The turn toward abstraction is not unique to Women’s Studies. Across the humanities, there has been a widespread shift to theory and jargon, rendering many fields inaccessible to those outside academia. While many critics have pointed out how problematic this is, it is particularly tragic for departments—like Women’s Studies, African American Studies, Native American Studies, and Latino Studies—that were born out of student activism. In the late 1960s and early ’70s, universities created these departments to respond to student demands for courses that would give them the knowledge and skills to tackle problems in their communities. Without their activist spark, these fields lose their purpose.
Today, feminism has a major image problem. Celebrities like Taylor Swift, Bjork, and Lady Gaga have vocally disavowed feminism, and even Yahoo’s CEO Marissa Mayer and Supreme Court judge Sandra Day O’Connor deny being feminists, despite actively fighting against gender discrimination. Those who do carry the feminist mantle often do so in the most tentative language. “That word can be very extreme. I guess I am a feminist. … Why do you have to choose what kind of woman you are?” asks Beyonce. Sheryl Sandberg, for her part, calls Lean In a “sort of feminist manifesto.”
Women’s Studies is not entirely to blame for feminism’s fall from grace, but it has certainly not done much to make feminism useful or accessible or appealing to the generation it addresses on college campuses. These departments have an opportunity to make feminism relevant again by helping college students understand the nature of gender inequality they are currently facing and to develop strategies to tackle it. But this will involve moving away from theory and meeting students where they are. It’s not too late to turn things around.