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Gender Studies marks 20 years

Amanda Gray | Thursday, April 23, 2009

Started in 1989 – 17 years after women gained admittance to the University – Notre Dame’s Gender Studies program will celebrate its second decade this weekend with events beginning Thursday.

“Gender Studies has made Notre Dame a welcoming place for hundreds of students and faculty over the past 20 years,” Director of Gender Studies Eileen Hunt Botting said. “It has created a safe and inspirational space for dialogue and discussion of issues pertaining to gender, sexuality and race on this campus.”

A reception will be held Thursday from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m., followed by a lecture by University of Chicago’s Christine Stansell on “Matrophobia and the Women’s Movement,” according to the Web site. Friday there will be a panel discussion from 10 a.m. to noon on “The History and Future of Gender Studies at Notre Dame and beyond.”

To commemorate the 20-year milestone, several of the department’s members reflected on the program’s history of helping faculty and students in exploring gender and its related topics, like sexuality, social status and ethnicity.

“When I taught ‘Introduction to Gender Studies’ in the fall, I was struck by the strength of the students’ conviction that gender is an issue that directly impacts their life here at Notre Dame,” academic advisor Abigail Palko said.

Palko said students in the program often express philosophical differences, but that they recognize the importance of gender in society.

“While they didn’t all agree on the specific direction it should take, all of my students seemed to agree on a need for a kind of feminism that would improve gender-related issues for both women and men,” she said.

History professor Gail Bederman said Notre Dame’s Catholic affiliation promotes discussion on gender issues, because of the Church’s sometimes-controversial stances.

“Catholic colleges and universities tend to have more Gender Studies majors than non-Catholic schools, because issues of gender and sexuality are unusually controversial at these schools,” Bederman said. “Gender programs give Catholic students excellent academic perspectives on how to combine their Catholic and secular beliefs.”

Botting connected the University’s overall mission with the department’s academic goals.

“Gender Studies is important for Notre Dame because of the University’s Catholic identity and mission,” she said. “As a University named for Our Lady, we should be concerned with the study of the place of women in society, and learning how to elevate women’s status and rights.”

One major change over the last 20 years is the addition of men’s rights into Gender Studies, philosophy professor Janet Kourany said.

When Gender Studies was first popularized, departments examined women’s roles in society, since the majority of college curriculums focused almost exclusively on the role of men, she said.

“But now that the university curriculum has become more inclusive of women we have moved beyond the old goal [of women’s studies] and our courses and activities in Gender Studies are reflecting the fact that men have their gender issues too, that interconnect in very interesting and sometimes unanticipated ways with women’s issues,” Kourany said.