Paige Blawas said her friends like to tell her, “Oh, feminism is your thing.”
But she doesn’t agree.
“Feminism is everybody’s thing,” Blawas (senior-public relations) said. “If you believe that no one person is better than another, then you’re a feminist.”
Blawas is pursuing a minor in women’s studies, but she, like many of the students who major in the department, was hooked on the area of study after taking her first college class about gender.
“That class exposed me to a whole new level of thinking,” Blawas said. “It didn’t feel like a chore to go to class or to do homework.”
The unique aspect of women’s studies is that it is insistently interdisciplinary, meaning that nearly all of the department’s students have a second major, said Undergraduate Director Mindy Boffemmyer.
Boffemmyer said there are many women’s studies courses cross-listed with other departments, which makes adding the major a simple process.
Walk into any women’s studies class and you will find future engineers, doctors, writers, lawyers, researchers and teachers.
Jennifer Wagner-Lawlor who teaches in the English and Women’s Studies Departments, said the major can provide an excellent supplement to many different fields because of one simple reality:
“There is no aspect of our lives — men’s or women’s lives — that is not affected by gender,” Wagner-Lawlor said.
But women’s studies is about more than gender relations.
It is also about the “complex dynamics” of power, class, race and privilege, Wagner-Lawlor said.
“That sense of the dynamic nature of individuals within a kind of power structure is invaluable to all kinds of careers,” she said.
Boffemmyer said many of the students in her introductory women’s studies class go through a process of “self-discovery” and a “roller-coaster” of emotions about what they are learning. Before taking her class, students generally live in ways in which they do not examine issues like gender, she said.
She said she has had numerous seniors who told her at the end of the semester that they regretted not knowing about the women’s studies major sooner.
“They say they never knew what [women’s studies] was really about,” Boffemmyer said.
Alumna Farnaz Farhi, Class of 2010, was studying biology at Penn State when her friend recommended she take a women’s studies course online during the summer. She enjoyed it so much that she enrolled in another when she returned to University Park, and then she decided to add the major.
After graduating from Penn State, Farhi earned a masters degree in global health and now she is attending medical school at Boston University.
Farhi said the core of women’s studies is to investigate and change unjust structures in society, and her major made her want to take on the role of an activist.
“That’s something that’s stayed with me,” Farhi said. “I see myself in the future, as I take on the role of a physician, to also be an advocate –– using those skills to further improve the health of my patients.”
Blawas said she also sees herself as an advocate and often has to “battle” many of the misconceptions her peers have about feminism.
Women’s Studies Department Head Carolyn Sachs said some of the stereotypes people have about the major are that it’s “really easy” or for “radical people who are really off the charts.”
“Or guys think it’s a good place to meet women,” she said with a laugh.
Sachs said she does not have exact data, but she believes the major is made up of about 90 percent women.
For those who have the misconception that women’s studies is no longer a relevant field in 2013, Wagner-Lawlor said she does not think it will “ever be outdated.”
“The day we don’t need women’s studies or critical race studies is the day when we reach Utopia,” Wagner-Lawlor said. “And by definition, Utopias are impossible.”