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The Sensation of WGSS: A Petition to Better the Dartmouth Curriculum

By Aoibheann Holland

Art by Sophie Bailey

I was hooked on feminist, queer, and race theory the second I, a high school junior, walked into a class called “Feminism: The Personal is Political.” While this phrase certainly conjures up images of primarily white feminists protesting in the streets, divorcing their husbands, and joining the workforce in droves, it did have a pretty important place in the life of a sixteen-year-old me. Luckily, my teachers knew about the perils of white feminism, and we spent most of the course turning the phrase on its head and trying to understand how feminism could function for all of those who needed it.

When I came to Dartmouth, bright-eyed and naïve, I was ready to learn about women, about gender, about sex, about race. After a year or so and a few classes in the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) Program, I decided to declare it as my major. Now in my senior year, I am in the middle of my culminating experience as well as an honors thesis – not a requirement for the major but an endeavor my crazy self decided to take on. Despite the size of the department, the perceived lack of “rigor,” or the fear surrounding words like women, gender, and sexuality, WGSS is one of the strongest departments at this college. WGSS has held a pretty important place in my life, as I believe it should in everyone’s lives. Yet, plainly stated, Dartmouth needs to be better. Our diversity and inclusion projects are slow-going and often simply symbolic. So many of the students on this campus do not care about decency or paying attention to the needs of others. The capacity to deal with mental health on this campus is severely lacking. So much of what Dartmouth students need goes right over the administration’s head. While the WGSS department alone can by no means solve these problems, it does have the capacity to teach students how to think critically about their lives and the lives of others, how to work hard at work that is worth doing, and how to enjoy learning rather than simply going through the motions of academia.

First, a little history. A program that went simply by the name of Women’s Studies started at Dartmouth in 1978 and was the first program of its kind in the Ivy League. Now, recall that Dartmouth started letting women inside its ivy-covered buildings only six years prior, so this was a major triumph on the part of the students. In 1996, the program absorbed all academic work involving Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender studies at Dartmouth, thus becoming the department of Women’s and Gender Studies. It took the department nineteen more years to take on the moniker of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies in 2015.[1] These days, students at Dartmouth often refer to the department colloquially as “wigs,” rather than pronouncing all four letters.

Even in 2021, the WGSS department at Dartmouth remains quite small, especially in comparison to departments such as Government, Economics, Psychology, or Engineering. I am one of the only students in my graduating class who is majoring in WGSS, never mind writing a thesis within the department. The small size has benefited me greatly, especially in that it has allowed me to form deeper relationships with my professors and peers, take advantage of smaller class sizes, and learn about a vast array of subjects.

Now, what has always baffled me about the WGSS department is how little most of the student body here knows about it. It always seemed to me that everyone at Dartmouth should have at least a working knowledge of women, gender, and sexuality, but there is no required WGSS course within the college distributive requirements. Students are required to take science courses, English courses, sociology courses, etc., but the only time you will see a WGSS course pop up on DartWorks is within a cross-listed distrib like Sociology, Art, Literature, etc. In every class I have taken within the department, I have interacted with Black feminism, queer theory, class, psychology, economics, politics, environmental studies, and pretty much anything else you could name. I have also felt comfortable because I knew that the knowledge I had gained would stay with me and make me a more thoughtful person. I believe that having a knowledge of WGSS is essential, especially as it connects to becoming better people as well as better students, yet the college largely overlooks the benefits that WGSS classes can provide.

Furthermore, many Dartmouth students consider the major to be an “easy one” that people take because it has less rigor. But what does rigor really mean in the context of the academy? I don’t think that you could prove to me that people in more “rigorous” majors are happier or more content with their lives. I also don’t think that fifty years from now you could prove to me that their lives were on average made better due to their more “rigorous” major in college. From what I’ve seen at Dartmouth, rigor merely creates students who are only prepared to regurgitate information on the next exam, rather than to become intelligent and thoughtful people who earnestly approach their studies with excitement and liveliness.

WGSS could cause a stir if the student body and the administration gave it and its faculty a shot — it would give students the opportunity to look at the work they were producing with the aim of understanding due to salience and fascination rather than necessity. WGSS faculty, especially women and people of color, are heralded as champions of diversity and inclusion—rightfully so. But, as they are forced to take on more responsibilities – revising curriculum, teaching more classes, advising more students, leading seminars and talks, being the face of the department – their own needs and passions are left behind in the rush.

In Wendy Brown’s “The Impossibility of Women’s Studies,” she discusses the idea of a chasm between faculty and students.[2] Students want to learn, but the material that they are getting from their professors is not what matters to them. So many elective courses within the discipline are eye-opening and make you want to know more, but many of the required courses for the major remain stagnant, only focusing on broad strokes or top-level information. Learning rudimentary information is useful for a time, but we need to have access to what makes us want to learn, not just what requires us to. Learning about aesthetics, the anecdotal, the avant-garde, performance, affective experiences of living and being – all this has made me a much better student than what I have learned in any of the other required classes. Indeed, in those classes, I have often encountered information that is startling and seemingly incorrect – information surrounding trauma and gender based violence that has not only caused myself and my classmates great concern, but also has prompted students to take action so it is never imparted again. These classes need to change with the historical movement – why are we still spending so much time on white feminism? How is race not folded into every part of the curriculum, instead of just functioning as an addendum or a week’s worth of study? Why isn’t the approach to learning about gender-based violence in a classroom setting much more nuanced?

We all know that sexual assault numbers on our own campus are terrifyingly high. Gender-based violence is not going away, despite the efforts the college has made. We are still living with COVID-19, despite the actions of much of the student body, but so little has been done to address the wounds caused by going to college during a pandemic. How can we better address our problems through education? In every WGSS course that I have taken on campus, the ratio of those who identify as men to those who identity as women, transgender, or non-binary has always been incredibly lopsided. At Dartmouth, those who identify as male largely tend to avoid the WGSS department, perhaps because of the mere mention of women and the aversion many men have towards studying other sexes, genders, and races. Ironically, within the WGSS department, men could learn so much about sexual assault, power imbalances, ways to pursue healthy relationships with female peers. Perhaps we would see more accountability and respect were these courses required. Furthermore, reproductive rights and autonomy are facing horrifying assaults in our country right now. Everyone needs to know how reproductive rights matter to every single person in this country, especially those who may one day have the power to make real legislative change. Finally, studies in WGSS allow for transnational exploration; students can learn to move away from American essentialism and towards a better understanding of what it means to be a better global citizen in times of war and deep divisions along every line imaginable. If we cannot claim to have strived for more knowledge of ourselves and of the world, how on earth can we assume that we are prepared to enter the world as well-rounded adults? I have spent seven weeks at Dartmouth so far this year, and I’ve already encountered so much rudeness, anger, and obvious disregard for other people. Maybe if we were teaching students to be better, to be conscientious, to be kind, to be inquisitive, we’d all be able to succeed at a lot more than just academics. Maybe WGSS could be an example of an environment in which this can happen.


[1] “Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies.” 2020. Program in Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies. October 22, 2020.

[2] Wendy Brown, “The Impossibility of Women’s Studies,” pg. 20, May 2008.

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