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.

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.