WGSS at Yale: Reflections, Celebrations, and Visions

Before the Beginning: The Founding of Women’s Studies at Yale, 1969-1979

Women’s Studies at Yale began in the confluence of two events: the scholarly impulse of early second-wave feminism and the 1969 admission of Yale’s first female undergraduates.  Elga Wasserman, the President’s Special Assistant on the Education of Women, argued forcefully for women’s studies as a necessary element of coeducation and organized eight courses focused on women by the second year.  In the spring of 1976, the campus Women’s Forum supplemented Wasserman’s efforts by appointing a “Women’s Studies Task Force” to push for a formal program.  Consisting initially of Nancy Cott, John Winkler, Carol Mostow ’77, and Ruth Borenstein ’78, the Task Force began work immediately, attending national conferences and drafting reports for Yale’s Committee on the Education of Women.  At the Committee’s recommendation, the Task Force concentrated on the development of a core undergraduate course: “Feminism and Humanism,” collectively designed, was first taught in the fall of 1977 by then-graduate-student Catharine MacKinnon.  After much careful work on the part of the Task Force and a trial run over the experimental summer session of 1978, the Women’s Studies Program won the approval of Yale’s faculty in May 1979.

Transformations Within and Without: Early Program Building, 1979-1984

Initially consisting of two core classes and an array of cross-listed course options, the Women’s Studies Program moved quickly to consolidate its new position.  Formally run by a supportive but hands-off Council of senior faculty members, the Program relied upon a Core Faculty Committee of mostly junior faculty—initially Silvia Arrom, Nancy Cott, Faye Crosby, Margaret Homans, Barbara Johnson, Lydia Kung, Catharine MacKinnon, Susan Olzak, and Mary Poovey—who not only taught most of the courses but who also provided energy and vision for growth.  By spring of 1980, the University formally elevated Cott to Program Chair.  Under her continued leadership, Women’s Studies thrived; Cott proved particularly adept at acquiring funding for the new program.  Applying for a portion of a major Mellon Foundation Grant administered through the President’s Office, Women’s Studies was awarded a junior cross-appointed position—i.e., its first faculty member, albeit one with equal commitments elsewhere.  Just a few months later, the Women’s Studies Program won a National Endowment for the Humanities one year Pilot Grant.  The NEH grant funded many things, but most important was its purchase of release time for an intensive faculty seminar over the spring of 1981, in which 14 participants read widely, debated the parameters of their rapidly developing fields, and created a transformative community of feminist scholars on Yale’s campus—a group that continued to meet well after the formal seminar came to an end.  In the spring of 1981, Women’s Studies made its first successful faculty hire, collaborating with the French Department to bring in Hélène Wenzel, who served as the Women’s Studies DUS for several years.

Strengthened by these accomplishments, in the fall of 1981 Women’s Studies put forth a proposal for an interdisciplinary undergraduate major.  Accounts differ over the initial certainty of this proposal’s passage.  Many recollect, however, that the wide circulation of a contemptuous memo (purportedly from “the Committee for the Ruination of Academic Programs,” which proposed a major in “Grossness” to be considered alongside that in Women’s Studies) ironically provided the final momentum: appalled faculty members from across the university rallied in support of the Women’s Studies major and the proposal passed by wide margins.  Over the years that followed, the major graduated small but deeply committed cohorts of students, many of whom went on to ground-breaking careers in law, women’s health, and other fields being transformed by their belated consideration of women and gender.  In 1983, a generous donation from the Steere family made it possible to institute an annual award for the best undergraduate senior essay in the field of women’s studies.  The Steere Prize continues to this day: Steere Prize Winners.

