Women’s, Gender and Feminist Studies at Edinburgh: A Window On Journeys Undertaken

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Radhika Govinda


This blog[1] post kicks off our ‘Voices from the Early Days’ blog series, where we explore different topics related to the history – and future –  of Women’s, Gender and Feminist Studies (WGFS) at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. Here, I offer a partial mapping of women’s and gender studies – a window on individual and collective journeys undertaken by feminist academics at the University of Edinburgh.

The early days of women’s and gender studies at Edinburgh were much like those in other UK universities, where a lot was done outside mainstream academic courses, in adult education, the Workers’ Educational Association and the Extra Mural Department. The first women’s studies course in the Extra Mural Department ran in 1976–77. The first mainstream academic course ran in 1979 and was taught by a sociologist and a social psychologist. What is interesting to note is that although Edinburgh was, in this sense, a slightly late entrant compared to several other UK universities where women’s and gender studies teaching began in the early 1970s, it may well have been a frontrunner in that the focus of the mainstream course was on gender and development in India and China, rather than on gender and sexuality in the Euro-American context.

Subsequently, of course, a number of other courses on feminist thought, on gender and sexuality, and even on masculinities, in the Scottish, Euro-American and Global contexts began to be offered by feminist academics based not only in sociology but also in politics, social anthropology, social policy, geography, law, literatures, and social and economic history. At Edinburgh feminist academics have preferred to operate in this way from within their disciplines, ‘mainstreaming’ both teaching and research on gender, rather than by organising themselves in the form of a single centre or a department of women’s and gender studies. Debates about the pros and cons of creating a centre or institute have continued over the decades, most recently in response to student calls in 2015. This led to the creation of GENDER.ED in 2017 which is an interdisciplinary virtual hub rather than a conventional centre.

As was the case elsewhere in the UK, the connection between academe and activism was particularly strong in the initial years and, although it is less so now, feminist academics at Edinburgh continue to actively contribute to public life, to women’s and social activism and to gender-just policy-making. Significant in this regard is the instrumental role many of them played in the Scottish feminist campaigning and lobbying organisation, Engender, and the ‘Gender Audit’ (1993–2000) and the 50/50 campaign for equal numbers of women and men in the first Scottish Parliament that the organisation spearheaded.[2] Within the academy, their research effectively established the sub-field of women, gender and Scottish politics from the 1980s onwards.

On the teaching front – and in keeping with the rise and fall in degrees for women’s and gender studies in other UK universities – ‘with-gender’ undergraduate degrees at Edinburgh came on stream in the 1990s. Unfortunately, they were phased out by the early 2000s. This was supposedly due to their lack of viability, that is, low student enrolment which did not justify, in the eyes of the wider faculty, the staff resources involved in mounting these degrees. These developments were read, at Edinburgh as at other UK universities, as a manifestation of neo-liberal discourses and practices in British higher education. As elsewhere in the UK, whether to critique the university’s espousal of neo-liberal policies from within or outside the system remains an ongoing challenge for feminist academics at Edinburgh.[3]

Despite the phasing out of the with-gender degrees, gender courses have continued to thrive and expand in both number and scope at Edinburgh. In 2019 more than 80 gender courses are on offer across 10 schools and 30 disciplines at the university. In the 1990s feminist academics were introducing innovative feminist pedagogical practices, such as gender observations and small-group discussions, on gender courses at Edinburgh, in 2016 they successfully co-produced with advanced undergraduate students an introductory course in gender studies[4], and in 2017, similarly, an introductory course in queer studies.

Yet some of the same silences and exclusions that existed in the early years of WGFS at Edinburgh and at other UK universities remain present even today; post-colonial feminism and black feminism are taught on courses but in a piecemeal manner; there is now some diversity in the faculty teaching on gender courses but not enough. This lack of representation is a real concern for students and staff, especially for those of colour and/or from the South, not only at the level of course content and classroom dynamics but also at the level of institutional policies and structures.[5] Hence, even as WGFS continues to thrive at Edinburgh, we must remain reflexive and strive for greater inclusion alongside.

For a snapshot view of the timeline of WGFS at Edinburgh, click here

If you have memories to share of early women’s, gender and feminist studies teaching and research at University of Edinburgh, please contact GENDER.ED: gender.ed@ed.ac.uk

Author Bio

Radhika Govinda is Senior Lecturer in Sociology. She is PI of the UGC-UKIERI Project, Teaching Feminisms, Transforming Lives and Project Lead for GENDER.ED on the Voices from the Early Days oral history project. You can follow her on Twitter @GovindaRadhika. For more information about Radhika’s research, visit here.


[1] Drawing on excerpts from 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.

[2] The ‘Gender Audit’ was a voluntary, collaborative effort by several feminist academics and activists in Scotland, which pulled together gender statistics from government statistical publications and provided a commentary on trends, etc. while also drawing on relevant research by academics and students.

[3] See Mackay, F. and K. Menon (2020) ‘Dilemmas of Academic Feminists in Leadership and Management: A North–South Conversation’, in R. Govinda, F. Mackay, K. Menon and R. Sen (eds.), Doing Feminisms in the Academy, New Delhi and Chicago: Zubaan Publications and The University of Chicago Press. See also Mackay, F. (2021) ‘Dilemmas of an Academic as Manager in the Neoliberal Academy: Negotiating Institutional Authority, Oppositional Knowledge and Institutional Change’, Political Studies Review 19 (1):75-95

[4] See Kenny, M. (2020) ‘Social and Political Science in Practice: An Experiment in Co-production’, in R. Govinda, F. Mackay, K. Menon and R. Sen (eds.), Doing Feminisms in the Academy, New Delhi and Chicago: Zubaan Publications and The University of Chicago Press.

[5] See Choudhary, K. (2020) ‘“Being” Brown: An Intersectional Account of Identity and the Postgraduate Experience in the UK’; Govinda, R. (2020) ‘Decolonising Feminist Classrooms’; and Ruwanpura, K. (2020) ‘With Stalin and I: Feminist Politics of UKBA Surveillance’, in R. Govinda, F. Mackay, K. Menon and R. Sen (eds.), Doing Feminisms in the Academy, New Delhi and Chicago: Zubaan Publications and The University of Chicago Press.