GENDER STUDIES: A PASSING FAD OR TRANSFORMATIVE PHENOMENON?
Nicolas Vande Kerckhove is a student of the Mario-Soares Promotion specialising in European History and Civilisation at the College of Europe. In this short article, he explores the inception of gender studies
as a transformative field of critical academic enquiry.
Gender studies (also known as études de genre in French) have gradually taken root in the Europeanand American academic worlds in recent decades.
This phenomenon, which emerged in the 1970s in the United States, has conquered the hearts of a large number of scholars and researchers. But is it only a passing fad, or are we witnessing the permanent anchoring of a new discipline in the academic world? Following the Industrial Revolution and two World Wars, a growing need for social equality led to women being given new rights. The emancipation movement had already seen its heyday when women gradually gained the right to enroll in universities (a privilege that was only reserved for men until the middle of the 19th century). In this respect, France, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries were pioneers. The German Empire and Spain were the last European countries to adopt similar measures. Moreover, this gradual upheaval in the academic world undoubtedly played a part in laying the ideological foundation for the attribution of the right to vote to women in different regions of the world such as the USA (1920) and the Scandinavian countries (between 1907 and 1921). In this context, it took a few decades for the first women’s studies departments to emerge in American and European universities.
Since the end of the 1970s, American society has become increasingly open to the promotion of social
and intellectual justice. This led to the establishment of the first Women's Studies courses in the USA,
which were dedicated to studying the role of women in society, understanding systemic barriers to gender
equality and finding new ways to break them down. Researchers wanted to question certain theories that
were conceived by men and introduce a female point of view. Ultimately, it was advocated that women's
expertise should be taken into consideration and put on an equal footing with that of men. The aim was
therefore to deepen the social and cultural reality of the intellectual world which was almost entirely
dominated by men. In Europe, another type of department emerged around the same time. Gender studies (German: Geschlechterforschung) became an independent discipline in the same way as other pre-existing academic disciplines in Germany in the 1980s. At the time of its creation, research was mainly carried out on the role of women and men in society. Moreover, science was critiqued through a feminist lens and new analytical and scientific methods were created.
Gender studies, as we know them today in the 21st century, refer to the study of the social and cultural
(Germany) and Universidad Complutense De Madrid (Spain) are four examples of European universities
offering a bachelor or master degree programme in this field. Some examples of courses offered in 2020
in the framework of these academic programmes are: Gender and Diversity in Politics, Economics and
Society, Theories of Embodiment, Gender and Identity, Sexuality Studies, Introduction to Studies of
Intersectional Gender, Equality and Justice in Organisations, etc.
In addition, gender linguistics courses are generally offered at a large number of European universities in
the field of linguistics, history or medicine. Indeed, gender linguistics is part of a specific branch of
linguistics: sociolinguistics. Linguists specializing in this field often assume that the hierarchical pattern of social and cultural relations between men and women has had repercussions on the development of
language - especially grammar and vocabulary - throughout history. From this point of view, language
and gender are closely linked, as both are socially and culturally constructed.
However, the arrival of this academic discipline in the academic world is not unanimously accepted. Gender studies can sometimes be subject to intense political contestation. In 2018, Hungary banned universities from teaching gender studies courses on its territory. These academic programmes were offered by two Hungarian universities. The government identified these courses as mainly ideological, arguing that they do not belong to any academic field. A spokesman for the Hungarian Prime Minister gave more details of the government's point of view, stating that the government is convinced that the only correct understanding of sex is the biological sex, which is assigned at birth: male or female. The sexual identity of each Hungarian would therefore not be the result of a social construction, as many academics in the field of gender studies claim.
gender studies first appeared in the 1970s in the United States and were intended to challenge preconceived ideas about gender. They also developed new ways to promote equal rights for both sexes. Subsequently, these studies gradually appeared on the European continent and continued to develop independently on both sides of the Atlantic. This is
particularly the case in Germany, where a new academic discipline was established as early as the
mid-1980s. Even though these studies are still very controversial in some countries to this day and are
frequently criticized by politicians and intellectuals, they continue to spread in the academic world. We
can therefore speak of a permanent anchoring of an academic discipline confirmed by the creation of
chairs and gender studies programs in several European and American universities. Finally, an
academic program in linguistics, history or medicine offered at a university will usually be accompanied by a gender linguistics course and/or a gender studies course. The arrival of this discipline in the academic world has therefore not been a marginal phenomenon but a transversal one. Gender studies exist as a growing discipline that continues to appear in many academic programs and universities. This can be read as a clear sign of the rejection of established norms by a society that is increasingly eager for freedom and the transformation.
 Maya Oppenheim, “Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban bans gender studies programmes,” The Independent, October 25, 2018.