WGST students say courses are not just for girls

by Kate Lyon | 5/10/04 5:00am

The Women and Gender Studies department was born as Women Studies at Dartmouth in 1978, six years after the college went co-ed in 1972. The department has since expanded, incorporating "gender" into its name in 2000.

Women and gender. Both terms are heavily associated with any number of stereotypes, implications and insinuations, especially for men. It is commonly perceived that for men, classes in the department are a "woman thing," comprised of "crazy psychofeminists" who would prefer to rant and rave about male oppressiveness without the company of the enemy.

A search through Dartmouth's subsite on thefacebook.com for male Women and Gender Studies majors resulted in approximately 30 matches. At least three who were contacted by The Dartmouth, however, said that they were not really affiliated with the department. Rather, they had included WGST as a joke. As one man who preferred to remain anonymous explained, "I wrote it as a joke, because I thought it would make me look like I was more in touch with women's feelings. What do professional women and gender graduates do? Professional feminists?"

That question is one that WGST major Robin Rathmann-Noonan '05 can answer quickly, because she's done it so often.

"Just like a sociologist or a historian, I'm looking at history from a different perspective," Rathmann-Noonan said. "I'm interested in education and legal policy and sex discrimination -- the sex discrimination part is a particular portion of the field I'm interested in."

A common misconception of WGST is the belief that the classes focus on women alone, and this perception can cause men to avoid the department. In reality, it is gender, both masculine and feminine, that is the overarching theme of the department.

It is this aspect of the WGST department that provides a place for men. Everyone has a gender, and that affects his or her outlook, upbringing and life experiences.

Susan Brison, a philosophy professor who teaches a number of WGST courses, explained how gender is the reason men have a ready-made place in the department.

"It is still the case that because of the society we live in that women are made more aware of gender. It's a luxury that men have to a certain extent to not have to think about gender, but men should be thinking about it and are more and more," said Brison.

The nature of WGST classes allows for a learning experience that other disciplines cannot always offer, professors say. Theories, controversial topics and reading responses, staples of WGST classes, are conducive to thoughtful and stimulating discussion that is often central to WGST classes.

Dan August '07, a projected economics major, said he felt the role of the program at Dartmouth was to raise awareness and provide a place to discuss issues.

"It's rare to have discussion three days a week in a class," said August. "There's not a lot of other departments that can do this."

Far from being silenced during discussion in classes that do typically have more women than men, men are contributing to discussion and learning about themselves in the process.

"The ratio of men and women in WGST classes is not an issue," said Kevin Arnold '05, who has constructed a special major of Critical Theory and Cultural Studies. "The strength of the department has the ability to erase that."

Ross Tucker '05 said he had a "rudimentary belief that gender didn't make as big a difference in politics as it does" before taking Gender Politics in Latin America for his government major, a class cross-listed with WGST.

"I had never taken a class that made me think about gender," Tucker said. "I'd never thought of it systematically; that is, beyond gender in terms of social relationships."

These male experiences in WGST classes are viewed as having positive results for both the men taking the class and gender discourse in general.

Taking a WGST class made me more aware, more free to discuss issues," added August. "I'm a guy, but I can still be a feminist. I'm more comfortable with my feelings on issues now."