Lori Watson, director of Women’s and Gender Studies and associate professor in the Department of Philosophy, answers questions from Inside USD on why gender studies are important in today’s society and who inspires her every day.
Gender studies is a broad field with an inherently interdisciplinary approach investigating the ways in which gender, sex, and sexuality are socially created, maintained, and reinforced through complex political and social institutions. Such scholarship includes asking questions, and seeking answers to questions, about the relationship between biology and sex or gender or sexuality, the relationship between culture and sex or gender or sexuality. It can also include seeking to understand men’s and women’s social roles as they play out in particular institutional settings such as education, law, the family, religion, and just about any institution you can think of.
Gender studies departments often grew out of what were originally women’s studies departments. Women’s studies departments began to exist in the early 1970s, as scholars and students interested in women’s issues, and equality, aimed to created a place where women’s history, feminist history and theory had a home at universities. Beginning in the 1990s, a shift occurred where departments started to rename themselves women’s and gender studies or simply gender studies. This was a response to growing interest in studying the interrelationship of femininity and masculinity as social constructs — as well as the role of gender in sexuality. Many thought that “gender studies” better reflected the depth of the interdisciplinary work being done. At USD, we began as the Gender Studies Program, over 20 years ago, founded by Dr. Linda Perry and Dr. Cynthia Caywood, currently chair of the Department of English. Several years ago, we renamed the program, changing the name to Women’s and Gender Studies, as a way of making more explicit the program’s emphasis on women.
The program offers a wide range of courses, and I think we have something to offer every student at USD, whatever their major and whatever their more specific interests. Everyone lives in a world shaped by gender, and everyone must navigate the world of gender roles, gendered meanings, and gendered institutions. I tell my students in the introduction course, when they are required to give a presentation on a topic of their choosing, whatever they are interested in has a gender link, and so they should follow their interests and we can find the gender link. That’s true for all of us.
Q: If you had a magic wand, what social ill would you chose to correct first?
Poverty. Women and children are disproportionately impoverished. If we could lift all people out of poverty, this would have a dramatic impact on women and children the globe over. It would literally change the world in ways we’ve only imagined. According to the World Bank’s most recent Development Report, women represent 40 percent of the world’s labor force but hold just 1 percent of the world’s wealth. If we change this, we empower women to create a more equal world.
Q: What motivates you in the classroom each day?
I am lucky to have a profession that I love. I’d do it for free. Well, not the grading, I prefer to be paid to do that, but there is nothing I’d rather do than be a philosophy professor. So, I guess my love of the subject and the material I teach motivates me. Then, to see student’s grappling with hard questions for the first time and really thinking through the issues is very rewarding.
Q: What advice do you give to your students when debating an ethical issue with no clear answer?
I tell them there are better and worse answers. The quality of the answer will depend on the quality of the argument in favor or against a particular position. Philosophy classes aim to teach students how to think, not what to think. But being committed to seeking the truth requires that no beliefs are shielded from critical evaluation. The more we are all willing to subject our most foundational beliefs to philosophical reflection, the closer we get to knowledge, self-understanding, and the truth.
Q: Who is your personal hero?
I will translate this as being a question about whom I admire and respect the most. I have two answers.
First, Catharine A. MacKinnon. She is, in my view, the greatest legal mind of the 20th century, her body of work, both scholarly and practically, has served to illuminate the lives of women more profoundly than anyone else. Moreover, she is not just a scholar, but a lawyer and an activist; she has changed the world for women in a positive way. The fact that I have an opportunity to co-teach this course with her on sex equality, here at USD, is a dream come true. Our students are so lucky to have this opportunity.
Second, my mother, Billie Watson, is someone I greatly admire. My mom was diagnosed with MS (multiple sclerosis) in 1990. She has faced the challenges of that disease with a determination that is astonishing. Despite living with the temporary periods of disabilities the disease causes — some patients with MS go in and out of remission, the form my mom has — she went back to school in her early 50s and successfully completed her BSN, and then did a dual master’s in nursing and nursing education, all while working full time as a hospital administrator. What she has been able to accomplish is truly amazing. I was working on my PhD in my mid-to-late twenties, in perfect health, and my stamina couldn’t touch hers.
Q: Outside of the classroom, what are your favorite things to do?
I have two dogs, Nikki and Grace. Hanging out with them, and my partner, Michelle, are my favorite things to do. I also have a one-year-old niece, Charlie, and though she lives in Virginia, visiting her is one of my most favorite things to do!