What is Women's, Gender, & Sexuality Studies?

Women’s studies has its roots in the student, civil rights, and women’s movements of the 1960s and 70s. In its early years, the field’s teachers and scholars principally asked, “Where are the women?” Today that question may seem an overly simple one, but at the time few scholars considered gender as a lens of analysis, and women’s voices had little representation on campus or in the curriculum.

Today the field’s interrogation of identity, power, and privilege go far beyond the category “woman." Drawing on the feminist scholarship of U.S. and Third World women of color, women’s studies has made the conceptual claims and theoretical practices of intersectionality, which examines how categories of identity (e.g., sexuality, race, class, gender, age, ability, etc.) and structures of inequality are mutually constituted and must continually be understood in relationship to one another, and transnationalism, which focuses on cultures, structures and relationships that are formed as a result of the flows of people and resources across geopolitical borders, foundations of the discipline.

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Multivocal and Multidirectional: The Rich Legacy of Women's Studies

by President Heidi R. Lewis

Madge Dawson began teaching her “Women in a Changing World” course, the first of its kind, at the University of Sydney in Australia in the late 1950s. Energized by the civil rights, student, anti-war, and women’s movements in the U.S., faculty at Cornell University created the first Women’s Studies course accredited in the U.S. in 1969. The following year, San Diego State College (now San Diego State University) inaugurated the first Women’s Studies Program.

Even before that, artists, activists, scholars, and everyday folks were laying the groundwork for what we now call Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) at kitchen tables and in classrooms, laundromats, libraries, beauty salons, workplaces, and organizing spaces across the world. They were taking an interdisciplinary approach to thinking about, studying, discussing, and developing ways to address the subjugation and oppression of women within and outside the household. They were thinking about the complex relationships between gender and sexuality, race, class, age, and other positionalities. They were thinking about schools, churches, hospitals, households, and other public and private spaces as systems of power. They were thinking about the relationships between sexism, racism, and academic concepts like “truth” and “objectivity.” They were thinking about the politics of knowledge production and dissemination. They were thinking about global capitalism, motherhood, governmental politics, the environment, war, work and labor, harassment, and violence. 

While WGSS is a young discipline compared to others, such as Philosophy and History, our earliest foundations can be tracked to more than 200 years ago. The Women’s March on Versailles was held during the French Revolution in 1789. A few years later, Mary Wollstonecraft published “Vindication of the Rights of Woman” (1792). The Connecticut Female Anti-Slavery Society formed in the early 1830s. In 1847, nearly 70 women and over 30 men signed the Declaration of Sentiments calling for gender equality in Seneca Falls, NY. Two years later, the first National Women’s Rights Convention was attended by more than 1,000 people in Worcester, MA, including abolitionists and suffragists like Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Lucy Stone, and William Lloyd Garrison. The following year, Truth attended a women’s rights convention in Akron, OH to deliver her famous speech commonly referred to as “Ain’t I a Woman?” The International Council of Women was founded in 1888, and a few years later, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin founded the Woman's Era Club the first advocacy group for Black women in Boston and one of the first in the U.S. in 1892. Three years later, representatives from more than 40 African American women's clubs across 14 states convened during the First National Conference of the Colored Women of America organized by St. Pierre Ruffin and others. Speakers included Margaret Murray Washington, Ida B. Wells, Garrison, and Anna Julia Cooper. During that conference, the National Federation of Afro-American Women (NFAAW) was organized, and the following year, the NFAAW merged with other groups to form the National Association of Colored Women. In 1931, the All-Asian Women’s Conference was held in Lahore.

The late 1960s, but especially the 1970s and 1980s, might be referred to as the Golden Age of the kind of organizing central to WGSS. In 1966, the National Organization for Women (NOW) was founded by Shirley Chisholm, Aileen Hernandez, Betty Friedan, Pauli Murray, Dorothy Haener, Inez Casiano, and others. Shulamith Firestone and Ellen Willis founded the Redstockings in 1969. Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson co-founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) in 1970. In 1972, Sylvia M. Trevino led the Farah labor strike. In 1973, Florynce “Flo” Kennedy, Michele Wallace, Faith Ringgold, and others founded the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO). In 1974, Lorelei DeCora Means founded Women of All Red Nations (WARN); Rev. Dolores Jackson founded Salsa Soul Sisters with Harriet Alston, Sonia Bailey, Candice Boyd, Maua Flowers, and Luvenia Pinson; and the Combahee River Collective was founded by Demita Frazier, Beverly Smith, Margo Okazawa-Rey, Barbara Smith, and others. Three years later, the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) was founded.

The 1970s and 1980s might also be referred to as the Golden Age for the kind of publishing central to WGSS. To kick it off, Florence Howe founded The Feminist Press (now The Feminist Press at CUNY) in 1970. That same year, Toni Cade Bambara published The Black Woman: An Anthology. Barbara Ehrenreich published Complaints and Disorders: The Sexual Politics of Sickness (1973). That same year, Anna Nieto-Gómez founded Encuentro Femenil. In 1975, Fatema Mernissi published Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in a Muslim Society, and Charlotte Bunch published Lesbianism and the Women’s Movement. Adrienne Rich published Of Woman Born: Motherhood As Experience And Institution (1976). The National Organization for an American Revolution (NOAR), founded by Jimmy and Grace Lee Boggs, published Women and the Movement to Build a New America (1977). Paula Gunn Allen published Coyote’s Daylight Trip (1978). In 1980, Barbara Smith, Cherríe Moraga, Hattie Gossett, Leota Lone Dog founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press at the insistence of Audre Lorde, who published The Cancer Journals the same year. Magdalena Mora and Adelaida R. Del Castillo published Mexican Women in the United States (1980). In 1981, Betty Friedan published The Second Stage, and Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa published This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. The following year, Judith Butler published “Lesbian S & M: The Politics of Dis-illusion.” In 1983, Alice Walker published In Search of Our Mother’s Garden, in which she originated womanism. Evelyn Fox Keller published Reflections on Gender and Science (1985). Lila Abu-Lughod published Veiled Sentiments Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society (1986). Wendy L. Brown published Manhood and Politics: A Feminist Reading in Political Thought (1988), and Donna Haraway published Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science (1989).

