EssaysSex & GenderTheory & Practice

For Gender and Sexuality Studies: A Manifesto

Gender symbols © 2010 Ju Gatsu Mikka | Wikimedia Commons

We write as members of a group of faculty from different parts of the New School who are working to return graduate-level gender and sexuality studies to the university. Our project is an unusually collaborative one, drawing on the work of colleagues from a wide range of programs and disciplines. Our aim in posting this piece is to start a conversation about these matters right away, even while our proposed program is still in the development process. What interests us is discussion about what we see as the powerful case that can be made for the intellectual and political importance of gender and sexuality studies not only in general but at the New School in particular.  We invite responses from anyone in the larger community who is interested in weighing in.

Let us start with some reflections about what is distinctive about the New School.

One of the founding myths of our university is that it places social research in the service of liberating and transformative social action. Over the nearly one hundred years of its existence, the New School has retained its commitment to social research while at the same time growing to incorporate serious concerns with the humanities and the arts, international relations, and fashion and design. Throughout this period of development and change, the university has stayed faithful to its appealing insistence that its intellectual emphases derive their point and importance from their relevance to productive social engagement and action.

Against this backdrop, a strong – even overwhelming – case can be made for including the study of gender, feminism and sexuality in the New School’s different divisions and departments. There are currently more than four hundred programs in the US offering different undergraduate and graduate degrees on these topics, and the question is often asked how the New School, of all places, can fail to have such a program. Of course, the mere success of an area of study is not an argument in its favor. Centers and departments devoted to “women’s studies,” “gender” and “sexuality” come under attack from various directions.

Some critics allege that the institutional recognition of scholarship in a given area is in tension with effective action and, further, that anyone who hopes for a society in which oppressive gender categories no longer function has good reason to object to situating these programs within our universities. But a line of criticism that turns for its apparent interest on opposing disciplined thought to effective action can carry little weight at the New School.

A more challenging criticism of programs dedicated to gender and sexuality comes from critics who maintain that any intellectual rationale there once was for such programs has by now expired. This basic criticism comes in different forms. Some of its advocates claim that in accommodating the study of, for instance, women and men, colleges and universities are simply entrenching pernicious social categories that ought to be overcome and thereby contributing to the very forms of oppression that they are supposed to be combating. Others, striking themes associated with third-wave feminism, argue that we are already in an era that is post-gender and that therefore ought to be post-feminist.

Hermaphrodite in Anasyronomenos pose from the book Naked Truth by Koloski-Ostrow, O., and Lyons, C. (1997) Routledge | Public Domain  Wikimedia Commons

These critiques merit serious and respectful response. But they do not undermine the case for the study of gender and sexuality at colleges and universities. Nor, for that matter, do they undermine the especially strong case that can be made within the setting of the New School in particular.

Theorists and scholars may fruitfully differ in their degrees of skepticism about gender, arguing about the prospects for forms of social life that no longer place individuals under gender headings such as “women” and “men.” While some people who experience dysphoria with regard to their gender classifications express dis-ease primarily not with oppressive gender norms and the social significance of sexual characteristics but with certain aspects of their anatomy, others find intensely liberating the idea that the gender categories imposed on them are merely “performed” and can therefore be rejected. Yet, for all of the complexity of the issues, there is no doubt that today gender classifications continue to play a fundamental role in the organization of different societies and, by the same token, that these classifications make a significant contribution to individuals’ social experience in respects that cut across contexts and communities, even while differing in their contributions in ways that reflect individuals’ positioning in terms of, for instance, race, class and religion.

The pervasiveness of gender-based social organization, in its intersections with modes of social organization according to race, class, religion, etc., is reflected in the value of gender-conscious research across the disciplines. This includes work in history, philosophy, literature and the study of languages that inherits methods from feminist and queer theory; it includes artistic productions that give expression to the insights of this body of theory; it includes work in the social sciences that incorporates feminist and queer theory in its conception not only of appropriate methods, productive modes of analysis but also of fruitful topics and questions; it includes a rich array of social policies and modes of social intervention (e.g., microloans) that recognize the distinctive role of women as social agents; and it includes work in design and fashion that engages with feminist and queer theory, addressing and challenging not only the impact of gender striation on artifacts and forms of spatial organization but also prevalent assumptions about the social meaning of embodiment. To summarize, the value of work that takes seriously the social reality of gender gets registered in all of the disciplines that are currently and historically prized at the New School.

