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Gender Policy Journal

Topic / Gender, Race and Identity

We Can’t Go Back. Private Universities Must Counter the Attack on Gender Studies

During COVID, our nation’s mounting distrust in institutions grew and came for our educational system. Suddenly, superintendents – among the most unassailable stalwarts of our communities – received death threats for imposing mask mandates. As health measures became politicized, so did curricula. Critics cried out against supposed “secret agendas” to indoctrinate our children with “woke” curricula. This has resulted in at least 63 state laws restricting what teachers can say about gender, race, sexuality, inequality and even American history in public schools.

This  Orwellian response to growing societal inclusivity promotes an “Ignorance is Strength” ethos.  Understanding creates empathy; a quality in too short supply these days.  Private universities with robust intersectional gender studies programming need to defend the crucial gender scholarship that helps create a country where we can better understand each other.

Universities can lead by example by spotlighting intersectional gender studies as part of their contributions to building a more inclusive, peaceful America.

Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law restricting discussions of sexual and gender identity for K-12 students grabbed national headlines in 2022. Over 20 other states across the country have now instituted or proposed bans on topics and efforts aimed at fostering greater social inclusion. Seeing the popularity of his initial measures, Florida Senator Ron Desantis has now taken his winning formula to Florida state universities with Florida House Bill 999. His fanning the flames of discontent has wrought tremendous political rewards. The fear is that this trend could become the norm in public universities in countless additional states. As Desantis inches closer to a potential GOP presidential nomination, a Desantis presidency that aims to censor gender and racial studies could be a real possibility

Private universities live outside of political influence. In this period of backlash, they have a responsibility to defend and advance the academic tradition of intersectional gender studies.  This wave of censorship has the real possibility of erasing women, particularly women of color, and gender non-conforming people from view. The consequences run deep. Individual students are hurt.

A Tennessee student who identifies as queer was recently interviewed about how the growing number of gender-related restrictions was affecting her/their experiences at school.  She/they said, “It felt kind of like turning something that’s a fact of history, and life, and my life, into something secret or taboo….It was very much like this odd sense of: ‘So, am I not allowed to mention myself?’”

How are we to come together as a country if we neglect and diminish the experiences of over half the population?  Through #MeToo, Black Lives Matter and the work of trans activists such as Marsha P. Johnson, and more recently Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, and Imara Jones, the general public developed a more widespread awareness of the barriers that women — especially women of color — and gender-diverse people face.

This awareness contributed to gains in political representation.  #MeToo is in part credited with inspiring a wave of women running for and being elected to the House and the Senate in 2018.  The Squad, a progressive group of younger politicians of color, became icons of the left overshadowing a largely sclerotic House. In 2023, the US elected the most racially and ethnically diverse Congress to date.

These long overdue gains have hyper extended the very idea of what authority looks like.  In increasing a focus on diversity-related issues, schools were merely keeping up with reality.

This is where panic sets in for people fearful of a shift of public sentiment – and political power – to women, people of color and gender diverse people.  Panic leads to action starting with places where one has the most control, i.e., the local school board. And it’s working.

A recent Washington Post article chronicled the challenges faced by public school teachers hamstrung by these new restrictions.  An English teacher teaching about Tara Westover’s book Educated sought to put themes about educational inequality into historical context.  She included a section of Mary Wollstonecraft’s classic “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” written in 1792 as supplemental reading.  Following a lengthy back and forth, school officials made the teacher remove the assignment.  They argued she had failed to show how “learning target(s) would be achieved” by assigning students this classic philosophical work.

Conservatives argue that intersectionality, gender studies, critical race theory and DEI threaten the academic experience by prioritizing certain people’s experiences over others. The Florida Bill treats teaching about race as anti-American. But our racial history is America’s history.  Critical race theory is judged to be a part of an effort to “suppress or distort significant historical events.”

This argument fails to recognize that our nation’s history has been written to reflect certain people’s experiences; those of cis white men. Gender studies and racial studiers are about reversing omissions. These efforts are about filling in gaps, not creating new ones.

Private universities should lead by example. They should publicly and unequivocally express how intersectional gender studies are critical to producing competent global leaders.

But words alone aren’t enough. They should put money behind their convictions. They should modernize core curricula to reflect society’s complexity and diversity. Stand-alone gender justice and racial justice scholarship has been too siloed for too long. Universities should take steps to gender and racial mainstream its core subject areas.

At Marquette University, the Psychology Department’s new diversity requirement spurred the development of new classes such as one examining the health consequences of gender-based stigma and discrimination.  Hamilton College undertook a school wide diversity initiative requiring all departments to mainstream topics about gender, race, class, ethnicity and ability throughout its departmental course offerings. As a result, the Economics Department integrated the causes and consequences of inequality into its introductory Economic Theory and Evidence course and began offering a course in the Economics of Discrimination.

We must take this moment to challenge every university program; every business school, engineering school, design institute and medical school to bring their curricula up to 21st century standards by enriching course materials with perspectives from diverse viewpoints. The result will be future generations of educated Americans prepared to lead this country through its current divisions towards a more inclusive future.

 Private universities have the power to take on the “Ignorance is Strength” movement and win.