It was the spring of 1978, my sophomore year at Barnard, and time to declare a major. For me, it would be psychology. I had already taken several of the required courses, so there was room to branch out and explore some other subjects. I enrolled in an economics class taught by Dr. Cynthia Lloyd called “Sex Discrimination and the Division of Labor.” The course was not only fascinating, but it touched me on a deeply personal level. My term paper was about women and volunteerism. Dr. Lloyd told me I had done an exceptional job, and asked if I knew about a new interdisciplinary major at Barnard, women’s studies. Not even a department, it was a program that had only been approved as a major a year before. It didn’t matter—I was in.
At graduation in the spring of 1980, I remember feeling especially proud that I had done something so important and pioneering. I’ve always identified myself as a feminist, but I found people would look at me with a curious gaze when I replied, “Women’s studies,” to their question, “What was your major?” I would make a bit of a joke answer, “It was the ’70s.”
Over the last few years I started to hear discussions about women’s studies in the twenty-first century and became fascinated: Who are the women’s studies majors now? What drives them? What is contemporary feminist scholarship? How has the discipline evolved?
For Barnard College, one development is obvious. Women’s studies became a department in 1988. While it remains interdisciplinary in nature, it has several of its own faculty members, some with tenure. What I explore in this article is how women’s studies is the same today as it was 33 years ago and how it is very different. “I took a class and it resonated on a personal level,” appears to be unchanged through time.
“There was a small group of people, including me, Lila Braine, Susan Sacks and Catharine Stimpson who pushed for the major at Barnard,” says Hester Eisenstein, professor of sociology and women’s studies at Queens College and the CUNY Graduate Center. “We were all feminist professors. I wrote a report and circulated it to the faculty and that started a whole debate. Eventually, we were asked, ‘Can you design a curriculum? What would your courses be?’”
“Now there’s a body of knowledge... Then, we were just asking the questions. It was what now seems a very elementary process because no one had asked these
questions for decades,” says Hester Eisenstein.
“There were already courses like my course, ‘Contemporary Feminist Thought,’ which later became my first book,” she says. “The students were very receptive. You were thirsty for the ideas. It was very satisfying because people responded and they felt it spoke about their experience.” Eisenstein’s account of the founding of Barnard’s women’s studies program is available on the department’s Web site.
Mary Donovan Moreno, MD, ’84 attended Colby College in Maine prior to transferring to Barnard. She’d taken her first women’s studies course at Colby. After leaving, she took two years off and worked. But she knew she wanted to major in women’s studies, which led her to Barnard. “[That course] had been so empowering for me personally.... It opened my eyes to the politics of feminism,” she says. Her senior thesis was about the psychological dimensions of the effective and ineffective use of birth control among college-educated women. She did not see the major as related to her future career. “I always viewed my undergraduate years as a platform from which I would then go to some kind of graduate school,” she says. “I viewed it more as learning for life rather than as a career springboard.”
After graduation, Donovan Moreno worked for a while, then realized she wanted to become a physician. She enrolled in a college near her home, took the premed requirements, and entered the University of Arkansas medical school in 1987. Finishing her residency in psychiatry in Philadelphia, she worked at the Women’s Therapy Network.
Today she lives in Laramie, Wyoming, where she has a general practice—mostly because there are so few psychiatrists in the state there is no room for specialization. While women’s issues are not part of her day-to-day practice, women’s studies do play a role in her life. “The bottom line of having a foundation in women’s studies is having a foundation in not taking things for granted and looking at the power structure, how power influences social structure and interaction,” she explains. “You question things and you don’t make assumptions. You have a far more critical eye in terms of the status quo. Should it be this way? How can we change it?”
Jessica Chalmers ’84 double-majored in women’s studies and French, finding her way to the former after spending time at the Barnard Center for Research on Women (BCRW). Chalmers describes herself as a rebellious kid; women’s studies spoke to her intellectually and had a tangible connection to her life. She didn’t connect it to any future career; possibly because she wasn’t much focused on any career then.
Her intellectual bent and feminist ideology fit nicely with her artistic nature. In her senior year she started a group called The Feminist Union, which staged performance-oriented protests. After graduation, she and three other Barnard alumnae formed the V-Girls. She spent 10 years as a performance artist. “We kind of did a parody of academia,” she says. “We were ... intellectual and functioned more in the art world than in the theatre. Our spoofs were really smart. Academics loved us.”
Eventually she earned a PhD and taught at University of Notre Dame for nine years. She’s working on a book, part of which is about different generations of feminism. “I’ve gone through periods in my life where I’ve wanted to distance myself from feminism because after my initial engagement the institutionalization was disillusioning to me.” Chalmers explains, “I joined it looking for radical solutions, but in the ’90s the institutionalization [of women’s studies] within academia was really disappointing for me. I’m only getting back into it now.”
“There are jobs and there are structures,” says Susan R. Sacks, who oversaw my senior thesis and who still teaches psychology at Barnard. “You can get structures and laws in place that mitigate against prejudice, stereotypes, and narrow, boxed-in attitudes, but attitudes are really hard to change and [change] so, so slowly.”
The course offerings have changed since the late ’80s. We took courses with names like “Women and Religion” and “Psychology of Women.” Today, courses include “Theorizing Women’s Activism,” “Women in French Cinema since the ’60s,” and “Unheard Voices: African Women’s Literature and Gender.” Says Eisenstein, “Now there’s a body of knowledge.... Then, we were just asking the questions. It was what now seems a very elementary process because no one had asked these questions for decades.”
