In early November 2015, Washington University in St. Louis made the announcement that the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) program would become a full department within Arts & Sciences. The program, originally called Women’s Studies, was founded in 1972 and was one of the earliest in the nation. This shift in name reflects some of the many changes the field has undergone since its inception.
Women’s Rights: The Roots of a Discipline
Feminist scholar Jean Robinson once wrote, “When women’s studies was born in the mid-1970s, politics was its midwife.” In fact, for Mary Ann Dzuback, who has directed WGSS since 2006 and now serves as department chair, politics have always been closely tied with the discipline, even when its earliest roots were taking hold.
“The field emerges out of political movements that were focused on gaining women’s rights—political rights, economic rights, workplace rights,” she says. These issues began to simmer in the public consciousness during the Enlightenment at the end of the 18th century, around the time of the French and American revolutions. In 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft penned her famous book Vindication of the Rights of Woman, considered one of the early important works of feminist theory.
“Women on both sides of the Atlantic were reading each other’s work, so that by the 19th century, those movements started to come together around abolition and then suffrage,” Dzuback says. Though slow to gain saliency, proponents of feminism found ways to make their case heard by exploring all the ways the legal system discriminated against and marginalized them as citizens. “There were various challenges to the law, like whether women could own property, whether women had custody rights over their children, those kind of issues.”
Ultimately, Dzuback says, it was social reformers in the late 19th century who brought women’s rights into the public sphere—women like Nellie Bly, Jane Addams, Susan B. Anthony, Mary Church Terrell, and Dorothea Dix, who championed causes including the treatment of the mentally ill, child labor, temperance, women workers, and racial equity. Through their efforts, ideas about women’s rights developed, fueling the greater women’s suffrage movement. And in the United States, in 1920, the 19th amendment was ratified, granting women the right to vote.
“I think people thought that once women had the vote a lot of other discriminatory conditions would change,” Dzuback says, “but that didn’t really happen. At least not to the extent that people hoped. Every time there was a crisis, or a need for men to have access to certain rights or privileges, women were then again marginalized. The GI Bill is a good example of that. The college enrollment rate of women plummeted in the immediate aftermath of World War II, and their places were given to men returning to college on the GI Bill. A similar process occurred in the labor market in the immediate postwar period.”
In 1944, women made up half of the college population nationally; however, this number dropped to only 24% by 1950. It would take 26 years for female enrollment to climb back to its pre-GI Bill numbers. Dzuback notes that even at WashU, the Women’s Building, which was built in the 1930s for women’s clubs and other activities, was cleared out to house men for a brief time after WWII. Women’s participation in workplaces began to rise in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but largely in “female” work—teaching, secretarial positions, nursing, and social work.
“By the 1960s, women were looking around, asking ‘What happened? Why haven’t we made the gains we expected?’” Dzuback says. “And that’s really when what some called the second wave, and others have called an ‘eruption’ of feminist activism, to gain women’s rights emerged.”
Creating Spaces in the Academy
In the 1960s, as more and more women began to enroll in higher education, Dzuback says they started to challenge the disciplinary canons of their various fields. “Women in colleges started asking, ‘Why are we only reading about presidents? Why are we only reading literature by dead white men?’ They really began making headway in history, literature, and philosophy, as scholars searched for and found the invisible women.”
“Of all the challenges the field has faced over the years, just beginning to focus on women at all was the hardest!” says Linda Nicholson, a history professor and the Susan E. and William P. Stiritz Distinguished Professor of Women’s Studies. After helping State University of New York (SUNY) in Albany found their Women’s Studies program in 1976, Nicholson joined WashU’s faculty in 2000, and directed the WGSS program from 2001-2006. Looking back, she now remembers first seeing the need for an academic focus on women and gender during her days as a graduate student at Brandeis University in Boston.
“I remember there were a bunch of us sitting around in my apartment in 1970 or 71 or so, and we came to the realization that we all were wanting to deal with issues of women and gender…So we all went to our graduate chairs and said, ‘This is what I want to study,’ and many of us got the answer that, ‘Oh this is very interesting, but it’s just not philosophy’ or ‘just not history’ or just not whatever field we had found as our home. And we all replied, ‘Well, just tell me what that field it is, and I’ll be it!’ So we had to create our own spaces.”
Dzuback echoes this story. “The predecessors to the 1970s feminists, those in academia during the first four decades of the 20th century, had already begun to focus on women. There were women at Harvard, for example, looking for women in history. Women economists were studying women’s work, women’s lives, families, family budgets, those kinds of things that weren’t previously considered important enough in economics to take up. There were women trying to get at those parts of American life through their individual fields, but they didn’t coalesce around a particular area of study.”