When the argument for gender and sexuality studies at the New School is laid out in this way, it seems odd – not that a new case should be made for introducing these studies, but rather – that they don’t already have a place of undisputed prominence within the university. The history of gender studies at the New School is in fact a complex and somewhat vexed one. From 1994-1998, the then Graduate Faculty (now the New School for Social Research) was home to a two-year Masters in Gender Studies. This program had tracks in all of the GF’s individual departments and was ultimately shut down, despite huge student interest and clamorous student protests, in part because there was not adequate faculty interest in offering courses along the different tracks. With hindsight, it seems scandalous that the response to institutional obstacles was plain defeatism and not a push toward reinvigorating Gender Studies by reorganizing it along institutionally more workable lines.

Gender Studies at Eugene Lang College

It has taken more than a decade for the sense of loss to register fully. One clear sign of the turning of the tide is the return in 2010 of Gender Studies in the form of an undergraduate minor, with its home at Lang College, which is open to undergraduates across the university. This quite new project already has great student and faculty interest and participation. (The success of the enterprise is in large part due to the energy and efforts of its founding director Ann Snitow.) Another sign of the timeliness of this proposal is the level of graduate student interest in theoretical and practical questions about gender and sexuality. Signs of this interest include, e.g., the NSSR Philosophy Department feminist reading group and student organization PSWIP (People in Support of Women in Philosophy), the NSSR Psychology Department LGBTQ Journal Club, the interdepartmental NSSR French Feminist Theory reading group, the NSPE Writing Program gender/feminist reading group and the cross-divisional Global Gender and Sexuality Project (NSSR/NSPE).

This is a very concise statement of our reasons for believing that the study of gender and sexuality is intensely pertinent and that it has a special pertinence to the mission of the New School. We look forward to hearing your thoughts and reflections.

Alice Crary, Associate Professor of Philosophy at The New School for Social Research

Lisa Rubin, Assistant Professor of Psychology and Assistant Director of Clinical Training at The New School for Social Research

Elaine Abelson, Associate Professor of History at The New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College

Miriam Ticktin, Associate Professor of Anthropology at The New School for Social Research

Margot Bouman, Assistant Professor of Visual Culture, Art and Design History and Theory at Parsons, The New School for Design

Public Voices

Public Voices

  • First year MA in soc

    This is great. I challenge the thought that we are post-gender because traditional gender roles are still being promoted in various sectors of society and those who reject them are still being punished. Just because many women work and some men are stay-at-home dads doesnt mean gender is irrelevant or even autonomous. Saying we’re post gender is like saying we’re post-racial.

    We’ve come a long way in the evolution of gender but that doesn’t mean we don’t need to study it, especially because gender dynamics have had and continue to have a major impact on social, political and economic relations. the definition of what it means to be a man or woman has evolved and it would be in the university’s best interests to inform itself and its students on the history and current state of gender theory and practices.

  • David Peppas

    Yes, Jeffrey’s term “scandal” is appropriate. Why do we not have such a department? I can remember some time ago that there was some dispute over naming such a department (e.g. gender studies, queer theory, feminist, sexuality department). This does not sound like an unsurmountable challenge. As a student at the New School for Social Research I would like to know what students can do to help with this venture? I do not think that such a department needs justification, so I would very much like to hear from the critics. This is not so much a question of should we have a department, but rather how do we make it possible?

  • Angela Jones

    I am a NSSR graduate. I hold a phd in sociology. When I decided to enroll at the new school, it was only in part tied to my desire to stay in ny. I was originally taken with NSSR because of its intellectual history. I was drawn to what I thought was a bastion of progressive politics that I thought would be reflected in the curriculum. Instead I felt inundated by Eurocentric theory; I could not take one graduate level course on gender or queer theory. I took one history of gender course that was filled with undergrads. I took one course on the history of sexuality with an amazing visiting professor. While I was able to nurture some of intellectual curiosities as they relate to Black protest ( thanks Jeff ), the curriculum surrounding the lives of people of color, particularly black folk was woefully underdeveloped or shall I say non- existent as well. I so hope that the NSSR takes this initiative seriously. It truly is scandalous that there is no program in WGS.

