A Brief History of Gender Studies Degrees at the University of Edinburgh

feminist studies

Marta Kowalewska

The expansion of WGFS at the University of Edinburgh has been such that, by 2019, the university had more than 80 gender courses on offer across 10 schools and 30 disciplines. Despite this wide array of courses on offer as well as a growing amount of research within the broad field of WGFS, what is not on offer at the university is a specific Gender Studies degree pathway either at undergraduate or postgraduate level. However, a look into the history of WGFS at the university and conversations with our interviewees reveal that a Gender Studies degree path did exist at the University of Edinburgh – albeit relatively briefly – in the form of an add-on “With Gender Studies” option, from the late 1980s to the early 2000s. In this blog post, therefore, we explore the complex history of the “With Gender Studies” degree option at the university. Rather than offer a descriptive history, we aim to put in context how the option came about as well as the subsequent reasons for and conditions of its disappearance, and draw out what this can perhaps tell us about the position of WGFS in academia.

As Radhika Govinda notes, WGFS in the UK gained much traction in the 1980s, not only with the setting up of new courses but also with the establishment of many sub-degree, degree and graduate women’s studies programmes across universities as well as the eventual setting up of interdisciplinary women’s and gender studies research centres.[1] In line with this nationwide trend, the early scholars of WGFS at the University of Edinburgh, including but not limited to Liz Bondi, Fran Wasoff, Patricia Jeffery, and Lynn Jamieson, put together a proposal in 1987 to get a gender studies degree option available at the university. Patricia Jeffery recalls:

“Somewhere along the line we thought: this would be a good idea, gender studies degrees. And slowly it went through the boards of studies and so forth, because a lot of the courses that became part of the gender studies degrees were already on the books, I think apart from a sort of overarching seminar…[so] it wasn’t a question of passing new courses, it was getting a format for a degree, and how many courses would students do, how would they be assessed, how would their degrees be calculated and things like that.”

What came forth was a “with Gender Studies” joint degree option for undergraduate students, where in their two honours years their courses would be split between their first subject of study (sociology, politics, anthropology, etc.) and gender studies options, as well as a masters degree path in gender studies.

The setting up of these degree options was a feat of feminist networking and collaboration between feminist academics. However, the job and responsibility of running and managing these degrees remained with these academics, without much (if any) institutional support. Liz Bondi, Fiona Mackay, and Lynn Jamieson all recall the degree options not having institutional resources, which meant all the labour involved with managing a degree programme – particularly the vast amounts of administration – had to be done as ‘extra’, unrecognised work on top of the full-time departmental work all these women already had. It also required a fair degree of flexibility, as to remain interdisciplinary especially given that students would be coming in with different disciplinary backgrounds and interests. All of this was something feminist faculty at the university were, nonetheless, willing to share responsibility for, keen as they were about running a successful gender studies degree pathway for students.

An issue that quickly arose however was that the uptake for the degree options both at undergraduate and masters level was small. Liz Bondi and Fran Wasoff recall that the handful of students who did enrol in the degrees – especially at undergraduate level, were very bright, engaged, committed, and excited to learn and discuss, particularly through the student seminar that was at the core of both the undergraduate and the masters level degree. Yet year on year there were only small numbers of students choosing to go with these degree options, which quickly cast institutional doubt on the degrees in terms of their viability, and eventually led to them being scrapped in the very early 2000s. It’s important to note that the decision to drop the degrees was not made by the feminist faculty running it – indeed, some of our interviewees specifically mention not being consulted –  but rather by the university management, which did not view the degrees, or their related work allocation models, as viable or worth keeping. The university management did concede that the uptake for individual WGFS courses was high and that it was just the degree options that were proving unpopular. A commitment to maintaining “gender pathways” was therefore made, and the core student seminar that had made up the degree courses remained a permanent feature at the university in the form of “Contemporary Feminist Debates” – a popular course that continues to be offered at the School of Social and Political Science.

The question that all this raises is why was the uptake for the gender studies degrees (at both joint honours and masters level) so low? Especially if student numbers in and engagement with the growing number of WGFS courses continued to remain high, why did the degree options not also grow in popularity? Part of it is the lack of institutional support in the form of promotion and resources, which led to a rather unsustainable workload model for conveners and contributors that prohibited the degrees from developing. However, most of our interviewees concede that the heart of the issue lies deeper, in the perceived lack of legitimacy or value of WGFS in the wider world. It isn’t necessarily the case that students perceive WGFS as not worth pursuing – many show a keen interest, engagement, and passion for it. Rather, it is that they are aware of its lack of ‘market value’. They want to take the courses but do not necessarily want ‘gender studies’ written on their CV, knowing that it is often not taken as seriously as ‘classic’ degrees by many employers. This is part of the wider fight of WGFS for legitimacy and to be taken seriously both within and outside of academia.

An important legacy of the gender studies degrees at the University of Edinburgh is the institution’s commitment to making space and opportunity for WGFS. As Fiona Mackay says, ‘this has helped us get through some lean years’, and has meant that the opportunities for students, staff as well as the public to engage with issues, debates, and research around women’s, gender, and feminist issues remain in place. The brief period of the degrees also strengthened a network of feminist academics that worked together to build feminist classrooms. These feminist classrooms are now a vital part of critical learning at the university, and it is to this topic of feminist classrooms and feminist pedagogies that we will turn our attention in our next blog post.

 ***

You can access excerpts from the audio-recordings of our interviews with Liz Bondi, Alice Brown, Mary Buckley, Lynn Jamieson, Patricia Jeffery and Fran Wasoff here. If you have memories to share of early women’s, gender and feminist studies teaching and research at University of Edinburgh, please contact genderED: gender.ed@ed.ac.uk

[1] Govinda, R. (2020) ‘Fifty Years of Doing Feminisms in the Academy – Where Do We Stand? Reflections from Britain’, in R. Govinda, F. Mackay, K. Menon and R. Sen (eds.), Doing Feminisms in the Academy: Identity, Institutional Pedagogy and Critical Classrooms in India and the UK, New Delhi and Chicago: Zubaan Publications and The University of Chicago Press.

Featured image: ‘Gendered Medical Science Producing a Drug for Women’  by DES Daughter sourced from Creative Commons


Author Bio

Marta Kowalewska is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Edinburgh. Her research focuses on Romani women’s activism and feminist politics in Poland. Tweet her @MartaZofia