Once it secured the institutional credibility conferred by the undergraduate major, the Women’s Studies Program turned a portion of its energies outwards, imagining the transformation of Yale’s broader curriculum.  Outlining this ambitious vision, the Program applied for and won a substantial multiyear Implementation Grant from the NEH, funding that enabled Women’s Studies to invite collaborations with interested colleagues across the disciplines.  Several prominent professors welcomed this opportunity, working over the summer to incorporate new research on women into their popular lecture classes.  This second NEH grant also provided funds for guest lecturers and supported a Women’s Studies Lunchtime Series, offering still more ways for colleagues and students to engage with the expanding community of innovative feminist scholars.  The two-pronged approach—inventing a curriculum within while reinventing other curricula without—led to impressive transformations across Yale, giving the Women’s Studies Program a campus presence much larger than its small size might suggest. 

Shaping and Sustaining Growth: 1985-2009

Nancy Cott’s 1985 Guggenheim Fellowship precipitated a leadership transition that demonstrated Women’s Studies fundamental stability.  Stepping in first as Acting Chair, Margaret Homans soon became one of the Program’s innovators and most reliable leaders.  Indeed, Homans’ dedication to the Program ultimately made her its longest serving chair: eleven years over a two decade period.  In her very first year of chairship, Homans presided over the second joint faculty search: in conjunction with Anthropology, Women’s Studies hired Micaela di Leonardo, who substantially broadened the Program’s reach into the social sciences.  As the NEH grant concluded, a Ford Foundation Grant began, one that helped establish ties between Women’s Studies faculty at fourteen recently coeducated institutions.  The collaborative resources of this new grant further energized the Program’s ongoing commitment to engage race, ethnicity, and sexuality as foundational analytic categories within feminist scholarship.  New faculty members hired in other departments joined with longstanding professors to become deeply involved in this work: Mahzarin Banaji, for example, organized and chaired a faculty development seminar, the Multi-Ethnic Women’s Organizing Committee, that worked to eradicate racism and ethnocentrism from research and teaching.  Joined by others such as Gloria Watkins (bell hooks) and Kathleen Daly, Banaji significantly reshaped the course offerings of the program.  The 1988 arrival of Emily Honig, Women’s Studies’ third hire (jointly appointed with the History Department) added still more momentum; as a scholar of women in China, Honig fostered an international turn in several courses.  In this same period, The Gay and Lesbian Studies Center at Yale emerged, claiming critical constitutive space for sexuality studies in the University’s scholarly enterprise and offering Women’s Studies an especially fruitful intellectual partnership. 

The expanding academic aspirations that took shape in this period emerged not just at Yale but across the field, as scholars and activists alike shifted from a singular notion of “woman” into a more complex understandings of “women” inflected by race, class, sexuality, and other social hierarchies.  It was a time of excitement and important developments.  Already popular undergraduate classes grew still larger in response to these newly inclusive models of scholarship.  The three LGSCY conferences held in 1987, 1988, and 1989 galvanized a generation of scholars.  Well-attended brownbag lunches provided opportunities for scholarly conversation among faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates, while external speakers like Ntozake Shange filled large auditoriums, marking vibrant collaborations with African American Studies and other programs on campus.  The Program’s impact on undergraduate education was further enhanced in this time by the timely funding of three new research and prize funds: the Rhode Fund, created by a generous gift of Deborah Rhode; the Elga Ruth Wasserman Award, contributed to by many in honor of Wasserman’s advocacy for women at Yale; and the Lily Rosen Prize in for research on Women’s Health, established through the generosity of Stacey Grill.

Over the course of the 1990s, the Women’s Studies curriculum continued to expand in compelling new directions.  Laura Wexler emerged in this period as yet another visionary leader, one who kept Women’s Studies afloat in often difficult times.  Wexler’s involvement with the program began in 1988, but formalized when she was granted a joint appointment with American Studies in 1992.  As long-term DUS and then long-term Chair, Wexler collaborated with other faculty on an incredible range of creative initiatives that helped maintain Women’s Studies’ high standards for innovative research and scholarship.  In 1993, the Yale Development Office solicited funding for increased research and teaching in Lesbian and Gay Studies.  As this FLAGS initiative brought visiting lecturers to campus, Women’s Studies deepened their collaboration with Lesbian and Gay Studies by offering a curricular home—and undergraduates benefitted immensely from regular, innovative courses in sexuality studies.  Other opportunities emerged as Women’s Studies initiated more formal ties with the professional schools.  Working with scholars from the Yale School of Medicine, for example, the Program developed a course in women’s health that was, in 1994, perhaps the first such course in the country.