In that earlier period, even if women did complete their graduate studies in their field of choice, their matriculation did not always lead to job placement at research institutions and other such workplaces. Women candidates were considered unreliable since it was assumed that many would quit their position after a couple years to get married and start a family. Moreover, the production of new knowledge was considered a male domain.
Dzuback says, “In some cases, it didn’t matter where they got their degree or how good their writing was, women weren’t granted a full membership in the academic community. But the feminists of the late 1960s and 70s refused that marginalization and were quite vocal about the need to expand places for women in all parts of society and to challenge the disciplinary canons that undergird the production of new knowledge.” She says, “That’s when women’s studies programs emerged. The students themselves helped to organize them.”
Establishing Women’s Studies at WashU
As the 1960s drew to a close amid Civil Rights and anti-war protests on campuses across the nation, the first courses for women, about women, taught by women began to spring up around the country, first at San Diego State University and Cornell. WashU was not immune to these movements, either. After extensive student protest, the Black Studies program was founded in 1970, and that same fall, three graduate students taught the first women’s studies course at the university, called “Women Under Capitalism.”
The course was listed under a program called General Studies through which anyone, student or faculty, could propose a course. Since no women’s studies textbooks existed, the class picked topics to discuss. Students were responsible for researching independently before presenting their findings to the class.
Gradually, more women’s studies classes were added to the General Studies program, and the movement may have stayed there were it not for the appointment of two new faculty: Joyce Trebilcot in philosophy and Kathryn Guberman in English. Trebilcot and Guberman helped identify other faculty in disciplines across the university who would help support and make up an interdisciplinary Women’s Studies program, and they organized the students to petition the university.
In 1972, over 1,100 students signed and presented a petition to the administration, calling for a Women’s Studies program at WashU. The petition declared that the students felt “a real need on this campus for curricula that speaks directly to women’s special condition: a curricula that explores the history of women’s situation, both in our society and cross culturally, as well as analyzes her contemporary position.” That spring, the petition was accepted by the administration, and a Women’s Studies Planning Group, made up of faculty and students, was formed to help build the program piece by piece.
Joyce Trebilcot directed the planning group, and after much debate, Women’s Studies became the official name (instead of the more polemical ‘Feminist Studies’). According to Trebilcot in an interview with Elizabeth Niehaus for her 2007 master’s thesis on the history of the program, the possessive nature of the name indicated to Trebilcot that the program was “by and about and for women, but in particular by women.” After a year, a Special Major in Women’s Studies was listed in which students could enroll until the program was fully approved, and relevant courses became available in history, philosophy, English, black studies, and political science.
This is not to say that all of the campus was excited for this new turn of events. An article titled “Feminists are bed failures,” published in Student Life in 1974 by one John Mac Arthur, Jr., claimed that “the ‘feminist movement’ was established in order to cover their own personal sexual inadequacies…The ‘feminists,’ in general, are the undesirable element of the feminine sex, alienated by men because they are unattractive.” In the same year, a survey by a female biologist revealed that only four full professors in Arts & Sciences were women. Recruiting female faculty became a priority.
In 1975, after three years of steady growth and planning, the Women’s Studies Planning Group went before the entire faculty body of Arts & Sciences, and the Women’s Studies program was finally approved, allowing it all the privileges of a traditional Bachelor of Arts major program. At this point, Kathryn Guberman Baer became program director. Three years later, Trebilcot resumed her position as director of the program, which she held for the next decade and a half.
Growing a Program in an Evolving Field
As director, Trebilcot intentionally kept male participation in the program very low, generally preferring to keep men out of women’s studies classrooms. If male students inquired about women’s studies courses, Trebilcot would direct them toward the one course on masculinity offered, taught by a male professor, Don Conway-Long. Though this exclusivity was meant to support budding female scholars, administrators, faculty, and students voiced concern, as it alienated many who could benefit from the courses. Eventually, in 1992, Trebilcot stepped down, handing the reigns of the program to Helen Power, a senior lecturer of English who had served as coordinator of the program for years.
Nicholson says, “Helen was a different type of feminist from Joyce. She was open and inclusive and began the process of really integrating WGSS with the rest of the campus.” Under Power, the program built more interdisciplinary relationships, leading to courses cross-listed with 35 departments and programs by the late 1990s, including more racial and global perspectives on gender and feminism. The program struggled to keep up with student demand for courses, and in the fall of 1993, for example, had 165 students signed up for 75 spots in their courses.
