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What Can You Do with a Women’s Studies Major?

In celebration of Vassar’s Sesquicentennial, the Women’s Studies Program conducted a survey of past majors and correlates in the spring of 2011. The responses were inspiring, demonstrating a deep commitment to the program as well as an impressive breadth of career directions. Many women’s studies students went on to follow careers in education, law, medicine, and social work. Alumnae/i have also developed careers in a rich variety of other fields—as acupuncturists and actors, web designers and engineers, lobbyists and small business owners.

We are pleased to share a handful of anonymous responses from majors (in some cases with minor edits to make small corrections or condense material). The program is especially thankful to our alums who responded to the survey, to Susan Brkich (associate director of web services), and the Women’s Studies Majors Committee for their invaluable help. We hope you enjoy reading more about what students have done with their women’s studies major!

1989, Web Designer/Editor

I was a continuing student, an adult with school-age children, already employed as a computer professional.

The Women’s Studies major has informed my world view, explained my struggles as a woman coming of age in the early 1960s, inspired me to be a fully developed human being, and helped me raise thoughtful and sensitive sons. Its broad scope, the fact that it applied to every discipline made the biggest impact. As an older student, it was like revisiting everything I had learned but seeing it through a different perspective (a not exclusively male perspective). It was validating and empowering. I believe I was the first person to declare Women Studies as a major and I was very proud of it.

Thesis Topic: Women and comedy.

1991, Engineer

You’d think being an engineer would all be about the technology, but instead it turns out to be largely driven by the people and personalities. In my career I’ve worked with people from Stockholm to Bangalore, Tokyo to Tel Aviv. My Women’s Studies background gave me a deep respect and understanding for how culture frames thinking and this has helped me bridge cultural gaps at work to an amazing degree. I find it easier to navigate amongst diversity and not be threatened by different approaches to navigating life and teamwork.

Giving me the ability to think critically and to recognize underlying theoretical and meta-patterns that people assume without questioning. It’s helped me to navigate highly abstract technical literature. Once you’ve learned how to digest Julia Kristeva, a 900 page technical analysis seems like a walk in the park.

Thesis Topic: Gay Marriage--back in 1991 this was seen as a pipe dream, I was trying to understand if it was a goal we should seek as a community. The straight marriages being not so trouble-free from my perspective.

1991, Physician

I became an OB/GYN. The aspect of the program that had the most impact on me is gaining the ability to critically evaluate issues from a feminist point of view. The Women’s Studies major has affected my choice of careers, the type of medicine I practice. It affects how I raise my children, three girls and a boy.

1992, Midwife and Educator

I discovered that midwifery existed because of a sociology class on Sex, Gender and Society. I went into midwifery as a way to empower women, both those who want to give birth in a woman-centered way, and those standing up to the control of the medical profession. I have also worked as a sexuality educator, gender equity educator, childbirth educator and lactation consultant, and approached all from the perspective of empowering women of all ages.

I appreciated the program’s multi-disciplinary aspect, working with professors from many different perspectives, the class discussions, the reading, the new perspective that was offered which colored my view of everything in the world.

I married a man who respects women and takes his role as partner and co-parent very seriously. And now I am very consciously raising two little girls to be strong, independent women who can do anything they set their minds to do.

Thesis Topic: The history and politics of midwifery and the American medical system.

1995, Nonprofit Director, Domestic Violence/Sexual Assault Advocate

I have done domestic violence/sexual assault advocacy almost my whole professional life, inspired by internships at Vassar for YWCA Battered Women’s Service. Also, I am part of a group of sexual assault/domestic violence org executive directors who identify as aspiring white allies to anti-racist work. Anti-racism within feminism was something I learned at Vassar. I did field work at Battered Women’s Service and anti-racist analysis, and also received incredibly generous support from professors. As a lesbian/queer woman I feel that much of my confidence in being out began at Vassar.

Thesis Topic: Racism in the Battered Women’s Movement.

1996, Attorney

After graduation I worked at Planned Parenthood, then a social policy research organization, then capital defense work, then law and public schools. I now do employment discrimination law. Conceptually the work is easier than any other area of the law because I understood the theorists who formed the laws. (Katherine MacKinnon for example, whose course I took in law school). I can also see the more nuanced forms of discrimination.

Awareness of women’s issues has made me see the boxes we put ourselves in a little more than the average person. This was aided by significant other personal development, but it was grounded in the realization as a women’s studies major and in my multiple courses touching on post-modern theory, that things are not as they seem.

Thesis Topic: Postmodern feminist analysis of identity written in hypertext. Writing my thesis in hypertext was one of the only times in my life that I felt my voice and ideas really came out of me and into the world.

1996, Author, Educator, and Co-Founder of the Girls Leadership Institute

After graduation I took an Urban Fellowship with the City of New York, followed by a position as Deputy Finance Director on a U.S. Senate campaign. My entire career is about women and girls. I have written two books about girls and am an expert on girls, leadership, and aggression. I am also the co-founder of the Girls Leadership Institute.

