FEATURES • Winter 2001

Washington University was one of the first institutions of higher education to start a program in women's studies in 1972. Over the last three decades, the interdisciplinary program has grown and garnered support from a broad spectrum of faculty. Today, the program has a named professorship and a call to lead the discussion of global feminist and gender issues in the new century.

By Betsy Rogers

In a variety of ways, the word "crossroads" seems to describe the Women's Studies Program at Washington University. Consider:

• The program is moving from strength to strength. Nurtured for years under the inspired stewardship of Helen Power, senior lecturer, the program has a new coordinator, Linda J. Nicholson. An internationally respected scholar, Nicholson holds the Susan E. and William P. Stiritz Distinguished Professorship in Women's Studies and History. The endowed chair, first filled with Nicholson's appointment in January 2000, is itself unusual in women's studies and has brought new national attention to the University.

• This thoroughly interdisciplinary program exists at the intersection of many academic endeavors. "Women's studies is a subject that's of great interest to faculty across disciplines," observes Edward S. Macias, executive vice chancellor and dean of Arts & Sciences. "When I talk to new faculty we hire, many of them want to do something that would be related to gender and women's studies." And it extends beyond Arts & Sciences: Women's studies classes consistently enroll students from all five of the University's undergraduate divisions.

• The discipline is at a crossroads as well, Nicholson says. Many scholars are coming to believe that really to study women means studying men as well and the dynamic between women and men. Hence the growing use of the term "gender studies." Though there's concern that this trend could blur the discipline's feminist focus, Nicholson believes it is possible to broaden its scope without diminishing its impact in achieving feminist goals. "We want to see how gender structures the social order in significant and powerful ways," she argues.

• And the University's program, one of the first in the country, began at a cultural crossroads, when Western society was re-examining old understandings and moving in new directions.

Feminism, of course, was not new. As Nicholson points out, interest in women's issues has ebbed and flowed for two centuries. But with the movement's re-emergence in the 1960s came new impetus for scholarship, and Joyce Trebilcot, then a WU philosophy professor, and others founded the program here in 1972.

In 1983 Trebilcot recruited Power, who was teaching English, to teach a women's literature course. "I never had such a responsive class," recalls Power, who was quickly hooked. In 1983 she became the program's associate coordinator, taking over as coordinator in 1992. During those years, Power, M.A. '64, Ph.D. '66, observed—and fostered—dramatic changes. "The program is much larger now," she notes. "It's increasingly accepted by a broad spectrum of the faculty, and it's increasingly accepted by parents." The discipline does encounter occasional resistance: She recalls with wry good humor an improbable question from one dismayed mother, who asked her, "How would you feel if your daughter decided to major in women's studies?"

But that resistance is evaporating in a discipline with an enviable record of placing its graduates in good jobs, from women-related agencies like Planned Parenthood to medicine, law, academia, and more.

To watch these changes from the inside has clearly been exciting for Power. But perhaps just as thrilling has been observing students experience those "Eureka!" moments when they grasp new truth. "It's exciting to introduce students to ideas they had never thought of—to make them look at the world in a whole new way, and stop and analyze their lives," she muses.

She recalls a young man in one of her introductory courses who read first the writings of Betty Friedan and then a criticism of Friedan by black feminist bell hooks, who challenged Friedan's white, middle-class assumptions. The student returned to class stunned. "I can't believe I was so taken in by Betty Friedan," he told Power sheepishly.

She remembers teaching a course in popular culture and finding the students "just overwhelmed at the ways they could analyze movies, and the ways they could look at the presentation of information in the popular press. That," she acknowledges, "has been very gratifying."

 

Rachel Roth, assistant professor of political science and women's studies, teaches Introduction to Women's Studies.

 

Certainly one of the most important achievements during her years as coordinator was the new professorship, set up in 1998. Susan Stiritz, M.A. '68, Ph.D. '01, was so inspired by Power's teaching that she and her husband, then chairman of the board of Ralston Purina and now chairman, president, and chief executive officer of Agribrands International, endowed the chair. William Stiritz also issued a challenge grant for ongoing program support.