Dzuback, who joined the university while Helen Power directed the program, says Power’s influence was monumental. Aside from partnering with more departments across campus, Power also added the graduate certificate program, allowing women’s studies to take on graduate students for the first time, and she secured a $1.5 million donation from Susan and William Stiritz to support the program and a named professorship. This contribution allowed the program to support more faculty, and led to a lengthy national search for a new chair. In 2000, Linda Nicholson was hired.
“Linda really stabilized the program as director in many ways,” Dzuback says. “She went to battle for the budget and worked to conserve our resources and expand our presence in the institution.” Nicholson built up the graduate certificate program, and she established both undergraduate internships and the honors program for undergraduate research. She also took on one of the biggest challenges facing interdisciplinary programs within the university: faculty retention. She retained key affiliated faculty, expanded joint appointments, and increased the number of adjuncts and lecturers to ensure regular course offerings.
Under Nicholson’s leadership, in 2001 Women’s Studies became Women and Gender Studies, reflecting a broader movement in the field. “We, like other programs around the country, were realizing that while we were certainly studying women and the ways in which women had been left out of many of the disciplines, we were also really talking about gender, too,” Nicholson says. “Gender itself was a social structure that needed to be studied, and it came with a whole set of cultural meanings that crossed many domains of life.”
Dzuback says that studying non-normative, non-hetero-sexuality was part of the field since its beginning. “Lesbian feminism has been a part of the field since the early 70s. Where there’s been a little bit of tension between developments in sexuality and what were originally women’s studies programs is in looking at queer theory and the experiences of gay men.”
However, Dzuback is quick to point out the many commonalities between women’s studies and LGBTQ studies. “The study of sexuality by people who were of non-normative sexuality emerged out of a movement, too—partly out of the issue with AIDS, and also partly out of this attempt to recover who were the gay people who contributed to literature, who were the gay people who contributed to history, what impact did they have—just as early feminists had done.”
“There were women’s studies programs that were reluctant to take on the issue of queer theory or of LGBTQ studies because they didn’t want to take away from the focus on women. So in some institutions, those programs developed separately. We decided not to go that way,” says Dzuback. “Some of our earliest sexuality courses were hetero- and hetero-sexuality-focused, but queer theory and LGBTQ studies became more important to the field, our faculty, and our students because sexuality and gender are intertwined in some fundamental ways.”
Gender and sexuality studies and women’s studies also share the crucial component of disparity, Dzuback says. “All feminists will say that they are concerned with an unequal distribution of power, with the subjugation of particular groups, and how those groups came to be labeled as less-than whatever the norm was to be. So if you’re concerned with that for women, then you’re also concerned with that for people of color, for non-US citizens, for refugees, for LGBTQ people, for trans-people—all those who have been marginalized by our expectations around gender and sexuality.”
While Trebilcot and others in the early years fought for a field “by and about and for women,” scholars in the late 1990s and early 2000s began to understand that gender, and sexuality, better encapsulated the whole of the field of study at this time, while remaining committed to feminist scholarship. However, when advocating to add ‘sexuality’ to the program’s name in 2003, Nicholson says she was met with resistance.
“I remember talking about changing our name to include sexuality studies, and people would say, ‘Sexuality studies? Shouldn’t that be taught in biology?’” Nicholson recalls. “What lots of people at that time didn’t understand is that sexuality is a social construction. Of course there are biological aspects to it, but there are a lot of social aspects to it as well, which we study, like the ways different societies carve out what is acceptable and what is not acceptable.”
Interestingly, Dzuback notes that when she requested to add sexuality to the program title only three years later, in 2006, she ran into little resistance at all. By then, she says, it was an obvious extension of the field and a permanent part of social discourse and study.
In 2006, Linda Nicholson stepped down as the director of Women and Gender Studies, and the dean appointed Dzuback to the helm. Aside from officially adding “sexuality” to the program’s name, one of her first acts was to request an external review of the program—an act usually reserved for departments. “We prepared a self study, and in 2008, invited three outside faculty to spend a number of days here interviewing faculty in the program, faculty outside, but connected to the program, the dean, and the provost. After the visit, they submitted a report recommending ways to grow the program.”
