By Mark Bauerlein

If you consulted only the press, you would think that gender and women’s studies programs were potent forces on college campuses today.  At recently, for instance, we read of a “Global Attack on Gender Studies,” as if conservative powers were mobilizing against an established and prominent part of higher education. Added to those dramatic stories of these beleaguered and edgy fields are the controversial-speaker episodes when a figure such as Milo Yiannapoulos ) incites protesters who denounce him as sexist (“Feminism is cancer” is one of his taglines) and transphobic (a charge he admits).

Gender studies scholars say the field is coming under attack in many countries around the globe

The decision by the Hungarian government earlier this fall to withdraw accreditation from gender studies programs– a full-frontal governmental assault on an academic discipline — sent shock waves through the field… Gender studies “has no business [being taught] in universities,” because it is “an ideology not a science,” a deputy to Hungary’s prime minister, Zsolt Semjen, told the …


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But let’s add some context to the apparent newsworthiness of Gender and Women’s Studies.  How many students at four-year colleges actually pursue a course of study in the fields?  According to the U.S. Department of Education, in 2014-15, nearly 1.9 million four-year degrees were awarded.  The portion of them that went to Women’s Studies is microscopic, only 1,333.  That means Women’s Studies bachelor’s degrees amounts to less than 0.1 percent of the whole, not even one-in-a-thousand.

Bachelor’s, master’s, and doctor’s degrees conferred by postsecondary institutions, by sex of student and discipline division: 2014-15 –

The primary purpose of the Digest of Education Statistics is to provide a compilation of statistical information covering the broad field of American education from prekindergarten through graduate school. The Digest includes a selection of data from many sources, both government and private, and draws especially on the results of surveys and activities carried out by the National Center for …

The Department of Education doesn’t break out undergraduate degrees in gender studies alone.  It groups them with “Ethnic, cultural minority . . . and groups studies, other.”  All together, however, they come in at only 635 degrees.  Finally, majors in “Gay/lesbian studies” amounted to a miniscule 18 degrees.

In other words, gender and women’s studies are the choice of practically nobody.  Undergraduates vote with their feet, and they aren’t interested in those fields as a course of study.  It’s not that they are unpopular—they barely exist, at least as measured by the important category, choice-of-major.

This is a perpetual embarrassment for gender studies.  Advocates have managed to insert “gender” into general education requirements, yes, and gender scholars in history, sociology, English, philosophy, and other disciplines insert gender theory into their classes (“Intersectional Shakespeare”).  But this doesn’t inspire students to go further.  They get a smattering of lessons in patriarchy, homophobia . . . in freshmen and sophomore classes, then avoid them later on.  The exposure doesn’t tempt them at all.

One wonders, then, why gender and women’s studies get so much attention in the media.

The reason lies in this very resistance to—or at least lack of interest in—the premises and interpretations gender professors espouse.  It’s a paradox: the very unpopularity of the fields is a story in itself.  You see, when undergraduates ignore what gender theorists have to say, they demonstrate the very necessity of gender studies.  The students repeat the error and injustice that gender theorists install as the justification of their work: the marginalization and suppression of people who reject heteronormativity and live “other” lives.

The students who stay away are still enmeshed in patriarchy and heteronormativity.  That’s the presumption of practitioners.  Students avoid women’s studies professors because they can’t handle the truth.  They have grown up with patriarchy and homophobia, they’re invested in them, and they don’t want to change.

This is how education reporters, almost all of whom are liberals, regard occasions of hostility or skepticism toward the fields and professors, as if these are more newsworthy than are occasions of support and prosperity.  Which event earned more headlines, Larry Summers speaking about men outnumbering women at the super-high end of mathematical intelligence, or Harvard investing $50 million to draw more women to the faculty?

This tension isn’t going to disappear any time soon.  On one hand, we have the moral authority of women’s studies and gender studies.  They have the elevated status of the historically-disadvantaged.  You don’t argue with victims.  No administrator wants to challenge those professors over their small enrollments.

But, on the other hand, the students don’t care.  They won’t respond.  Women’s Studies and Gender Studies have 100 percent institutional support, but they don’t have “grassroots” support.  It’s an academic version of the populist-Establishment conflict, but it has no foreseeable solution, not at the super-selective institutions.  Yale, Williams College, and Berkeley have the money to maintain Women’s and Gender Studies even if they show a consistent loss in productivity (that is, in students taught per year).  They can afford it.

But they don’t have any means of pushing undergraduates into those fields as majors.  They can make Women’s and Gender Studies courses meet general education requirements, and they can hire and promote gender theorists in other departments, but they haven’t been able to steer kids away from business, psychology, pre-med, and political science majors.  We know what most of the students do to get through gender lessons: they shrug their shoulders, absorb the basics, regurgitate gender truisms on the exam, and forget about them once the course ends.

This is the real story of Women’s and Gender Studies, a field with extraordinary endorsement from above and widespread difference from below.