30 years after founding, WGS has nearly 50 scholars on campus eyeing women and gender issues


Emily Aasand

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30 years after founding, WGS has nearly 50 scholars on campus eyeing women and gender issues

Last spring, UND's Women Studies program made the transition to being known as Women and Gender Studies to reflect the international and national movement in feminist academic organizations toward researching and teaching gender and sexuality.

The name change, meant to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the program at UND, signified an expansion of the program's reach beyond "female issues," while maintaining its historical focus on women's achievements and struggles with systematic oppression.

"We expect that students interested in the gender theories that underlie the newfound LGBTQ identities, will also find a home here," Kathleen Dixon, the director of Women and Gender Studies said.

Interest in the program has surged over the past three decades as UND now has faculty and students of all majors researching topics from gender and sexuality to domestic violence to international women's rights.

In fact, there are nearly 50 faculty member on the UND campus, representing eight of the nine major schools and colleges, who are members or affiliates of the Women and Gender Studies program.

Dheeshana Jayasundara

They are people like Dheeshana Jayasundara, assistant professor of social work.

Jayasundara took an interest in human rights while getting her undergraduate degree in sociology in India. The native of Sri Lanka began her feminist work while working on a pilot project in her home country that studied violence against women.

"It was the first time I was introduced to domestic violence," Jayasundara said. "It was all pretty shocking for me. I was still fairly young, but it opened my eyes to what was going on in the world."

Jayasundara then came to the United States where she went on to get her master's degree and her Ph.D. Her Ph.D. research focused on women's reproductive health, and Jayasundara quickly became interested.

"One of the aspects I liked about this area was giving women the capabilities to dictate what they have and how their well-being should be," Jayasundara said.

Jayasundara took her passion for women studies as well as international studies and is currently doing research at UND on domestic violence on Muslim populations and she's looking at health issues in developing countries.

"After 9/11, Muslim populations were really marginalized." Jayasundara said. "Domestic violence has been ignored and the concept of domestic violence actually being a crime is new to them."

Jayasundara is part of the Texas Muslim Women's Foundation out of Dallas, Texas. This organization comprises about 300 women who recognized how society viewed Muslim women's needs and formed a group that could counteract the media's perceptions.

"My research and my services have been tied to that agency," Jayasundara said. "Domestic violence is a very personal subject, and we're trying to educate other people and other agencies about taking into account the needs of Muslim women. I'm privileged to be a part of this movement."

Melissa Gjellstad

Another UND scholar who brings an international flair to her gender research is Melissa Gjellstad, head of the Norwegian program.

Since coming to UND in the fall of 2008, Gjellstad has been opening eyes to the Norway and Scandinavia of today and how it influences global society, culture and politics through her accumulating research on gender issues.

In particular, Gjellstad has studied the representation of mothers and fathers as caregivers in 1990s Scandinavian literature as compared to the generation prior. The 1990s timeframe is significant because it followed the implementation of sweeping, liberal paternal leave policies in many Scandinavian countries.

For instance, parents of newborns were allowed 49 weeks of leave from their job at 100 percent pay or 59 weeks at 80 percent. In the case of adoptions, the benefit period totals 46 weeks at full salary or 56 weeks at 80 percent.

Gjellstad investigates how these social changes in men and women's caregiving influence Scandinavian literature, or whether the literature is ahead of the curve in precipitating social change. And it's not unprecedented that social trends with geneses in Scandinavia spread to other parts of the world.

"Gender politics have been a big export for these countries," Gjellstad said. "They have been on the forefront compared to the rest of the world in the sense that parenting or caregiving should be equally valued work."

Trained in comparative literature, Gjellstad injects her research into many of her courses, such as "Nordic Masculinities & Men's Narratives" and "Gender Studies in Norway," which is taught in Norwegian.

Gjellstad stated, "Even in [my] 'Vikings and Sagas' course, I require students to be attentive to gender issues."

Marcus Weaver-Hightower

Women and Gender research at UND can sometimes be just about the boys, too.

Marcus Weaver-Hightower, an associate professor of Educational Foundations and Research, whose research interests include the education of boys and gender theory, is highly involved in the Women and Gender Studies program.

"I always felt that the pressures boys faced were not considered when we talked about gender issues in education," Weaver-Hightower said. "Then, in the early 1990s, there was an explosion of interest in girls' math and science disadvantages. I was concerned that no one was talking about the tremendous disadvantages for boys in literacy. So I set out to make that part of the conversation about gender in education circles."

Weaver-Hightower says that there are many education issues that boys need help with, but that we have to focus on certain boys rather than all boys.

"Boys of color, boys of low-socioeconomic status, LGBT boys, and so on have a much harder time in schools than their white, middle-class, heterosexual, traditionally masculine peers," Weaver-Hightower said.

Weaver-Hightower is currently working on a number of different projects, including a book of autobiographies of famous academics that have studied gender and education.

"I actually just returned to the United States from a developmental leave in South Africa," Weaver-Hightower said. "I have the year off of teaching so that I can focus on my research on writing.

"Working at UND has been a really great job for me. I have the opportunity to teach classes I'm interested in and well-prepared for, with students who are engaged and hardworking. The staff is also wonderful to work with and is supportive in my research for Women and Gender Studies."

There are two main threads that tie UND's WGS research to the national and international trends. The first is the gender and sexuality studies, on which Weaver-Hightower focuses, and then there are international studies, part of Jayasundara's concentration. Gjellstad's work bridges both.

Dixon said having faculty members such as Gjellstad, Weaver-Hightower and Jayasundara contributing to research being done here at UND has been incredible.

"UND really provides that place for people to come together to become aware of some of the newer versions of theories and allows them to make it public in hopes of bettering society," she said.

Emily Aasand

University and Public Affairs student writer

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