In Support of WAGS

By Guest Contributor

In a routine conversation with my grandmother last year, I mentioned that I was considering adding a women’s and gender studies (WAGS) major to my already-declared history major. I thought – given my grandmother’s thoroughly feminist background as an astronomy professor who sued her university for gender discrimination while simultaneously raising two children – that she would respond with total approval. Instead, she said something like, “Honey, don’t you think history is enough? You don’t want to discredit your resume – there are still plenty of working men out there who don’t care for the gender studies types.”

My initial reaction was to write it off as a generational difference. Maybe the Wall Street or corner office men of my grandmother’s time thought that way, but my generation’s men – especially the ones at Middlebury – certainly did not. I had always assumed the men of my generation to be totally open-minded when it comes to gender roles.

Upon later consideration of her comments, however, I realized my grandmother wasn’t so far off at all, and the problem is not just confined to Wall Street. Here at Middlebury, there is a problematic stigma attached to women’s and gender studies – that the classes are a “joke” and are exclusively for women. Or, as Joanna Rothkopf ’12 articulated in a column last year on the subject of stereotypes about gender on campus: “Only dark-haired women are allowed to take WAGS classes, save one or two token gays.”

Indeed, all of my WAGS classes in the past – and this semester as well – have had gaping gender disparities; at times, there has been a male-to-female ratio as high as ten to one. I find this highly problematic. For a school that so heavily promotes diversity in the classroom, this discrepancy is embarrassing and needs to change. In the long term, I think the college must make WAGS a distribution requirement, alongside science and art. In the meantime, however, while you’re busy deciding on that last class to take to perfect your schedule, I ask – why not WAGS?

There are a number of excuses that I hear thrown around campus as to why someone won’t take a WAGS class. Primarily, I’ve heard students reason that WAGS classes are specifically about women and are thus for women only. But such an argument is deeply flawed; this logic would require me to drop my history class on India because I’m not Indian. Moreover, WAGS classes are by no means exclusively about women; if you flip through the catalog, you’ll see that the department offers courses on masculinity, heterosexuality, nationality and transgender history, among other things.

Another common objection to taking a WAGS class goes like this: “The goals of feminism in America were achieved in the 1970’s; why must we rehash it all on a thoroughly gender-neutralized campus?” To anyone who subscribes to this line of thought, I especially urge you to take a WAGS class. You will learn that your statement is utterly false – that a woman still earns 77 cents to a man’s dollar in the United States, that we have a congressman purporting that women’s bodies will somehow reject pregnancy in cases of “legitimate” rape.

Indeed, Congressman Todd Akin’s ignorance brings up an important reason Middlebury students would all benefit from taking a WAGS class: basic literacy. In an election season that’s increasingly becoming a discussion about women and their bodies, we have a responsibility to become educated on these issues and their nuances. I’d be willing to bet that if Congressman Akin had taken a WAGS course in college, he would not be losing the Missouri senate race due to his incredibly unenlightened remark. Like any other civil rights issue, the only way to gender equality is gender education. It is thus disappointing that progressive Middlebury students are so reluctant to take WAGS courses, especially considering the pressing need for literacy, activism and support in areas of gender equality.

It is not my intention to hold up WAGS as the one infallible department of Middlebury College. To be sure, WAGS classes and students at Midd have their own shortcomings. Specifically, WAGS students and professors alike must not get away with throwing around generalized anti-male rhetoric in the classroom – rhetoric that has brought prominent females of the 21st century such as Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer to reject self-identifying as a “feminist.” It is not okay, as I witnessed in a WAGS class last year, for a female student to accuse a male student of not having any perspective on a black woman’s life because he is “a white male!” It is completely inappropriate for students to attack one another on a basis of their race and gender. For their part, students and professors of WAGS must create a fully inclusive classroom.

Most of all, I urge all Middlebury students to take a WAGS course not just for their own sake, but also for the sake of enhancing the classes themselves. It’s a huge loss to have such a weak gender distribution in discussions on just that – gender.

All students have something to gain from taking a WAGS class. So how about we make a deal: I’ll take an ECON class if you try out WAGS.
And then maybe I will get my grandmother’s total approval.

Written by CAROLINE KAHLENBERG ’14 from Bethesda, Maryland