  • Tina Gentzkow

    I hold an MA in sociology from NSSR. I was in my second year
    as a PhD student when I left the program. I left for several reasons, but at the risk of sounding like a disgruntled drop-out, I would like to offer some personal support to the claims addressed in both the essay and Angela Jones’ experience. I feel that although my experience may appear anecdotal, having read Angela Jones’ story I feel there is more than anecdote at work here. As I said, I left the program for several reasons but one of the major reasons I left had a lot to do with the way my particular academic query was ill-supported by a university that prides itself on being liberal and transformative. When I applied to the PhD program, I clearly stated my intention to study the experience and effects of women serving in our armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan who had been raped by fellow service members. My application was, I
    understand, unanimously accepted. I was also given a four-year fellowship, as a sign of support for my project. It became clear
    early on that although the topic may have been interesting in the abstract, when I approached several faculty members to work with me on field statements, which included one on sociological approaches to gender and sexuality, I was rebuffed. This happened not once but three times with three different faculty members. I was told by one that I should engage a professor at Lang who is a well-known gender and sexuality advocate at the New School, but was also told that she could not sign off on my field statements because she was not a member of
    the Sociology faculty. I wonder to this day, what did the faculty think I was going to study? I was doing a study of rape, after all, and it seems obvious that studying gender and sexuality in depth is a natural approach to the problem of rape. Like Angela Jones, When I first came to NSSR I was surprised by the lack of interest in gender or race among the sociology faculty and later found myself in what I am sure is the same history course-with only one other graduate student among 25 or so undergraduates- that Jones likely took. It was, as she expressed, the only course offered that specifically addressed women’s experience in the social sciences at NSSR. I did take a course on Sociology of Sex and Gender at NYU, as well, through the consortium program,and while I am grateful that this opportunity was available to me, I felt bereft of academic allies at NSSR. It seems to me that NSSR is unbelievably conservative in actuality and does not currently have the capacity to adequately address the concerns of women and people of color through academic scholarship. More faculty with these specialties are needed in every department, at least. And, a graduate program in Gender and Sexuality not only makes academic sense for those who wish to
    specialize in that field, but sends the message that the university as a whole supports this kind of scholarship across all fields.

  • chris crews

    This is an important discussion that sadly is not getting enough attention here or within TNS, for complicated historical reasons which the authors have pointed out. I’m also fully in support of the suggestions to bring back some form of a graduate research and degree program attentive to issues of gender/sexuality/identity and power.

    But I think there are two major problems which the letter does not address, and which, from what I know of the history of the mid 1990′s struggle over these issues within Lang and NSSR–by this I have in mind The Mobilization and related student and faculty activism–are still outstanding problems. So unless these are addressed, I am concerned a new attempt to revive these programs will run into the exact same issues as before, no matter how good the organizing in support of these important efforts.

    The first problem is the deeply patriarchal leadership ethos across all divisions of the university, going up to the Board of Trustees, combined with a “good old boy” Marxist allegiance that exists within a significant part of the tenured (and esp. male identified) faculty at NSSR. More than a few of the faculty who opposed teaching gender or sexuality or anything having to do with “identity politics” are still here and still as dismissive of these ideas as they were almost 20 year ago. One only need read the few anecdotal comments made here to see this is as much a problem today as it was in the late 90s. Or alternately, look at the class offerings for spring 2014 if you prefer empirical data.

    Unfortunately the “founding myths of our university” are steeped in Marxist class rhetoric–thanks in no large part to the pride of place that the University in Exile once had and which we continue to sell–even though the idea that social research should be “in the service of liberating and transformative social action” was purged from all levels of official university policy and curriculum long ago. I am sad to say I have met too many students who said they came here for the “progressive education” or some similarly shiny motivation, only to find that the gap between university branding and classroom learning was cataclysmic. This is reinforced every few years when there is a campus occupation or student uprising, where the student language inevitably marginalizes anyone not supportive of revolutionary Marxism or Communism as the Ur politics and is openly hostile to “identity politics” as understood from within current neo-Marxism. This logic continues to be inculcated in the students by senior NSSR and other faculty, where to often students are taught that class/capital and political theory/philosophy are the only really worthy lens for analyzing modern society. That’s why even in 2014 you can spend 5 years at NSSR and 95% of your readings will be from old dead “white” men.

    Secondly, and more importantly, I worry there are simply not enough faculty competent to teach these issues at The New School without a heavy cross-divisional plan which, frankly, I am not going to hold my breath over, given ongoing struggles for control and funding between divisions in recent years. So I would like to see more attention and detail about how we go about developing a program that has sufficient faculty cross-divisionally to support such an effort. And what role would, for example, grad students play in such a program? It strikes me that we likely have more expertise in gender/sexuality studies within the graduate student body than within the actual faculty.

    So I think this is a great proposal, and I’m fully supportive, but I think these past obstacles–which are all still here–need to be addressed in more detail. If that have already by folks working on this, it would be good to hear more about this. thanks!

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