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Women’s studies and women’s history

Women’s Studies as a subject allowed feminists to discuss and develop their ideas and theoretical arguments and it started to become accepted within academia. But as the subject grew, some feminists felt that the gap between theory and practice had become too wide.

Mary Kennedy discusses feminist jobs in academia

Women’s Studies, Black Women’s Studies and Lesbian Studies courses began to be set up around the UK from the 1970s onwards. These emerged from extra-mural education departments and Workers’ Association Education departments.

Deirdre Beddoe discusses organising the first Welsh Women's History Conference

What is Women’s Studies?

Women’s Studies as a subject allowed feminists to discuss and develop their ideas and theoretical arguments. It began with a subversive ideal of an educational process that united theory with practice to explore norms associated with gender, class, race, sexuality and other social inequalities. Ellen Malos was a member of the Bristol Women’s Study Group which collectively produced the first British ‘Introduction to Women’s Studies’, titled Half the Sky (London: Little, Brown Books, 1979). Other examples of ‘applied’ thinking included Jalna Hanmer’s influential research on violence against women, which fed directly into local social services and police practice, and Ann Oakley’s work on post-natal treatment. This, together with Sheila Kitzinger’s earlier studies, helped humanise medical practices around childbirth. On the other hand, Barbara Taylor’s book on the utopian socialist feminists of the 1840s, Eve and the New Jerusalem: Socialism and Feminism in the Nineteenth Century (London: Virago, 1983), is just one example of feminist scholarship that had an inspirational impact through its alternative ways of seeing the world.

Anna Davin on teaching Women's Studies

The gap between theory and practice

As feminism became more acceptable within academia, some feminists felt that the gap between theory and practice had become too wide. Academic feminism attracted the recurring accusation of being removed from the majority of women’s concerns. Ellen Messer-Davidow traces the tensions around institutionalisation in Disciplining Feminism: From Social Activism to Academic Discourse (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002). More recently, Clare Hemmings’s Why Stories Matter: The Political Grammar of Feminist Theory (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011) traces the danger of simplifying stories about a glorious past, when feminist theorists did things for the cause alone. She says we must also avoid over-narrow ‘progress narratives’ which let us off the hook of discussing the ongoing challenge of relating theory to practice.

Gail Lewis discusses black feminist texts

Banner credit: Front cover to Deirdre Beddoe, Discovering Women’s History: A practical guide to the sources of women’s history 1800-1945 (London: Pandora, 1993) © Pandora Press

  • Sisterhood and After Research Team
  • This article was researched and written by the Sisterhood and After Research Team, who are experts in the history of contemporary feminism and narrative life methods. The team included Abi Barber, Dr Polly Russell, Dr Margaretta Jolly, Dr Rachel Cohen, Dr Freya Johnson-Ross and Dr Lucy Delap. Further information about the team and project is available in the About the project section.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.