This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Philosophical shift in department

Women’s Studies at UB: It’s not your mother’s women’s studies program anymore

Published: April 7, 2005

Reporter Contributor

Two Victorian women stroll along the surf's edge in a painting adorning Barbara Wejnert's office wall. Books with titles like "Feminist Frontiers" and "The Gender of Science" line her shelves.

One could mistakenly conclude from such visual cues that Wejnert, a multi-lingual native of Poland who comes to UB as an associate professor by way of the Department of Sociology at Cornell University, is a "typical" new hire for UB's Department of Women Studies. Nothing could be further from the truth.


Barbara Wejnert (left) talks with one of her students, doctoral candidate Awadiya Yahia, about a trip they are planning to the Sudan next year as part of the new Globalization and Gender Program within Women’s Studies. Yahia is a native of Sudan.

The arrival of Wejnert last August heralded change in this small academic department at UB. She says it mirrors similar philosophical shifts in women's studies at institutions like Harvard and Oxford away from a strictly feminist approach.

Simply put, this is not your mother's women's studies program anymore.

"This department is beautifully growing," Wejnert says in her softly accented English as she bustles into her seventh-floor office in Clemens Hall from a series of meetings—some of which involve the search for potential new faculty. The soup she planned to eat for lunch sits neglected on her office windowsill. She doesn't seem to care. She plainly is excited by possibilities she sees in store for the department.

Today's cutting-edge women's studies programs encompass wider issues of gender—and that is the soul of Wejnert's wide body of research. She sees women's studies programs of this millennium partnering with social science, political science, policy studies, economics and social geography.

"We are not cutting old ties," says Wejnert. "We are linking with new ones."

She currently serves on the editorial board for Marriage and Family Review and as a reviewer for American Sociological Review. Her research projects have received funding from the Soros Foundation, Ford Foundation and National Endowment for the Humanities, among others.

Her most recent project—the culmination of five years of work featured in the latest edition of American Sociological Review—taps a database she created encompassing 200 years' worth of information relating to more than 120 political, economic and social indicators of 177 countries, many of them former communist countries.

Wejnert, considered an international authority in her field, specializes in the effects of globalization and democratization on the lives and status of women.

While women represent half of the global population and one-third of the labor force, they receive only one-tenth of the world's income and own less than 1 percent of world property, according to a report to the United Nations Commission the Status of Women.

Since 1980, the number of democracies across the world has approximately doubled, and Wejnert asserts that this rapid spread has brought substantial change to people's lives—changes in lifestyle, employment levels, family relationships, redistribution of resources and the emergence of new class systems.

She points out that most studies show that socioeconomic development directly leads to increased levels of literacy, education, industrialization and urbanization, and overall well-being of citizens. Other positive outcomes of democratization have been demonstrated to include a middle class of educated professionals and intelligentsia, the principal carriers of democratic values who foster civic engagement and civil society.

One also might assume, then, that the growth of democracy also would be expected to improve the well-being of women as reflected by an increase in their representation in the workforce, equal pay for equal jobs, equal education opportunities, improvements in health care and longer life expectancy.

Wejnert's analysis of statistics indicates, however, that democratization does not always lead to a better quality of life for women in these areas. Her point is that in addition to positive effects of democratization, there also are costs associated with the transition to democracy, and women seem to be bearing them disproportionately.

During the transition to democracy in former Soviet countries, for example, Wejnert's data show that women's employment declined substantially. So did their inclusion in politics. Unemployment rose faster among women than men. In some countries, a decline in the provision of women's health care, especially medical assistance at birth, led to an alarming increase in maternal mortality.

Born in the small Polish town of Sierakow near the German border, Wejnert says she always had an interest in politics and once thought she would make her mark as a journalist. Eventually, however, she became attracted to political and economic sociology. She holds an M.A. in sociology and a Ph.D. in political and economic sociology from A. Mickiewicz University in Poznan, Poland.

As a student, she found herself swept up in the Solidarity movement. When she was a college sophomore, Wejnert won an international competition for writing a paper subsequently published by UNESCO. In it, she outlined ideas for creating world peace through the elimination of negative national stereotypes.

Wejnert went to Cornell in 1994 as a visiting faculty member in the Department of Sociology and the Center for International Studies. She became director of the Eastern European Academic Program there in 1996. By 1997, she had become a senior researcher and associate professor adjunct in Cornell's Department of Human Development/Developmental Sociology.

Wejnert loves art and is in the process of organizing a special exhibit of Polish art that will be part of the festivities heralding the opening of UB's new humanities center this fall. She enjoys gardening, downhill skiing and cycling. She has biked across Poland, France, Germany, Greece and a number of Eastern European nations.

Some years ago, Wejnert served as a tour guide and translator for U.S. companies and for Russian government meetings in the United States. She speaks fluent Polish, Russian and Slovakian, and has moderate command of Ukrainian. Her husband, Richard, serves on Cornell's psychology faculty. The couple has a son, Camille, 10.