Women's Studies without a Women's Studies Program: The Case of Hostos Community College

By Fisher, Jerilyn | Women's Studies Quarterly, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Women's Studies without a Women's Studies Program: The Case of Hostos Community College


Fisher, Jerilyn, Women's Studies Quarterly


Speaking to Smith College seniors in 1979, Adrienne Rich asked, "What does a woman need to know to become a self-conscious, self-- defining human being?" In response, Rich passionately and cogently argued for the rationale and purpose still served by women's studies today:

Doesn't she need a knowledge of her own history, of her much-politicized female body, of the creative genius of the past-the skills and crafts and techniques and visions possessed by women in other times and cultures and how they have been rendered anonymous, censured, interrupted, devalued? ... Without such education, women have lived and continue to live in ignorance of our collective context, vulnerable to the projections of men's fantasies about us as they appear in art, in literature, in the sciences, in the media, in the socalled humanistic studies. (1-2)

Students reap the most durable effects, such as the learning that Rich describes, after spending not just one semester exploring subject matter from a feminist perspective; rather, the greatest gains come with longer term, in-depth examinations of women's historical accomplishments, feminine socialization and cultural images, gender bias as it intersects with other forms of social prejudice, and the male-centeredness of traditional constructs of knowledge (Porter and Eileenchild 33; Rothenberg 18; Stimpson 35).

Readily available testimony speaks to students' personal and intellectual growth under the continuing tutelage of women's studies faculty (Brush et al.; Butler; Castellano; Culley et al.; Hoffman; hooks; Omolade; Russell). One might well question, therefore, why community colleges in particular-where adult female students often constitute a significant majority-would not more commonly provide support for women's studies as a permanent academic offering that helps students supplant stereotypes and ignorance with informed, farreaching feminist analyses and perspectives. Yet, among the eight hundred-plus programs offering concentrations or degrees in women's studies nationwide, only a handful of community colleges are represented.1 More often than not, feminist educators working at community colleges engage students in women's studies without the backing of a visible, sequenced curriculum; without the continuity that even a modest budget line would provide; without structures for collaborating with like-minded colleagues equally committed to advancing feminist learning and empowerment.

Florence Howe's early study, Seven Years Later, documents what is minimally necessary for women's studies to achieve legitimacy as an academic discipline. Howe reports that it must have "some formal relationship, including a line budget, a paid administrator, and a curriculum which moves through committees into an official catalogue" (21). As one among many who teach women's studies without these foundational blocks in place, I borrow from Adrienne Rich to ask, What does a women's studies teacher and scholar-one who tries to facilitate feminist education without a women's studies program in place-- need to keep in mind to sustain her efforts?

Like most of us, what I do best as an academic brings together the work that I know well and most love. Having earned my undergraduate and graduate degrees in the fields of women's studies and literary studies (B.A., 1974, from the State University of New York at Binghamton, the first granted there in women's studies), I have attempted to make contributions in these areas sans a women's studies program that would help nurture my passions and goals. To hold my grounding daily, I find myself referring to the following maxims, which may be useful to others in similar situations.

Start Where You Are but Look Beyond Present Limits: Use Successes in Sister-Institutions as a Guide

Where I am: At City University of New York's Hostos Community College, located in the South Bronx; our students range in age from late adolescence to retirement. …

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