COVID-19, Disaster Capitalism and the Crisis in Women’s and Gender Studies

As COVID-19 and systemic racial violence create a global health emergency, many of us are shifting our focus to the logistics of daily survival: covering the cost of food and shelter, keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe, worrying about job security and tenuous unemployment checks as we adjust schedules and routines to fit the cadence of the new normal.

Police brutality and racialized violence across the country expose how deeply the inequities cutting through the pandemic run and how racism and health care inequalities are cut from the same cloth.

For those at the intersections of multiple identities, the current moment only enhances the oppressive forces of Western society—from the impoverished mother of color navigating job loss and daily fear for her children’s safety, to the trans student forced to return to an unsafe home—the current health and racial crises have exacerbated these harms.  

Given this landscape, it’s easy to overlook the calamity also taking place in higher education or even its relevance to these other pressing matters. Yet, access to higher education and the programs that teach people how to articulate the relationship between racial justice, queer organizing, labor activism, feminism(s) and other movements for equality are crucially important at this moment.

Students who take a class on Black feminisms or the history of the Black civil rights movement walk away with a lens that allows them to understand why peaceful protesting exists alongside rioting—and why voting, care work and legislative change are also part of the equation.

As one recent graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire states,

“A WGSS major offers a transnational, feminist, anti-racist and concrete analytical framework to understand the operation of power and the formation of systems of oppression. This interdisciplinary training provides tools for critical reading and writing, methods for creating informed and insightful perspectives, as well as theories on how to organize and effect social change.”

This type of lens seems more urgent and needed than ever.  

Gender and Women’s Studies in Jeopardy

For those of us connected to higher education—either as students, instructors, staff or family members—it’s clear that programs that prioritize this type of thinking are in severe jeopardy. Across the country, countless institutions are announcing furloughs, layoffs and the permanent elimination of entire programs and departments. 

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Others are shuttering their institutions forever. The ones that remain intact grapple daily with the best plans for reopening in the fall and responding to what will undoubtedly be huge financial losses.

These setbacks hit instructors and staff with contingent positions hard, as they face a bleak job market with even slimmer openings than the past few years. Students and parents sit in an equally precarious position as they ponder what makes sense for the coming year.  

What is not immediately clear from the ubiquitous news coverage of the crisis in higher education is that some groups have more to lose than others. Gender and Women’s Studies, Queer Studies and Ethnic Studies programs and departments have been under attack for years. The slow and steady assault on funding streams, tenured faculty positions and total courses offered have slowly eroded the foundations of what were once strong and secure programs.

Now, when everyone’s focus is spinning in a thousand directions at once, some of the greatest foes of feminist, queer and racial justice are poised to deal these weakened academic programs a final blow using the current crisis as an excuse.

As Julie Shayne wrote in her February 24 Ms. article, “The Trump Era Proves That Women’s Studies Matters,” now is the time to further embrace and protect the ideals of Gender and Women’s Studies—not toss them up as the first offerings on the proverbial chopping block of disaster capitalism.

Critically, the students who are most likely to depend on these academic programs—women, queer and trans individuals, students of color and those with disabilities—also stand to lose out. All of these issues are exacerbated when we shift the lens to first generation students, scholars of color and those living in rural communities.

For faculty and staff who view their roles as both educators and activists, these crises erupt at global, institutional, interpersonal and pedagogical levels as they work to provide as much virtual support to their marginalized student populations as possible—while also navigating the terrifying threats to their careers, health and futures.

Disaster Capitalism 

Financial exigencies certainly dictate a change to business as usual, but that does not mean the only option is reducing already slimmed-down higher education budgets.

The University of Wisconsin System, to take one prominent example, announced in April that it expected a revenue shortfall of $170 million for the spring 2020 semester alone. Those numbers are likely to creep up as everything from sporting events to in-person classes remain up in the air for the fall.

Yet, rather than seizing this as an opportunity to rebuild state financial support for higher education, campus leaders are being asked to execute dangerous cost-cutting measures that threaten to permanently undermine the quality of higher education.

A plan recently unveiled by outgoing UW System President Ray Cross aims to eliminate course “redundancies” across campus and centralize administrative and human resources across the System—in other words, cut the programs that do not immediately link to a direct job title and prioritize majors that “serve workforce needs.” The search committee for Cross’ replacement has drawn criticism for only producing one candidate to tackle tough issues at a critical moment across the UW System.

As a spoiler, Gender and Women’s Studies does not fare well in this equation, neither do balanced approaches based on faculty governance and shared decision-making. This is a trend facing institutions across the country as programs grounded in the humanities face devastating cuts

The Social Justice Movement Roots of Higher Education

While things feel rather bleak, history tells us two things about the current moment.

