Women’s History Month challenges the present

Isabelle Doerschlag/Staff

Forty years ago, just an hour or so north of Berkeley, the Education Task Force of the Sonoma County Commission on the Status of Women initiated “Women’s History Week” to rectify the near-total absence of womxn in public school history education. In 1987, Congress declared March “National Women’s History Month” in perpetuity, consolidating a decade of activism around the goal of ensuring that “history” was portrayed through a gender-inclusive lens.

Each year, the U.S. president reaffirms this commitment.  Reading the presidential statements here speaks volumes about what womxn (we offer this as a gender-inclusive spelling) have achieved and have yet to achieve and the ways that U.S. and non-U.S. womxn and womxnhood are positioned in U.S. geopolitics.

The message of Women’s History Month is that how we narrate the past is significant for how we understand the present and move into the future. In an important recognition of this commemoration, our campus administration sent a message to all members of our community, recognizing the importance of these achievements.

However, ironically for a center of knowledge, the message failed to mention the crucial, vitally intersectional, intellectual work and knowledge-building being done right here on this campus, which allows us to continue to think about how we might more accurately grasp our history within gendered categories. Attending to the politics of gender is not simply a matter of inclusion, since, as we know, inclusion alone rarely leads to justice. It involves critique as well as careful deliberation about the often multifaceted ways that power works.
The gender and women’s studies department is dedicated to thinking about the relationships between gender, sexuality, race and other relations of power constituted across transnational, geopolitical space. What are these processes? How are we to recognize them as they occur? How do they operate and with what effects?

Our courses shed light on topics such as gender nonbinary and trans studies, race, capitalism and economic inequality, environmental justice, militarization and citizenship, coloniality, gender and science, bodies, transnational feminisms, art and film, and more. These engage central political and intellectual questions, and they require analysis as well as action.

It is absolutely essential that UC Berkeley, one of the world’s great universities, recognizes the centrality of scholarship in this field, as it does in others. If “Women’s History Month” means anything, certainly part of what it means is that knowledge matters to action and to the possibilities of change in the field of gender and women’s studies, as in other areas of study.

Moreover, while March is a monthlong U.S. celebration of “women’s history,” we were inspired to write this piece on March 8, International Women’s Day. This day has roots in the socialist movements for womxn’s suffrage and workers’ rights of the early 20th century. On this day, womxn across the globe seize the opportunity to assert their strength against a variety of oppressive economic, political and cultural structures and practices.

More and more activists are taking this as a day to focus on the circumstances of womxn in a gender-inclusive context, recognizing that any oppression, repression, exploitation or subjectivation based on gender or sexuality cuts across these wider communities, deepening other forms of inequality as well.

This year we have witnessed the widespread, global uptake of Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement and of the #TimesUp movement. These changes do not happen in an uninformed vacuum; many of those involved in these movements have had the benefit of exposure to feminist studies programs such as ours, and their analyses show the impact of such experiences. Unfortunately, many U.S. campuses, including our own, have yet to step up to their responsibility to fundamentally reframe our knowledge and prevention of, and thus responses to, gender and sexual violence and harassment in our own communities.

To understand these issues and transform campus culture, we need systematic research and teaching about the intersections between gender, sexuality, race, class, nation, disability, religion, citizenship status and colonialism, as they are made by and, in turn, make up our core institutions. Title IX requires that the campus respond to sexual harassment and sexual violence on campus, but our fundamental obligations and capacities as a center of research and teaching go far beyond that.

In that spirit, it’s time for the campus to step up and contribute. Universities today have unprecedented control through competitive admissions over who is deemed worthy to enter the middle classes; it is past time to take seriously the ways, including gender and sexual violence, that gender and sexuality are implicated in that “promise.”

Paola Bacchetta, Mel Y. Chen, Minoo Moallem, Laura C. Nelson, Leslie Salzinger, Charis Thompson and Trinh T. Minh-ha are faculty members of the department of Gender and Women’s Studies.