Being a black woman high in the Air Force’s chain of command during the 1980s was not easy for Jeanette Coleman.
She was a logistics manager for parts and supply, a job that she said came with “constant sexism.” Men thought she was “easy” and didn’t hesitate to touch her inappropriately; her nickname was “dragon lady,” due to her not letting people walk all over her.
“Sometimes I had to go there because they’d just push you. If you do nothing, they’ll walk over you. If you be quiet, then they’d think you’re submissive. If you speak up, they think you’re being a bitch,” Coleman said.
Coleman retired from the Air Force in 2002. She has two master’s degrees in English and education and is currently pursuing her third at age 63 in FAU’s women, gender, and sexuality graduate program.
“I took one class and I realized that all of these courses are the theory behind my experience … being a black woman, being a woman, being older,” she said.
The women, gender, and sexuality program isn’t just for grad students. There’s also an undergraduate certificate, similar to a minor, that students can work toward — and it’s been at FAU since 1986, while the graduate’s degree was developed in 1997.
The field tackles social movements, gendered violence, sexualities of all kinds, and the intersection of identities. But students and professors alike argue that it’s about more than just concrete knowledge — it offers a way to step back and see the world in different perspectives.
“Our goal is to bridge the differences; bridge our consciousness. We’re all experiencing ‘other’ in some kind of way. So what do we have in common? How can we come together for everyone?” Coleman said.
And these subjects are more important than ever in the 21st century, according to Barclay Barrios. He has been at FAU for the past 14 years, but things have changed rapidly, even since he became the Center for Women, Gender, & Sexuality Studies’ director four years ago.
“The #MeToo movement has made us acutely aware of the number of issues around women, sexual violence, sexual assault … We’re living in a historical movement where these issues are really important,” he said.
“So many different avenues”: the professional side
The program isn’t only meant to help students understand the world — it helps them find a job within that world, too.
Students who graduate from FAU with the program’s certificate or master’s degree go on to work in a number of fields, according to Barrios and Nall: nonprofit organizations, public law, education, politics, and more.
“There are so many different avenues for one to make use of this field. It really is broadly applicable to virtually every conceivable field of study,” Jeffrey Nall, the professor who created FAU’s Men and Masculinity course in 2013, said.
Some graduates have worked for SunServe, an LGBTQ non-profit resource center near Fort Lauderdale. Jill Rubin, who is the coordinator of FAU’s Women and Gender Equity Resource Center and a former professor of women’s studies, got a degree in women, gender, and sexuality studies at the university.
The certificate is an “add-on” that makes students stand out to employers, especially in the era of #MeToo, Barrios said. Gender and sexuality are being approached differently in the workplace, and a student who can understand these layers can look appealing in the workplace right now, he added.
And even if a student doesn’t go into a field directly related to gender and sexuality, the knowledge they pick up from the classes will help them anyway, according to Jane Caputi, a professor for the department.
She believes the field has relevance in the home and workplace, and that it will enable students to “understand the issues of the day and what they’re going to be dealing with,” she said.
“A vital existential benefit”: the personal side
One semester, Nall’s Men and Masculinity class was full of FAU football players instead of its usual majority of women. He’s fairly certain this was “on accident.”
“I don’t really think they really knew what they were getting themselves into,” he joked.
Athletes would come in on crutches, bruised and bandaged from games against other colleges. It began a series of conversations about the gendered ideas that sports reflect, which Nall thinks was “enriching” for everyone involved.
“We were talking about things like the social construction of masculinity in relation to sports, and the question of who really benefits from men exemplifying these ideas of masculinity?” he said.
Nall believes that FAU benefits more than the athletes because, while the young men receive scholarships, “they certainly weren’t getting very much of that million dollars the college was getting.”
Cisgender men, transgender men, men of color, and all other kinds of men have enjoyed this class and the program as a whole because it’s a place where they can explore their gender identity and what it means, he said — because for Nall, the program is about understanding and coming to terms with yourself.
“Being able to know ourselves, being able to feel good about our vision of a meaningful life, having an authentic relation to our identity … are also as vital as having a roof over our head. So in short, even if there was no economic benefit to a field of studies like this, there would be a vital existential benefit,” he said.
For Emily O’Connell, a current graduate student, the program is about the historical context surrounding women.
O’Connell grew up with a grandmother who taught her to stand her ground and a mother who held a powerful corporate position, but none of this could protect her from the sexual harassment and exploitation that she has experienced while working in retail since 16, she said.
“I think it’s important to understand all humans’ decency, all humans’ basic rights, and I think you should be empowered in your own self and your own knowledge,” she said. “I think you need feminism because the world has proven that we can’t live without it.”
And for Coleman, the program is about understanding her past and reaching toward a better future.
“I have a daughter, I have two granddaughters, and I have three great-granddaughters. And looking at the women in my family … I know what they went through, but I want to understand how to break some of the cycles that I’ve seen in the past with the future,” she said.
How the women, gender, and sexuality studies program works
The three topics of women, gender, and sexuality studies are under the same academic umbrella because they share a history of being oppressed by the patriarchy, according to Caputi.
So, given the field’s broad nature, students pursuing both the undergraduate certificate and the master’s degree can choose within a wide range of classes to focus on a certain area. About 100 students complete the undergraduate certificate per year, and the graduate program has about 10 students at any given time, Barrios said.
Students majoring in interdisciplinary studies can also get a concentration in women, gender, and sexuality studies.
But courses associated with the program are all over the university, so far more than 110 students are taking them during the semester, he added.
Classes associated with the women, gender, and sexuality studies program are pulled from all over the university, and any person can participate in them regardless of major, Barrios said. You might have taken one without even realizing it — some of the general ed classes that students are required to choose from like “Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality” are a part of the program, and other courses within the program are included in the curriculum of specific majors.
The field is interdisciplinary, which means that its topics are intertwined with multiple other fields of study. Sexism has ties to anthropology and criminal justice, for example, while the concepts taught in computer science may be difficult to relate to another field.
“Women, gender, and sexuality studies isn’t just a very isolated field. It permeates every subject matter … It’s really re-conceptualizing all the fields as to how gender has been either silently informing what’s going on,” Caputi said.
Common terms in women, gender, and sexuality studies
If you were stuck on what some of the words in this article meant, don’t worry. We’ve compiled a list of definitions for you.
Cisgender – when a person’s gender identity matches with the sex they were born as
Feminism – advocacy for women’s rights based on the belief that women are equal to men
Gender – an individual’s concept of themselves that can lean toward masculine, feminine, or neither
LGBTQIA+ – an acronym that stands for lesbian, gay, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, and more
#MeToo – a movement started on social media in 2017 where women told their workplace stories of being harassed or assaulted by men
Patriarchy – a male-dominated form of society that profits off of enforcing gender roles, which includes the oppression of women
Sex – a biological trait determined by the genitalia a person was born with
Sexism – discrimination against someone, usually a woman, on the basis of their sex
Transgender – when a person’s gender identity does not match with the sex they were born as
Hope Dean is the news editor of the University Press. For information regarding this or other stories, email [email protected] or tweet her @hope_m_dean.