Commentary: Why UMD needs WGSS

Illustration by: Rebecca Kottke

Illustration by: Rebecca Kottke

UMD’s Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies program teaches students about diversity, their interdependence in society and how to be globally compatible, but it’s also at risk of going extinct.

WGSS was once its own department on campus, however, it was merged with the anthropology, sociology and criminology department. Njoki Kamau, a professor in WGSS, used a business model analogy to explain why WGSS has stopped thriving.

“Education has become a commodity, it’s something we sell,” Kamau said. “If there’s no profit, we don’t sell it.”

According to the U of M reports, in the spring of 2018, there are 19 majors, and 26 minors in the WGSS program.

“You cannot blame the students,” Kamau said. “It’s how the classes are marketed to them.”

Kamau believes there is a gap in the rhetoric used by UMD in reference to how the university plans to improve diversity and inclusivity on campus, as well as in the actual practice. She thinks WGSS is one possible solution to fill this gap.

“What we try to expose is the gap between what we say or what we profess, and what we do,” Kamau said. “There’s a gap between theory and practice.”

Students and professors agree there is a stigma that there isn’t much opportunity in the job market for WGSS majors. However, classes like Kamau’s “Voices of African Women” prove that there are a plethora of subjects learned within just one course.

“In Voices of African Women you’ll [learn] history, politics, food, race, gender, political science, environment,” Kamau said. “We break knowledge borders.”

Susan Maher, dean of the College of Liberal Arts at UMD, believes that the degree sets students up for success.

“Whether they go into the nonprofit world, whether they go on for law school, whether they work for the government, or end up working in human resources, many of the WGSS majors go on and they are leaders in the organizations they join,” Maher said. “Their WGSS education has been a strong base for that success.”

Tineke Ritmeester, a pioneer professor of the WGSS department, agrees.

“You can do anything you want with a women’s studies major,” Ritmeester said. “You’re much better to go off to law school with a women’s studies major.”

Like Kamau, Ritmeester agrees that education has become a commodity, and WGSS is one program that’s used as a front to make the campus seem more inclusive and diverse.

“The university has used [WGSS] as a way to market the university,” Ritmeester said. “[People] think they can afford to not take these classes.”

Audrey Baumgartner,  a junior in the WGSS program, agrees people are skeptical of majoring in WGSS due to the stigma surrounding it.

“People think, ‘How are you going to make money with an oppressed subject?’” Baumgartner said. “Our society is trapped in this money issue. [WGSS] forces you to take a step back and look at bigger issues.”

Another misconception about WGSS is that the classes taught are strictly geared toward women. Ritmeester sees the lack of male student enrollment as a sign of fear or a problem of masculinity.

“Men are insecure and afraid to be seen in a WGSS class and studying for one,” Ritmeester said. “No heterosexual man wants to be treated like a woman.”

WGSS is a program where students are asked to constantly self-analyze and question. The program strives to make “dangerous” students by teaching them how to ask questions.

“Questioning creates a dangerous student,” Kamau said.

Twenty years ago, when Kamau first started at UMD, the word “race” wasn’t allowed to be said outside of classrooms. This proved to be a challenge for her considering it was something she found extremely vital to talk about, inside and outside of the classroom.

“How many of us talk about social injustice in terms of race, class, sex, and so on?” Kamau said. “I would say without fear that this department has brought those issues to the forefront. These classes are unsettling, these thoughts are mutable, but [WGSS] makes the invisible, visible.”

Maher hopes to see more faculty involvement from programs that have never collaborated with WGSS before, to keep the program strong.

“To me, WGSS is one of the central programs that helps us understand where we’ve been and where we need to go as a culture,” Maher said.

For the last 30 years, Ritmeester has been a renowned voice of the WGSS program, but this is her last. She hopes WGSS will gain enough attention to make a full comeback in the years to come.

“I hope there will be enough student activism to bring back [WGSS] as autonomous, and to regain visibility,” Ritmeester said.

*Editor’s Note: Olivia Krenz is a minor in the WGSS program.