0
Spring 2001


An Overview of Women's Studies at the University

 

 

omen's Studies as an academic discipline in the U.S. has now turned thirty, and this occasion has prompted a number of public and private reflections and reassessments from those in the field. It is almost universally acknowledged that Women's Studies has been at the forefront in giving students an awareness of the history and cultural conditions of women's lives domestically and globally and challenging patriarchal, androcentric assumptions in nearly all academic fields.

Tricia Lin
Tricia Lin

At our multicultural urban university, where 63 per cent of students are female, Women's Studies programs and activities have taken a variety of forms since the early 1970s, from the offering of women-centered courses to the establishment of full-fledged Women's Studies majors and minors. Brief descriptions of current activities on seventeen campuses are posted on the Web site of the Women's Studies Forum at CUNY. As a discipline, Women's Studies is deeply rooted in civil rights activisim-hence its significant impact far beyond the ivory tower. But how is Women's Studies faring within that tower?--and, more specifically, how fares the discipline on campuses of the City University?

Eager to encourage reflection on these questions-and with a University Faculty Development Program grant-we co-organized and co-chaired a University-wide conference last November, "Women's Studies at CUNY in the New Century." This day-long forum brought together faculty, staff, and students involved in Women's Studies and Women's Centers to strategize, collaborate, and re-evaluate the roles of this interdisciplinary field on our campuses. In addition to several reports, strategy sharing, and roundtable discussions on various concerns within Women's Studies, guest presenters Barbara Rubin (New Jersey City University) and Layli Phillips (Georgia State University) spoke on the keys to building and strengthening Women's Studies.

Cheryl J. Fish
Cheryl J. Fish

By day's end a consensus emerged that, with such a distinguished array of scholars who teach and publish on women's and gender issues, Women's Studies at CUNY should enjoy greater clout and resources than it does. The passion and energy of those involved in Women's Studies at CUNY offer a prime example of how much can be achieved despite small budgets and uneven institutional support. At the same time, the hard work and struggles witnessed in every Women's Studies program remind us of the sad fact that the work of women is still perceived as less significant than that of men.

The forum produced a clear acknowledgment that Women's Studies curricula have, over time, had a powerful positive impact at CUNY, and that much work remains if we are to achieve a strong campus-based and cross-campus Women's Studies alliance. Indeed, this 30-year-running scholarly inquiry has led to the re-envisioning of many academic disciplines and has changed the landscape of humanities scholarship by urging that issues of gender, often intersecting with questions of race, class, sexuality, health, work, family, and language (to name some major issues) take center stage.

Today, introductory courses are offered and other classes in Women's Studies are cross-listed on many CUNY campuses in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences. For example, at the CUNY Law School, questions of gender are at the core of its course offerings, and most of the senior colleges and Kingsborough Community College offer some form of concentration or minor in Women's Studies. Hunter College, Brooklyn College, and the College of Staten Island offer the major.

But more can be done. Some of the senior colleges and most of the community colleges have only a few courses focused on women's lives, such as "The Psychology of Women" or "Women in Literature," and provide very little institutional and administrative support beyond, say, a small budget for events in March celebrating Women's History Month. Clearly, these campuses-where nearly two-thirds of the student body is female-would benefit greatly from the strong mentoring, intellectual challenges, and contextual histories that Women's Studies curricula can provide. While there are faculty members on most of the two- and four-year campuses publishing and teaching cutting-edge women's and gender studies, we hope that more colleagues will join our ongoing collaborative efforts to accomplish this expansion on the campuses that underserve women.

Many innovative strategies have helped raise awareness of Women's Studies concerns. For example, Borough of Manhattan Community College, with a budget from its office of Academic Affairs, has its own version of the University's 10- year-old Faculty Development Seminar, "Balancing the Curriculum for Gender, Race, Ethnicity, and Class." At LaGuardia Community College, some faculty members offer liberal arts clusters on topics such as "Women and Work" and "Women Talking Across Cultures." Other colleges, like New York City Technical College, have received grants for programs designed to foster women's careers. City Tech's Access for Women Program prepares women for non-traditional technical careers. Although not formally linked to Women's Studies, its potential for combining scholarship, work, and activism is certainly in the historical spirit of the field.

