The Invisible Labor of Women’s Studies

Many elite universities relegate the degree program to second-class status.

U.S. first lady Michelle Obama speaks with students from the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School at Oxford University. (Suzanne Plunkett / Reuters)

Only fools pay for their champagne at Oxford. As a women’s-studies graduate student at the British university, I could always count on my professors stocking a bottle or two of bubbly in their offices, happily pouring me a glass whenever I walked in. Students of other graduate programs at Oxford had reserved seats in the library, educational field trips, or allotted funding for research materials, but the 15 women of Oxford’s women’s-studies program during the 2013–14 academic year made do with drinking in medieval-era buildings we would’ve been banned from a century ago.

“I'd felt like I'd been let into this cultural club because so much of English culture, things like Brideshead Revisited and that sort of thing, is based around Oxford,” 27-year-old Isobel Laing, a classmate from Cheltenham, told me. Lisa Bernhardt, a 24-year-old Ph.D. candidate at Cambridge, shared similar sentiments about her university: “I was just really enchanted from the outside looking in—it was so grand.”

If you had just joined a club that took centuries to grant you membership, would you dare ask for more? We were grateful that a women’s-studies master’s program existed at Oxford at all, especially after learning our professors, who taught in other disciplines as well, weren’t getting paid for the additional work they did for women’s-studies students. Sure, my classmates and I were confidently theorizing in seminars about women’s unpaid labor, but addressing these discrepancies in real life proved to foreshadow future disappointments in the devaluation of women beyond the stone enclaves of Oxford.

A classmate recently shared a link to Feminist Formations, a peer-reviewed journal about feminist scholarship, published by Johns Hopkins University Press. I immediately delved into the back archives of the journal, where I discovered, to my dismay, that women’s- and gender-studies programs began as volunteer commitments by scholars and activists in universities both in the U.K. and the U.S. “It has been a long struggle to get support from universities for them,” Lila Abu-Lughod, a professor of anthropology and women's and gender studies at Columbia University, confirmed. At Columbia, with a grant from the Mellon Foundation, professors took it upon themselves to found the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality in 1987, but salaried positions in the program—a “faculty line” in academic jargon—weren’t established until 1998. The budget only covered basic operations, and faculty members had difficulty getting permission from their departments to commit time to teaching and developing the program.

The first women’s-studies program in the United Kingdom wasn’t established until 1980 at the University of Kent in Canterbury, with a Master of Arts degree offered in gender studies. The gender-studies degree programs in Britain are affiliated with interdisciplinary research centers, which means that their work isn’t guaranteed to be recognized, supported, or funded as are dedicated faculties in English, philosophy, or economics. In other words, they will always be secondary to the traditional departments because there isn’t a gender-studies department—just a gender-studies research center.

To this day, there are no salaried posts in women’s studies at Oxford, and it would cost £2 million to endow such a post at the school, according to Ros Ballaster, the co-founder of women’s studies at Oxford. “Women’s Studies: Oxford’s cheapest faculty,” was the slogan printed on badges worn by the volunteer-based Oxford’s Women’s Studies Committee in 1993. The committee, originally formed to organize lectures funded by small royalties received by publications based on the lectures, still exists as the steering committee for the master’s program; it voluntarily meets several times every year for additional tasks and projects, such as deciding whom to admit to the next cohort of master’s-degree students and responding to student feedback. “When I went to the committee meeting, there were probably three people there,” Laing, who served as my cohort’s student representative, recalled. “It didn’t seem like something people were caring too much about … Maybe because they volunteered for it?”

Oxford wouldn’t dare cut its own women’s-studies program—“It would be an obvious PR disaster as a leading university,” Helen Swift, a professor of medieval French who leads the program, told me. But women’s studies in Britain is at risk of being defunded. On the other side of town in Oxford, the program in women’s studies was recently terminated at Ruskin College, an alternative college for adults who have no traditional educational qualifications. (The college is famous for educating women when other schools banned them.) “We haven't got much money,” the college’s principal, Chris Wilkes, said. After conducting a curriculum review, the school decided to cut other programs, too, including English studies and history. “[Women’s studies] wasn't covering its costs,” Wilkes added.