Recognizing that the parameters of the field were changing nationally as well as at Yale, Women’s Studies has twice changed its name.  First, in 1998, the Program added “gender” to its title, becoming Women’s and Gender Studies.  Later, under Wexler’s leadership in 2004, the name expanded again, to take its current shape as “Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.”  The conversations around each of the name changes provided rich opportunities for faculty and students to reflect upon the scholarly and pedagogic work of the Program.  Capturing these insights, the Directors of Undergraduate Studies of these times (Wexler in 1998 and Maria Trumpler in 2004) revised the requirements of the undergraduate major, providing newly productive frameworks for the already rigorous paths of study.

Also in the early 2000s, the longstanding community of associated graduate students sought more formal recognition of their academic engagement with Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.  In 2004, the Program initiated a Graduate Qualification (now Certificate) in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies—a formal set of criteria by which students could affirm the significant place of gender and sexuality studies within their own scholarship.  Under the direction of Homans and Wexler, the Program’s first Directors of Graduate Studies, and Jill Campbell, who holds the post now, the Qualification Program has grown rapidly, attracting Ph.D. students from a wide range of institutional homes including African American Studies, American Studies, English, History, History of Art, History of Science and Medicine, Religious Studies, and Sociology.  The Qualification students gather regularly with interested faculty for a student-run Graduate Colloquium, at which they present their own scholarly work; they also coordinate a Working Group that focuses on new developments in gender and sexuality studies.

In recent years, Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies has increasingly prioritized programs and research exploring women, gender, and sexuality from a transnational and global perspective.  With the generous support of the Kempf Fund, the Program has sought to expand its intellectual and geographic boundaries, bringing in a number of international scholars of gender and sexuality and sending its faculty to a series of conferences in Cairo (’03), Seoul (’04), Cambridge (’06), Budapest (’07), and Delhi (’09 and ’10).  In the spring of 2007, international relations scholar Cheryl Doss worked with Laura Wexler and Serene Jones (WGSS’s outgoing and incoming chairs) to write a successful grant to the Henry Luce Foundation for a project on Women, Religion, and Globalization; this project represented an active collaboration among WGSS, the Yale Divinity School, and the MacMillan Center.  When Jones departed in the summer of 2008 to become President of Union Theological Seminary, Sally Promey stepped into her role as third principal investigator on the Project and also became the new WGSS Program Chair.  Generously supported by the Luce Foundation, the Women, Religion, and Globalization Project set out to explore the relationship between women religious practitioners and political, economic, and social developments as they unfold locally, around the world, and in the larger context of international affairs.  Taking place over the 2007-2010 academic years, the Women, Religion, and Globalization project included a variety of interlocking elements: an interdisciplinary faculty seminar designed to broaden and strengthen university-wide faculty conversations and research agendas about the role of religion and gender in the processes of globalization; new courses for the Masters in International Relations program, with concomitant summer research funding; a fellowship program that brought community leaders, clergy, activists, development workers, scholars, policy analysts, and practitioners from geographically, religiously, and culturally diverse locations to Yale’s campus, thus linking the academic, policy, and practical realms of international affairs; and a variety of public lectures and workshops to bring these issues into broader conversations.  Concluding in 2009-10 with a major international conference, the Women, Religion, and Globalization Project has been a resounding success, and continues to reverberate in our thinking about the future.

In 2006-07, Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies undertook the project of an internal review, a process of lengthy self study preceding an external review conducted in the fall of 2007.  Involving a great deal of data-gathering and analysis, these reviews provided formal opportunities to consider and articulate the successes of the Program, the challenges it faces, and its resources and needs in the present moment.  The evaluations were positive and uniformly constructive.  The reviews clarified for all, however, the particular difficulties faced by the Program in its reliance on affiliated faculty with primary obligations to other home departments.  Yale’s administration engaged actively in the review process and collaborated with Program leadership to identify avenues for productive movement forward.

