Women’s studies classes and programs began to take root on college campuses in the 1970s, rising from social and political movements that advocated equal rights, opportunities and respect.
A weeklong recognition of the contributions of women, dubbed National Women’s History Week, also came out of the social and political strife from that decade.
Nearly 50 years later, National Women’s History Week has evolved into Women’s History Month and women’s studies has become more expansive, inclusive and intersectional, changes that Professor Shayda Kafai welcomes.
Women’s History Month is an important time to celebrate the contributions women have made, said Kafai, an assistant professor of gender and sexuality studies in the Department of Ethnic and Women’s Studies at the College of Education and Integrative Studies.
“I wish it was longer because there are still so many issues that haven’t been resolved that intersectional feminism advocates for, such as racial violence, the pay gap, gender-based violence, body shaming, and transphobia, and these issues are even more complex when we think about the experiences of women of color, queer, trans, and gender nonconforming women, disabled women” she said. “Extending the work, the education and the advocacy past the month of March is essential.”
The shift in women’s studies classes over the decades also has been significant, Kafai said.
“Now, women’s studies classes are very intersectional,” she said. “They are intentional about incorporating the histories, activisms, and knowledge of women of color in the U.S., and also about incorporating a global perspective. There is a transdisciplinary conversation happening, where women’s studies is in conversation with other areas of study.”
Kafai, who earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English at Cal State Northridge in 2006 and 2008, respectively, said she began to take more women’s studies classes during her master’s program as her interest in the subject grew. The classes were taught out of the English department at CSUN, she added.
“How I arrived at women’s studies as a student is how most students do,” she said. “In a lot of my classes, students first arrive with questions about their experiences, bodies, and their identities, and then they get a hunger for the larger discipline.”
As a doctoral student at the Claremont Graduate University, Kafai, who identifies as queer, started taking more gender and sexuality classes. Kafai has been married to her wife, Amy, for six years.
“While writing my master’s thesis, I was going in the direction of disability studies and queer studies,” she said. “My mentor and best friend said to me, ‘You know, you can get a degree in this.’”
Kafai completed her doctorate in cultural studies, which encompasses gender and sexuality, disability studies and performance studies, in 2014. She began teaching one class at Cal Poly Pomona in 2012 while finishing her dissertation. After she completed her degree, she was a full-time adjunct until she was hired as a tenure-track assistant professor in 2020.
She teaches several upper-division classes, including Introduction to Diverse Genders and Sexualities, Gender Sexuality and Race, and an introductory course on ethnicity.
Courses on women and gender studies, as well as those that focus on race and ethnicity are critical, Kafai said. Ethnic studies is now a graduation requirement mandated by state law. In August 2020, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed A.B. 1460, which requires all students in the CSU system to take at least one ethnic studies course before graduating.
Data shows that when women and students of color explore their history and learn about activist movements, their graduation rates improve, Kafai said, adding that it is empowering even for those students learning about communities outside of their own.
The courses “help us to harvest the resilience we need to thrive and be successful and rooted in our identities,” Kafai said. “These courses make you a better human. These ethnic studies and gender studies courses teach us how to connect with our humanity and how to manifest and protect it.”
Whereas previous women’s studies courses traditionally focused on whiteness, current programs are much more inclusive.
“The shift was necessary to reflect a more accurate picture,” she said. “Early women’s studies left out so many people, including women of color, trans women, and disabled women. So, the expansion is critical.”
Her courses and her research give Kafai an opportunity to cover a broad range of topics, from body empowerment to disability studies to normative ideas of beauty. Kafai revealed to the campus community that she has a disability, bipolar disorder, during a CPP TEDx event in 2013. This was an extension of her intersectional feminist and disability politic.
“I wanted a space where I could talk about systemic oppression and the ways our bodies and minds can resist and rebel against oppression,” she said. “It turns out I can do both of those in ethnic and women’s studies.”