Are you comfortable telling people you were a Women’s Studies major? Do it all the time, and mention that some of the smartest people at Vassar were Women’s Studies.

Thesis Topic: Women’s political participation after 1920.

1999, Birth Doula, Homebirth Midwife Assistant

Being that my career is devoted to serving as an advocate for women and promoting choice for women with regard to pregnancy and childbirth, everything about my career is informed by my undergrad work in Women’s Studies. From understanding the politicization and objectification of the female body, to understanding the masculine infrastructures of scientific and medical institutions to the challenge of women finding their voices and the value of when they do. One of the interesting things I found when I began this work (one year after graduating from Vassar) is that the early stages of the feminist movement did so much for freeing women from motherhood and the binds of motherhood but very little talked about the power of motherhood and the importance of a woman’s voice as a mother’s voice. Early on in my work I felt so much like work in the birth field was the most deeply feminist work I’d ever done. I continue to feel that way.

The aspect of the program that had the most impact was my senior thesis. Having the opportunity to spend several months delving into a project of my own interest and creation with the collaborative support of my two amazing thesis advisors was not only the most influential part of the program but was also one of the more pivotal, exciting, and empowering experiences of my life.

1999, Archivist at Pixar Animation Studios

I have had a varied work life since my time at Vassar. I worked in the technology department of a dotcom, as a technology trainer at a nonprofit, as a waiter in a restaurant, as a radio producer for both the local NPR station and a parenting radio show, and now as an archivist at Pixar Animation Studios. At times during this work life, I’ve volunteered with groups working on body image issue with young women. That volunteer work probably most directly reflects my undergraduate studies. Overall though, I think my ability to approach projects, group work, and historical documents with a level of compassion for all parties involved was informed by my undergraduate work in Women’s Studies. It was during that time that I was, by nature of the study, taught to put myself in the shoes of others and really work to understand the context in which people operated in their lives at different times and places. I have taken that with me and I believe it is what has and continues to make me a strong.

At Vassar, I was most impacted by the seminar courses in my senior year. It was during those interdisciplinary classes that I felt I was able to fully explore the material and subject and get beyond what was expected of me as a student. I explored what interested me as an academic and was encouraged to do so. Women’s Studies is such a broad and inherently growing/changing field (as fluid as gender experience perhaps) and I felt that the small-class seminar setting was the first time I really negotiated some of the complexities involved in that fluidity and felt a part of the field of study. I also have to say that my study abroad in Kenya and Australia during my Junior Year had a HUGE impact on me and were interwoven in my women’s studies education. But as those programs were outside of Vassar, I’ll refrain from expounding on them here. I am just very grateful that I was given the opportunity to travel to those countries as part of my women’s studies coursework.

Thesis Topic: Eating Disorders and Female Self-Perception/Body Image.

2000, Art Teacher

After graduation, I moved to Seattle and worked at a coffee shop and as a nanny. Then the following spring/summer I came back east and managed an organic farm. I have been teaching art at an all-girls charter school in New York City for the last 3.5 years and have seen first-hand the benefits and drawbacks of single sex education. I definitely see more benefits than drawbacks, and feel that my perspective on the issue of single-sex education is influenced by my background in women’s studies. I ended up in this job because I was part of an art collective that promotes women in the arts by providing free studio space for emerging women artists in exchange for mentoring a high school girl in visual art. Women’s art receives far less exposure than their male counterpart’s work, and I believe that my dedication to promoting women in the arts is due in part to my studies at Vassar.

The intro to women’s studies class really blew my mind when I took it.

Thesis Topic: Representations of women laborers in art. I researched this and then did a project in which I interviewed women in various lines of work and created an exhibition using their experiences as a jumping off point.

2000, News Analyst

I work with a lot of demographic information (for an NPR affiliate station) and I believe my studies help me focus on bettering serving the many populations living in the Seattle area. I enjoyed the mixture of theory (gender and queer theory) and history.

The most interesting response I got [when I told someone I was a Women’s Studies major] was when applying for a job at NFL.com; it ended in a lovely discussion about gender construction with the fellow interviewing me.

Thesis Topic: Sex, Gender, and Resistance in Nazi Germany.

2001, Small Business Manager/Owner

I probably wouldn’t have gone on to pursue a graduate degree in Women’s Studies if I didn’t go to Vassar. The aspects of the major that affected me most were the professors--they taught me how to think critically. I am conscious of gender all the time. For example, I now have a young son and my frustration with clothing that’s blue and covered in airplanes has led me to start up my own little children’s clothing business.

Thesis Topic: Frida Kahlo & Surrealist Movement.

2002, Social Worker

My studies as a Vassar Women’s Studies major created the origins of the ideological framework that informs my daily social work practice. My grounding in feminist conceptualizations gained at Vassar remains a base on which all subsequent information and analyses have been built. Both in my anti-violence work and my work with LGBTQ youth and young adults do I call upon this knowledge to guide programming and client approaches, but also does it inform administrative and other decision making processes.

