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Meet Micki McElya, Head of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies

Micki McElya, professor of history and head of the Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program, outside of Beach Hall. (Bri Diaz/UConn Photo)

Micki McElya, professor of history and head of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program, outside of Beach Hall. (Bri Diaz/UConn Photo)

Micky McElya

Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program

Ph.D.: New York University

Office Location: Beach Hall


What would you say are the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) Program’s areas of strength in your field?

As an interdisciplinary unit at UConn, WGSS is comprised of scholars and teachers who come to the studies of women, gender, sexuality, bodies, ability, theory, and diverse forms of feminism and intersectionality from a variety of disciplinary, geographical, temporal, and critical locations. Our strength is in our differences and the range of approaches we offer to students. This includes increased collaboration among interdisciplinary units at UConn, with whom many of us have formal and informal associations. For instance, in addition to being the WGSS director and associate professor of history, I am also affiliated faculty in Africana studies and American studies.

What interests students in studying women’s, gender and sexuality studies?

Like many institutes, WGSS – then called women’s studies – was created through the activism of feminist students, faculty, and staff in the 1960s and 70s who demanded more inclusive classrooms and curricula along with greater diversity among the people working and studying at UConn. This remains our core mission and appeal to students. WGSS draws people committed to this hard work of transformation within and beyond the academy and the critical inquiry and scholarly excellence it inspires. A thriving WGSS program is a key sign of institutional commitments to the lives and study of diverse women, gender expressions, and sexualities across categories of race, class, ability, geography, and time.

What are the most popular or most loved classes taught in WGSS? Why do students like those classes?

WGSS offers a number of very popular 1000- and 2000-level introductory survey courses, including Gender & Sexuality in Everyday Life, Gender & Science, and Gender & Globalization. Among WGSS-specific upper-level courses, Sexual Citizenship, Feminist Disability Studies, and our one-hour seminars on Rape Education and Awareness are in high demand.

What types of jobs do students, undergraduate and graduate, pursue after attaining a WGSS degree?

Understanding and accounting for the diverse structural conditions and specificities of people’s lives is crucial to all work—or should be. WGSS students bring their sharp perspectives on women, gender, sexuality and their intersections with race, class, geography, and ability, as well as excellent critical thinking, writing, and communications skills to all post-graduate pursuits. They can be found working in areas from a range of academic disciplines, law, education, finance, policy & advocacy, social work, and public service to medicine & allied health fields, the arts, scientific research, and as small business owners.

Have there been recent changes in WGSS that have strengthened the program?

There have been exciting changes in WGSS in the last few years, from fantastic new faculty with joint appointments in art & art history, geography, human development and family studies, and philosophy, to changes in the curriculum. We recently redesigned our major sequence, which now includes a new required course in theory and methodologies called Critical Approaches to Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. We are thrilled to welcome to campus a new visiting assistant professor for 2017-18, Anindita Sengupta.

What do you see as upcoming challenges or opportunities for your program?

In our current political climate, drenched in rage, violence, and escalating vulnerabilities for so many, the critical perspectives and knowledge offered by WGSS are needed in our classrooms and public dialogues more than ever. We must keep the pressure on diversifying the subjects, scholars, and students represented at UConn and on building broadly inclusive spaces of learning, alliance, and action with particular attention to greater racial, gender expression, ability, geographical, and disciplinary diversity.

Are there any common misconceptions about the field of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies? If so, what are they, and how do you try to combat them?

The biggest misconception about WGSS is that it is only for students who identify themselves as feminists. This is connected to broader misconceptions or revulsion to a narrowly defined “feminism” in the culture at large. For many, WGSS and feminism both flag whiteness, elite and middle-class myopia, U.S. ethnocentrism, hostility to transgender and queer people, and narrow allegiance to liberal integration rather than radical transformation. This is both a misreading of diverse feminisms past and present and a set of legitimate concerns. It is WGSS’s job to negotiate and teach that apparent contradiction, to create inviting and diverse spaces of education and community, and to learn from criticism. You can see this work in our programs and the change of name from Women’s Studies to Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.

Where do you see your field going in the next 10 years?

Some of the most significant areas of study within WGSS now and on the horizon are in transgender studies and theories, intersectionality, Queer of Color Critique, public health, and studies of women, gender, and sexuality in the refugee crisis and escalation in statelessness (including but not limited to human trafficking); conditions and responses to climate change; and the resurgence of populism and fascism worldwide.

What first interested you in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies?

From the young intellectual and political journey that led me to an undergraduate education at a women’s college to my graduate training and across my professional life, feminist and queer cultures, theories, practice, and activism have fundamentally shaped my world view, scholarship, teaching, and abiding hope for better, more just and inclusive futures. WGSS is beauty, sustenance, and survival.

How would you describe your field in 10 words or less?

Women, gender, and sexuality belong at the center of all inquiry.


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