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.