My deep connections with faculty greatly assisted my growth and development as a thinker and my belief in my abilities. Additionally, the freedom to explore multiple disciplinary approaches in depth provided an enriching experience.

Thesis Topic: Written depictions of Women’s childbearing in early modern England examined through a midwifery manual and two personal diaries.

2003, Marriage, Couples, and Family Therapist

I consider myself a feminist therapist and view my work through a critical gender lens. I consider one of my strengths as a therapist to be my ability to connect well with LGBT clients, and that has been greatly informed by my education at Vassar. My work with couples has also been greatly informed by my undergraduate studies, as I attempt to bring more evolved ideas about masculine and feminine roles in relationships, rather than reinforcing ideas about traditional masculine and female roles.

Thesis Topic: Medicalization of Menopause in Western Medicine.

2004, English Teacher

My career as a teacher is informed by my Women’s Studies major because, as an educator, I strive to create equal access to college for all students.

The seminars and thesis project had the biggest impact on me. Actually, the introductory course captivated all of us during our freshmen year, and led us to become women’s studies majors. And I appreciated being able to take classes across disciplines as a women’s studies major. As we got older, and had small seminar classes and wrote our thesis projects, we definitely became a close group of majors.

Thesis Topic: Women who play sports on men’s teams--should men’s and women’s athletics be separated by gender?

2004, Owner of a Parenting Store

I own a natural parenting store in Honolulu, Hawaii, which focuses on maternal health and wellness. We inform and empower women in the face of a dehumanizing medical model which choreographs women’s choices from pregnancy into parenthood. I also work closely with the local food movement on empowering mothers to make healthy choices for their families. I run a Radical Homemakers reading group out of the store which is directly informed by my work at Vassar.

Feminism, for me, isn’t an identity. It’s a praxis. It’s a lens. It scopes, frames, and makes sense of my reality. It is an ethical orientation. I wouldn’t have dedicated my life to informing and empowering women if it wasn’t for Vassar’s Women’s Studies. My marriage, my childrearing, my work - all are feminist life projects.

Thesis Topic: International Migration and Gender.

2006, Outdoor Educator

I have been working in outdoor education and working with at risk youth which has been greatly informed by my scholarship in women’s studies. I have brought a feminist perspective to all of my work and have entered into jobs with a lot of confidence in my abilities as a woman in a male dominated profession in the outdoor industry.

Thesis Topic: American Media Representation of Women in Afghanistan during the War.

2007, Graduate Student in Women’s Studies

I am currently pursuing an MA in Women’s Studies so I see a direct link to my undergraduate studies. I am unsure of my future career plans, but I may pursue teaching within higher education. The close-knit group of majors as well as the thesis writing process were the aspects of the major that had the most impact on me.

Women’s Studies has a direct impact on many aspects of my life. Primarily, it has influenced my self-understanding in terms of race, class, sexual orientation, gender, able-bodiedness, etc. Additionally, my identity as a lesbian is something that I consider a source of pride; this understanding of my sexual orientation in a positive light is a result of my feminist education.

Thesis Topic: An analysis of the TV show, Law and Order SVU, focusing on the politics of watching women being sexually assaulted at the same time as being sexually objectified.

2008, Environmental Educator

Thanks to my women’s studies background my work as an environmental educator always involves social justice. Women’s studies . . . as a first year introduced me to concepts and ideas I had never been exposed to in my life. The classes created a unique space to have those thoughts, those questions, those revelations, that anger, that joy, and the curiosity involved in learning how to look at society from a feminist perspective---which positively informed the rest of my academic years at Vassar and beyond.

Thesis Topic: Feminist environmentalism. Eco-feminism. Lesbian feminist theory. Queer Theory. Environmental justice.

2009, Graduate Student in Religion and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies

I am currently hoping to pursue an academic career directly related to the study of gender in American religious history. I still remember how exciting my first exposure to feminist theory was in Intro to Women’s Studies, but the mentorship of professors in the department was easily the most significant aspect of the program for me.

Thesis Topic: The construction of gender in evangelical self-help books on sex and dieting, 1970 onward.

2009, Law Student

My career is almost entirely shaped by my undergraduate studies. After searching for a job that really called to me after graduation, I decided to attend law school, largely because of my major. While at Vassar, I was confronted with a lot of injustices in the gendered world, and I feel that law school is a way to address some of those injustices in a proactive, tangible way. I am hoping to study gender discrimination law, with a possible focus on the LGBTQ community.

The most important aspect of the program is the freedom to explore our feelings and experiences in a non-judgmental, non-patriarchal setting. Before taking a Women’s Studies class, I never had a space where I was able to openly discuss things that I felt were wrong with our gendered society. It opened my eyes to a lot of things I had never considered, and gave me opportunities to explore the gendered world that we live in. It completely changed my whole way of thinking, and I am a more deliberate, conscious member of society because I am aware of how we are so easily influenced by outside sources.

Thesis Topic: I did a joint-department thesis with WMST and the music department about Amy Beach, an American composer from the late Victorian era. In addition to my thesis, I performed a vocal recital of her compositions.