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Gender studies was created by women for women, but now, men are carving out a place for themselves. Not everyone is embracing the change.

JOHN-PAUL KACZUR IS HAVING FIRST-DAY JITTERS. He enters a University of Toronto (U of T) lecture hall through a door at the back and gazes down past rows of seats to the professor. It’s like being on top of a mountain: the view is unsettling, the height vertiginous. He slides into a seat high up on the right-hand side of the classroom—perfect for making a quick escape.

Behind him, two women have already found their spots and are people-watching. “I bet all the guys are only here to hit on girls,” one says. Kaczur blanches. Is that what people are going to think about me from now on? He doesn’t turn around or confront the girls. Instead, he slides further into his seat and tries to become inconspicuous.

The professor begins: “Welcome to Women’s and Gender Studies.”

That was two years ago. Now just a year away from graduating with a bachelor of arts in the major, Kaczur, twenty-nine, says the experience has stuck with him.

“How did I fail women studies?” asks a character in the 2001 stoner flick How High. “I love bitches!” In the kids’ TV series Victorious, boys sign up for ballet to meet potential girlfriends. The trope that straight men enroll in female-dominated courses to meet and understand women runs deep. Critics—from classmates to protesters—argue that men in Women’s and Gender Studies (WGS) are like the boombox-wielding John Cusack character in Say Anything: willing to go ridiculous lengths for female attention.

Yet, as many professors and students have noted, many men major in WGS not to better their odds with women or play the devil’s advocate, but to explore power dynamics and understand their gendered role in society. “There’s a need to think more closely about the gender constructions and performances of boys and men,” says Christopher Greig, who teaches new courses on masculinities at the University of Windsor. “And [men] are thinking about how they can think about this differently.”

More than forty years after its inception, WGS has broadened its horizons, allowing students to study not just the roles of women, but the understanding of gender on the whole. In turn, men in WGS are combating the idea that they are unable to grasp their sense of privilege in society and affect change. But some argue that allowing men to enroll in WGS, a program with roots in the fight to give female students a voice in academia, is tantamount to the erasure of women.

SEPTEMBER 1970: Greta Hofmann Nemiroff enters a classroom at Sir George Williams University (now Concordia) in Montreal alongside Christine Garside. Class is in session: the pair were teaching a women’s studies course, Woman’s Identity and Image, the first of its kind in a Canadian university.

Throughout the 1970s, second-wave feminists fought the male scholars who kept them from advancing academically. At the time, women were practically invisible in academia; seen as “a subset of humanity,” wrote Nemiroff in a chapter she penned for Minds of Our Own: Inventing Feminist Scholarship and Women’s Studies in Canada, 1966-76, edited by Wendy Robbins. Woman’s Identity and Image was a natural response, and Garside and Nemiroff sought to uncloak women’s ideas and intellect, critique the biases praised in male scholarship and “exhume long-buried works by and about women”—from the likes of Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan—to help “define women from women’s point of view.” In those early days, the intersectionality of race, class and sexual orientation—or, the idea that all institutional oppression is interconnected and must be viewed together as opposed to separate—was considered too vast to cover, so much of the focus remained on the plight of white females. Still, the subject caught fire. Taught in the evening, the first meeting reeled in about seventy-five students; it later had to be moved to a larger room to accommodate twice that number.

Although sessions were intended as safe spaces for women to learn, some men came to gawk—as Nemiroff notes, attending just to “discover what turned [women] on”—but most were genuinely fascinated by the off-beat content. The professors created a discussion group after class, in which female students were encouraged to share their personal experiences with feminism. As Nemiroff recalls, “There were intense discussions and arguments, moments of extreme sadness and times of great laughter.” 

According to Women and Gender Studies et Recherches Féministes, a national association devoted to preserving the goals of women’s studies programs, thirty-three of the sixty-four post-secondary WGS programs in the country have names designed to make them more inclusive. “In the 1970s, women’s studies took a specific shape, but any scholarly field that has a critical edge will face changes,” says Bobby Noble, director of undergraduate programs in the School of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Toronto’s York University. These changes range from the subtle alteration of program names to discussion of the role race, class and sexuality plays in the understanding of gender for both women and men.

Research by the Council on Contemporary Families shows that Americans are becoming more liberal in their understandings of gender roles. After twenty-one years in the field, Noble also notes that academia itself, and not just society, is changing. “We are a dynamic field and like any dynamic field, we need to continue to be growing as the world grows,” he explains. “People growing up are learning a lot about their gender through social networking and new media, and so we are turning to those technologies to keep up with the historical changes happening around us.”

