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.

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game Of Thrones
Uh-oh, winter is coming. Ouch, my eyes! Ygritte’s a goner. Lysa’s a goner. Tywin’s a goner. Look, a dragon
tvSpoiler warning:The British actor says viewers have 'not seen the last' of his character
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave long-running series
Sport
The Etihad Stadium, home of Manchester City
premier league

The Independent's live blog of today's Premier League action

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
people'Bring It On' actress says her legal team will combat the 'vultures'
Sport
FootballGerman sparks three goals in four minutes at favourite No 10 role
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: 'Time Heist' sees a darker side to Peter Capaldi's Doctor
Voices
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
voices
News
Dennis Rodman has confirmed he is not going to the Middle East to 'talk to with the leaders of Isis' as claimed in a recent satirical report
people
Sport
Radamel Falcao was forced to withdraw from the World Cup after undergoing surgery
premier leagueExclusive: Reds have agreement with Monaco
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
Sport
A long jumper competes in the 80-to-84-year-old age division at the 2007 World Masters Championships
athletics
Life and Style
Walking tall: unlike some, Donatella Versace showed a strong and vibrant collection
fashionAlexander Fury on the staid Italian clothing industry
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: SEN Teaching Assistant required in ...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: North Manchester Teaching Assistant...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Nursery Nurses needed in Manchester...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Nursery Nurses and Assistants requi...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam