Education Women's and Gender Studies
Maria do Mar Pereira
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 July 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 July 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0102


Women’s and gender studies (WGS) is an interdisciplinary field of research and education. It analyzes past and present aspects of social life across cultures to understand how gendered norms and inequalities are reproduced, change over time and space, shape individuals’ identities, experiences and opportunities, and intersect with other axes of inequality such as “race,” ethnicity, sexuality, class, or disability. WGS’ level of academic institutionalization varies significantly across countries, but it is an established field that has grown significantly in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, with many universities offering WGS programs/courses. In the United States, for example, there are more than 900 WGS programs and over 10,000 courses (National Women’s Studies Association). There are WGS conferences, journals, and book series, and the field is supported by active national/regional professional associations such as the Asian Association of Women’s Studies and the European Association for Gender Research, Education and Documentation (Atgender). WGS emerged at different times and in distinct ways throughout the world, but its origins can be traced back to second-wave feminist movements and scholars who from the late 1960s began to denounce the systematic erasure and marginalization of women’s experience and knowledge in academia. Scholars demonstrated that female authors had not been adequately recognized and canonized; women’s achievements and practices were seen by many academics as less socially, culturally, and historically relevant than those of men, and therefore less worthy of scholarly attention; and concepts and theories were shaped by (and reproduced) unacknowledged gendered biases. WGS emerged to counteract these problematic invisibilities and biases while affirming the importance of studying women’s experiences and gender as an organizing principle of social life. In this way, scholars hoped to contribute to improving women’s (and men’s) lives and transforming societies. This broader commitment to academic and social change is a central feature of WGS: the field seeks not only to create more knowledge but also to examine critically how knowledge is produced and to use that knowledge to reduce gender-based violence and discrimination, combat homophobia and sexism, and promote diverse and inclusive understandings of femininity and masculinity. This questioning of academic knowledge extends to WGS itself: another of its key features is a commitment to examining its own practices of knowledge production critically. Therefore, WGS scholars have ongoing debates about issues such as the field’s position in academia, the nature of its objects of study, its name, how canons are created, and what they exclude.


As the number of women’s and gender studies courses and programs offered across the world has grown, so has the quantity and diversity of textbooks on offer. Recent years have seen the publication of several new titles, or of expanded, revised, and updated versions of popular classic titles. Textbooks in women’s and gender studies tend to adopt an interdisciplinary approach, although some articulate this with an explicit grounding in a particular discipline. The regularly updated and comprehensive textbook Abbott, et al. 2005, for example, provides an excellent overview of a range of themes in women’s and gender studies written from a sociological perspective, whereas Buikema and Van Der Tuin 2009 focuses on media, art, and culture, drawing on insights from both the humanities and the social sciences. A key feature of women’s and gender studies is its emphasis on the importance of closely articulating the theoretical and empirical. In line with this, all textbooks include both explanations of key concepts and theories, and detailed, empirically grounded analyses of a range of topics (usually including work, politics, violence, media and culture, education, family, sexuality, the body, health, and reproduction). However, each textbook will give a different emphasis to the theoretical and the empirical. Cranny-Francis, et al. 2003; McLaughlin 2003; and Lykke 2012 focus more heavily on explaining theories, concepts, and debates over them (and as such are more appropriate for advanced undergraduates and postgraduates), whereas Abbott, et al. 2005; Richardson and Robinson 2008; and Lips 2013 foreground an overview of the key findings and empirical insights of women’s and gender studies across a range of topics (and are thus well suited to undergraduate students or those encountering the field for the first time). Women’s and gender studies place great importance on the need to acknowledge cultural difference, recognize relations of power between countries (namely in academia, where Anglo-American theories, concepts, authors, and publications tend to dominate) and explicitly situate one’s knowledge claims. This has led some authors to attempt to produce textbooks that engage explicitly with these issues and integrate perspectives and findings from different countries: this is the case, for example, with Davis, et al. 2006; Connell 2009; and Lykke 2012.

