Women's studies is an academic field that draws on feminist and interdisciplinary methods in order to place women’s lives and experiences at the center of study, while examining social and cultural constructs of gender; systems of privilege and oppression; and the relationships between power and gender as they intersect with other identities and social locations such as race, sexual orientation, socio-economic class, and disability. Popular theories within the field of women's studies include feminist theory, standpoint theory, intersectionality, multiculturalism, transnational feminism, social justice, affect studies, agency, biopolitics, materialisms, and embodiment. Research practices and methodologies associated with women's studies include ethnography, autoethnography, focus groups, surveys, community-based research, discourse analysis, and reading practices associated with critical theory, post-structuralism, and queer theory. The field researches and critiques societal norms of gender, race, class, sexuality, and other social inequalities. Women's studies is closely related to the fields of gender studies, feminist studies, and sexuality studies, and more broadly related to the fields of cultural studies, ethnic studies, and African-American studies. Women's studies courses are offered in over seven hundred institutions in the United States, and globally in more than forty countries.
In 1956 Australian feminist Madge Dawson took up a lectureship in the Department of Adult Education at Sydney University and began researching and teaching on the status of women. Dawson's course, "Women in a Changing World," focused on the socio-economic and political status of women in western Europe, becoming one of the first women's studies courses. The first accredited women's studies course in the U.S was held in 1969 at Cornell University. After a year of intense organizing of women's consciousness raising groups, rallies, petition circulating, and operating unofficial or experimental classes and presentations before seven committees and assemblies, the first women's studies program in the United States was established in 1970 at San Diego State College (now San Diego State University). In conjunction with National Women's Liberation Movement, students and community members created the AD HOC Committee for women's studies.The second women's studies program in the United States was established in 1971 at Wichita State University in Wichita, Kansas. It was mostly formed though efforts by women in the English department, administration and community. By 1974 SDSU faculty members began a nationwide campaign for the integration of the department. At the time, these actions and the field were extremely political. During these early days of women's studies, before formalized departments and programs, many courses were advertised unofficially around campuses and taught by women faculty members—for free—in addition to their established teaching and administrative responsibilities. Then, as in many cases today, faculty who teach in women's studies often hold faculty appointments in other departments on campus.
The first scholarly journal in interdisciplinary women's studies, Feminist Studies, began publishing in 1972. The National Women's Studies Association (of the United States) was established in 1977.
The 1980s saw the growth and development of women's studies courses and programs across universities in the U.S., while the field continued to grapple with backlash from both conservative groups and concerns from those within the women's movement about the white, essentialist, and heterosexual privilege of those in the academy. The political aims of the feminist movement that compelled the formation of women's studies found itself at odds with the institutionalized academic feminism of the 1990s. As "woman" as a concept continued to be expanded, the exploration of social constructions of gender led to the field's expansion into both gender studies and sexuality studies.
The field of women's studies continued to grow during the 1990s and into the 2000s with the expansion of universities offering majors, minors, and certificates in women's studies, gender studies, and feminist studies. The first Ph.D. program in Women's Studies was established at Emory University in 1990. As of 2012, there were 16 institutions offering a Ph.D. in Women's Studies in the United States . Since then, UC Santa Cruz (2013), the University of Kentucky-Lexington (2013), Stony Brook University (2014), and Oregon State University (2016) also introduced a Ph.D. in the field. In 2015 at Kabul University the first master's degree course in gender and women's studies in Afghanistan began. Courses in Women's Studies in the United Kingdom can be found through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.
Early women's studies courses and curricula were often driven by the question "where are the women?". That is, as more women were present in higher education as both students and faculty, questions arose about the male-centric nature of most courses and curricula. Women faculty in traditional departments such as history, English, and philosophy began to offer courses with a focus on women. Drawing from the women's movement's notion that "the personal is political," courses also began to develop around sexual politics, women's roles in society, and the ways in which women's personal lives reflect larger power structures.
Since the 1970s, scholars of women's studies have taken post-modern approaches to understanding gender as it intersects with race, class, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, age, and (dis)ability to produce and maintain power structures within society. With this turn, there has been a focus on language, subjectivity, and social hegemony, and how the lives of subjects, however they identify, are constituted. At the core of these theories is the notion that however one identifies, gender, sex, and sexuality are not intrinsic, but are socially constructed.
