Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies

Why take courses in this discipline?

Gender and sexuality are basic organizing structures of society. These categories are embedded in law, politics, and culture. Gender and sexuality shape the distribution of life opportunities locally and globally, and they permeate some of our most fundamental ways of experiencing and thinking about the world. Gender, women’s, and sexuality studies (GWSS) is an interdisciplinary field that investigates the complexities of gender and sexuality across various cultures, historical periods, and political contexts. The GWSS program at Grinnell offers students a broad foundation in intersectional, queer, and decolonial feminist scholarship and activism.

How does this discipline contribute to the liberal arts?

GWSS is vitally important to the liberal arts curriculum because it is an inherently interdisciplinary field of study. The major’s structure requires GWSS majors to explore courses within the program and across the campus in order to fulfill their elective requirements. In the program’s core and elective courses, students learn to think through the lenses of various disciplines, applying methods and theoretical models borrowed from the sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Students then take questions of power, privilege, and agency learned in GWSS courses and apply them in their courses across the curriculum.

Courses in GWSS involve the study of human behavior and society with a lot of attention to communication/writing.

What kinds of questions are asked in this discipline?

From the introductory course to the senior capstone, GWSS students and majors explore the construction and operation of power in the lives of individuals, within groups, and across the globe. GWSS is thus as much a way of seeing the world as it is an academic discipline. Central questions include: What is “gender”?  What is “sexuality”?  How are the lived experiences of gender and sexuality shaped by other social categories like race, class, dis/ability, and nationality?

GWSS majors will study the history and development of intersectional, queer, decolonial, and indigenous contributions to the field of gender, women’s, and sexuality studies. Students will become familiar with how theorists and researchers in GWSS evaluate and produce knowledge. Majors will be introduced to research methods that unearth invisible or silenced knowledge and that revisit and revise previous readings of cultural products and practices. They will study methods of feminist research in the social sciences and humanities, including interviews, archival research, visual and literary criticism, and survey content analysis. They will also study the relationship between feminist research and social and political change.

How does a student get started?

Students interested in GWSS should take Introduction to Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies (GWS 111), which is a prerequisite for many 200-level GWSS courses.

Students majoring in GWSS must take GWS 111, Theory and Methodology in Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies (GWS 249), and the Senior Seminar (GWS 495), as well as courses from three of four topic areas:

  1. Sexuality and queer studies
  2. Cross-cultural and transnational approaches
  3. Literary and artistic criticism
  4. Political/philosophical/historical/social analyses

Courses in a variety of disciplines contribute to these topic areas, including anthropology, art history, biology, history, English, French, music, philosophy, psychology, religious studies, sociology, and Spanish.

Courses in GWSS

All courses in GWSS

Regularly Offered 200-Level Courses

  • Foundations of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Studies
  • Feminism and Popular Culture
  • Growing Up Girl

Regularly Offered 300-Level Courses

  • Critical Race Feminisms
  • Queer and Trans Literatures
  • Feminist Educations

Recent Special Topics Courses

  • Black Feminist Thought
  • Chicana Feminist Thought
  • Queering Digital Humanities
  • Gender in Post-WWII East Asia
  • Trans Film and Media

Recent Senior Seminar Topics

  • Disruptive Bodies
  • Feminist Evisceration
Sample Four-Year Plan for a GWSS Major
Year Fall Spring
First GWS 111 (either semester) GWS 111 (either semester)
Second GWS 249 200-level GWSS course from category A
Third OCS in GWSS-related program

200-level GWSS course from category C

300-level GWSS course from category B


200-level GWSS course from category A

300-level GWSS course from category D

GWS 495 (Senior Seminar)

Off-Campus Study

GWSS majors have studied abroad in Amsterdam, London, Costa Rica, South Africa, Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic.

GWSS-related courses taken while on an off-campus study (OCS) program may count toward the GWSS major; courses are approved after the student returns from OCS. OCS courses can be used to meet the general credit requirements and to fulfill the four thematic rubrics of the major curriculum. However, OCS courses cannot be used to fulfill either of the major’s two required 300-level courses, both of which must be completed at Grinnell.

Contributions to Other Majors/Concentrations

Some courses in GWSS contribute to the American studies concentration.

Department Events and Opportunities

Jeanne Mayo Burkle (1927-1985) was a feminist, community activist, and part-time instructor at Grinnell College, and a driving force in bringing a women’s studies program to Grinnell College. The Burkle award was established in 1986 through gifts by her family and friends, and this award is made at Commencement to a graduating student who, in academic and co-curricular activities, has “advanced the cause of women and gender equality.” The award usually is in the amount of $1,000.00.

Scott-Noun Award for Racial Justice: The Scott-Noun Award for Racial Justice was established in honor of Kesho Scott, Ph.D., for her many distinguished achievements and ongoing work to promote racial justice using an intersectional approach.  Reflecting the program’s support for intersectional student engagement and activism, the Scott-Noun Award is presented at Commencement to one or more students who have demonstrated a commitment to service, activism, cultural, or other extra-curricular engagement to fight for racial justice and equity.  Awards are made in the amount of up to $1000.  

SEPC: The Student Educational Policy Committee, or SEPC, is a student-faculty liaison group that provides faculty with student input on professors, candidates, curriculum, and other departmental issues. It also organizes social events within the GWSS program.

Honors: To be considered for honors in gender, women’s, and sexuality studies (GWSS), graduating seniors must achieve a GPA of 3.6 in the major and a GPA of 3.5 overall and have taken at least one course from each of the major’s four rubric categories. Students who have met these requirements will be invited to submit a brief statement (250-300 words) in which they describe what they would tell a prospective student about the GWSS major; only students who chose to submit such statements will be considered for honors in Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies.

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