Women's studies are alive and well

Media reports have declared that the subject is dead. But our investigation shows it is surviving – and tackling today's issues.

Louise Livesey was surprised to switch on Radio 4's Today programme last month and learn of her subject's demise. Not only is she the head of women's studies at Ruskin College, Oxford, where she plans to launch a single honours degree in the subject in September 2008, but she's also a former lecturer at the University of Westminster which still runs a joint honours programme in women's studies. Something, surely, had gone wrong somewhere.

The story was first reported in the pages of Times Higher Education in January this year, under the dramatic headline "Last women standing". It noted that the last undergraduate degree in women's studies, at London Metropolitan University, was due to close in the summer, and speculated that this could spell the end of the subject. The piece made no mention of Westminster's joint honours degree, and stated that "only MAs and PhDs appear to be surviving the cull".

This was enough to set the wheels of the media in motion. Soon the story had been picked up by the Today programme, The Daily Telegraph and also this newspaper's sister publication, The Independent on Sunday. Dr Livesey was left with no choice but to continue preparing the new undergraduate degree, in despair.

"It's not true that it's died," she says. "I was very surprised the courses that are still running were rendered invisible, purely because it's a better story if you can proclaim the subject dead rather than just struggling. There's been a lot of comment about women's studies no longer being needed because times have moved on – but actually the subject has moved on, too."

Livesey first became interested in women's studies more than 10 years ago, through her undergraduate degree in English literature and politics. She did a Masters degree in the subject at York, before going on to teach first at Roehampton, then at Westminster. Now based at Ruskin College, which provided the venue for the first Women's Liberation conference in 1970, she is keen to add an undergraduate option to the institution's existing Masters and certificate of higher education programmes.

"There is a whole generation of people such as myself who have studied the subject at undergraduate or postgraduate level and are now involved in teaching it," she argues.

"We feel – as we always have – that we're being written out of history. The notion that the subject has become a private passion rather than a public concern just simply doesn't ring true for me, or for the students that I'm teaching."

One of these is Jo Winrow-Jones, 39, who decided to enrol on the certificate in higher education two years ago, and is now doing a Masters. She's been a firefighter for the past 18 years, and is the last person you'd expect to need academic direction in combating female oppression. But she says that the public perception of her occupation made her want to learn more.

"Women's studies is still very relevant," she says. "A perfect example comes from my career: why are there so few female firefighters? We make flippant remarks about women being 'primary carers' but don't ask why that is. In many ways [the debate about its demise] is quite ironic, because it confirms everything we've been learning about. Is it dying, or are people trying to kill it off?"

While the popularity of the subject has undoubtedly declined at undergraduate level since its heyday in the Seventies, it is still viewed as a thriving postgraduate discipline at many institutions across the country. The University of York's centre for women's studies opened in 1984 and has always offered the subject exclusively to graduates. Postgraduate diplomas, MPhils, PhDs and a range of Masters programmes are available, while in October the department plans to launch a new MA entitled "Women, violence and conflict".

The reason for this is, quite simply, student demand. Around half of York's intake is made up of overseas students, who come from countries in Asia and the Middle East where the subject isn't available. And according to Dr Ann Kaloski-Naylor, the department's head of admissions, interest in women's studies seems to be picking up: it's a far cry from the grim picture of terminal decline painted by recent reports.

"I have to say that this year we've had many more inquiries than usual," she says. "The subject seems to be developing after a bit of a lull around the turn of the century, and now we're getting a strong sense that people want to learn more about women and gender."

The continuing success of women's studies at postgraduate level indicates that its status as a subject has changed from mainstream to specialised. But, according to Louise Livesey, this doesn't necessarily mean that it holds no interest for school leavers – they've just never heard of it. The subject has suffered, she argues, because its leading academics haven't marketed it at careers fairs, so their only experience of feminist issues is shaped by the media.

"The shift from undergraduate to postgraduate has to be put into the context of the sorts of coverage there is of feminism," she says. "If you look at it from the position of an 18-year-old making their choices, of course they won't be attracted to women's studies: the media still represent people who teach it as hairy-legged women with short hair in dungarees."

The subject's penchant for feminist history and literature means it is often accused of being stuck in the past, and of offering its students little prospect of employment once they graduate. But although women's studies courses still revisit these familiar areas, they also explore far more topical and controversial ground. Sex trafficking, reproductive technology, genetic engineering and the integration of ethnic minorities into Britain are a few recent additions at Westminster and Ruskin, proving that, at its best, the degree can still be the eclectic mix of politics and social theory that it once was.

Beth Robinson, 24, graduated with a degree in history and women's studies from Westminster University in 2006, and is now at Royal Holloway in London studying for a Masters in women, gender and culture. She blames the decline of the subject on the Government, which she says has encouraged school leavers to think of their degree as a financial commodity rather than a pleasurable intellectual pursuit.

"Studying something you can get excited about is something we've lost now," she says. "I discovered the subject by accident at a Ucas careers fair, and it really took me by surprise.

"So many people from school were doing things that didn't interest them, but here was something I could be really positive about. I adored the course, but because feminism has a long history, people think of it in terms of the politics rather than the skills you gain from it. Some people even asked me if I was studying knitting and baking."

What's on offer: women's studies programmes around the country

Undergraduate

Although much has been made of this summer's scheduled closure of the last single-honours undergraduate degree in women's studies, at London Metropolitan University, it might not be long before the subject is back on the map. Ruskin College, Oxford, is hoping to launch a single-honours degree in the autumn: it already offers a certificate of higher education in the subject. The new degree is undergoing validation, and is due to begin in September. The University of Westminster runs a joint honours undergraduate programme in women's studies: popular choices for the other half of the degree are history and sociology.

Postgraduate

Women's studies is still looking healthy as a postgraduate discipline. The courses listed here should not be confused with gender studies, which is also becoming increasingly popular. The Centre for Women's Studies at the University of York offers a wide variety of postgraduate qualifications in the subject, which have proved popular with international students: at least half of the student body is from overseas. In September a new Masters entitled "women, violence and conflict" is set to start.

The Centre for Gender and Women's Studies at Lancaster University is another well-established postgraduate department, offering five Masters courses, including one in feminist cultural theory and practice. There is also the opportunity to study for a PhD or an MPhil at the centre, which was awarded the top score in the last Research Assessment Exercise in 2001. The University of Oxford teaches a one-year MSt – Master of Studies – in the subject, while Royal Holloway in London has an MA in women, gender and culture.

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