men? Surely the universities could find better academic subjects that are actually useful in real life for their students instead of this guff masquerading as academia.

Actually there are a vast number of ‘real life’ roles out there for which a masters degree in gender studies is useful. There is work in arts, psychology, education, law, medicine, politics, media, and that’s before we even get to the third sector. Outside this country, anyone wanting to work in development or international aid is going to benefit from at least some knowledge of gender issues. Contrary to the suppositions outlined on the comments board, a degree in gender studies qualifies you to do a great many things. But that’s not really my gripe. The real misunderstanding is of academia itself. When it comes to studying, there is far too often an attitude of “what’s it for?”

Nobody asks why we push our bodies in sport and exercise so why do they question it when we push our minds? Being able to complete a triathlon when you’re a primary school teacher isn’t necessary but nobody questions your desire to keep fit, to be healthy and active or the positive impact that it can have on other areas of your life. Having a degree or a masters may not teach you a skill but it’s a means of expanding your mind, challenging your brain to work harder or differently and forcing you to examine new information and ideas, in new ways. The world needs people who can do those things.

Even if you don’t go into any directly related field, your very presence on the course helps push the subject forward. Without research and study, no discipline would ever make progress. That applies to social and cultural studies just as it does to science and art. Students come to the department of gender studies because they want to join the narrative, push it, develop it, reject old theories and form new ones; build schools of thought and seats of learning.

This ‘guff’ contributes greatly and variously to the country. It contributes culturally and socially, challenging views and expanding horizons. It contributes politically, helping shape policy and create new law and – yes – it contributes financially. From good academic departments come good universities. If you need something more tangible, you only need look at the amount of money that pours into the UK from foreign students who – despite scare stories to the contrary – continue to flock here.

If you ask what the point is of studying gender you might as well ask what the point is of studying anything. With tuition fees rising and the job market in an ever more doleful slump, it’s a fair question. It’s also a whole other blog post… which coincidentally you can find here.



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