Looking to the Future: 2010 –

As we celebrate these anniversaries together, we are in the midst of a renewed expansion of the Program and its faculty.  Talented, active, and (dare we say) visionary scholars and teachers have always been at the heart of our successes.  To meet our current goals we need to continue to attract and retain distinguished senior and junior colleagues whose primary appointments would be within our Program.  This past year, with the arrival of Inderpal Grewal, Yale made its first senior faculty appointment with a line fully dedicated to Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies as the primary institutional home.  In addition, we have been authorized to make a ladder-track junior faculty hire in LGBT Studies next year—we have already begun not just the search, but also the development of a new junior faculty mentoring program. 

Our anticipated new junior colleague on campus will join a vibrant campus community.  From the beginning, Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies has set high standards in research, teaching, and advocacy, building on new directions taken in our academic fields of study and pursuing research committed to seeking answers to social, cultural and political questions in national, international, and transnational frameworks.  With over 40 affiliated faculty members, prominent in many fields of study, we are attracting growing numbers of active, talented majors and graduate qualification students. Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies enjoys interdisciplinary and intra-institutional collaborations with multiple research units and programs.  The Women Faculty Forum, for example, is now co-directed by Laura Wexler; such warm ties strengthen our place in the Yale community.

Our interdisciplinary constellation deploys gender, sexuality, and intersectionality as analytical tools to examine identities and institutions, nations and economies, cultures and political systems—to explain crucial aspects of our everyday lives on both intimate and global scales.  Increasingly, experts in many fields and from many institutional locations acknowledge the power of research in gender and sexuality to address concerns ranging from global poverty to the AIDS epidemic.  Our program scope is thus practical as well as historical and theoretical.  Seeking to combine the three, we offer students invaluable perspectives on the world around us.  At the faculty, graduate, and undergraduate levels, Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies fosters research that contributes solutions to the pressing challenges of the day.  We are invested in the project of building liberal arts for the new century, collaborating with Yale to advance its commitments to diversity and to internationalization. 

Once an expanded faculty attains critical mass, we expect to investigate the possibility of departmental status and the formation of a PhD program.  Judging by the number of inquiries that come to us from all over the world, a rigorous PhD program in this field at Yale will attract outstanding students and serve an important role by shaping current research.  Closer affiliation with Yale’s professional schools is another possibility for us and one in which graduate students in the professional schools are deeply invested. Content related directly to the intellectual mission of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies has now become an important part of training professionals in fields as diverse as law, divinity, business, medicine and public health, government and international policy.

Finally, we hope to build on the generosity of many contributors to our Program(s) in years past—and especially to build endowment.  Just this year, a generous gift came to us from the Shana Alexander Foundation, under the able leadership of Lisa Alter.  This endowment will allow us, among other things, to support and encourage senior essay research conducted both inside and outside the United States.  These funds allow us to support, by competitive application, especially the kinds of innovative undergraduate research on gender and sexuality for which resources have generally been otherwise scarce.

We have ambitious goals—-but we look back on an ambitious past and are inspired anew.  The University has offered unprecedented support in recent years: reiterating its commitment to an outstanding program in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, this administration has made resources for growth available to us.  Many generous supporters have stepped forward, over the decades, to make pedagogical and scholarly dreams a reality.  Our intellectual community at Yale is broad and deep.  We are united in working towarda long-term plan of teaching and research that enhances and supports diversity and global scholarship, initiatives that Yale has envisioned for its future growth.

These anniversaries invite us to take stock, recognize what we have accomplished, and move forward to another exciting phase for Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.  All those gathered here can take pride and satisfaction in the ongoing work, past and present, of building something meaningful together, pausing to reflect on the outcomes of our labors, and engaging new possibilities with renewed energy and insight, in collaboration with partners in many disciplinary and interdisciplinary units on this campus….and with individuals and constituencies around the nation and globe.