The Women’s and Gender Studies program has changed its name to Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies (WGSS). The change, while seemingly small, is “really a question of representation,” program chair Mary Armstrong said.
“Sexuality in its broadest sense [has] always been part of women’s studies,” she said, adding that issues of gender and sexuality are both part of the field.
The program defines sexuality studies as “inclusive of and pertaining to LGBTQ+ and heterosexual identities, as well as issues of sexuality more broadly in social, cultural and global contexts.” The change has been in the works for about three years, and the women’s and gender studies advisory committee at the time thought carefully about the best ways to change the name, Armstrong said.
Colleges and universities are likely to have different names for their respective departments such as the Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Stanford University, a Women’s, Gender and Sexuality major at Lehigh University, or the Women’s Studies department at the University of Maryland, that has a separate “LGBT Studies Program” within it.
The Women’s and Gender Studies committee, at the time, surveyed peer colleges with programs similar to Lafayette, such as Williams College and Bates College, and found that while their programs had different names for their departments, “sexuality” was usually part of their program name.
Instead of completely cutting off the word “women’s” from the department’s new name, Armstrong said that the committee wanted to “keep the historical part of the program with an expanded understanding of ‘women’s’ as including people who identify as women, not as sort of a biological definition, but [in] a broad sense…attending to the hierarchies around femaleness and femininity and [persons] identifying as female or feminine.”
It is important, especially for the trans population, that the program acknowledges an understanding of gender not as “not a fixed binary, and includes sexuality as separate and not necessarily a function of gender. We wanted [the new name to] show our commitment across all these issues,” she added.
Many changes have been made to the program since its creation in 1985, including the name, decisions to turn it from a minor to a major, as well as the addition of new courses and expanding the curriculum, among other things.
When Armstrong first arrived at the college in 2009, the program consisted only of a minor and lacked focus on sexuality studies.
“I was astonished at the absolute absence of sexuality studies in any interdisciplinary sense…The college was far, far behind peer colleges in terms of this content,” she said, adding that she felt it was an obligation to offer Lafayette students the best possible curricular content as part of a liberal arts education.
“It literally wasn’t present. And I think it was a failing on the part of the institution,” she said.
It has been a goal of Armstrong’s and the WGSS faculty to raise conversations around sexuality and teaching courses around trans issues and other topics. In her 10 years at Lafayette, Armstrong has helped expand the WGSS department to be more inclusive and offer a broader list of courses.
Because of this lack of focus on sexuality studies, Armstrong added a “Sexuality Studies” course to the curriculum for the academic year of 2010-2011, and it was the first of its kind with a majority focus on LGBTQ+ content.
The department also revised the “Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies” course last year to include more content surrounding sexuality studies, and this semester, Armstrong debuted her new queer theory course.
Iyana Eubanks ’21, an anthropology & sociology major with an interest in WGSS, is taking queer theory this semester.
“It feels like a little community and I’ve never been in a space with people who were so genuinely excited to learn and so passionate about their discussions. Each day we have these grandiose conversations about [existential] topics,” Eubanks wrote in an email. “In these two weeks I’ve learned so much, and if everyone could take this class, I genuinely believe it would change the culture of our school.”
“It’s incredibly important to us because we want to be cutting edge and thinking about gender and sexuality,” Armstrong said. “We want students [to] have the opportunity to think right at the edge of these issues.”
Along with the changes to the WGSS department, professor Dana Cuomo was recently hired as part of the college’s strategic direction toward increasing the student body population by 400 and adding 40 new faculty members.
Cuomo, who is a feminist social scientist with expertise in conducting community based research on issues related to gender-based violence, wrote in an email that she is “especially looking forward to supporting students who want to utilize feminist research to conduct projects focused on social justice and activism.”
As new faculty come in and sexuality content becomes “more normative,” the goal is that they are more likely to include it as new courses, Armstrong said, adding that the addition of new faculty members will further strengthen the program and provide “teaching power so we can do [an even] better job at it.”
“I anticipate developing classes that support the ongoing growth of the WGSS program, including an interdisciplinary feminist research class and courses that examine the links between intimate and global violence,” Cuomo added.
“I’m excited to join the WGSS faculty on the heels of the name change,” Cuomo wrote, adding that the name change does not only reflect the development of women’s studies at Lafayette, but across the United States.