The loss of the program was a blow to a progressive school known for its history of radical feminist activism, such as hosting the first Women’s Liberation Conference in 1970. But it’s not just Ruskin: Traditional universities like the University of Kent and the University of Edinburgh have also cut institutional support for gender studies. And in the United States in 2014, the University of South Carolina Upstate was forced to close its gender-studies center.

I called Paige West, a professor of anthropology at Barnard College and Columbia University who also works in interdisciplinary programs, to explain the shift away from these fields. All interdisciplinary programs—like ethnic studies, women’s studies, and urban studies—were born out of voluntary commitments from existing faculty members, she noted. That means that if these programs are financially draining to a given institution—especially because, unlike their counterparts in scientific departments, their costs aren’t covered by contracts and grants—they run the risk of termination. That’s particularly true if the discipline is politically charged and if there aren’t many viable employment options outside of higher education. Abu-Lughod pointed out that “the salaries of economics professors are at least three times that of humanities professors and ... [they] argue for raises on the basis of their ‘market’ value—since they could be in business or politics [instead of education].”

Meanwhile, back at Oxford, it’s left to the professors who were initially hired for other departments to eke out time and resources for their women’s-studies instruction. I reached out to the university to learn more about its approach to women's studies, and I was directed to Ballaster, the co-founder of that department, and Swift—both of whom advised me while I was a student there.

I asked Swift about how she gets paid. Because Swift’s salary at the university comes out of funding for the Medieval and Modern Languages faculty, that money has to be stretched to support her work for the women’s-studies program.

The university allocates Swift eight hours a week to complete work for women’s studies, so every week, the faculty—not Swift—receives eight hours’ worth of her salary to let her work on something else. This system is known in British higher education as a “buyout,” not to be confused with the American definition of the term. But Swift admits that the buyout is just an institutional gesture of support. “Now, strangely enough, it takes me a little bit longer than the equivalent of writing and delivering eight hours of lectures,“ she noted. “But it's never intended to actually cover the amount of time that it takes. Or at least, that's how I've always construed them … Because they don't. That’s just the reality of academic life.”

One professor at Oxford called the work of teaching women’s studies a “labor of love”—a sentiment echoed by Swift. “[It’s] the sense of doing good service,” she said. “It's not something that brings one extra time, but in that respect, it’s a bit like contributing to outreach. It seems  … part of one's mission, in a way. There's inevitable pro-bono.”

But such work comes with consequences. As passionate as our professors were, my cohort at Oxford didn’t feel all that inspired in seminars. Some students, such as Julienne Orcullo, a 24-year-old from Sydney, did say she appreciated Oxford’s lax, hands-off approach to women’s studies. But most of my other peers expressed disappointment. “I think when you get into a university which has such a prestigious reputation internationally, as Oxford does, you expect a certain level of support and engagement,” Laing reflected. “I felt quite let down by Oxford.”

Once, a professor confessed she hadn’t done the assigned reading herself. I seethed in class, feeling self-righteous because I did all the reading and even highlighted a few passages, too. At the time, I didn’t realize she was essentially volunteering her nonexistent free time to teach us and that my anger toward her lacking preparation for class was misplaced. I should have been furious with my school for its blatant labor exploitation and for failing to support certain forms of academic pursuit.

In response to a public-records request, the University of Oxford shared documents revealing how the women’s-studies master’s-degree program was funded between the 2011 and 2016 academic years. The funding varied wildly from year to year—in the 2011-12 school year, the program received a grand total of £111,790. The following school year, it received just £44,965.01—less than half of the previous year’s funding. By the 2015 to 2016 school year, the funding was up to £89,304.35. The biggest costs involved infrastructure (libraries and IT support, for example), while administrative expenses also ate a large chunk. But spending on teaching was comparably low: At its peak, it was £8,842.95 (compared to £43,410 for infrastructure and £17,261.23 for administration), and at its base, it was £5,725 (compared to £15,100 and £7,354). (The University of Oxford declined a public-records request for funding statistics from other interdisciplinary master’s-degree programs, citing excessive costs.)

