UNC, It’s Time You Heard About… The Empowerment of a Women’s and Gender Studies Education

Public attacks against the Women’s & Gender Studies (WGST) curriculum at UNC and other institutions charged that these programs are unable to produce students with tangible skills, students capable of achieving success in the world in which we live. The curriculum, however, has enhanced the Carolina experience of many students, molding minds that crave analyses of systems of interaction and inequality that shape our past, present, and future.
As Women’s & Gender Studies students, we are equipped with unique skill sets that allow us to understand the state of the world and the ways in which it is problematic to the health and well-being of all humans. A few ways in which the curriculum empowers students are listed below with examples relating to everyday life.

1. WGST empowers us to recognize how women’s bodies have been used to objectify and disempower them.

Did you know that the vagina is not the correct word to refer to a woman’s external genitalia? The appropriate term is vulva. This misnaming has led to a focus on a female anatomical structure that has historically benefitted heterosexual men through penetrative sex. A woman’s sexual pleasure has therefore been made invisible by this skewed representation of her anatomy, where the vulva and parts of it like the clitoris and labia are unrecognized as points of pleasure. Women, many already estranged from their genitalia, begin to understand their bodies as objects for men’s pleasure, rather than an empowering avenue for them to experience sexual pleasure and identity.

2. WGST empowers us to acknowledge the world through a more critical lens, prompting us to question the unquestioned.

Have you ever wondered why the color of our Band-Aids are that color? Or why that color is referred to as ‘nude’ as if all people when naked share this skin tone? The norms and values placed on individuals on the basis of skin color perpetuate inequality. The existence of racism extends far beyond Band-Aid inequality and terminology, but these are items that communicate the extent to which racism is ingrained within our society.

3. WGST empowers us to understand how language and action reinforce one another in the production of harmful trends rooted in systems of inequality.

At least 1 in 4 college women will be sexually assaulted during her academic career. Have you ever thought about who are sexually assaulting these women and why this is not a well-known statistic? Our passive language continues to focus on the victim. “Jane was raped,” instead of “Jim raped Jane,” communicates that rape happened to Jane, rather than placing the blame on Jim who actively raped her. Men commit an overwhelming majority of these sexual assaults, but rarely does public discourse hold them responsible. The “1 in 4” statistic should enrage us, but instead a prevailing rape culture normalizes sexual assault and ensures continued inadequate response to it.

4. WGST empowers us to identify the ways in which class privilege systematically maintains positions of power.

Have you ever thought about the classist nature of padding one’s resume? Someone involved in multiple student organizations is oftentimes valued over someone who works full time in order to pay for their higher education. Even if you do succeed in padding your resume while balancing work during the school year, unpaid summer internships—which have become the norm—are only accessible to folks who have the ability to self-pay for summer expenses. This snowball effect of economic inequality makes it incredibly difficult for individuals of lower socioeconomic backgrounds to gain access to opportunities that ensure freedom from economic hardship in the future.

5. WGST empowers us to question the messages that are fed to the public, thereby understanding the impact that they have on shaping the minds of future generations.

When you hear the words ‘imagination, inspiration, and creativity,’ does a woman multitasking in the kitchen and doing laundry come to mind? Toy corporations seem to think that play kitchens and laundry machines are the kinds of toys designed for little girls to do just that. Their commercials and advertisements depict toys related to the domestic sphere as the one and only space in which girls can be inspired, fulfill their dreams, and be creative. This is not to belittle the effort of and the respect that should be given to domestic laborers, but it is problematic that messages like these impact the goals and self-esteem of women at an incredibly early age.

These examples represent only a small fraction of the content of a Women’s & Gender Studies curriculum, but together they communicate the curriculum’s holistic nature. The curriculum trains its students to be perceptive; to recognize, question, and understand the systems of inequality that influence our world. The issues above are only tidbits of reasons that people are drawn to this curriculum and why its lessons mean something to capable, skillful, and passionate Women’s & Gender Studies students. The Department is always waiting for fresh minds to engage with the curriculum, so if anything above strikes your interest, take a Women’s & Gender Studies course and welcome its empowerment!

Julia Ramos is a senior majoring in Biology and Women’s & Gender Studies.