The supposedly academic discipline of women’s studies is “an arm of the women’s movement,” according to philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers. And that movement is political — political activism is at least as fundamental to women’s studies as its academic components.
As it says in the National Women’s Studies Association’s Constitution, the underlying goal of women’s studies departments is that of “transform[ing] the world” to one “free of oppression.” One can argue whether that goal is overly ambitious. It’s hard, however, to argue it isn’t political.
One area in which this politicized agenda reveals itself in full is the euphemistically named “experiential learning” programs run by campus women’s centers. Not only do women’s centers approach issues in terms of a specific ideology, they also mobilize students to put that ideology into practice.
Such blatant activism is not how academic units at public universities are supposed to conduct themselves. The purpose of education at public universities — and in some cases, private — is not to advance ideologies; rather, it is to instill students with the capabilities to come to their own conclusions through properly academic methodologies.
And it appears that women’s centers and programs within the UNC system often fall short of that purpose. At the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, for example, there’s a program entitled: “Gen-X: Where Academics Meets Activism.” Students admitted to the program function as a “community,” where they usually live in the same housing and attend the same classes. Gen-X students focus on “social justice and activism work” and are required to take a class on “Gender, Activism, and Leadership.”
But the women’s and gender studies program at UNC-Charlotte is not the only one with an activist bent. UNC-Chapel Hill has a program called the Moxie Project. The aim of the program is to train students through coursework and internship experience to be feminist activists in their local communities. One Moxie Scholar claimed that: All education, whether in the field of English, Biology, or History, is inherently political — especially in a public university system, threatened with the closure of entire campuses … and budget cuts.
Other organizations that Moxie Scholars have worked with include: The National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League — NARAL Pro-Choice — the N.C. Justice Center, and Women AdvaNCe — a progressive-leaning, pro-choice nonprofit. Despite the women’s center’s apparent partisan leanings, it has received generous support from the state.
A quick look around North Carolina reveals other examples of similar politicization. UNC-Wilmington’s Women’s Studies and Resources Center is also steeped in radical feminist values. For one, in collaboration with NARAL Pro-Choice, the center sponsors an “Activist in Residence Series.” In 2014-2015, the center invited Emily Letts — known for filming her own abortion — to speak to students. (UNCW, along with UNC-Chapel Hill and UNC-Greensboro, grant students course credit for interning with abortion provider Planned Parenthood).
It’s important to note that not all of the activities at women’s centers are blatantly ideological. They do positive things, such as providing counseling and helping homeless, abused, or incarcerated women. Indeed, some might defend women’s centers because of the health services they provide students such as counseling. But those services can be provided at campus health and counseling centers.
Indoctrinating students with specific ideologies and then creating corresponding programs for them to put those ideas into practice isn’t education — it’s recruiting political actors and most certainly is not the purpose of higher education. It may be time for the state to take a good look at its universities’ women’s programs and see which are excessively political and which — if any — serve an educational purpose.
Shannon Watkins is a policy associate for The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.