A New Web Site of Our Own

With the assistance of Web artist Béatrice Coron, we conceived of our Web site (http://www.bmcc.cuny.edu/womens_studies/) as an information center for the November conference. Since then, it has become an archive for resources on Women's Studies at CUNY. The Web page now offers a regularly updated "Links" page for access to related sites of interest within CUNY and beyond. The two keynote speeches by Phillips and Rubin can also be found on the site, along with summaries of the roundtable discussions. In addition, we have created a CUNY Women's Studies listserv to post discussions, calls for papers, and other information. To join, simply go to the "Home" page and sign up. Finally, the results of our questionnaires on the status of Women's Studies at the 17 CUNY campuses are shown on the "Women's Studies by Campus" page. For more information to offer updates or suggestions, updates, contact Cheryl Fish (cjf@pipeline.com) or Tricia Lin (tricia_lin_ny@yahoo.com).

As an interdisciplinary field, Women's Studies can build on the strength of a diverse and distinguished faculty. Yet, as Hester Eisenstein, the outgoing director of Women's Studies at Queens College, pointed out at the forum, such interdisciplinarity almost guarantees marginalization.

What happens at many CUNY colleges is that, without dedicated faculty lines and little staff support, many Women's Studies courses are taught by adjuncts. Women's Centers, which traditionally have had strong ties with Women's Studies programs, tend to rise and fall without security for their directors and budgets.The challenges of our age of globalization certainly give the work of Women's Studies a new sense of urgency. Our guest speaker Layli Phillips reaffirmed that women's studies must be vigorously pressed in order to address the vast discrepancies between women in Western and developing nations. Given the uniquely global character of CUNY's demography, Women's Studies workers, scholars, and teachers can also help us to re-examine Western-based cultural assumptions and the meaning of global sisterhood.

Barbara Rubin, an early pioneer in Women's Studies, spoke in her address of seeing a recent shift from Women's Studies to Gender and Women's Studies. This, she feels, reflects a national trend toward integrating new definitions of gender to include men, gays, and lesbians. Some CUNY programs are considering this trend.

Florence Howe acknowledges every founding mother who figures in The Politics of Women's Studies by titling her preface "Everyone a Heroine." CUNY, for its part, has had many heroines, sung and unsung, in Women's Studies in the past, and we hope a new infusion of institutional energy will assure the appearance of new heroines at the City University to meet the challenges of this dynamic field in the new millennium.





 


Studious Women: A CUNY Sampler of Initiatives Past and to Come

 

 

t Hunter College a full-time faculty line in Women's Studies has been approved, and more space for the program has been added. On April 23 (11 AM to 5 PM), several organizations at Hunter College will presented "A Day of Women's Choices" on such subjects as reproductive rights, sexual orienttion, parenting, and career choices.

At John Jay College a room has been dedicated for use by the Women's and Gender Studies Committee. At the Graduate Center, several faculty development projects are under way, including the Conviction Project, an interdisciplinary seminar exploring the question of conviction in the postmodern age, supported by the Center for the Study of Women and Society (for further information, visit http://web.gc.cuny.edu/womenscenter).

At Queens College in spring 2000, "Teach Feminist," a multi- cultural faculty-student conference was attended by 300 students and faculty from more than a dozen classes. They discussed a common reading from Uma Narayan's book Dislocating Cultures: Identities, Traditions, and Third World Feminism (Routledge, 1997). Narayan attended and spoke with students who had written essays on topics such as racism, homophobia, ethnic tension, and sexuality.

The CUNY Baccalaureate Program, directed by Nan Bauer- Maglin, is planning a brochure describing Women's Studies courses and curricula across CUNY, in association with Women's Studies faculty.

The Feminist Press and Women's Studies Certificate Program at the Graduate Center held a two-day conference last December, " Then and Now: The Politics of Women's Studies," to mark the publication of The Politics of Women's Studies: Testimony from Thirty Founding Mothers, edited by Florence Howe.

To celebrate the many books on women's topics by our faculty, each year the Graduate Center's Women's Studies Certificate Program sponsors an annual "New Books by CUNY Women" event. The eighth one will be on Friday, May 11, from 12 to 2 p.m. in Room 9204.