Why Not a Men's Center?

Brett M. Rogers, Ph.D., responds to a student email question about why there is no men's center at Gettysburg.

Why Is There No Men's Center?

This is not an unfair question that you ask. As a male trained in Classics (ancient Greek and Latin) who specializes in the history of education and who teaches women's and LGBT issues in the Women, Gender, & Sexuality Studies program, I think a lot about this very question. I can only answer for myself, but here's my two cents, for what they're worth:

1. Why Women's Studies (as opposed to Men's Studies):

Since the development of the first formal schools and universities in the fifth and fourth centuries BC, women have been almost entirely excluded from education. This is not a matter of opinion, but cold historical fact. Women were almost never teachers. Women were rarely students. Women were not the subjects of study, while women's issues were only rarely the subject of study, and never in studies done by women or people particularly sympathetic to women. Women were left off most syllabi and left out of most courses, and although we know of plenty of women who wrote literature in antiquity - Sappho of Lesbos, Erinna, Corinna, Sulpicia - their work has not survived because schools (run by men) and monasteries (ditto) did not care enough to preserve them. In short, education from about 500 BC to 1970 was rarely about women, for women, or done by women.

The consequences of this are quite severe. A good, if weird, example comes from gynecology. In antiquity, the Roman (male) doctor Galen wrote that the uterus was a wild animal that simply needed to be tamed, and offered his treatment accordingly; not only did doctors follow Galen's ‘research' for many centuries, but the attitude it contains towards women's health as something not worthy of careful research persisted even longer - many women would say similarly reckless (albeit more subtle) attitudes still exist in women's health. This is not just bad science, but is also extremely dangerous to women's health, to women's rights, to the family. It has become clear to many women that men have not done a particularly good job studying women's issue - partially because some men haven't cared, partially because men (even those who are sympathetic to women's issues) have been raised in ways that clouds their ability to see how different women's lives have been.

Schools have been slowly getting better since the 19th century: for example, Oberlin was the first college (1837) in the U.S. to admit women as students, and eventually more and more women's colleges and co-ed universities came into place. However, women did not typically teach in many of these schools, and women were still not the subject of study or, worse, studied badly. It was not until the civil rights activism of the 1960s, however, that women in the academy banded together to create the field of Women's Studies, and the first WS program was started at San Diego State College (now University) in 1970. These programs have aimed to end sexist oppression in many ways: they fill tremendous gaps in research that was allegedly about ‘people' but turned out to really only be about men; they put women back into history; they can solve difficult problems with new methods and approaches that grow out women's lives and experiences; they help women in the university/college see the unique joys and problems of being a woman in an institution that has been run by and for men for 2500 years. Thus Women's Studies programs everywhere seek to bring both women and men together to create an environment that is for women and about women in a way that is utterly unique in the history of Western education.

Men, as it turns out, have had no such problems becoming teachers, students, and objects of study. The pithy, but ultimately true, statement is that all studies really have been Men's Studies since the beginning of schools. This doesn't mean, of course, men don't feel oppression or discrimination - more on this below - but women have borne the brunt of such oppression for a very, very long time, and WS aims to end such sexist oppression.

2. Why Gender & Sexuality Studies?:

Whereas Women's Studies studies ‘women' as a subject, Gender and Sexuality Studies refers to methods for study, using the concepts of ‘gender' and ‘sexuality' as lenses through which we study a wide variety of things. This has two especially positive effects.

First, not all biological females see or describe themselves as ‘women.' Many lesbians, for example, find it offensive that they are defined as ‘women' and therefore denied the opportunity to follow their thoughts and desires simply because they have a uterus. Other people, such as transgender people and intersexuals (whom we used to call ‘hermaphrodites') get excluded altogether, although their lives are often defined by their gender and sex. Thus, by shifting from ‘women' to ‘gender,' all sorts of people who tend to be excluded on the basis of gender, sex, and sexuality - lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender people, intersexuals, the elderly, people with disabilities - are invited into the classroom, into the history books, and into the discussion.

Second, ‘gender' and ‘sexuality' are really helpful for identifying specific kinds of problems to which (a narrow definition of) Women's Studies can be blind. (For this reason, many universities in the U.S. and U.K. prefer to call themselves ‘Gender Studies' or ‘Gender & Sexuality Studies.') With gender, you can better explain why the Marines like "Don't Ask Don't Tell" but the rest of the Armed Forces oppose DADA. You can't study rape/sexual assault - which affects 1 in every 4 women - if you don't understand the relationship between sex, power, and gender. You can't study and make sense of AIDS if you think solely in terms of ‘women' and ‘gender' but not ‘sexuality,' even though women continue to be deeply impacted by AIDS.

One of the most interesting effects of thinking in terms of ‘Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies' has been the way it has taught us to study men and masculinity. Many women and men now acknowledge that, if you want to fix the problems women and other gender/sex-based minorities face and create a more egalitarian society, you have to help people both think in terms of and make room for many different kinds of both femininities AND masculinities. Masculinity studies is actually a vibrant area in gender studies right now; I currently have a female student doing an independent study with me on masculinities. The irony, however, is that men have made absolutely lousy Men's Studies scholars over the last 2500 years - otherwise you would think they would have come up with the field earlier! It is an interesting fact of scholarship that it took the wisdom of many women and LGBT scholars to understand and describe the subtleties of masculinity and men in a way men were unable to see...

I hope this answers your question. Please feel free to email me with any further questions you might have.

Brett M. Rogers, Ph.D.