General education (“gen-ed”) classes are a requirement for almost every college student, but sometimes it can be difficult to see their value and relevance to your major. However, there’s one subject area that offers students the chance to learn and grow in a meaningful way: gender studies classes. What students learn in gender studies classes can have real-world implications, and I fully believe that taking at least one of these courses should be required for everyone.
Since their emergence in the 1970s, gender studies classes have been accepted as optional courses students can take to fulfill gen-ed requirements at most colleges and universities. In my own experience, taking gender studies electives have made the greatest impact out of all my general courses. Although I already considered myself a feminist, it wasn’t until taking these introductory classes that I started to understand the history of the women’s movement and the structural inequalities that exist in everyday life.
Gender studies classes are important in many ways, but especially because they provide students with a new perspective on the impact of gender inequality. For college students, this is especially relevant. According to the World Health Organization’s 2021 report on violence against women, one in three women — so around 736 million — are subjected to physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner or sexual violence from a non-partner. Given that one in four women between the ages of 15-24 has experienced gender-based violence by their mid-twenties, learning these statistics in college can help inform students about this significant issue that impacts them directly.
Additionally, the 2019 Association of American Universities Campus Climate Survey found that 13% of all undergraduate and graduate students experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation during their time in school. Among undergraduates, the study found that 26.4% of females and 6.8% of males experience rape or sexual assault. For undergraduate transgender, queer and nonbinary students, there is a reported 22.8% of nonconsensual sexual contact overall. These statistics are beyond troubling and reveal a deep lack of respect for gender differences and for honoring consent.
Fortunately, this is where gender studies classes can step in. Requiring every college student to take at least one gender studies class can help ensure that all students receive at least a basic education on gender issues — plus, they can count toward gen-ed graduation requirements. If students are required to take gen-ed classes, why not make at least one of them relevant to their lived experience? Not only can mandatory gender studies classes help generate important discussions about gender equality on college campuses, but they can also encourage students to explore gender topics from an academic standpoint — while challenging students who don’t believe that gender inequality is a prominent issue.
Although requiring gender studies classes in college won’t fix every gender-based issue, the requirement could help inspire progress toward a more respectful and inclusive culture. Here are a few reasons why this requirement should be implemented everywhere.
By: Abbey Bashor
They Can Help You Explore Feminism & Inequality
One of the biggest benefits of taking a gender studies class is learning about feminism. In its clearest definition, feminism is defined as “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities,” and contrary to popular misunderstanding, feminism does not equate to “hating men” (the term for that is misandry). Many college students are surprised to learn that the definition of feminism is quite basic, and taking a gender studies class can help them unpack the commonly misunderstood term. Additionally, students who were previously skeptical about feminism may find that they align with the belief more than they previously thought!
Deborah J. Cohan, Ph.D., says that it can be liberating for students to learn about gender studies and gain language for grappling with unjust experiences. “We see that gender inequality is in the air we breathe and that feminism is not the enemy, but rather a potential salve for personal and social change,” she tells Her Campus.
As a professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina–Beaufort, Cohan teaches her students how gender studies classes provide a space to consider all that feminism has offered to their lives and the planet. At the beginning of a recent class, she shared a list of ways young people’s lives have already benefited, saying, “If you can do much of what you take for granted, with your body, your choices, and your life, you can thank feminism.”
With an accurate understanding of feminism, students can then explore how and why various inequalities exist. The wage gap, for example, points to the difference in earnings between men and women. Data from the Center for American Progress found that in 2018, on average, women earned 82 cents for every $1 that men earn; and this disparity is even greater for women of color. By studying how wage gaps are created and sustained — via funneling women into certain gendered industries, the unpaid caregiving duties that often fall to women, and preventing workers from discussing wages — students can gain a better sense of how gender differences play into everyday life.
They Cover Intersectionality & Identity
In her 1989 paper, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex,” Kimberlé W. Crenshaw introduced the term “intersectionality” to describe how multiple social identities can overlap and create further discrimination. Crenshaw has described intersectionality as “a lens, a prism, for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other.” Race, gender, and socioeconomic status are just a few of the categories that can work together to disadvantage someone; and these are common issues discussed in gender studies classes.
Further examples include people of color, people with disabilities, and members of the LGBTQ+ community who face discrimination through racism, ableism, and homophobia. By correcting preconceived judgments and acknowledging someone’s experiences with discrimination, you’re able to show up for people in new ways and even stop your own compliance with unjust systems. Fortunately, gender studies classes emphasize intersectionality and how understanding inequality and identity; making them an important requirement for any Gen Z college student.
And Yes, Gender Studies Matter For All Identities
Dr. Shannon R. Wooden, professor and program coordinator for the gender studies minor at Missouri State University, says that her students often assume “gender studies” to solely talk about women and feminism. However, this is not the case — gender studies are relevant to male-identifying students, too. Dr. Wooden tells Her Campus: “Students are sometimes quite surprised (and relieved, I think) that gender studies focus on men and masculinity as well, and that a so-called ‘feminist’ perspective can help everyone, and not just those who identify as women.”
Men suffer from the consequences of a patriarchal society in ways that are quite literally putting their lives at risk. For example, toxic masculinity expects men to be “tough” and emotionless, which can force them to adopt identities they don’t actually align with. This can have a staggering effect on mental health; the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention found that in 2019, American men died by suicide 3.63 times as often as women. When things like therapy or seeking help for mental and physical health issues are labeled as “weak” for men, they’re less likely to get the support they need.
However, it doesn’t have to be this way. Gender studies classes are just one way that college men can begin to explore toxic masculinity in a safe, educational setting. Learning about issues like toxic masculinity in a gender studies class can help students identify problematic behavior, speak up, and ultimately, break free from social constructs that uphold gender inequality on college campuses. Some students might even feel empowered to correct inaccuracies about women and gender when they’re outside of class — which is a powerful way to create tangible change.
As Wooden explains, “Critical accounts of gender let us see the prisons we build for ourselves and for others. Only when we see the prisons can we begin to dismantle them.”
Requiring gender studies classes for all college students is an important step in creating safer, more equitable campus environments for all. By providing accurate information about topics like feminism, gender equality, and toxic masculinity, colleges are offering their students the opportunity for significant personal and social growth.
Students interested in voicing their support for mandatory gender studies classes can take action by engaging with their campus community and administration. So email your deans, complete surveys whenever possible, speak up in classroom discussions and of course, take as many gender studies classes as you can (while encouraging your friends to do the same)!
The best and only way to truly combat gender injustice is to ensure that all people are committed to changing the status quo, and this is a step in the right direction.