We write as members of a group of faculty from different parts of the New School who are working to return graduate-level gender and sexuality studies to the university. Our project is an unusually collaborative one, drawing on the work of colleagues from a wide range of programs and disciplines. Our aim in posting this piece is to start a conversation about these matters right away, even while our proposed program is still in the development process. What interests us is discussion about what we see as the powerful case that can be made for the intellectual and political importance of gender and sexuality studies not only in general but at the New School in particular.  We invite responses from anyone in the larger community who is interested in weighing in.

Let us start with some reflections about what is distinctive about the New School.

One of the founding myths of our university is that it places social research in the service of liberating and transformative social action. Over the nearly one hundred years of its existence, the New School has retained its commitment to social research while at the same time growing to incorporate serious concerns with the humanities and the arts, international relations, and fashion and design. Throughout this period of development and change, the university has stayed faithful to its appealing insistence that its intellectual emphases derive their point and importance from their relevance to productive social engagement and action.

Against this backdrop, a strong – even overwhelming – case can be made for including the study of gender, feminism and sexuality in the New School’s different divisions and departments. There are currently more than four hundred programs in the US offering different undergraduate and graduate degrees on these topics, and the question is often asked how the New School, of all places, can fail to have such a program. Of course, the mere success of an area of study is not an argument in its favor. Centers and departments devoted to “women’s studies,” “gender” and “sexuality” come under attack from various directions.

Some critics allege that the institutional recognition of scholarship in a given area is in tension with effective action and, further, that anyone who hopes for a society in which oppressive gender categories no longer function has good reason to object to situating these programs within our universities. But a line of criticism that turns for its apparent interest on opposing disciplined thought to effective action can carry little weight at the New School.

A more challenging criticism of programs dedicated to gender and sexuality comes from critics who maintain that any intellectual rationale there once was for such programs has by now expired. This basic criticism comes in different forms. Some of its advocates claim that in accommodating the study of, for instance, women and men, colleges and universities are simply entrenching pernicious social categories that ought to be overcome and thereby contributing to the very forms of oppression that they are supposed to be combating. Others, striking themes associated with third-wave feminism, argue that we are already in an era that is post-gender and that therefore ought to be post-feminist.

Hermaphrodite in Anasyronomenos pose from the book Naked Truth by Koloski-Ostrow, O., and Lyons, C. (1997) Routledge | Public Domain Wikimedia Commons
Hermaphrodite anasyronomenos, classical statuette © DAI Rome Institute | Naked Truth: Women, Sexuality, and Gender in Classical Art and Archaeology by Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, and Claire L. Lyons, Routledge, 1997

These critiques merit serious and respectful response. But they do not undermine the case for the study of gender and sexuality at colleges and universities. Nor, for that matter, do they undermine the especially strong case that can be made within the setting of the New School in particular.

Theorists and scholars may fruitfully differ in their degrees of skepticism about gender, arguing about the prospects for forms of social life that no longer place individuals under gender headings such as “women” and “men.” While some people who experience dysphoria with regard to their gender classifications express dis-ease primarily not with oppressive gender norms and the social significance of sexual characteristics but with certain aspects of their anatomy, others find intensely liberating the idea that the gender categories imposed on them are merely “performed” and can therefore be rejected. Yet, for all of the complexity of the issues, there is no doubt that today gender classifications continue to play a fundamental role in the organization of different societies and, by the same token, that these classifications make a significant contribution to individuals’ social experience in respects that cut across contexts and communities, even while differing in their contributions in ways that reflect individuals’ positioning in terms of, for instance, race, class and religion.

The pervasiveness of gender-based social organization, in its intersections with modes of social organization according to race, class, religion, etc., is reflected in the value of gender-conscious research across the disciplines. This includes work in history, philosophy, literature and the study of languages that inherits methods from feminist and queer theory; it includes artistic productions that give expression to the insights of this body of theory; it includes work in the social sciences that incorporates feminist and queer theory in its conception not only of appropriate methods, productive modes of analysis but also of fruitful topics and questions; it includes a rich array of social policies and modes of social intervention (e.g., microloans) that recognize the distinctive role of women as social agents; and it includes work in design and fashion that engages with feminist and queer theory, addressing and challenging not only the impact of gender striation on artifacts and forms of spatial organization but also prevalent assumptions about the social meaning of embodiment. To summarize, the value of work that takes seriously the social reality of gender gets registered in all of the disciplines that are currently and historically prized at the New School.

When the argument for gender and sexuality studies at the New School is laid out in this way, it seems odd – not that a new case should be made for introducing these studies, but rather – that they don’t already have a place of undisputed prominence within the university. The history of gender studies at the New School is in fact a complex and somewhat vexed one. From 1994-1998, the then Graduate Faculty (now the New School for Social Research) was home to a two-year Masters in Gender Studies. This program had tracks in all of the GF’s individual departments and was ultimately shut down, despite huge student interest and clamorous student protests, in part because there was not adequate faculty interest in offering courses along the different tracks. With hindsight, it seems scandalous that the response to institutional obstacles was plain defeatism and not a push toward reinvigorating Gender Studies by reorganizing it along institutionally more workable lines.

Gender Studies at Eugene Lang College
Gender Studies at Eugene Lang College © The New School

It has taken more than a decade for the sense of loss to register fully. One clear sign of the turning of the tide is the return in 2010 of Gender Studies in the form of an undergraduate minor, with its home at Lang College, which is open to undergraduates across the university. This quite new project already has great student and faculty interest and participation. (The success of the enterprise is in large part due to the energy and efforts of its founding director Ann Snitow.) Another sign of the timeliness of this proposal is the level of graduate student interest in theoretical and practical questions about gender and sexuality. Signs of this interest include, e.g., the NSSR Philosophy Department feminist reading group and student organization PSWIP (People in Support of Women in Philosophy), the NSSR Psychology Department LGBTQ Journal Club, the interdepartmental NSSR French Feminist Theory reading group, the NSPE Writing Program gender/feminist reading group and the cross-divisional Global Gender and Sexuality Project (NSSR/NSPE).

This is a very concise statement of our reasons for believing that the study of gender and sexuality is intensely pertinent and that it has a special pertinence to the mission of the New School. We look forward to hearing your thoughts and reflections.

Alice Crary, Associate Professor of Philosophy at The New School for Social Research

Lisa Rubin, Assistant Professor of Psychology and Assistant Director of Clinical Training at The New School for Social Research

Elaine Abelson, Associate Professor of History at The New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College

Miriam Ticktin, Associate Professor of Anthropology at The New School for Social Research

Margot Bouman, Assistant Professor of Visual Culture, Art and Design History and Theory at Parsons, The New School for Design