An agenda of gender: What goes on in women's studies in Britain? Natasha Walter finds out

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'IT IS an embarrassing scandal that, in the name of feminism, young women in our colleges and universities are taking courses in feminist classrooms that subject them to a lot of bad prose, psychobabble, and 'new age' nonsense.'

So says Christina Hoff Sommers, a controversial American academic, in a new book. Who Stole Feminism?, published this week, is a vitriolic condemnation of fashionable feminism in US universities.

There are those who would claim that British universities are falling prey to the same disease. 'It isn't only in America that you'll find salaried academics paid to regale students with gems like, 'The penis is shaping up to be the central metaphor of the gender crisis of the Nineties',' said Richard Dawkins, the Oxford zoologist. 'Look out for new courses with names like 'Gender Studies',' he warned in a letter to the Independent. Roger Scruton, professor of philosophy at Boston University, believes women's studies are 'completely unbalanced, just an excuse for incorporating a political agenda into academia.' Gender is 'a fraught, ideological word', he says, and gender studies is 'rubbish'.

The several hundred students currently on women's and gender- studies courses in Britain would hardly agree that their chosen subject is a sinister force. Yet there has certainly been a growth, though not exactly an explosion, of feminist ideas in British universities. Courses in women's studies, as part of a BA or MA, first appeared at the end of the Seventies, and are now found at nearly 90 universities or colleges (though in only 12 is it offered for a BA by itself). Many are at new universities, such as Middlesex, but established universities such as Sussex, Warwick and Exeter also offer such courses. The Universities of North London and Kent have chairs of women's studies.

Even where no separate departments of women's studies are listed, it would now be difficult to find an arts degree anywhere that didn't offer papers specialising in women's areas.

Traditionalists taking a passing look at the neat red course booklet for the women's studies BA at Middlesex University might be tempted to wonder if Dawkins and Scruton have a point. Guidelines for students on sexist language prescribe alternatives to 'master copy' and 'one man show'; suggestions for dissertations include 'Wot a pair of melons, Mrs] The sexual politics of joking', and 'Celebrating the Difference? Feminism, Pornography and Disability'.

But closer inspection reveals that the courses themselves, at Middlesex as elsewhere, are not very different from mainstream subjects, except that they focus on women. They draw heavily on sociology, with an emphasis on the position of women in society; they offer straight history courses that take into account women's history; they deal with women's literature - either the literature that women have written, or the ways they have been written about in (or written out of) various texts. 'We almost overemphasise traditional skills in study,' says Shiona McArthur, lecturer in women's studies at Middlesex. 'We feel very much under scrutiny.'

Sheila Lawlor, deputy director of the right-wing think tank the Centre for Policy Studies, still feels it is going too far: 'This does threaten the idea of a liberal education. In other countries education is used for indoctrination. I would be sorry to see that happen here. If you're going to study women's history, what does that mean - just poor women and then Queen Elizabeth? What about the real, established tradition of history? It causes a terrible imbalance.' Nonsense, says Terry Eagleton, Warton Professor of English Literature at Oxford: women's studies are simply at the cutting edge. 'Here in Britain, sloppy feminism is just not a problem.'

I asked Middlesex if I could sit in on one of the undergraduate women's-studies courses, and was invited to attend a seminar for second-years on 'Gender Divisions and the Family'. The 15-strong class was made up solely of women - from silent young undergraduates to fired-up mature students, eager to express their views on everything from the CSA to Wages for Housework. One young undergraduate burst into a discussion about why fathers have never been fully involved in the family. 'All this stuff about working to earn the family wage is an excuse,' she said. 'I think it's just laziness. My dad had the time. He just couldn't be bothered.'

McArthur looked worried: 'We should look at why men have, historically, been prevented from spending time with their families,' she urged.

At other times, she wanted them to use their personal experience, or to take ideas from the classroom out with them: 'Try asking the cleaners here what they earn,' she suggested gently, as a discussion on women's low pay wound down.

For some of the students I spoke to at Middlesex, women's studies builds on the feminism they were already aware of. 'Now I'm not just a man-hater,' laughed undergraduate Kath Jago. 'I'm a man-hater with reasons. I know the academic side to feminism, the theoretical side.' She said she was hoping to go on into equal opportunities. Others had just drifted into the course. 'I never heard about women's studies until I got here,' said one student majoring in history, 'but it's the most thought- provoking course I do.'