Major theories employed in women's studies courses include feminist theory, intersectionality, standpoint theory, transnational feminism, and social justice. Research practices associated with women's studies place women and the experiences of women at the center of inquiry through the use of quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods. Feminist researchers acknowledge their role in the production of knowledge and make explicit the relationship between the researcher and the research subject.
Feminist theory refers to the body of writing that works to address gender discrimination and disparities, while acknowledging, describing, and analyzing the experiences and conditions of women's lives. Theorists and writers such as bell hooks, Simone de Beauvoir, Patricia Hill Collins, and Alice Walker added to the field of feminist theory with respect to the ways in which race and gender mutually inform the experiences of women of color with works such as Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (hooks), In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens (Walker), and Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (Collins). Alice Walker coined the term womanism to situate black women's experiences as they struggle for social change and liberation, while simultaneously celebrating the strength of black women, their culture, and their beauty. Patricia Hill Collin's contributed the concept of the "matrix of domination" to feminist theory, which reconceptualizes race, class, and gender as interlocking systems of oppression that shape experiences of privilege and oppression.
Associated with the third wave of feminism, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw's theory of intersectionality is an approach to understanding how institutional structures mutually shape an individual's gendered, racial, and social status. Intersectional theory posits that these relationships must be considered in conversation with each other in order to understand hierarchies of power and privilege and they ways in which they manifest in an individual's life.
Standpoint theory developed in the 1980s as way of critically examining the production of knowledge and its resulting effects on practices of power. Standpoint theory operates from the idea that knowledge is socially situated and, as a result, underrepresented groups and minorities have historically been ignored or marginalized when it comes to the production of knowledge. Emerging from Marxist thought, standpoint theory argues for analysis that challenges the authority of political and social "truths".
Transnational feminism is concerned with the flow of social, political, and economic equality of women and men across borders, particularly in response to globalization, neoliberalism, and imperialism. Women's studies began incorporating transnational feminist theory into its curricula as a way to disrupt and challenge the ways knowledge is prioritized, transmitted, and circulates in the field and academy.
Since its inception and connection with the women's movement, activism has been a foundation of women's studies. Increasingly social justice has become a key component of women's studies courses, programs, and departments. Social justice theory is concerned with the fight for just communities, not on the individual level, but for the whole of society. Women's studies students engage in social justice projects, although some scholars and critics are concerned about requiring students to engage in mandated activism or social justice work.
In most institutions, women's studies courses employ feminist pedagogy in a triad model of equal parts research, theory, and praxis. The decentralization of the professor as the source of knowledge is often fundamental to women's studies classroom culture. Students are encouraged to take an active role in "claiming" their education, taking responsibility for themselves and the learning process. Women's studies programs and courses are designed to explore the intersectionality of gender, race, sexuality, class and other topics that are involved in identity politics and societal norms through a feminist lens. Women's studies courses focus on a variety of topics such as media literacy, sexuality, race and ethnicity, history involving women, queer theory, multiculturalism and other courses closely related. Faculty incorporate these components into classes across a variety of topics, including popular culture, women in the economy, reproductive and environmental justice, and women's health across the lifespan.
Women's studies programs are involved in social justice work and often design curricula that are embedded with theory and activism outside of the classroom setting. Some women's studies programs offer internships that are community-based allowing students the opportunity to experience how institutional structures of privilege and oppression directly affects women's lives. Women's studies curricula often encourage students to participate in service-learning activities in addition to discussion and reflection upon course materials. However, Daphne Patai, from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has criticized this aspect of women's studies programs, arguing that they place politics over education, stating that "the strategies of faculty members in these programs have included policing insensitive language, championing research methods deemed congenial to women (such as qualitative over quantitative methods), and conducting classes as if they were therapy sessions."
Since women's studies students analyze identity markers such as gender, race, class, and sexuality, this often results in dissecting institutionalized structures of power. As a result of these pedagogies, women's studies students leave university with a toolset to make social change and do something about power inequalities in society.
Notable women's studies scholars include Charlotte Bunch, Patricia Hill Collins, bell hooks, Angela Davis, Cherríe Moraga, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, and Barbara Ransby.