Spending, according to the document, varied largely according to the number of students in the course. That means that, in my year of 15 students, for all the weekly lectures and seminars we attended—and all the papers we wrote—teaching each of us only cost the university about £456 per student over the course of 10 months.

These wages are comparative to those of adjunct professors in the United States— akin to “freelance” instructors with low pay and no job security. The standard pay per course for U.S. adjunct professors is $2,700 or so—or about $270 for grading, administrating, and teaching a student over the course of a term, assuming the adjunct is teaching a 10-person seminar. And while the burden of being a full-time instructor in women’s studies comes with benefits— publicly funded health care and full-time salaries, for example—teaching women’s-studies students ultimately come with a significant loss of time and, often, money. “Whether our programs are well funded or not, for most of us, it is an intellectual and political passion,” Abu-Lughod said. “That involves seeking funding, seeking respect, helping each other, institutionalizing, et cetera.”

And my program at Oxford, and Abu-Lughod’s Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Columbia, are the luckier of the bunch: In 2007, a census of U.S. women’s-studies programs conducted by The National Women’s Studies Association determined that 5 percent of women’s-studies programs in the country reported that they received no funding at all.

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Long before my program’s struggle for legitimacy—before females were even allowed to study at Oxford—women were essential to the endowment and founding of some of the university’s most prestigious colleges. In 1610, the influential heiress Dorothy Wadham founded Wadham College, according to the will of her late husband Nicholas Wadham, using her own funds to finance the institution. “It would greatly offend my conscience to violate any jot of my husband's will,” she said. In 1974, Wadham College, along with Brasenose College, Jesus College, Hertford College, and St. Catherine's College, became one of the first formerly men-only institutions to admit women.

Oxford, despite opening its women’s colleges in the 1800s, continued to deny degrees to qualified women until 1920, not giving them full collegiate status until 1959. Elite American universities weren’t much better—Columbia, for example, didn’t admit women until 1987. A persistent argument in academia, as Ballaster told us during one of our first days in the program, is that separate programs for women’s studies are no longer relevant because gender studies is incorporated into other disciplines. The political scientist Wendy Brown even critiqued women’s studies to be a “border control” of gender that privileges the political over the intellectual.

But learning in a space carved out for women’s studies—no matter how small or flimsy—not only taught me how to use gender as a “tool” to extract meaning when conducting my research, it also gave me the space to realize that living and interpreting the world as a woman is a valid experience. It made me realize that not being a cisgender, white man—especially at a school known for its imperialistic ties—didn’t automatically mean I was inferior. "[The Master’s in Women’s Studies] has led me to question the assumption that interdisciplinarity is always a necessary good,” Ballaster wrote in a 2012 essay in the anthology Teaching Gender. “There is a freedom in teaching gender from within a single discipline if the questions we ask are sufficiently generous and rigorous."

Virginia Woolf, who was educated at home while her two brothers were schooled at Cambridge, also had her own set of frustrations about the treatment of women in the U.K.’s most prestigious universities. At the core of her 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own was a demand for literal and physical spaces for women writers, as literary tradition was (and is) dominated by men. She, as an imaginary narrator, attempts to enter the library at Oxbridge, an imaginary college based on Oxford and Cambridge, but is stopped by a “gentleman” who tells her that “ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a fellow of the college or furnished with a letter of introduction.” She later ends up at an imaginary women’s college called Fernham, where she is discouraged by the poverty of amenities—not even books—in contrast to Oxbridge. “To raise bare walls out of bare earth was the utmost they could do,” Woolf wrote.

Nearly a century after Woolf’s observations, Oxford is giving women much more than bare walls—ample amounts of wine (paid for out of professors’ pockets, of course), faculty mentors, and access to the libraries, to name a few. There are intangible gifts as well. “[Oxford is] quite a mythic place in British culture, and I think having been there, I suddenly felt like I was part of that club,” Laing, my classmate, told me. “I felt like I'd been let into an elite group.” While other graduate students got their own libraries or at least reserved desks to sit in, we had to ask for permission from departments like that of history and English to use their resources. Sometimes, we were even denied access due to confusion about our status as interdisciplinary students. In 2014, the rooms were still not our own.