Had I not been raised Mormon, I suspect that I would not have majored in English literature. I like nonfiction more than novels, but literary criticism offered me women’s studies and a vocabulary through which I could think critically about how my Mormon culture prescribed gender roles that I found constricting. Being able to grasp a historical perspective on the evolution of gender was liberating to me, because this understanding gave me an expanded psychological capacity to choose how I would live my life. I appreciated that I found a place that was willing to take women’s experiences as serious objects of study, thus making significant experiences that were often under-valued.
But in the five years since I graduated from college, my attitude towards women’s research centers has become more complicated. While I have benefited from the broader success of the feminist movement in creating increased opportunities for women, academic fields that take women as their object of study (as distinguished from the general feminist impulse to support women) sometimes seem to limit opportunities for women as much as they promote them. The very fact that women’s studies centers often exist as separate entities outside the traditional department structure of universities reinforces the idea that women’s concerns are minority interests. By focusing on women too much, women can be limited to being women.
I recognize now that by studying women—a topic that the world typically does not view as marketable—I ensured that I would become many of the qualities we associate with women. I limited my future earning potential. Ironically, because my husband’s field commands more pay, the fruit of my women’s studies focus is that I am at the moment dependent on his income (though I have taken steps to change this situation by deciding to pursue a practical degree). I begin slipping into the very gender roles I once hoped to abandon, albeit with an increased appreciation for the positive value that those gender roles can offer. For me, studying women did not produce solutions to the structural problems that create barriers for women. It lacked a practical bite.
When I read about BYU’s decision to eliminate its Women’s Research Institute on Square Two my emotions were therefore mixed. The chief problem I see with this decision is that it is all too easy to read as confirmation that Mormonism remains uncomfortable with feminism. But I also believe that there are pro-women arguments to be made for decentralizing women’s studies and having women’s interests be a lens and a priority throughout all aspects of the community. Women who focus on traditionally male fields–sciences, economics, and the like–while being cognizant of gender might well have more practical impact on women than those of us who choose to focus on women.
There are no easy answers here, but my hope is that BYU truly commits to giving women scholars more resources than they are losing through the loss of WRI and that women’s centers cease to exist only when their demise reflects that they are no longer needed because women have been woven into the fabric of academic and professional life and because projects focusing on women are not seen as special interests.**Update: It seems like BYU would do well to overcome the legitimate concerns that this loss will not be made up by presenting concrete evidence (with dollars amounts attached) of how this move will expand opportunities for women.