From 2008 to 2013, Dzuback and her colleagues studied peer departments at institutions around the country and developed a number of internal policy documents to strengthen the program and find more areas of potential growth. In 2011, the program was allowed to hire its first faculty member 100% in the program, to keep up with graduate and undergraduate enrollment and to teach black feminist theory as a key offering in WGSS. Dzuback says, “In 2013, we added two more faculty members, and I began tentative conversations with the dean about what it might take for us to become a department.”
In 2014, an internal committee reviewed Arts & Sciences programs under the then-new dean, Barbara Schaal, and determined that, with some additional resources, WGSS should become a department. In November 2015, it became official: WGSS was now a full department in Arts & Sciences.
Currently, department enrollment includes over 60 majors, 30 minors, and another 31 students in the graduate certificate program. As these students graduate, they bring their knowledge and unique perspectives to a wide array of workplaces, including Google, Nike, and the Massachusetts District Attorney’s Office. Other alumni start their own businesses or work to address gender and sexuality issues in fields like law, medicine, and social work. According to Dzuback, many of the department’s graduate students find positions, even in a tight academic labor market, because they bring an interdisciplinary richness to their scholarship and teaching.
“Our alumni bring this gender sensibility into their work, and they’re very quick to recognize structural and cultural inequity and disparity, and to work within their institutions to change that,” Dzuback says. “We know our faculty make important contributions to scholarship, but hearing from our alums, we also get to see how we have an effect on students’ lives, and how they in turn have an effect on others. So it’s been a very positive program in that regard.”
Past, Present, Future: Inherently Interdisciplinary
“In the early days of what I will call women’s studies, there were just a few people at every institution, so it was a more focused field in the sense that there would be these major books that everybody would read, like Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex,” recalls Nicholson. “But as women’s studies expanded in the university, it began to branch out. There were still areas of focus like feminist theory, but it also became more acceptable for people in the different disciplines to focus on women and gender. So women’s studies became more complicated in the sense that there is an interdisciplinary focus, but a bigger disciplinary focus as well.”
Nicholson’s background is a mixture of history and philosophy. “I really began to think of feminism as a political philosophy, in the same way as we think of socialism or liberalism as political philosophies,” she says. “My first book was really about the relationship between feminist philosophy, Marxism, and liberalism, and as I argue, these big theories like Marxism and liberalism have some major problems because they did not in fact think hard enough about gender.”
Mary Ann Dzuback received her doctorate in history and education from Columbia University. “I was interested in power inequalities and the construction and organization of knowledge when I was a graduate student,” she says. She was fascinated by “how knowledge is developed and formally organized, who gets to participate in that process, who decides which knowledge is important, who polices the boundaries of the disciplines, and how you break out of those disciplinary limits to ask new questions. Viewed that way, all knowledge is ultimately political.”
One of the newest members of the department, Amber Jamilla Musser, an assistant professor in WGSS, started out as a biology major before receiving her master’s in women’s studies and her doctorate in the history of science. “I am committed to two main areas of thinking within queer theory,” she says. “One is using theory to help us understand the different ways that knowledge about who has power, who doesn’t, and the different varieties of power is embodied. This means fusing together theories of embodiment from fields like history of science, psychoanalysis, affect theory, critical race theory, and feminist and queer theory.” Musser’s first book, Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism, came out in 2014.
The department’s eight core faculty also include associate professors Andrea Friedman, Jeffrey McCune, and Rebecca Wanzo. Friedman, a historian, studies the relationship between gender and the state and the ways inequalities have shaped understandings and practices of citizenship and democracy, reflected in her recently published book Citizenship in Cold War America: The National Security State and the Possibilities of Dissent. McCune splits his time between performing arts and WGSS, and his recent book Sexual Discretion: Black Masculinity and the Politics of Passing was named Book of the Year by the National Communication Association’s GLBTQ Communications Studies Division. Wanzo, author of The Suffering Will Not Be Televised: African American Women and Sentimental Storytelling, brings expertise in African and African-American literature and culture, affect theory, feminist theory, and critical race theory. These diverse perspectives are joined by 40 affiliated faculty from around the university.
“It’s such a huge field because analyses of gender and sexuality can really be applied to anything,” Musser says. “I just came back from the National Women’s Studies Association conference in Milwaukee, and there were a lot of panels on incarceration and its impact on society, disability, and occupation—from critiques of settler-colonialism in Canada, Australia, and the US to calls to think about the movement of refugees in the current crisis. All of these moves to think about the relationship between gender and sexuality and geopolitical issues are tremendously exciting and politically very important.”
Trans: The New Frontiers
Dzuback says the field is expanding to include both transgender and transnational work—a trend that she hopes to echo within the WGSS department on campus—without abandoning the original impetus for the field.