Power says the gift has changed the program dramatically. "Bringing an internationally known scholar in women's studies like Linda Nicholson to the University gives us the sort of gravitas we did not have before," Power says.

Nicholson graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and earned master's (1970) and doctoral (1975) degrees from Brandeis University. In 1974 she took a position at the University of Albany, New York, where she remained until moving to the University. Nicholson is widely published—35 chapters and articles, many repeatedly reprinted; numerous reviews; two of her own books, and 37 volumes edited. She has given scores of scholarly presentations throughout North America and Europe. She has been a residential fellow at Harvard Divinity School, a National Endowment for the Humanities scholar, and a Rockefeller Foundation humanist-in-residence at Duke University. She serves on the editorial boards of four leading journals in history, philosophy, and women's studies.

So "gravitas" seems an appropriate word when gauging her impact at Washington University—not, however, to be confused with "grave" in describing this engaging woman with a contagious laugh and a seemingly irrepressible sense of humor.

Nicholson taught for three semesters before taking over as coordinator of the program. With a lot of her time devoted now to administrative work, "the trick," she says, "is not giving up on research."

She is working on her third book, tentatively titled Identity Before and After Identity Politics. A formidable combination of historian and philosopher, Nicholson is examining the history of three important ideas in modern society—race, the "male-female distinction," and sexual orientation.

 

The discipline is at a crossroads as well, Linda Nicholson says. Many scholars are coming to believe that really to study women means studying men as well and the dynamic between women and men. Hence the growing use of the term "gender studies."

 

"Since the 1960s, there's been a lot of political and social turmoil around these ideas," she explains. "I'm trying to understand why these social movements came alive in the '60s. They're consequences of some very important changes, contradictions, conflicts fermenting for a long time, but they took a new turn in the '60s. They became much more self-conscious about issues of identity."

These groups, she argues, began to focus on who they were as groups rather than how to assimilate into the dominant culture, and to think about their own specific needs as a consequence of who they were: "what it meant, for instance, to be a woman," she explains, "and how being a woman really made it difficult to get what they needed."

Why did these three groups—African-Americans, women, and gays and lesbians—take this turn? she wondered. In her research, she's come across some tantalizing ideas. Other immigrant groups in the early 20th century—Italians and Jews, for instance—managed to assimilate because they became "deracialized." "They got culture," she says with a grin. Their "differences" came to be understood as functions not of biology but of culture or ethnicity. But the possibilities for assimilation were much more remote for blacks, women, and gays, because the distinctions seemed so much more pronounced and so much more biological in nature.

Work on the book continues. Her fascination with the topic reflects a broader scholarly interest in the ways concepts function historically and the political and social consequences of their use. One concept she has looked at is "the traditional family," which her research revealed to be a myth. She reported her findings in a chapter of the 1997 book Feminism and Families.

Work on the program continues as well. Nicholson is pleased with what she and Power have been able to accomplish so far. "We strengthened the major last year," she notes. "We stiffened the requirements and made it more demanding." The program also has added three half-time junior faculty.

What's ahead for women's studies? Power hopes to see the discipline expand into other fields. "It will be very significant when there are more feminist economists," she says. "How would we figure out our GNP if we factored in all of our domestic labor? And when we look at Africa, where most of the farm work is done by women, how do we figure out what we mean by the labor market?"

Power believes that feminism must guard against losing its edge. "The movement has to keep pressing," she says. "If the Senate and the House keep adding women at the current rate, it will be several hundred years until we reach parity." And in England, she observes with deep irony, there are nine bars for members of Parliament—and not one day-care center.

Nicholson says the movement has already taken "a long walk through the institutions," addressing many important problems. "But there's still so much that needs to be done," she adds. Feminism is tackling global issues like water access, for instance, and the spread of HIV/AIDS.

The long walk through the institutions continues.

Betsy Rogers is a free-lance writer based in Belleville, Illinois.

 

 

 

The Women's Studies Program is strong and growing. Among those introducing students to new views are Helen Power (middle left), senior lecturer and outgoing coordinator, and Linda J. Nicholson (middle right), the program's first endowed professor and new coordinator.