As we witness the reversal of women’s rights worldwide, it’s clear that women cannot become complacent about protecting their civil liberties. According to the UN’s Sustainable Development Agenda, the world is not on track for meeting its goal of gender equality for women by 2030.
Although Canada has committed to gender equality, there is still an ongoing struggle for women to realize their fullest human potential. This struggle includes barriers to education, access to financial resources and living free from gender-based and sexual violence, systemic racism and all forms of discrimination affecting women’s lives.
Women’s histories in Canada are punctuated by a series of hard-fought victories for human rights, including the right to vote, sexual and reproductive autonomy, equal pay for equal work and recognition of anti-racist struggles within Canadian feminist movements.
We need to ensure there is not a reversal in these victories by supporting women’s studies programs in Canada. Anchoring, protecting and ensuring these rights for future generations should be key considerations for all.
History of women’s studies
Women’s studies programs were, and continue to be, an important teaching and learning opportunity for understanding the ways women’s pasts and presents intersect. These programs continue to lay out future paths in the fight for social justice and equality.
Many of the early post-secondary women’s studies programs emerged as a response to sexism in scholarship, which mirrored the sexism in society more generally. Male-centred perspectives permeated academic settings, scholarships, research priorities and related funding.
Educational settings served as a window into larger issues the women’s movement was attempting to address, such as gender representation in leadership and decision-making roles. Women were also formulating transformative approaches to sexist, racist and gender exclusionary theories and practices in scholarship.
The “othering” of women through misogyny, racism and sexism in scholarship has had, and continues to have, consequences ranging from prescribing drugs tested only on men to women, the exclusion of women from certain fields and disciplines and barring women from historically male-dominated fields, including in post-secondary education.
Importance of women’s studies
The decrease of university budgets in many provinces, coupled with an increased focus on innovation, patents and other for-profit industries, has forced many senior administrators to cut academic programs.
In many cases, determining which programs are worth keeping is based on financial considerations, not the social good that certain programs serve.
The climate in post-secondary education also mirrors broader social environments. With the uptick in anti-abortion and anti-choice rhetoric, the threat of same-sex marriage legislation reversal, transgender discrimination, the rise of the men’s rights movement and the resurgence of white nationalists’ alt-right movements, we are seeing suspicion or denigration of intersectional feminist approaches in academia.
Both the financial and social climate contribute to women’s studies programs being at risk of being defunded.
Given the increasing levels of structural violence against historically oppressed groups around the world, women’s studies programs must continue to serve as the social justice conscience of universities.
If the heart of the problem for feminist activists and scholars is the loss of previously held rights, the response shouldn’t be diminishing women’s studies programs, but rather increasing offerings of courses that focus on sex, gender, race and social justice.
Course offerings in women’s studies programs must underscore the pervasive nature of the erasure of difference such as identity, culture or history of, for example Black and Indigenous populations, pushed to the margins by mainstream society — the recognition for which was won by working-class Black women who championed intersectionality.
Such courses should become required core courses for various disciplines. These programs carry out the important work of equipping learners with the tools to challenge the erosion of freedoms of diverse categories of women and citizens who straddle identities of difference.
The way forward
The current state of women’s rights is instructive — it tells us that none of us are safe from losing our basic human rights. It is also an indication that we can be pushed further away from the collective human project of a socially just world at any moment.
If the recent reversal of Roe v. Wade tells us anything, it is that the civil, social and political rights we hold dearly can easily be cast aside, eroded by individuals in oppressive structures and justified by the state.
Being spectators to the reversal of women’s rights, and by extension university programs that support human rights advocacy, has implications for other marginalized groups as well. For instance, those from equity-deserving populations are often asked to speak to the importance of addressing these issues, resulting in higher unpaid workloads for them, which is known as the “equity tax.”
Women’s studies programs must be given space to intensify the work of preparing learners to take action in communities and embolden leaders to reject the violent erasures created by the growing wave of misogyny.
Jacquie Gahagan, Full Professor and Associate Vice-President, Research, Mount Saint Vincent University; Adwoa Onuora, Associate Professor & Nancy’s Chair in Women’s Studies, Mount Saint Vincent University, and Tegan Zimmerman, Chair, Alexa McDonough Institute, Mount Saint Vincent University