These lists go on and on and on.

While WGSS has aimed to be as multivocal and multidirectional as the subjugation and oppression women, nonbinary, and LGBTQ folks face, it has routinely contended with critiques of its theories and politics. Some critiques (e.g., feminists hate men and motherhood) are ill-informed (at best) or baseless (at worst). As bell hooks notes in Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics (2000), many of those critics “really have not come close enough to feminist movement to know what really happens, what it’s really about.” In any case, critiques of WGSS have material implications that significantly impact the field. As NWSA President Heidi R. Lewis notes in “On the State of the Field and Related Concerns” (2024), “Legislators are also vociferously targeting our field and our kin disciplines, including Black Studies, Latinx Studies, and Indigenous Studies.” While these kinds of attacks are not new, they have arguably been more pronounced than in years past, evidenced by Lewis’s references to Florida’s SB 266, New Hampshire’s HB 544, and related policies.

At the same time, WGSS intellectuals, as well as the artists, activists, and scholars who contributed to its foundations, have not always been as critical as they aim or claim to be. During her NOW presidency, Friedan situated the focus on sexuality as a distraction to the women’s movement, referring to lesbians as a “lavender menace.” Shortly after, NOW omitted the New York chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis from the list of organizations sponsoring the First Congress to Unite Women. In The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (1970), Firestone diminished the significance of racism, colonialism, and related forms of oppression when she situated women’s oppression as “the earliest and most fundamental form of oppression [that] provides the model for all later forms of oppression.” In response to the racist sexism Black women face, including within WGSS, Akasha Gloria Hull, Patricia Bell-Scott, and Barbara Smith published All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave (1982). Nearly 20 years later, Kimberly D. Nettles and Venetria K. Patton published “Seen but Not Heard: The Racial Gap between Feminist Discourse and Practice” (2000) to address the ways leaders of a fifteen-week feminist epistemology and methodology seminar negated “the significance of racial, ethnic, class, geographic, and sexual identities among women.” 

NWSA has also faced its fair share of criticisms regarding the ways it has been structurally inattentive to the various forms of subjugation and oppression that impact its most vulnerable members. Catalyzed in large part by the firing of Ruby Sales from the National Office in 1990 and her being characterized as “a difficult person to work with,” NWSA’s Women of Color Caucus walked out of the annual conference at the University of Akron. In “Classless and Clueless in NWSA: A History of the Poor and Working Class Caucus” (2002), Lois Rita questions “the demise of the Poor and Working Class Caucus of NWSA and the invisibility of class issues in the organization and in Women’s Studies.” More recently, the Feminists For Justice In/For Palestine Caucus boycotted the annual conference in 2023 due to the Association breaking its commitment to Boycotts, Divestments, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel.

These lists also go on and on and on.

Still, as President Lewis and Interim Executive Kristian Contreras point out in their introduction to a recent NWSA study entitled “Protecting Our Futures: Challenges & Strategies for Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies,” WGSS “teaches us to remain committed to our radical imaginations and ‘fighting the good fight.’” 

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Join Our Constituency Groups

Current Members of NWSA can join and participate in constituency groups, which are member-driven spaces focused on facilitating networks of support, exploring scholarly and activist topics, professional standards within subsets of the discipline, and fostering community connections based upon shared socio-political locations. Constituency Groups also invite leadership development for members and support the NWSA vision in strengthening the reach of a WGSS-grounded education.

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Association Governance

The National Women's Studies Association (NWSA) is governed by elected members with varying leadership and service experience within the organization. Each member of our Governing Council (GC) serves two-year terms with our President serving an addition ex-officio year of service on the GC. NWSA recognizes the breadth and depth of how our members engage in women's, gender, and sexuality studies - therefore we welcome any interested members in serving on the GC and encourage you to nominate a colleague or run for a position during our annual Elections season. 

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We have to do it because we can no longer stay invisible. We have to be visible. We should not be ashamed of who we are. We have to show the world that we are numerous. There are many of us out there.

~ Sylvia Rivera

The National Office

The Governing Council, and the Association as a whole, is supported and anchored by the staff in the National Office. The team oversees daily operations, conference planning, membership support and engagement, and fosters collaborative relationships with stakeholders. 

About the National Office

The feminist decolonization project seeks the integration of spiritual, psychological, and physical health, or rather the recognition that these elements cannot exist outside of their interrelation. The question of how to hold all these elements together in our thinking and activism is a question of practice. Reconstructing tradition and memory is a vital element of indigenous survival, and there is nothing simple or one-dimensional about the process of reconstruction.

~ Lisa Kahaleole Hall