Of course, you have to ask what kind of careers does women's studies prepare students for? Even the sympathetic feminist magazine Everywoman says: 'Many of the graduates are employed on teaching more women's studies. There is such a range of courses being taught now it is almost self-perpetuating'.

But the great majority of students go into other fields, from journalism to teaching to care-work (as with other humanities degrees).

At its most basic, the only conviction that women's studies requires for its existence is that women are being written out of the story elsewhere. In many universities that still seems to be the case. In 1988 only 14 per cent of university lecturers were women, a figure that the Hansard Society called 'derisory'. Women's-studies departments can give the female viewpoint more weight. Mary Evans, professor of women's studies at Kent, said stoically: 'I can see that, for instance, when undergraduates study the development of British industry here, women are not mentioned, although they were working in the first factories. Now I've got my chair behind me, I feel I have more clout to complain about that sort of thing.'

Some disagree that any change is necessary. John Bayley, former Warton Professor at Oxford and fellow of St Catherine's College, said 'My wife (Iris Murdoch) always says, why should women be put in a kind of ghetto? I think we are very aware here of women's literature. Writers like Emily Bronte and George Eliot will never be ignored. I would be very sorry to see a separate course for women here.' Pressed on other disciplines, he said: 'I don't think women really like mathematics, do you?'

The question of whether women's studies puts women in a ghetto is also being asked within the feminist movement, and has given rise to Roger Scruton's other bogy: gender studies. 'The time for women's studies is past. It was a kind of consciousness- raising culture. Now we must move on,' says Professor Isobel Armstrong of Birkbeck College, University of London. The MA she has set up at Birkbeck is in gender studies, not women's studies.

Lynne Segal, professor of psychology and gender studies at Middlesex, agrees. 'I would be a dissident in women's studies. I want to be looking at men as well, and questioning the whole way we think of gender differences.

Many people in women's studies are critical of that. They feel that women might be swamped in their little place if men come in. I don't like seeing it in terms of an interpersonal battle between men and women.'

Whether to let the men in - as teachers or students - is a moot point. In 'Agenda for Gender', a series of papers on women in education edited by Professor Mary Evans, one contributor seemed to think the most threatening development of recent years was the 'male feminist'. 'He 'espouses' anti-racism and sexism, feminises his appearance . . . (no tie - or a pretty one - unbuttoned, patterned waistcoats . . . coloured shirts, soft fabrics and tailoring, designer knitwear, scarves, windblown hair . . .)He manipulates women's realities, plunders their lived experience for course material, and may even do some serious 'fieldwork' (via sexual relations with female students).'

Among the students, one or two men to 30 or 50 women is typical on women's studies courses; in gender studies the proportion tends to be higher. One male student on the Birkbeck gender course said he was there because 'I wanted to study the construction of masculinity, to ask questions about, say, why men are four times more likely to commit suicide or be homeless than women are. I found most courses on women's studies were very hostile to the idea, they didn't want me on the course.' Not all male students share the same motivation, however. 'I chose this because it was a good interdisciplinary course,' said another Birkbeck student, a civil servant.

'It doesn't have any bearing on my everyday life.'

The female students I met were keen to welcome men in. They were buoyant and confident. 'I see women's studies as a celebration of femaleness, not an attack on men,' one said. 'No more than traditional history is meant as an attack on women.'

Outside the women's-studies departments, the women students I spoke to were fired up by equal opportunities much more than sexual politics. All of them commented on what they saw as the gap between their own attitudes and the traditionalism of the media and academia. For instance, at Kent University there is a 'No Means No' campaign to promote the idea that sex must be consensual. The students were very aware of the idea of date rape, but nonchalant: 'Perhaps I'm just lucky because the men around me tend to be great,' one said. 'This hype in the media looks ridiculous. It's a 'sexy story', no more.'

For many female undergraduates, especially outside arts subjects, feminism means something very simple indeed. It isn't that they necessarily want to see the curriculum overhauled to include women's perspectives, they just want to see more women on the podium. As one chemistry undergraduate said: 'The only women I ever see in chemistry are lab technicians and secretaries.'

Women's studies has clearly threatened academic traditions on more than one front. Yet despite the hostility it has raised in some camps, it is focusing attention on some valid demands from women students and academics. 'In the best universities, everyone is so much more alert to gender,' says Lisa Jardine, Dean of Arts at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London. 'And women are beginning to break through the glass ceiling. I'm very optimistic.'

'Who Stole Feminism?' is published by Simon & Schuster ( pounds 14.99) (Photograph omitted)