Four panelists sitting around a coffee table at the GWS 20th Anniversary Event.

History of the Department

The field of gender and women’s studies emerged from the contemporary feminist movement with the initial goal of bringing women and their experiences more fully into knowledge. The Berkeley Women’s Studies Program was founded in 1976, bringing scholars from many different disciplines together to introduce the subject of women into serious academic inquiry. Our courses have long considered the position of women throughout history, across the world, and in different economic, ethnic and racial groups. In the 1980s feminist scholars at Berkeley, as elsewhere, began to engage with the question of gender itself: although all societies make gender distinctions, how do they differ from one culture to another, how have definitions of male and female, and masculinity and femininity, evolved; how are they perpetuated; and how might they be redefined? How do varied constructions of gender — and the power relations which they entail — intersect with constructions of sexuality, social class, racial ethnicity, age, nation, religion, and other differences? How do these patterns change over time, especially in increasingly globalized contexts?

As we have expanded the content of the traditional curriculum, we have re-evaluated methods and models as they have succeeded or failed to include the experiences of women and the dynamics of gender. We have adapted the ideas and research methods of a wide range of academic disciplines, and we have produced our own body of feminist theory and strategies for engaging in transdisciplinary research and teaching. By analyzing the powerful and problematic impact of gender — contextualized and refracted through varied lines of difference and inequality — this field has revised and enlivened the way we see ourselves and our world.

The Women’s Studies Program became a department in the Fall of 1991. In July 2005, as part of a broader revision of the undergraduate curriculum, we officially changed our unit’s name to the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies. The curriculum currently offers students the opportunity to study women and gender (including constructions of masculinity) through an interdisciplinary curriculum taught by the department’s own teaching staff and by members of other departments (over 100 faculty in other departments and professional schools are affiliated with our teaching and mentoring program). Students learn to apply the methods and theories of social scientists, historians, literary critics, etc., to the study of gender. They explore a growing body of feminist theory that revises our understanding of gender, society and culture.

Read the GWS article “A Piece of UC Berkeley Feminist History”.