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Why Women Studies Now?

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How often has the media announced that feminism has come and gone! Many people believe that women and men now have gained equal status so there is no need for feminism or for women’s studies programs on college and university campuses.

While it’s true that women have made many advances, they have not yet achieved equality. It’s a good time to ponder some of the lingering issues as the University of Rhode Island Women’s Studies Program-- one of the first such programs in the country--celebrates its 25th anniversary,

In the workplace, women have gained ground, but the promise of equity has not yet been fulfilled. In the 1960s women earned an average of 55 cents for every dollar a man earned; women now make about 76 cents. According to the AFL-CIO, over a lifetime of work, the average 25-year-old woman who works full-time, year-round until she retires at age 65 will earn $523,000 less than the average working man.

So why is wage disparity happening despite laws that guarantee equality in the workplace? One of the causes of salary differentials is occupational segregation: women work in lower-paying jobs, as nurses rather than as physicians, or as service workers rather than professionals. Additionally, across all segments of the workplace, women advance more slowly up the career ladder. Today, there are a mere eight female CEOs at Fortune 500 companies.

Wage disparity and other inequalities are due, in part, to widely held, often unconscious stereotypes that are detrimental to women. For example, Harvard University’s president recently questioned women’s innate mathematical abilities. Since a “math gene” has yet to be discovered, innate abilities cannot be measured. However, we do know that we are all born into cultures, and are shaped by our interactions with those cultures from the day we are born, and perhaps even before birth.

The glass ceiling, therefore, remains intact in most professions, even in politics. While other countries have women presidents and prime ministers, the U.S. has yet to elect a woman president, or even nominate one as a candidate for the post.

While there have been numerous advances in women’s health in the past three decades, there remains a void of information, since most previous medical investigations have involved only men. Thanks to more recent studies, conducted at the insistence of women’s organizations, we now know that women suffer heart attacks differently than men. In fact, heart disease is the leading cause of death of American women, taking nearly a half-million lives a year --more than all types of cancer.

Menopausal women have received ping-pong medical advice about the use of hormone replacement therapy. Before the Women’s Health Initiative, the largest health study of women conducted in this country, women were routinely prescribed and encouraged to take the hormone replacements to prevent heart disease and other effects of aging.

The initiative’s 12-year study of 161,000 volunteers showed that hormone-replacement-therapy after menopause INCREASED—not decreased—the risk of heart disease by 81 percent in the first year.

Advances in knowledge about women’s health have been threatened recently, as the Bush administration has removed crucial information about abortion, teen sexuality, and contraceptives from government web pages. Key government health policy makers seek to curtail women’s access to contraception and to reproductive choice.

Another area of concern is the widespread global practice of sex trafficking. Young women and girls in countries traumatized by poverty, war, or natural disaster are often lured by promises of jobs and then treated as sexual chattel. Women’s studies researchers and activists are working to track these victims, to curtail the practice of trafficking, and to bring awareness to the issue.

The mission of women’s studies not only includes women’s issues, but social justice. Its vision is of a world in which all persons can develop to their fullest potential, free from all forms of bias, exploitation, and persecution.

Women’s Studies courses use the tools of history, the social and natural sciences, and the humanities to analyze and critique the body of research and conscious and unconscious beliefs surrounding privilege and oppression in society.

Last week I bought two greeting cards for new babies. The card for a boy talks about the adventures waiting for him and how he can use his talents as he grows. The girl’s card talks about the happiness she has brought her family, and about how she can be loving and kind as she grows up. Women’s studies strives to bring about a world where both women and men can be loving and kind, can use their talents, and share in the joys and adventures of life.

Dr. Karen Stein, chair of the Women’s Studies Program and professor of English at the University of Rhode Island, with assistance from Katherine Tanner, a sophomore in URI Women’s Studies Program.

March 8, 2005