  • Abbott, Pamela, Claire Wallace, and Melissa Tyler. 2005. An introduction to sociology: Feminist perspectives. 3d ed. London: Routledge.

    DOI: 10.1901/jaba.1968.1-91

    Comprehensive textbook covering a large range of topics within women’s and gender studies from a sociological perspective. It considers both the history of the field and more recent developments within it, explains key concepts in an accessible way and includes detailed overviews of research findings and relevant statistics.

  • Buikema, Rosemarie, and Iris Van Der Tuin, eds. 2009. Doing gender in media, art and culture. London: Routledge.

    DOI: 10.1901/jaba.1987.20-313

    Particularly useful for postgraduates and scholars interested in media, art, and culture. It has an innovative structure, with each chapter using one or more case studies (a cultural product, a historical figure, a writer or author) to discuss classical and new trends in women’s and gender studies theory and cultural analysis. It is explicitly intergenerational, including authors from different generations. It was originally published in Dutch in 2007 as Gender in media, kunst en cultuur.

  • Connell, Raewyn. 2009. Gender: In world perspective. Cambridge, MA: Polity.

    One of the most popular introductions to women’s and gender studies. Written by a leading theorist of gender and masculinities, it is accessible and short but captures complexity in a nuanced way; it is easy to read, but rigorous and fully grounded in evidence. It stands out for its attempt to adopt a transnational perspective, incorporating examples from across the world.

  • Cranny-Francis, Anne, Wendy Waring, Pam Stavropoulos, and Joan Kirkby. 2003. Gender studies: Terms and debates. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Textbook providing an overview of theoretical and conceptual debates in women’s and gender studies. Rather than adopting a chronological approach or discussing each theory separately, it starts by explaining key concepts and then explores relations between them, weaving in relevant theorists. This provides readers with a good sense of the interconnections between themes and approaches.

  • Davis, Kathy, Mary Evans, and Judith Lorber, eds. 2006. Handbook of gender and women’s studies. London: SAGE.

    Advanced textbook composed of twenty-six chapters written by leading international experts in different sub-themes of women’s and gender studies. Each one provides an overview of the emergence and development of scholarship in its particular area and then proposes a critical appraisal of the state of the art, as well as ideas for future directions for research.

  • Lips, Hilary. 2013. Gender: The basics. New York: Routledge.

    Accessible textbook primarily aimed at first-year undergraduates and non-academic audiences. Much less theoretical than the other texts listed here, it focuses on the “basics” of women’s and gender studies, and makes valuable links between academic research and recent developments in politics and policymaking.

  • Lykke, Nina. 2012. Feminist studies: A guide to intersectional theory, methodology and writing. New York: Routledge.

    Advanced textbook suitable for postgraduate students and scholars. An excellent source for overviews of cutting-edge developments in women’s and gender studies theory and methodology. What makes it distinctive is the fact that it includes pertinent reflections and guidance on developing a writing style appropriate to the field. Originally published in a different version in Danish in 2008 and in Swedish in 2009.

  • McLaughlin, Janice. 2003. Feminist social and political theory: Contemporary debates and dialogues. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Nuanced, balanced, and comprehensive book that provides an accessible and well-structured discussion of theoretical debates. These are organized thematically, focusing on seven key issues and “hot” topics: equal rights, standpoint theories, the ethics of care, postmodernism, the work of Michel Foucault, queer theory, and social studies of technology.

  • Richardson, Diane, and Victoria Robinson, eds. 2008. Introducing gender and women’s studies. 3d ed. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

    One of the most long-standing and widely read textbooks. Originally published in 1993 as Introducing Women’s Studies, it was republished in 1997 with some new chapters. Those versions are still invaluable reading for those interested in the foundational debates in the field. This 2008 edition is entirely new. It is an excellent textbook for undergraduates and useful refresher resource for postgraduates or lecturers.

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