Women's Studies as Women's History

Article excerpt

Thirty years after it was institutionalized in the U.S. academy, women's history now has a secure place in American higher education. The history of women's studies, however, remains mostly lost amid the politics that deny it legitimacy, both within and outside academic feminism. Philosopher Jane Roland Martin in her recent memoir declared, "Had women in the 1970s been aware of the gendered underpinnings of the academy, let alone known how powerful and persistent our educationgender system is, the women's studies movement might never have been launched" (109). How was it possible? What mixture of hope, energy, courage, and perhaps naivete can explain the success of the scattered and motley contingent of feminist activists, students, faculty, staff, and community supporters who launched and sustained the women's studies movement through its founding years? What conjuncture of developments in the history of higher education in the United States can account for its initial acceptance and rapid growth across the country in institutions of all kinds, defying predictions that it was "just a fad"? Where does women's studies fit into the larger story of American women's history? Does this tale offer any insight into possible futures for women's studies as an academic field? What can we learn from the history of women's studies? Is Martin right?

I think not, for the generation of women who founded women's studies acted out of intellectual and emotional needs too powerful to repress, whatever the nature of the institutional "beast" we faced. (An early women's studies publication at San Diego State University bore the imprint "Inside the Beast.") Women's studies developed at a particular period in the history of the United States, of American higher education, of feminism, and in the lives of women brought up to believe in the reality of the opportunities we were promised. To contextualize the beginnings of the academic feminist movement, it is useful to follow the scheme laid out by Florence Howe, Barbara Miller Solomon, and others, according to which women's studies can be viewed as a third phase in American women's struggle for equal access to higher education (Howe, Myths of Coeducation; Solomon). In the pre-Civil War era, women such as Lucy Stone demanded and sometimes won admission to institutions of higher learning, but generally they had to settle for special programs of study deemed suitable for their sex. In a second phase, in the later decades of the nineteenth century, women such as M. Carey Thomas called for admission to the "men's curriculum," both in new colleges for women that aimed to equal the private Ivy League institutions that educated men of the elite, and in state-supported, land-grant universities that promised "coeducation." Thomas wanted to set to rest allegations regarding the inferiority of the female mind by requiring of women a curriculum as rigorous and challenging as any offered at the men's colleges. Beginning in the mid-1960s, enterprising women with feminist consciousness launched a third phase. Declaring coeducation a myth, they challenged the content of higher education as well as academic structures and procedures that taught a hidden curriculum of women's second-class status. In this view, courses that ignored women's experiences and perspectives subtly reinforced old ideas about female intellectual deficiencies while also perpetuating women's social, economic, and political marginality.

This third phase originated in broad historical developments including the postwar expansion of higher education through the G.I. bill; the proliferation of institutions needed to serve the children of the G.I. generation (the "baby-boomers"); governmental assumption of a central role in expanding access to higher education through funding bricks and mortar, awarding research grants to faculty, providing financial aid to students; and so forth. Across the country, as statewide systems were established to accommodate new constituencies, teachers' colleges were transformed into state universities and student populations mushroomed. …


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