With 20 years of experience behind it and 130 graduates demonstrating its value, the women's studies program at Guelph is attracting greater numbers of students and expanding its focus beyond feminism to broad issues of social justice.
Program co-ordinator Prof. Helen Hoy, Literatures and Performance Studies in English, says the program still offers the opportunity for women to hear their own stories told for the first time, but it is providing many more opportunities for students to delve into issues of equality and equity that affect women not only because they are women, but because they also belong to other groups that are underpowered in society.
"It's no longer appropriate to consider women as a homogeneous group," says Hoy. "When it began in 1979, this program may have been predominantly a white woman's women's studies program, but the reality today is much more inclusive, celebrating the differences in women - sex, gender, race, culture and ideologies."
Hoy was a student herself during "the second wave of feminism" in the 1970s that sparked the establishment of women's studies programs at many North American universities, including U of G. It was the beginning of academic feminism, she says, and most women's studies programs began as a place of empowerment for women, countering a strongly male-centric perspective in traditional academic disciplines.
"Women's studies courses were developed at a fundamental level to make corrections to the paradigm," she says.
In the early 1970s, Guelph students petitioned several departments to offer courses focused on women, and the idea of an academic program was bandied about at Guelph for several years before it was launched in 1979 by psychology professor Joanna Boehnert, sociology professor Nora Cebotarev and family studies professor Donna Lero. The program was co-ordinated by Boehnert for 14 years, then by drama professor Ann Wilson and College of Arts dean Carole Stewart until Hoy arrived in 1995.
At U of G today, women's contributions to literature, history, art, sciences and social sciences are more easily recognized within those disciplines. Hoy sees that in the number of faculty at Guelph who make the achievements of women a central part of their research effort and, in turn, make themselves available to teach women's studies courses. There is still no full-time faculty commitment to the women's studies program, but the program draws faculty interest - both women and men - from 13 disciplines in three colleges. These professors are involved in feminist research in such areas as gender and race in world literatures, the philosophy of gendered inequality, women's domestic work, native women writers, the treatment of sexually abused adolescents, feminist political theory, Canadian women artists, and gender-role orientation and androgyny.
Two things that mark the 20th anniversary of women's studies at Guelph are its increased visibility on campus and a redesigned curriculum that gives students more flexibility in course selection.
The program has finally been added to the table of contents in the undergraduate calendar, says Hoy. "The interest was always there, but not every prospective student was able to find us when women's studies courses were listed with interdisciplinary social science offerings."
More students are now taking women's studies courses in first year, as evidenced by the fact that both introductory courses are turning away students because the assigned classrooms aren't big enough to accommodate all of them. "Introduction to Women's Studies" has a full house with 260 students; "Women and Representation," which will be offered for the first time in January, is full with 120 students enrolled.
The women's studies program has added several new courses in the past two years, including a reading course in women's studies issues and an independent workplace course. With 25 course offerings and degree requirements that allow students more choice in both humanities and social science areas, the program is attracting BA students who appreciate the range of electives available.
Hoy says there is growing interest among graduates and students for careers in academia as well as midwifery, police work, ministerial work, international development, health care, mental health and youth support services. She says academic career opportunities are increasing, with five recent postings for women's studies faculty at Canadian universities.
Those people who still vandalize the women's studies office door on occasion may be out of touch with the interests of students who are taking advantage of the broad theoretical approach to social justice issues offered by women's studies courses, says Hoy. But the vandals are a reminder that equality battles have not been won.
"There is some danger that a few students will focus on the gains made by white middle-class women and begin to speak in the past tense about employment equity and other problems within society," she says. Although conditions for some women have improved a lot in 20 years, women generally and men of colour, for example, are still under-represented in the management tier of most workplaces. Even at U of G, women make up more than 60 per cent of the student body, but only 22 per cent of faculty.
In future, Hoy hopes to attract more science students and faculty to the women's studies program. A graduate students' group organized a few years ago demonstrated that women in science disciplines often feel isolated and need to be able to discuss feminist issues, she says, and the program would like to add a course on women in science.
A long-term goal, dependent on increased student numbers, is the opportunity to create full-time faculty positions in women's studies.