‘Exactly Where I Need to Be’: Women’s Studies and Gender Studies at Loyola

The Women and Gender Studies Major at Loyola is graduating 0.2% of the graduating class this semester

This spring, only four students will graduate from Loyola with a degree in women’s studies and gender studies — making up only 0.2% of College of Arts and Sciences graduates. 

Dr. Betsy Jones Hemenway, the program director, said while this may signal the program is lacking, these numbers aren’t abnormal.

“The number of graduating seniors really varies,” Jones Hemenway said. “Sometimes it’s three, sometimes it’s seven or nine. It just really depends on the year.”

When Jones Hemenway started teaching at Loyola in 2007, she said the WSGS program didn’t have any consistent faculty members and students could only pursue the major if they were majoring in another program as well. Jones Hemenway said the program has now grown to one of the biggest of any Jesuit school, which she said is due to Loyola’s campus culture — a kind of culture that many schools lack.

Rylie Vandermolen, one of the four graduating WSGS majors, said she discovered the program as a first-year biology major. She said she switched to WSGS after her mom — who instilled a passion for feminism in her from a young age — died due to cancer during Vandermolen’s first year of college.

“I realized life is too short for me to be studying something that I really don’t care about, I’m not passionate about,” Vandermolen said. “I did more research about what women and gender studies is, and I was like, ‘This is exactly where I need to be.’”

Jones Hemenway said students typically come to college aware of majors such as English, math and political science but have rarely heard of a women’s and gender studies program. As a result, women’s and gender studies programs are typically smaller than other programs, according to Jones Hemenway. Over a four-year period, Jones Hemenway said about 30 students graduate with a WSGS degree from Loyola.

To major in WSGS, students must complete 36 hours — six required WSGS courses, five electives and one theory course. A WSGS minor consists of 15 hours, of which four courses are electives and one is a required WSGS course. WSGS also offers three graduate programs — a master’s in WSGS, a dual degree in WSGS and social work and a dual degree in WSGS and theology.

“We’re a small program,” Jones Hemenway said. “But for a gender studies program, we’re actually pretty robust, especially considering we have almost no resources.”

According to Jones Hemenway, the program operates on a base budget of under $3,000 per year, along with a supplement from the College of Arts and Sciences for faculty development, which varies. She said the base amount hasn’t changed much over the last 15 years.

Because the WSGS program isn’t considered a department, Jones Hemenway said the program lacks assets like tenured faculty that are afforded to official departments. She said the program has tried to boost enrollment by incorporating introductory courses into the core curriculum, succeeding in 2016 with the addition of WSGS 101 as an option for the societal and cultural knowledge requirement.

The WSGS program also reaches students through core interdisciplinary classes cross-listed as WSGS, meaning they also count as WSGS electives. 18 of these courses will be offered this fall, ranging from theology to communications and covering topics concerning gender, sexuality and identity.

Devon Verret, another graduating WSGS major, said she sees immense value in the cross-listed WSGS courses, which allow for overlap between topics and systems of thought.

“The whole purpose of women and gender studies is to be intersectional and connect, and so a big part of the program is to try and get more classes that reach out to especially the sciences,” Verret said.

Associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Joyce Knight said Loyola tends to attract and graduate more STEM and social science majors than humanities, hence the WSGS disparity.

According to U.S. News and World Report, in 2022, 29% of graduates majored in health professions and biological and biomedical sciences, 18% in social sciences and psychology and 2% in public administration and social service professions. Knight said according to College of Arts and Sciences graduation databases, the highest-producing majors this spring are psychology and biology with 240 and 296 undergraduates, respectively.

Psychology professor Will Beischel said they’ve taught a cross-listed class named Gender & Sex Differences & Similarities for two semesters, which mainly attracts psychology majors. They said course topics include abortion, the gender pay gap and transgender political issues, which are viewed through an intersectional, feminist lens.

Beischel said students tell them on a regular basis everyone should be required to take the class.

Beischel, who has taught at Loyola for a year, said they attribute this to the safe space WSGS-oriented topics facilitate. They said it’s necessary for students to be able to figure out their place in the world and understand that they’re not alone in their experiences.

Beischel also said they appreciate the social justice element WSGS brings to an otherwise lacking field.

“Psychology as a discipline isn’t as critical as I might like it to be in that it doesn’t always take into account things like power and oppression and the histories of sexism and racism and things like that, and women and gender studies really focuses on those systems of power,” Beischel said.

Catharina Baeten, another fourth-year WSGS major, said she’s felt the need to defend herself against those who critique the program’s validity. She said the program has taught her invaluable lessons, helping her in other aspects of her academic career.

“Activism is for everyone,” Baeten said. “Feminism is for everyone. Everything comes back to the pursuit of an equal and equitable world, and I feel like that’s one thing that’s really emphasized.”

Baeten said she will carry these lessons with her as she furthers her education and looks into possible jobs. She said she thinks the degree is applicable to a variety of jobs.

Jones Hemenway said she often fields questions from prospective students about what kinds of jobs can be obtained with a WSGS degree. She said her response is “pretty much anything.”

“It really just gives you a lens through which you can view the world, and the rest is up to you,” Jones Hemenway said.

Dr. Paula Tallman, who teaches Sex, Science & Anthropological Inquiry, said she believes people who major in the discipline have an advantage when entering the workforce by being more knowledgeable about diverse identities and cultures.

Tallman said much like anthropology, majoring in WSGS requires adding other majors and minors in order to find a marketable niche.

“Our students need to come out professionally prepared to pursue careers, and that means that we have to think strategically about how we pair things,” Tallman said.

Verret is triple majoring in WSGS, history and philosophy but said she believes it was her WSGS major which secured her a job with the Women & Survivors Project at the Illinois Prison Project.

Verret said it’s important to pair whatever students want to do with what they enjoy. She said the two will always intersect and are sure to bolster a resume.

Verret said the WSGS program sits at the intersection of what she wants to do and what she enjoys. She said she actively recruits students in her WSGS classes — both WSGS minors and people outside the program — to the major because she loves it so much.

“The advantage of being a small program like this is that the students who are here really want to be here,” Jones Hemenway said. “They’re not just taking it to check something off a box. They’re passionate, so it makes it a fun place to work and to teach.”

Featured Image By Allison Treanor / The Phoenix

Caroline Bell

Caroline Bell