For twenty years the M.St Women’s Studies programme at the University of Oxford has challenged the Academy. Bringing together women from across the humanities, the programme was founded with the aim of ‘Teaching to Transgress’ and has consistently attracted and nurtured women to push the boundaries and thrive within the humanities. Women’s Studies addresses intersections of women’s identities including gender, race, sexuality and class: it is a uniquely-placed discipline that focuses on women’s lived experiences whilst encouraging and valuing their academic participation.
Supported by the TORCH ‘Women in the Humanities’ grant, our conference was a commemoration of the past twenty years of Women’s Studies at Oxford. As current students, we wanted the conference to celebrate the rich and diverse research that the Women's Studies M.St produces. Alongside our own research, our aim was to showcase the powerful work of individuals who have been integral to the field, showing the ways in which they have formed and challenged our studies. The focus of the talks was to query and emphasise the importance and future of Women's Studies as well as address the on-going debates surrounding Women’s Studies as a field and method of research in Britain and further afield.
Conference organisers, Charlotte de Val and Eleri Watson reflect on interdisciplinary research, Women’s Studies and the outcomes of the conference.
How does an interdisciplinary approach benefit women’s studies?
Interdisciplinarity encourages the intersectional study of women, resisting narrow frames of reference or confinement to particular schools of thought. Such a pursuit is also part of a wider feminist project, breaking down traditional modes of strict disciplinary knowledge and encouraging collaboration between scholars, departments, disciplines and institutions. Interdisciplinarity allows us to learn from our peers to an even greater extent, forcing us to reconsider our methodological and critical approaches. Oxford remains strictly structured by discipline; pursuing interdisciplinary studies offers the flexibility of acting outside the structure but also proves to be a challenge, at times.
How has women’s studies developed over the past twenty years?
Women's Studies has seen dramatic changes over the past twenty years. The U.S in particular, has seen a 'crisis' in Women's Studies. With the development of Gender and Sexuality studies in the 1990s and 2000s, we have played witnessed to a dramatic movement in academia to abandon Women's Studies and its gendered specificity. From Professor Ros Ballaster's passionate defence of Women's Studies specific focus, to Professor Laura Doan's questioning of whether we should 'Call the whole thing off?' these crucial debates surrounding the 'impossibility' or 'possibility' of Women's Studies were raised time and time again during the conference.
What is the value of linking the master’s course with the Women in Humanities programme?
Linking the Women’s Studies M.St with WiH has many benefits, including exposure to a greater ‘audience’ and potential collaborators; it allows us to connect with a larger network of scholars across and outside the university. Scholars and students interested in women and gender (across colleges, faculties, departments etc.) are able to engage with the degree programme, a reciprocal relationship that can strengthen the place of gender and women’s scholarship within the university and beyond.
For the conference, linking with WiH provided a platform and a network to interact with; it greatly helped our position with attendance and advertisement in addition to the financial help from the conference grant. There is so much potential for collaboration between WiH and the Women’s Studies course, and we hope that the conference is just the beginning!
What were the outputs/outcomes of the event?
The conference has received praise from across the university and further afield for its support of women and feminist research in academia. In this feminist vein, we have widened access to conference materials still further through free, open-access podcasts of all the day's presentations and discussions. Over the summer we'll also produce a free, open-access journal containing the papers of the students who presented at the conference. Finally, working with alumni of the Women's Studies course, we have produced a video to both promote the course and highlight the feminist legacy of the conference. As a result of interest from alumni we also hope to create an alumni network of M.St students to aid in both the support of women in academia as well as for the organisation of future feminist events and conferences.
In what ways has organising this event strengthened your academic profiles?
The whole committee learned a great deal organising the conference; none of us had experience organising something to such a scale, and we quickly learned how difficult it was! Organising the event certainly developed our skills in event management, budgeting, fundraising and networking. Preparing papers for consideration and presenting them at the conference, furthermore, was a hugely beneficial experience; whether going into academia or elsewhere, the skills we developed have been invaluable. The event was part of our legacy in the Women’s Studies programme; we leave knowing that we organised an important event which will have a long-lasting impact on us as a cohort and the degree programme itself.
Links to further resources from the event
• Podcasts: https://podcasts.ox.ac.uk/series/teaching-transgress
• Link to video: http://torch.ox.ac.uk/teaching-trangress
• Twitter: https://twitter.com/transgressconf
• Facebook page and event: www.facebook.com/teachingtotransgressconference; https://www.facebook.com/events/545361965606511/
Testimonials and feedback
“[I] really enjoyed the conference and I hope all the organizers were pleased with the result. It was exceptionally well-run and thoroughly engaging. I was especially impressed with the varied angles of the main talks which helped to sustain interest across an otherwise long day.” (Professor Laura Doan, University of Manchester)
“Thank you also for including Susan in the women’s studies conference. I heard the conference was amazing and that you should be very proud of the work you did.” (Rhodes Project)
“A small note of appreciation to you for my terrific Oxford experience.” (Patricia Hill Collins)
Announcement: Women in Humanities graduate award holders publish article on the Women’s Studies MS.t course at Oxford
Eleri Watson and Charlotte De Val (MSt in Women’s Studies, 2014-15), who co-chaired the organising committee of ‘Teaching to Transgress’, have had published in the online journal Exchanges a co-authored article reflecting on issues arising out of the conference: ‘“This is education as the practice of freedom”: Twenty Years of Women’s Studies at the University of Oxford’.
The MSt in Women’s Studies is a nine-month interdisciplinary master's degree, which equips students with the critical and research tools needed for women's studies in the humanities. It provides a systematic introduction to feminist theory, highlighting women's contribution to culture and history alongside critical analysis and theorisation of the meanings assigned to the category 'woman' in philosophical, literary, socio-cultural and historical thought. For further information about the programme, see www.ox.ac.uk/admissions/graduate/courses/mst-womens-studies.