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Study of Women & Gender

Program for the Study of Women & Gender

The Program for the Study of Women & Gender at Smith College began as an interdepartmental minor in Women’s Studies in 1984. Women’s Studies was offered as an interdepartmental major by the 1988 academic year. It changed its name to the Program for the Study of Women & Gender in 2005 to reflect a broader examination of gender, race and class and sexuality.

Women’s Studies was an emerging academic field in the 1970s, spurred by the second wave feminist movement. In February 1974 at Smith College, the Committee on Educational Policy report to the faculty pointed out the college’s commitment to focus on women . In 1976, a Smith College Research Program on Women was proposed. The goal was to provide new research opportunities for faculty and students, and to help fulfill Smith’s “unique responsibility to provide leadership in the development of education for women” as the largest women’s college in the country and possessor of the resource of the Sophia Smith Collection. This was intended as a research program rather than a departmental curriculum, but it aimed to “…[foster] better understanding of how social, psychological, biological, cultural, educational, and other influences have shaped women’s lives and contributions to society in the past or may do so in the future.” This proposal was not undertaken, however, due to objections from some of the faculty that such a program was not Smith’s particular responsibility.

In 1979, Professor Marilyn Schuster put forth a suggestion to the Committee on Educational Policy to “institute a mechanism that would facilitate the coordination of courses primarily concerned with ‘women’s studies’” . Courses already existed in a number of departments that related to women’s studies, but there was a need for a formal apparatus “to aid in the selection and sequence of courses” . At this time, students could create self-designed interdepartmental majors in Women’s Studies, but it did not exist as a departmental major. About half a dozen students created such a major in the late 70s and early 80s, but there was enough interest among students to prompt the request for a more straightforward system . Schuster suggested an advisory board of professors already teaching such courses, a description of women’s studies as a major, a means of implementing the major, and a list of relevant courses. However, the Advisory Committee on the Study of Women was not established until 1983, after an appeal by “an informal network of faculty members committed to teaching women’s studies courses in departments across the college” . In 1985 a minor in Women’s Studies, consisting of 6 courses, was created, and in January 1987 it became a major of 10 courses. By 1990, there were about forty Women’s Studies courses offered, and more than 25 declared majors each year. It was still an interdisciplinary program rather than its own department, and the curriculum was based around a ‘Matrix Model’ of intersecting relevant courses from many different disciplines . A spring semester Course Cluster consisted of four courses linked by lectures and a discussion series, focusing on an interdisciplinary theme. The ‘Organizing Questions’ around which these Course Clusters were based included Gender, Ethnicity, and Culture, since it was a key principle of Women’s Studies that “gender cannot be understood or responsibly studied without careful analysis of the interrelationships of gender, race, and class.” This is a theme that continues to underlie the Study of Women and Gender today.

The 1990 Self-Study conducted by the Women’s Studies Program identified part of its success as due to being able to grow interdepartmentally, without requiring additional faculty or substantial budget. However, this factor also led to the problem that “the program continues to exist at the discretion of departments who claim all of our personnel for departmental teaching and service as their primary responsibility and first priority.”

Ruth Solie, Marilyn Schuster, Vicky Spelman, Martha Ackelsburg, and Susan Van Dyne were identified as the faculty members whose commitment to Women’s Studies had provided leadership during the program’s formation. The Self-Study called for “a structure, sanctioned by the Dean of the Faculty, that will guarantee the stability of our curriculum, recognize the continuity of commitment from a core group of faculty, and make possible more long-term administrative leadership.” This led to the creation of the Women’s Studies department, which was eventually renamed Study of Women and Gender.

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