the future of gender studies: what are students missing?
This article will be seen in the upcoming March issue of The University of Queensland’s student magazine, Semper Floreat.
Last year saw the controversial axing of the Gender Studies major at the University of Queensland, with Dean of Arts, Prof. Fred D’Agostino, citing financial reasons for the cut. Since the announcement, students and teachers alike have protested the decision resulting in the creation of a Gender Studies minor. While this is a step backwards from the previous major, students and staff involved hope to use this as a platform for building further interest in the discipline and hopefully reinstating the major in the future. It is highly important that students are aware of the changes that have occurred and the disproportionate effect they have had, not only in arts and humanities but also in every other occupation and discipline that can benefit from the insights an intersectional study of gender can bring.
Gender Studies has a particularly historical significance at the University of Queensland. Up until the 1960s, women were legally excluded from public bars. On 31 March 1965, future UQ academic Merle Thornton protested these laws by chaining herself to the foot rail in the Regatta Hotel. This event helped to kickstart the popularity of second-wave feminism in Queensland. The publicity from this protest resulted in the Equal Opportunities for Women Association, an organisation that campaigned for a diverse range of women’s issues. In 1973, Thornton helped establish the Women’s Studies program at UQ, which developed into the recently axed Gender Studies major.
A combination of reasons have seen the Women’s Studies and Gender Studies major at UQ slowly reduce in size, funding, availability of courses and ultimately enrollments. Enrolled in Gender Studies in 2011, UQ student Rebecca Lowe says she has noticed a distinct lack of availability of the courses listed as options in the Gender Studies major, making it both difficult to commit to and to complete. This was only made more difficult by the 2013 decision to remove the major altogether. In spite of these continual cuts, faculty staff put countless extra hours of their own time into this major. Ironically, 2012 saw Gender Studies celebrate its 40th anniversary at The University of Queensland.
Following a review of the Arts Faculty in April 2013, Prof. D’Agostino announced that the Gender Studies major would be ‘discontinued’. This meant that while students who have already declared a Gender Studies major will have until 2018 to complete it, new students would no longer have the opportunity to enroll from 2013. Prof. D’Agostino cited a ‘low demand’ for the major as part of his rationale. But as students were quick to argue, the lack of university funding toward Gender Studies, combined with the gradual reduction of courses over several years, reveals that the University has never adequately promoted the major through the UQ website or in past Arts prospectuses. Students have never truly been encouraged to enroll into Gender Studies and the major has never been given the opportunity to fully flourish, as evidenced further by the small pool of teaching staff.
It is also widely reported that Prof. D’Agostino claimed this decision should be viewed as ‘triumph’ for the discipline, arguing feminism and Gender Studies has accomplished so much that it is no longer needed. The most unsettling aspect of this comment is that it reflects the dominant misconception that sexism is a thing of the past. Facts such as that 67% of women have reported experiencing sexual violence on university campuses nationwide, and that Australian females do not have equal pay, are ignored with ease. Prof. D’Agostino’s assertion at the time, that courses with content akin to the Gender Studies major could be studied in any discipline, reinforces the notion that the battle for equality has been won. It also devalues the importance of gaining a dedicated major or minor in Gender Studies. For example, it is doubtful Prof. D’Agostino would say that one could become a historian by simply studying a history course or two in a language major, rather than pursuing a dedicated history major. The dismissal of the value of Gender Studies has only been partly atoned for by the newly instated minor.
Many staff, students and members of the public expressed their concern over these cuts by writing letters and organising awareness and activism campaigns on campus. While an online petition circulated on the internet, two discussion panel events were held on campus to raise awareness. On 18 April 2013, students rallied in the Great Court before marching to the UQ senate with the petition. The building was lined with police officers. Acting Vice-Chancellor, Major General Maurice McNarn addressed the rally. Students demanded to have a representative from the rally enter the building and present the petition. Though protesters thought this request was being met, there was miscommunication between the parties. While Major General McNarn took the petition into the building, students were still kept out. When students marched through Forgan Smith, toward Prof. D’Agostino’s office, they were met by UQ security. Additionally, the UQ Women’s Collective created a video titled ‘Save Gender Studies at UQ’, which was posted on YouTube and shared through social media.
While these forms of protest took place, staff members discussed Plan B strategies and spent time re-working the course into a proposed Gender Studies minor.
For now, a minor in Gender Studies has been salvaged, allowing new students to this discipline to discover new ways of approaching society, politics, identity and literature in academia. Some highlights of the minor include ‘World Women: International Perspectives on Politics and Culture’, ‘Women, Reason Desire: Feminism and Western Philosophy and ‘Aboriginal Women: Gendered Business’. The variety of courses that make up the Gender Studies minor reflects that gender is an issue that is relevant to a number of different areas in both academia and in everyday society.
A minor in Gender Studies can take students to rewarding jobs in a vast array of fields, from a career in politics, to helping make equitable policies and laws in workplaces and in society, to working for humanitarian causes and charities, to a career in academia. Careers such as these attest to the financial value and worth that has been downplayed by the Dean of Arts. Students who have opted to make Gender Studies the focus of their studies have expressed very positive feedback in the value of the discipline. Gender Studies major Rebecca Lowe stated that the methods and theory she has learnt in the process of her degree have had an immeasurable effect on her life and how she views the world. Aspects of the discipline have had a profound effect on the way she understands herself as well as the many varied and multifaceted struggles of those around her. The intersectional and multidisciplinary approach of Gender Studies is relevant to all walks of life, all fields of study and all occupations. Gender Studies offers a unique insight into the human condition and its importance in all spheres outside of academia is far-reaching and cannot be understated.
A lack of these complex humanity studies does more than simply see students wishing to study in these areas flock to other universities. UQ is losing more than prospective students. It is losing a social game: namely, depriving the student population with integral education in key, vital and rich areas of Australian society and culture. Further, UQ is losing its reputation with equity. Rather than job-seekers heralded with the glory of our university and all its facilities, we future students are burdened with the reputation of inequity; of dismissing disparity and injustice, and of ignoring culture and insight for the sake of money.
Gender Studies is a discipline of great significance and worth of study; it leads to rich, rewarding careers in many different fields. It is undoubtedly an asset to UQ, underpinned by decades of feminist achievements in Brisbane and at the University itself. Gender Studies will always be as valuable as long as there is inequality, prejudice and ignorance towards the complex ideas of gender and sexuality and race in our society. We can only hope that in the coming years the Arts faculty will see this worth and reinstate the major with more funding, promotion and staff. For now, we hope the University will see that Gender Studies students, feminists and our allies will not stop fighting for this worthy cause.