“People in departments of WGSS will continue to challenge gender barriers, gender disparity, and unequal gender power relations, and that means promoting women’s leadership, promoting women where they have not been, and looking at why progress is so slow in those areas. There’s no question that that will continue, until there’s full parity,” she says.
“However, in addition to that, people have begun to look more closely at questions of gender,” she says. “For a long time, just challenging the gender dichotomy or binary was the goal, and because of these efforts and research in this area showing how malleable human gender identity or practices are, we now have the gender continuum. But we’re still grappling with what that means, particularly for transpeople or people who’ve had their gender identity imposed on them, even though that isn’t what or who they feel they are.”
Nicholson says that she sees scholarship in the field recognizing how different identities intersect in all of us. “There’s no such thing as what it means to ‘be a woman.’ The question is recognizing how gender intersects with race, ethnicity, and sexuality, and that what it means to be a woman is very different for different people. That recognition of how meanings of gender intersect with other aspects of identity has been a very important part of our program, and many other programs across the country.”
Jeffery McCune says the intersection of race and gender and sexuality is not a new area of discourse for the field, though “the impact of intersectional realities in everyday life and politics may be getting more publicity” through media coverage of people like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock. “Our field is the place to make sense of what’s happening in these complex areas of interest—illuminating the roles gender and sexuality play in shaping how we treat particular bodies, and how those bodies are interpreted or read,” he says.
Additionally, Dzuback is anxious to steer the department towards looking more at these issues at a global level. “Transnational studies are so important to us because we know we’re embedded in a much larger world. Even though a lot of our core faculty look at American issues, we’re aware of transformations going on elsewhere, issues over the status of women, what masculinity means in different cultures, and that kind of thing,” she says. “We need our students to be aware of those things, too.”
“Some American scholars have a way of portraying the gender power problems of other countries as if they’re not like ours, as if somehow we are more advanced and they are less advanced. And the fact of the matter is that that’s not the case,” Dzuback adds. “National boundaries are constantly being permeated, and our less obvious interactions with these cultures, economically, politically, and culturally, have had an impact on gender formation, and theirs have with ours.”
Dzuback is also focused on furthering future collaborations with the social science departments on campus as well as hiring more social scientists within the department. Sociology in particular seems like an area ripe for collaboration. “I think that would also help us in our interactions with some of the professional schools,” she says. “Eventually we’re hoping to develop a number of graduate programs with different professional schools and Arts & Sciences departments.”
“This is also something that the market is demanding,” Dzuback said in an interview in The Record. “Law firms are dealing with changing categories of sexual recognition and protection. Medical students get little training in trans and non-heteronormative sexualities, but doctors are dealing with these issues every day.”
A Permanent Place at WashU and in Global Discourse
Perhaps more than in any earlier era, current issues around feminism, gender, and sexuality dominate media and public conversations. The debate over gay marriage and gay rights around the country reached fever pitch before the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution guaranteed a right to marriage. Former Olympian Bruce Jenner made headlines around the world when he came out as transgender and transitioned to Caitlyn Jenner.
Regardless of personal opinions on transgender, gay rights, or feminist issues, these topics have embedded themselves in the broader American—and global—culture. While some consider this visibility a victory of sorts for the field and its activists, many scholars like Amber Musser have mixed feelings.
“I definitely think it is important that feminism is feeling more mainstream and not something scary,” she says, “but I’m wary of the fact that it all seems to focus on feminism as an individual, personal matter. Individual choice is very important, but focusing exclusively on choice tends to obscure the systemic oppression that makes it impossible for many people to have choice in any meaningful way. I’d love to see a popular embrace of feminism that centers on structural inequality and works toward eradicating it.”
Going forward, Musser says she’s excited for what WGSS’s new departmental status means for her students and the university. “I’m hopeful that this means we can bring in more faculty and broaden our course offerings to reflect many of the new directions in the field and make the intellectual conversations that we have even more robust.”
Linda Nicholson adds, “It’s funny because ever since the ‘70s, people have been saying, ‘Oh this will last for a little while and then it’ll fade.’ So one keeps waiting for it to fade, and it doesn’t seem to do that,” she says with a laugh. “The number of our majors keep growing every year. At least in terms of the academy, it’s not going anywhere.”
Images: Washington University Archives, FE Week
This story first appeared in the winter 2015 issue of The Ampersand: Alumni Edition. For more news, stories, and events from Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, please visit artsci.wustl.edu or write to email@example.com to subscribe.