Historically, women’s voices have been missing. And while women compose almost 50 percent of the world’s population, studying women’s experiences and perspectives has only been acknowledged in academia since the 1970s. BYU’s Global Women’s Studies (GWS) aims to make visible women’s experiences and contributions. GWS student Paige Park explained: “Having a GWS program is important because it is rare that the contributions of women are equally represented in other classes. The GWS program offers classes that focus totally on these contributions. It’s also the best place to learn about issues affecting women and minorities that are so salient in many aspects of life.”
At BYU, this academic exploration of women started with the Women’s Research Institute, opened in 1978. Thirteen years later, in 1991, the Women’s Studies minor was created to give students the opportunity to think critically about how gender shapes daily life. In 2017 the current Global Women’s Studies minor was born. Housed in the Kennedy Center, this minor offers an interdisciplinary option for students focused on understanding women’s experiences in communities around the world and appreciating the contributions of women in all their roles.
The new minor requires that students take a variety of classes on subjects such as kinship and gender, women writers, and the international political economy of women. Courses are taken from multiple colleges across campus. This interdisciplinary approach allows students to gain a multiplicity of skills not found in a traditional minor or major. In addition to coursework, the minor provides students with various avenues to get involved, such as through the Human Rights, Women’s Rights study abroad in Europe and the AMAR Foundation internship in London. Becoming a member of the GWS Honor Society provides scholarly opportunities, including research grants related to women’s issues.
Professor Valerie Hegstrom, coordinator of GWS, said, “When I was asked to be the coordinator of Global Women’s Studies, my charge was to make the program as academically rigorous as possible. My job is to make the program meaningful for the students. Everything else is ancillary to that.”
“I HAVE DEVELOPED A UNIQUE LENS FROM THE PROGRAM THAT HAS HELPED ME BECOME MORE RECEPTIVE AND ATTUNED TO HOW I COULD BE A BETTER ADVOCATE AND ALLY TO DISENFRANCHISED AND MARGINALIZED POPULATIONS.”
A COMPREHENSIVE PROGRAM
Adding the word global to the Women’s Studies program was something Hegstrom and other faculty members had aimed to do for several years. The name change signaled a public transition from solely a Western lens of understanding women’s issues to that of a more inclusive framework. Professor Amy Harris, a former GWS executive committee member and internship coordinator, explained that if the Women Studies program only focused on women’s perspectives from the Western world, the faculty would be doing the students a disservice. Harris stated further that, while there are still rampant inequality issues in the West, compared to the rest of the world, Western women have “an onslaught of privilege.” Women with more privilege need to help those who are disadvantaged.
“I have developed a unique lens from the program that has helped me become more receptive and attuned to how I could be a better advocate and ally to disenfranchised and marginalized populations,” said GWS student Anna Salvania.
Women’s studies at BYU is global, in part because many of our faculty and students have served as missionaries around the world and have participated on study abroad or international internships. GWS faculty and students bring to their examination of gender and women’s issues a deep commitment to the principles of the restored gospel, an understanding of global languages and cultures, and a love for people around the world.
The GWS curriculum does not solely focus on individual women as subjects—such as studying the life of Frida Kahlo or Anne Frank—but rather it provides courses that teach students through and about women’s perspectives within the framework of our divine purposes and potential as children of God.
Professor Harris further elaborated: “GWS is not just about ‘add women and stir.’ GWS classes offer gendered perspective on how one would analyze labor issues in an economics or political science class, for example. It is important to signal that there are important theological and historical reasons to study women.” It is essential to recognize the role of women in families and societies and to understand how economic, political, and social institutions affect women and their ability to influence families and communities.
The importance of the GWS program cannot be overstated: The minor provides a forum in which the experiences and contributions of women throughout history can be explored and understood in light of gospel truths. Understanding each individual’s divine potential as a child of Heavenly Parents motivates the desire to serve and strengthen those on the margins of society. GWS should not be considered a newer academic niche but rather an open forum in which relevant and important ideas are discussed in an honest and productive way.
“GWS PROVIDES A WHOLE OR MORE COMPLETE VISION THAT EQUIPS EACH OF US TO MAKE A POSITIVE AND INFORMED IMPACT ON THE WORLD.”
A MINOR FOR EVERYONE
The minor is not for a select group of students. “This minor is for everyone,” said GWS student Emma Beaumont. “I believe it applies to every major. On our study abroad, we had representation from a variety of majors, including nursing, political science, English, neuroscience, psychology, and education.”
And while the composition of GWS is primarily women, a few male students have chosen the minor. GWS minor Joseph Fitzgerald explained that he became involved because his grandmother, sister, and mother are examples of strong, powerful women in his life. He wanted to support a world in which the women in his family are valued as equal contributors to society. Fitzgerald also said he has grown weary of hearing the old adage that “men will never understand women, so why try?” Fitzgerald explained that, in his experience, most men “want to do the right thing” and treat everyone equally, but they don’t know how at times, because they have not had the opportunity to discuss issues such as gender equality.
“A man who has an understanding of gender issues and knows, at least generally, about the female experience in the world will have a greater ability to work with women, to empathize with women, and to empower women,” Fitzgerald elaborated. “I think taking classes in GWS helps empower men and women, which in turn leads to more progress in society. Understanding the similarities and the differences between men and women is only going to lead to progress in the world.”
Trace Lund, a former GWS student, said, “For men in general, Women’s Studies gives insight into women’s historical and contemporary contributions to society that can, unfortunately, often [be] absent in a typical college-level curriculum.”
Some GWS students recognize that in an ideal world, a program like GWS would not be necessary, in a sense. Academia should include both women’s and men’s perspectives from history. Typically, this is not the reality. Until then, “GWS provides a whole or more complete vision that equips each of us to make a positive and informed impact on the world,” Annalaura Solomon, a graduate of the program, emphasized.
With the students who enroll in the GWS minor steadily increasing every semester, the vision seems to be catching.