Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Why Governor DeSantis is Wrong About Women's Studies

Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, I didn't learn much in my history classes about women. In fact, about the only women whose names were mentioned were either the wives of famous men (like Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, or Dolly Madison), or the occasional woman who did something noteworthy in a traditional role, like Betsy Ross, who sewed the first American flag (today, most scholars believe that's a myth, but again, it was one of the few times we learned about a woman who did anything). I didn't know that even in the 1800s, there were women journalists or women doctors or women in business or women who kept their name when they married. 

And because Black History Month was not a thing yet, I never learned about Rosa Parks or Linda Brown (one of the plaintiffs in Brown vs. the Board of Education), nor the many Black women who were instrumental in the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. And I had no idea there were several important Black female journalists who covered politics-- nobody taught about Alice Dunnigan or Ethel Payne back then. Similarly, it wouldn't be till much later in the 1960s when second-wave feminists like Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan got mentioned, although usually not in a favorable way (the overwhelmingly male press corps was quite scornful of the Women's Movement). And I was warned by numerous folks that I'd never get a husband if I seemed to be one of those "women's libbers" (as feminists were called back then).

These days, there are many schools and colleges that provide a more expansive view of history, teaching about the many women who contributed to our country's progress. It is no longer unusual for students to learn about women scientists or astronauts or politicians or athletes-- and yes, women in media too. There's even Women's History Month, which made its debut in 1987. And just because we spend some time paying tribute to important women does not mean that important men are forgotten-- it's not an "either-or," and it shouldn't be.

Meanwhile, in Florida, as part of his ongoing assault on public education, Governor Ron DeSantis (a graduate of both Yale and Harvard) now wants to ban Women's Studies at all state colleges and universities. He says that studying gender (as well as studying race) is too "woke," too liberal, and too ideological. And he believes that students who major or minor in Women's Studies aren't getting a real degree, so he intends to remove this area of study entirely. Of course, considering that he claims to be taking this stand on behalf of "freedom," one might ask how banning courses and eliminating majors and insisting that certain topics must not be studied is "freedom." It certainly sounds tyrannical to me: it's using the power of the government to thwart any subjects you disagree with. But then, I guess he knows better. After all, he's very popular and the voters who chose him seem to like what he's doing.

But I think he's missing the point. I grew up at a time when education was very conservative, when so many issues were never discussed at all, and when the accomplishments of women and minorities were either marginalized or erased. I don't think my education was any better because of what I wasn't allowed to learn. And I'm not persuaded that going back to those days (and those attitudes) will make the next generation of students any better off. As a professor, and as a former adult learner, I can honestly say there's a genuine benefit to studying gender, or race, or ethnicity, or political philosophy. And there's nothing wrong with being exposed to a wide range of views, some of which you might agree with, and others you might not. Students need to learn to think for themselves-- they shouldn't have politicians thinking for them. 

As I write this, it's the start of Women's History Month. I see this month as an opportunity, just like Black History Month was: a chance to say thank you to some folks who have been written out of history, and to help write them back in. Today's students need to know about how we got here, and part of that process is knowing the women who stood against the dominant views of their era and made a difference. They are not all from one ideology or one race or one religion. They are many and they are varied, and we really should study what they did because some of them are quite inspiring. In other words, there's still a lot we can learn from Women's Studies. And while Gov. DeSantis may think it's a waste of time, I think it's quite the opposite. In fact, I invite you to join me as I do my little part, paying tribute every day on social media to a woman I believe is worth remembering.


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