There’s a financial incentive to open up the field to men—namely, the lack of funding liberal arts programs receive in Canadian universities. Between 2009 and 2010, more than 65 percent of undergraduate students were enrolled in a humanities program at a Canadian university, but the sector received less than 10 percent of research funding available, according to the Canadian Association of University Teachers.

As Greig’s course on manhood at the University of Windsor implies, there is enough interest to merit an entire class about what it means to be a man in society. He sees anywhere from thirty-five to fifty students in each course, with about 10 percent identifying as male. “There’s been a growing awareness around the limitations of the dominant modes of masculinities placed on boys and men,” he says. Thinking about gender from a feminist perspective is no longer an exclusively female preoccupation.

But some academics claim the inclusion of men in WGS negates female voices all over again. Kate Black, a WGS student at the University of Alberta who estimates between 10 and 20 percent of her class is male, says most of the men in her classes are observant. But she recalls a male student raising his hand and unleashing an anti-radical-feminist tirade. Some men, she says, simply take WGS courses as a way to “fuck shit up.” 

DECADES FOLLOWING Nemiroff and Garside’s foray into WGS, famed radical feminist professor Mary Daly made headlines for officially refusing to teach men in her advanced women’s studies classes at Boston College (she permitted them to attend her introductory course). In 1999, she told the Boston Globe that men misunderstood her concepts, and became disruptive in her classroom because they were unable to understand what it’s like to be a woman. She suggested they take a private, individual course to learn about gender—away from their female peers.

On a University of Maryland discussion board about WGS, professors across North America debated the merit of men in the field, with Daly’s controversy fuelling the conversation. While many remained unsure if turning men away was even legal, others supported Daly’s efforts to combat disruptive students who, in her words, stopped the courses from “soaring.” Two men who were shut out of her courses filed a discrimination claim against Daly. She agreed to retire in 2001 as part of a settlement.

In 2011, thirty-nine-year-old Tom Martin sued the London School of Economics for £50,000 in damages for what he described as a “traumatic and hostile experience” in his Master of Science courses at the school’s Gender Institute. A court threw out the lawsuit. In 2014, a University of Toronto undergrad also filed a complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario after he failed a WGS course. Wongene Daniel Kim says he felt “uncomfortable” as the only male student and didn’t show up to classes because being around so many women gave him anxiety. The tribunal shot down Kim’s complaint. 

JANICE FIAMENGO’S LECTURE at U of T’s George Ignatieff Theatre has just begun, but attendees are pouring out of the building. Someone—presumably an angry activist—has pulled the fire alarm, forcing the crowd outside to face protesters holding placards bearing damning quotes from men’s rights literature. One reads, “Sorry We Hurt Your Manfeelz.”

An English professor at the University of Ottawa, Fiamengo is a seasoned lecturer and doesn’t let the interruption phase her. Instead, with the alarm reset, she proceeds twenty minutes later with her talk: “What’s Wrong With Women’s Studies?”

Invited by a men’s rights group, Canadian Association for Equality, Fiamengo told the audience that WGS programs should be driven out of universities across Canada. Part of her argument centred on what she says is anti-male bias in the programs. Fiamengo argues that Canadian society is no longer a patriarchy, that feminists cling to that worldview to “give them a moral authority to speak as a victim.” According to Fiamengo, men in WGS programs are indoctrinated by what they’re taught: they learn, she says, to be passive. “We live in a world where feminists have been very successful in purveying their narratives about the world, so it’s not surprising that men have been influenced by their narratives,” she says.

A year after Fiamengo’s lecture, Kaczur fingers through his iPad Mini, trying to find a transcript from the event. “Everything she’s saying about WGS is wrong,” he says. “It’s completely bizarre.” Except for his first day, the program has always been a safe and healthy environment for him. He has even made friends through classes. “At first, it wasn’t the smoothest transition,” he says. “But everyone has been great otherwise.”

Men who enter WGS programs have to look at the cultural implications of their gender identity, which isn’t always easy. “I have experienced difficulties in addressing and acknowledging my own privileges within women’s studies,” says Jack Hixson-Vulpe, who has a BA in women’s studies from the University of Guelph and is now a PhD student in the Gender, Feminist and Women’s Studies program at York. “I have felt attacked when really someone was just pointing out ways in which I have engaged in oppressive behaviours.” But that, Hixson-Vulpe says, is the point: studying WGS makes men more aware of their role in society and enables them to fight for a more egalitarian world.