Deep Dive in Five: Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at SJSU

by | Mar 5, 2024 | Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Featured

SJSU Professor of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) Tanya Saroj Bakhru contextualizes Women’s History Month in terms of WGSS.

It’s March, which means it’s Women’s History Month, four weeks dedicated to recognizing, celebrating and acknowledging the achievements of women throughout history, as well as those actively excelling in a variety of fields today. The theme for 2024 is “Women who Advocate for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.” Between the SJSU Gender Equity Center, the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library and the SJSU Pride Center, Spartans have their pick of art exhibits, open mics, movie nights and more dedicated to celebrating the month. 

At San José State, though, March is only the beginning. As Professor of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) Tanya Saroj Bakhru explains, March offers an opportunity for Spartans to gain greater understanding of the interdisciplinary, often intersecting societal issues related to these growing fields. Today’s Deep Dive in Five contextualizes Women’s History Month in terms of how Spartans can learn, grow and apply critical skills in their courses and beyond.

Why is it important to recognize Women’s History Month?

Tanya Bakhru

WGSS Professor Tanya Bakhru believes that Women’s History Month is a gateway to increasing awareness about the many female-identifying people who contribute to society. Photo by David Schmitz.

Tanya Saroj Bakhru (TSB): Women’s History Month, similar to Black History Month, Pride Month and other heritage months, was started because the experiences and voices of people in the community were being marginalized or were made invisible.

The spirit of all these various months, Women’s History Month included, is to acknowledge the contributions of people who are not just at the margins, but were actively pushed to the margins. They have been purposefully excluded from the narrative of what we acknowledge as contributions to society, so this month is about acknowledging and honoring and re-inserting the contributions of women, as well as gender and sexual minorities. 

But March is just a starting place, an introduction for those who aren’t already engaged in this work. The first Women’s History Week was held in 1978 to correspond with International Women’s Day on March 8. International Women’s Day is really part of the labor movement — it originated as a protest about unfair working conditions for women textile workers in sweatshops.

I share that because all of these issues are interconnected: racial justice is gender justice. Labor justice is gender justice. These issues are linked to women’s movements in countries around the world that, again, were labor movements. 

We can coalesce around issues, but the underpinning sentiment is about equity and justice — things we should be focusing on all year round.

Why should folks study WGSS?

TSB: Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies gives students critical thinking skills, whether we’re talking about issues of gender, race, class, citizenship, disability or any other aspect of difference. The topics we cover — bodily autonomy, LGBTQ+ rights, health disparities, pay equity — are intersectional analyses of pressing social issues that are always relevant. 

The WGSS minor complements any major, whether it’s business, accounting, political science, history, even engineering or computer science, because issues of diversity, equity and inclusion are omnipresent. It doesn’t matter what field you’re in; you can bring that lens to whatever industry or interaction with the public. You could be working in a government agency or a corporation, designing software — it doesn’t matter because you bring these skills with you. I think that employers want people who are aware of these issues and have a skill set to engage with them.

Tell me about the WGSS program at SJSU.

TSB: The Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at San José State is an intersectional and interdisciplinary program based on feminist frameworks. WGSS curriculum investigates how gender and gender identity, race, class, sexuality and nation shape lives. The program emphasizes the importance of an intersectional understanding of gender as integral to social and political structures of power and is committed to contributing to social change and justice. WGSS is housed in the Department of Sociology and Interdisciplinary Social Science. You can major or minor in WGSS. 

What careers do WGSS majors often pursue?

TSB: WGSS majors are people who have a social awareness and want to create social change in some way. We’ve had students go on to law school, do mental health work in the LGBTQ+ community, or work with reproductive justice and sexual violence prevention in organizations like the YWCA or Planned Parenthood.

Graduates often go into diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) work in community services, diversity training, fundraising, equal opportunity training, youth programs and camps or human resources. Some go into social and political activism, working with community organizations funded at the local, state and federal level, in areas like child welfare, domestic violence agencies, LGBTQ+ centers or rape crisis centers. Others work for non-governmental organizations such as the United Nations’ local and regional offices, faith-based care organizations or nonprofits like RedCross, the Peace Corps, Habitat for Humanity or Greenpeace. Some graduates go into the criminal justice system, from law school to legal advocacy work, social justice work, research and services for abuse victims or survivors. Some start their own businesses that are aimed at social transformation.

Why is WGSS relevant in 2024?

TSB: The field of women’s studies emerged alongside ethnic studies and grew out of the Civil Rights Movement and Women’s Liberation of the ‘60s and ‘70s. There have been situations nationwide where women’s studies, and any kind of gender or ethnic studies for that matter, are marginalized or even explicitly attacked on university campuses.

We’re seeing an iteration of that again in a lot of states. For example, Kentucky recently passed a bill saying that all DEI work at university campuses will be eliminated altogether. This is not new. There are other universities’ WGSS departments suffering from benign neglect, and others still where their commitment to DEI work is part of the fabric of the institution. 

At San José State, we are getting more institutional support now than we ever have. We are housed in a really supportive department, Sociology and Interdisciplinary Social Sciences. Our program includes two tenured faculty members and two contingent faculty members, and we offer anywhere between eight and 12 sections of classes per semester. We offer a feminist lecture series every semester, and are involved in every aspect of the university, and often partner with the Pride Center, the Gender Equity Center and Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). We do a tremendous amount with relatively few resources and we really maximize what we do for our students.

Learn more about Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at SJSU.