First, the bad news: As legal historians such as Nancy MacLean have pointed out, the assault on higher education is a well-orchestrated, deeply funded project that dates back to the school desegregation cases of the 1950s—yes, that’s not typo.

As MacLean’s research shows, families such as the Koch brothers have funneled millions into altering the purpose and final outcome of higher education for decades. The winners are conservative economic and business schools. The losers are the humanities—particularly programs such as Gender Studies, Queer Studies and Ethnic Studies who produce students who are ready to apply sophisticated analyses of gender inequity, racial justice, and trans and queer liberation to their work in a variety of professions.

Long-standing opponents of GWS are taking advantage of the communication barriers, confusion and general disarray of the current moment to tie up loose ends on a variety of fronts; higher education and its related projects of gender, racial and LGBTQ+ inclusivity are among them. 

The reassuring corollary to this long history is that all of these programs—Women’s and Gender Studies, African American Studies, Asian American Studies, Queer Studies, Indigenous Studies and others—emerged from pressure by social movements and activists inside academia in the 1960s and 1970s. Students, instructors, faculty and community members with little social capital effectively pressured administrations into investing in courses, programming and eventually, entire departments that took race, gender, class and sexuality seriously as analytical tools that deserved to be front and center in the classroom.

Social movement activists also applied pressure. The University of Wisconsin System, like many other state systems across the country, launched a series of Governor’s Commissions on the Status of Women in the 1960s and followed up by supporting race and gender-based academic programs in the following decade.

The activists who drove these changes identified themselves as the academic arm of the feminist movement, the Black civil rights movement, and the gay rights movement. They had nothing to lose and everything to gain, and they won big. 

A Different Path Forward

If we allow this legacy of queer, feminist racial justice that our academic institutions inherited from the past to slip away, they will likely not return.

A liberatory vision of higher education would demand state and federal financial support for a university system that embraces a strong relationship with the communities it supports—paying particular attention to access and support for working class families and communities of color.

This vision would place the mission and ideals of community investment front and center and prioritize financial decisions that boost access, affordability and curriculum that speaks to underrepresented groups. Women’s and Gender Studies particularly fits this vision as many of its courses depend on internships, community outreach and producing first-rate graduates who enter the workforce prepared to offer a sophisticated analysis of racial justice, gender equity, LGBTQ+ inclusion and intersectionality.

This intention would also understand that marginalized students flock to these programs as they look for academic language that speaks to their own experiences and makes sense of their vision of the future.  As Black feminist scholar bell hooks writes in Teaching to Trangress, “All students, not just those from marginalized groups, seem more eager to enter energetically into the classroom discussion when they perceive it as pertaining directly to them” (87).

In this framework, the necessity of engaged feminist instructors has never been so clear. Yet, rather than support the faculty and staff those students turn to, higher education administrators are proposing devastating cuts. 

Our local and state government officials need to know that COVID-19 relief must prioritize higher education over corporate support, and particularly secure programs that benefit underrepresented groups. If you have ties to your local community—through internships, lecture series, libraries or other relationships—work them now. Let local groups know what is at stake. Let families and the parents and grandparents of students know that the fate of higher education is also up for grabs.

Remind these same groups that many local communities depend on our students for rental income, retail revenue and most importantly, as future employees dedicated to thoughtful and informed engagement with a diverse community. Petitions and op-eds penned by students, families and community groups attesting to the value of Gender and Women’s Studies programs and related disciplines are crucial. This cannot happen the old-fashioned way; social media networks are vital, and in many respects, students might be the best candidates to lead the charge. 

A June 7 protest in Austin, Texas. (@mhdksafa / Twitter)

The protests erupting across the country underscore the relevance of education focused on diversity and inclusivity as more urgent than ever.

We can either seize a vision of higher education that sidesteps the corporate-backed for-profit equation and demand a reinvigoration of higher education that places issues like equity, access and community reinvestment front and center; or we can buy into a false narrative that demands we use dubious metrics of low enrollment and low profitability to erase the social movement gains of past decades.

What is happening in Wisconsin is neither an accident nor an anomaly. It is the future of higher education if we fail to act immediately.  


The UW System Women’s and Gender Studies Consortium (WGSC) is a network of University of Wisconsin System Women’s and Gender Studies programs and system wide initiatives. The Consortium is designed to enhance student learning and service to students; support multiculturalism and inclusion; lead efforts to develop and integrate intersectional feminist scholarship; and strengthen connections between campuses and communities. Since 1989, the WGSC has been leading the effort to raise the profile and expand the resources devoted to Women’s and Gender Studies programs, certification, scholarship, teaching, and curriculum in the UW System. We stand in solidarity with those protesting institutionalized racism, white supremacy, and police brutality in the United States and around the world.