Neferti Xina Tadiar, current chair of the women’s studies department at Barnard, says the BCRW is a huge attraction for women’s studies majors as it combines activism with scholarship; both represent the way many of the majors view their paths. “The close relationship our department has with BCRW, I don’t think there are models out there for that.
It’s unique to Barnard,” says Tadiar. “Women and feminist views have become very much a part of the world we live in. It doesn’t mean all of the political issues have been resolved or addressed,” she adds.
Three recent graduates are carving careers directly related to their women’s studies majors. Julia Kaye ’07 came to Barnard thinking she would major in art history. “On a whim I took a feminist texts class and I just adored it. I was so stimulated, challenged and moved by it. Applying this new lens brought so many areas of my life into focus,” she says.
She went to career services and said she was thinking of switching her major to women’s studies, fearing it was impractical. The advisor assured her she’d probably find even more career options if she switched. A women and health course with Assistant Professor Rebecca Jordan-Young inspired her to pursue a thematic focus in gender and health. Her senior thesis was a feminist analysis of the work of Doctors Without Borders’ mental-health care programs.
She interned with NARAL Pro-Choice New York. “Being a women’s studies major with a focus on health there is at least one clear career path you can take, which is to work in reproductive justice,” Kaye says. “It was a direct application of some of the issues I was grappling with as a women’s studies major.”
She worked initially with TORCH©, the Teen Outreach Reproductive Challenge, supervising and training adolescent peer educators on topics like reproductive health, self-esteem, healthy relationships, and contraception. Just before graduation, she was hired as a consultant for the national expansion of a related program, the Adolescent Health Care Communication Program through the National Institute for Reproductive Health. After nine months, she moved to Washington, D.C., and took a job at the National Women’s Law Center as a health policy associate, working primarily on the center’s women and health reform project. “I used to tell everyone I couldn’t have found a job that better applied my major,” she says.
She is now back in New York attending NYU Law School on a Root-Tilden-Kern public interest scholarship. Her specific scholarship is called the Jacobson Public Service Scholarship for Women, Children and Families. After graduation in 2013, Kaye intends to return to Washington, D.C., and continue to work in the area of women’s rights. “The work is far from done,” notes Kaye.
Devan Shea ’10 grew up with feminist ideology in her family. After her first year at Barnard, she did an internship at the National Organization for Women.“When I came back from that, I was very stirred up, so I took ‘Introduction to Women’s Studies,’” she recalls. “That sealed the deal for me.” Another course about U.S. imperialism from a gender perspective soon followed. “Women’s studies was something that was very interesting to me—not only academically, but personally and politically,” Shea says. Like Kaye, she was hesitant to declare it as a major because she feared a lack of career possibilities, but came to believe she could sculpt a career plan no matter what she studied.
Shea is currently a Klagsbrun Fellow at Alliance for Justice, a national association dedicated to advancing justice and democracy. She works with the outreach department: Shea helps promote the association’s films, and she supports the outreach team with social networking, as well as planning and promoting events. Planning to go to graduate school, she might pursue nonprofit advocacy or a doctorate in women’s studies;approximately 12 universities now offer PhD’s in the subject.
For Rachel Jacobson ’07, interest in women’s studies dates back to high school, when male classmates treated her with disdain after she wrote a paper about Simone de Beauvoir and her impact on French feminism. The criticism backfired; she was devouring feminist texts before she took a single class at Barnard. “It seemed so clear and obvious that’s what I wanted to do with my life and what I wanted to study at school,” Jacobson says. “That’s very much what drew me to Barnard.” Her senior thesis was about the prosecution of rape as a crime against humanity, and the international criminal tribunals for Rwanda and Yugoslavia.
She went to work in the women’s rights division of Human Rights Watch, and was the program director for the Global Youth Coalition on HIV/AIDS. In 2009, she moved home to Austin, Texas, where she now works as a counselor in an abortion clinic. “This work is incredibly satisfying on a different level than policy work,” Jacobson says. “I feel women’s studies prepared me for almost anything.” With her eye on graduate school, she is particularly intrigued by a program in activist anthropology. “One of the things the BRCW does so well is bring together the scholarly world and the advocacy world,” Jacobson says. “There’s an emphasis on creating productive knowledge and doing something with that.”
Tadiar says the women’s studies department is currently working on revising the curriculum and crafting a new mission statement. The department recently became part of a consortium with Africana studies and American studies called the Center for Critical Interdisciplinary Studies at Barnard (CCIS). “Our faculty in women’s studies does not deal solely with issues of gender, but rather sees it in relation to issues of race and sexuality as well,” she adds. “Because issues of race figure very importantly in our courses and in the work we do, the chairs of women’s studies, Africana studies, and American studies got together to create mutually supportive programs.
“One of the ways we’re doing that is also seeing ourselves in relation to these other interdisciplinary programs and taking on transnationalism, race, and sexuality. We do see Barnard as having a role nationally in helping to redefine women’s studies,” she affirms, “[and] we definitely see women’s studies on a path to the future.”
“I took a class and it resonated on a personal level.” With women’s studies, women follow their gut instincts and passions. We share a feminist ideology, which perhaps 30 years ago was fueled by the newness of it being voiced and today has the momentum of career possibilities in activism and social justice. The first generation of Barnard’s women’s studies majors and the professors who taught us knew we had to explore the possibilities of change. While the current generation knows change is possible because they live it, they also know the scholarly inquiry and activism still have a long way to go.
- by Lois Elfman