Feminism in Action: Building Institutions and Community through Women's Studies

Feminism in Action: Building Institutions and Community through Women's Studies

Feminism in Action: Building Institutions and Community through Women's Studies

Feminism in Action: Building Institutions and Community through Women's Studies


Feminism in Action is Jean O'Barr's firsthand account of two decades spent working to promote the cause of higher education for women through the establishment of women's studies programs. The book brings together revised versions of O'Barr's most significant presentations on the subject, from a 1976 talk to incoming Duke University students, through original essays that document the process of institutional change, to a 1993 lecture on the impact of race on discussions of gender.

Striking the perfect balance between a theoretical sense of what feminism proposes and a practical sense of what is politically feasible, these essays pose- and help to answer- basic questions about the role of women's studies programs in the academy. Exactly what kinds of changes do such programs instigate? How do they work, institutionally? What accounts for their extraordinary success in supporting higher education for all women, from recent high school graduates to older returning students? Written in a lively, anecdotal style and supplemented by personal testimonies from students and colleagues, the essays provide not only a valuable history of the field of women's studies but a concrete blueprint for current and future programs.


In his charming book Small Decencies: Reflections and Meditations on Being Human at Work, Catholic priest-turned-management-consultant John Cowan notes the small signs that indicate the heart and soul of the organization that has called him in as a consultant. Is there a place to hang his coat? Is he welcomed by someone who tells him that he is expected and that the person he is meeting will be along shortly? Is he offered coffee?

If Cowan were lucky enough to visit the offices of the Women's Studies Program at Duke University, where Jean O'Barr is the director, he would soon realize that he was in a very unusual place indeed. Instead of the dreariness and shabbiness typical of university offices (even in fine private universities such as Duke), the Women's Studies Program offices are filled with sunlight, plants, and carefully chosen art. In the entryway, greeting the visitor is a display of ten years of T-shirts from various national women's studies conferences, all striking for their bright colors and clever puns (one reads, "desperately seeking Susan"--meaning Susan B. Anthony).

In the same waiting area, the visitor finds a comfortable couch, recent issues of the Chronicle of Higher Education, and the campus newspaper. While he or she waits, the smell of good coffee wafts in, and without prompting, someone walking by--faculty member, staffperson, or Jean O'Barr herself--will offer some. In the main part of the office, people go about their work with an air of happy busyness, and in another area, students and faculty consult about several ongoing research projects on women. From the conference room down the hall, the passionate sounds of the weekly meeting on "feminist pedagogy" spill out, as a dozen or so faculty members argue, laugh, and struggle to think into existence a new way of teaching that respects both the insights of feminist theory and the imperatives of the modern university.

O'Barr's particular contribution to feminist theory is in realizing that these events do not just happen spontaneously and that there is a deep (although rarely articulated) connection between the plants, coffee, and T-shirts on the one hand and new ways of teaching and of doing scholarship and the general . . .

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