Coming into university, I was blissfully ignorant. I thought that racism was over, feminism was unnecessary, and I had never even heard of the term “ableism.” Upon coming to Western, each student must fulfill one Arts credit. I had initially enrolled in Spanish, but decided last minute to switch into “Introduction to Women’s Studies,” thinking it looked interesting.
I didn’t know it at the time, but switching into Women’s Studies changed the entire trajectory of my life. I was skeptical during the first lecture – this all seemed very dramatic to me – was this professor not just looking for things to get upset at? My life, I thought, had never been touched by sexism. When would we finally be satisfied? As the year wore on and I learned more about the pervasive ways in which sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and other forms of discrimination are perpetuated both systemically and interpersonally, my eyes were opened. I started to recognize instances in my own life where I knew something wasn’t completely right, that I was being treated differently, but I had never thought to label it “sexism.” I started realizing that my own internalized attitudes were affected largely by systemic biases that heavily favoured certain individuals in society and dehumanized others. I also started to recognize my privilege and accept the responsibility that comes with the amount of social and cultural capital that I benefit from daily.
My “women’s studies” course also covered issues within masculinity: the idea that men must conform to an ideal of masculinity that does its own trauma to men and in turn, perpetuates sexism further. The well-rounded approach of this course allowed me to see beyond the stereotypes of feminism and women’s studies "hating men,” and instead showed how this discipline works to examine a variety of power structures affecting many different social groups.
Just like myself in first year, many of us can be lulled into a false sense of equality in Canada. This may be because we often don't hear the shocking statistics such as:
The Indigenous infant mortality rate is 2.3 times the national rate.
One study found that about one third of girls said they had “starved themselves or refused to eat in order to become thinner”.
- 57% of trans Ontarians have avoided washrooms due to safety concerns.
I ended up specializing in Women’s Studies the next year. While upper year courses become much more heavily theoretical and academic-focused, the fundamentals of equality and critical thought that I established in first year always guide my thoughts and actions daily. Not everyone will love the academic work as much as I did, which I understand fully, but I propose it be mandated that every post-secondary student take some sort of social justice-based course at the introduction level, in an effort to empower students. Had I not taken Introduction to Women’s Studies, I would continue to be discriminated against on the basis of gender without even knowing it, and continue to not take responsibility for my own privilege. By learning about the very real systems of inclusion and exclusion in our society, students would be more equipped to name the discrimination they face, but more importantly, how to use their own agency to help both themselves and others. The idea of these courses is not to shame, not to depress, not to “push an agenda,” but merely to present a critical view of the systems we so often take for granted.