Studying women and gender

In 1969, when women were first admitted to Yale College, the administration was concerned they would distract men from their studies.

Ten years later, in the fall of 1979, students had the opportunity to make women the focus of their studies.

That fall, students returned to campus with the newly inaugurated Women’s Studies Program. Amid concerns that the University had no faculty or funds to spare, the program borrowed from other departments a small cluster of classes that would examine the women’s movement.

Today, the Program of Women’s and Gender Studies still struggles to find its own faculty and funding but has moved beyond the feminist-centered experimental program initially proposed. With a new name, a larger faculty, and more funding, Women’s and Gender Studies is still trying to find its identity in the Yale curriculum.

Not just a trial period anymore

The women’s studies program first offered in the fall of 1979 was initially approved on a five-year trial basis. Since its inception, the program has relied on faculty in other departments for its course offerings. The first director of undergraduate studies was a French professor and the director of the program was a history professor, while young, untenured faculty in other departments formed the core of the teaching program.

“[The program] was conceived to fill what was seen as a temporary need,” said Margaret Homans, the current chairwoman of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program. “The administration thought the need for the program would disappear in 10 years, so they weren’t eager to give us permanent positions.”

One of the original goals of the program was to integrate the study of women across the curriculum. This focus, along with reliance on faculty in other departments, resulted in an interdisciplinary focus that still defines the program today.

“It’s one of the few interdisciplinary majors at Yale that is actually interdisciplinary,” said Cyd Cipolla ’04, a women’s and gender studies major. “I can count the number of actual women’s and gender studies classes I’ve taken on one hand. I’ve taken biology classes, English classes, anthropology, sociology. Sometimes people ask, ‘What group is your major?’ and I really can’t say.”

But the interdisciplinary nature of the program that many students cite as the major’s biggest advantage can make it difficult for students to forge a coherent field of study.

“I’ve definitely had a problem along those lines,” Josie Rodberg ’03 said. “One of the biggest reasons is that it’s a program and not a department. They have around 50 affiliated faculty but only two or three of their own. We kind of get the luck of the draw — whoever other people at Yale hire who happen to be doing work in women’s and gender studies.”

Homans agreed that the fight for faculty has been a constant struggle.

“We’ve had endless difficulty in having to borrow faculty from other departments and faculty who don’t teach classes the University finds worthy of tenure,” Homans said. “We’re always trying to build a coherent program on sand.”

Homans said she would like to see some of the visiting faculty positions turned into stable positions and noted that the program’s only two tenured faculty are both professors in other departments.

Queer pioneers

Since its inception, the program has changed to adapt to global changes. Today, the program prides itself on encouraging students to study women and gender outside the Western world. One of the most significant, if symbolic, changes came in 1998 when the name of the program changed from Women’s Studies to Women’s and Gender Studies in an attempt to legitimize gay and lesbian studies.

In April 2001, the University announced that gay rights activist Larry Kramer ’57 and his brother Arthur Kramer ’49 had donated a collection of manuscripts and $1 million to Yale to promote gay and lesbian studies. The Larry Kramer Initiative, as the program came to be called, would attempt to redefine gay and lesbian studies at Yale, primarily through its academic home in the Women’s and Gender Studies Program.

“This is part of the expansion epitomized by the renaming of the program,” said Naomi Rogers, director of undergraduate studies in the program. “It shows a commitment to gender analysis, which was certainly there before, but has now been cemented.”

Last spring, the University hired Jonathan Katz as executive director of the Initiative. Since his arrival, Katz has been working on setting up a program that is both research-oriented and teaching-focused. Katz has already begun to establish an annual conference on gay and lesbian studies, to build the nation’s best gay and lesbian studies archive at Yale, and to woo major scholars in the field to Yale as visiting professors.

“The ambition is very clear,” Katz said. “It’s to set up the epicenter for queer studies in the United States here.”

Even though Katz has only been at Yale since September, changes are already well underway.

“We came out of the gate with four times as much cash at hand as any other program. We have a lot of potential to make real progress in just a year,” he said.

Ironically, because of the time and money spent finding and hiring Katz, the University did not hire its usual visiting professor, rendering lesbian and gay studies even shorter on faculty. But next year, for the first time ever, there will be two visiting lesbian and gay studies professors — both a junior and a senior position. Visiting professors will now stay for two years instead of one, providing students with more stability, Katz said.

Adam Viera ’03, who considered being a women’s and gender studies major in the lesbian and gay studies track, said the fast rotation of faculty was a problem for him. He said there was a professor he was really interested in working with on his senior thesis, but he was gone the next year.

“It’s kind of difficult to major in women’s and gender studies if you’re interested in the lesbian and gay studies track because professors alternate every year,” he said. “It’s hard to maintain a sense of continuity. I had really great professors every year, but the next year they were gone.”

Katz said an improvement in lesbian and gay studies at universities nationwide is overdue and that Yale is in a unique position to define the field.

“There’s a general consensus that the time is right for Yale to become a pioneer in this field,” he said. “If ever a market opening existed, it’s this. Yale has the opportunity to open a field of investigation and become of defining import in its development.”

A marketing problem

In order for the program to expand, many said it must shed the militant feminist stereotype.

“People like to make fun of feminists and talk about being barefoot and pregnant in front of you,” Cipolla said. “It’s tiresome and it’s offensive at times, but you learn to get over it.”

But more than the psychological pain of the being the butt of countless “How many feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb?” jokes, faculty members say these misconceptions can have real negative consequences for the program and discourage potential majors.

“It’s constituted as coming out of a particular politics or trajectory,” Katz said of the program. “The classes are in no way contiguous with that perception. To put it bluntly, it’s a marketing problem.”

This marketing problem is especially acute with regard to half of Yale’s population: males. Despite its titular change to include “gender,” there are currently no male majors. But Katz does not feel the major is biased against men.

“Women’s and gender studies is every bit as much about men as women,” Katz said. “Queer studies is every bit — if not more — about straight people. The problem becomes, how do you suggest women’s and gender studies is also about men [and] that queer studies is also about straight people?”

Part of the problem, students say, is that while there are a lot of classes on feminism, there are not many on masculinity. Cipolla said students sometimes challenge her about the program, arguing there should be a men’s studies program too.

“The answer to that is that there is men’s studies,” she said. “They just call it history. The reason African-American history, women’s studies, Chinese history, and all those modifications have to exist is because history is white men’s history — If I wanted to study masculinity and I want to study men, I just walk into a regular history class and there it is.”

While Cipolla said she would welcome more male interest in the program, she doesn’t think recruiting male students should be a focus.

“Having men doesn’t make it any more legitimate,” Cipolla said. “Can you imagine what would happen if someone called the head of the [African American Studies] Department and said they needed to admit more white students to be legitimate?”

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Emmanuelle Massicot
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