The Rise of the Women's Studies Ph.D.
A lively market and uncertain implications



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Previous essays in this series:

A Slice of Life: One biologist's view of modern biology
—George H. Jones, Professor of Biology

December 01/January 02 Academic Exchange

The State of the Discipline in Nursing
—Helen O'Shea, Professor of Nursing
October/November 01 Academic Exchange

The Differences That Divide Us: Is talk of reconciliation in the academy only talk?
—Amy S. Lang, Associate Professor, Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts
September 01 Academic Exchange

When Emory University’s Institute for Women’s Studies began accepting stu-dents for its Ph.D. program in 1992, only two other institutions in North America offered a Ph.D. in women’s studies (Clark University and York University). Today, there are nine such institutions and several more in the making. At the same time, more and more colleges and universities are advertising for faculty positions in women’s studies and requesting that applicants have a Ph.D. in women’s studies. There is now a “market” for women’s studies Ph.D.s.

For those of us who helped build the women’s studies Ph.D. program here at Emory, these recent developments are exciting and gratifying. In fact, our own faculty and staff have played direct, advisory roles in launching some of these new
programs. Yet many aspects and implications of these heady events remain uncertain. What is the state and future of the doctoral degree in women’s studies? How were all these Ph.D. programs established, and why? How are they structured, and why? What sorts of curriculum choices does each program make, and why? What are the implications of the women’s studies Ph.D. for the undergraduate curriculum? For the numerous women’s studies master’s programs? For higher education overall? For research on women, gender, and feminism?

These are just some of the questions addressed at the recent Working Conference on The Ph.D. in Women’s Studies: Implications and Articulations, held at the Emory Conference Center last October. Approximately eighty-five women’s studies faculty and graduate students from forty-seven different institutions (plus representatives from conference sponsors, the National Women’s Studies Association, the National Council for Research on Women and the Ford Foundation) gathered for an intense series of plenary and “breakout” sessions. To maximize participation and foster as much discussion as possible, there were very few formal papers or presentations. We came to learn from one another: to share experiences good and bad, to express our hopes and our fears, and to plan for the future.

Conference presentations and discussions emphasized the importance of diversity and inclusiveness to the very mission of women’s studies as an academic field. The conference panel on “Diversity and Women’s Studies” was arguably one of the most stimulating and challenging of the event. Conference participants and their respective programs and institutions were asked to consider how our studies of women as a group can and should be infused with the awareness that women constitute many other social groups that cohere around identities of race and ethnicity, religion, class, nationality, sexual orientation, and ability/disability. Women, gender, and feminism must be understood, in our curricula and in our research, in relation to these other social groups, analytic categories, and movements. The challenge of such “intersectional” approaches, foundational to women’s studies as a field, was integral to the conference and, thus, most every discussion within it.

The idea for this conference emerged from informal, ad-hoc discussions of the future of women’s studies graduate education at both the National Women’s Studies Association and the National Council for Research on Women national meetings. From the beginning, the idea was to open up the discussion and bring together not only those faculty and students associated with the established Ph.D. programs, but also all those individuals, institutions, and organizations that make those programs viable—those that send students, hire graduates, and otherwise
contribute to and influence the very nature of women’s studies scholarship.

The primary goal of the conference was to foster greater coherence in these developing graduate curricula (and in the field itself) through inter-institutional collaboration. Graduate training in women’s studies must not occur in a vacuum; rather, it must be developed, executed, and evaluated in light of the needs and objectives of the field and of the undergraduate institutions in which most of these graduate students will one day teach.

Diversity and inclusiveness are key to the success of this type of inter-institutional collaboration and, thus, to the success of the conference. Both the ten-member planning committee and the eighty-five some-odd participants represented
a wide variety of institutional types, from public and private research universities to small liberal arts colleges. Included were women’s studies Ph.D.-granting institutions such as Emory, universities that soon will offer the Ph.D. or expand their doctoral work in women’s studies (such as Pennsylvania State University and Rutgers University), and master of arts-granting universities (such as San Diego State University and Drew University). Other stakeholders represented were historically black institutions (such as Spelman College and Clark-Atlanta University) and community colleges (such as Kingsborough Community College) that offer undergraduate work in women’s studies. Of course, one of the most important constituencies represented were current and former women’s studies doctoral students; indeed, we welcomed “home” many of Emory’s own graduate alumnae. Several current Emory Ph.D. students also helped tremendously with the planning and execution of the conference.

Emory’s leadership in women’s studies graduate education was quite evident throughout the conference. While the Emory Conference Center provided the locale, it was the hospitality, participation, and hard work of Emory’s women’s studies faculty, staff, students, and alumnae that really made a difference. All of our women’s studies core faculty were on hand to greet conference participants, and many of us were participants ourselves. Frances Smith Foster, Director of Emory’s Institute for Women’s Studies, was crucial to the planning and success of the conference. A leading member of the planning committee, she made two very important presentations—one on the formation and development of our graduate program and another on diversity in women’s studies.

Many of our current and former graduate students also participated constructively in conference activities. The contributions of two deserve special notice. Paula Jayne, a current Emory Ph.D. student, was a member of the planning committee and a very effective moderator of a conference panel of women’s studies Ph.D. students and graduates. Vivian May, a graduate of Emory’s Ph.D. program in women’s studies and now a faculty member at William Patterson University, served on the planning committee as well, and presented insightful commentary on the conference itself in the final, closing panel.

The conference on the women’s studies Ph.D. may have ended on October 14, but the discussions it fostered are far from complete. The conference was intended to begin an ongoing process of collaboration; the impact of the conference was meant to be long lasting. To this end, the conference website (
) provides a good deal of information for those interested in learning about and participating in the discussion of the women’s studies Ph.D., including links to women’s studies Ph.D. programs and transcripts of conference panels and breakout sessions. In the making are a follow-up conference, more focused and less exploratory than the first, and a summer workshop on race and women’s studies. Conference organizers have also established a new, inter-institutional graduate student listserv. All this is a testament to the success of the October conference, to the vitality of women’s studies and to the growing significance of the women’s studies Ph.D.