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The Radical, The Practical: Women’s Studies in Vermont

By Amy Lilly

When Virginia Woolf suggested in A Room of One’s Own that  women were entitled to earn the same degrees at the same prestigious institutions of higher learning as men, the idea was as radical as they come. The year was 1928. Oxford held out until 1960.

Sanjukta Ghosh

Castleton State’s Sanjukta Ghosh. Photo: Margaret Michniewicz.

By that measure, the idea of making women’s issues and perspectives an object of study in universities and colleges appears to have spread like wildfire. The second wave of the feminist movement was barely launched with Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) when San Diego State University inaugurated the nation’s first women’s studies program in 1969. Within a decade, over three hundred institutions across the country had followed suit.

But to tell the story of the rise of women’s studies as a ten- or fifteen-year meteoric enterprise is to gloss over much of the real struggle, as any of the women professors who started Vermont’s six established programs will tell you. Many of these women were among only a handful of proponents of women’s studies on their college’s faculty; some were the only woman on faculty. Against all odds, they connected across departmental lines and created something out of nothing.

They are apt to remember those days with a wry sense of humor.

“In the mid-eighties, people were still wondering if women were important,” says UVM psychology professor Esther Rothblum. Rothblum was one of seven women faculty who worked to establish a minor in Women’s Studies in 1984, before the status of “program” was attained in 1991 through the monumental efforts of the late Joan Smith. The greatest difficulty they faced was an intangible one, a campus atmosphere of complacent bafflement. “Incomprehension” is how another of the UVM seven, sociology professor Beth Mintz, characterizes it. “People wondered why this was valuable, intellectually. You have to remember,” she adds, “this was a time when ‘he’ automatically represented ‘he and she’.”

Rothblum and Mintz, along with  five women from the psychology, sociology, anthropology, history, and physics departments found each other and connected despite their different backgrounds. Rothblum had done her graduate work on women and psychology. Mintz had no women-specific academic background; her graduate work as a sociologist had focused on corporate structures. Mintz describes herself as sitting down with the books and becoming a “self-taught feminist.” “It was a very, very exciting time,” she recalls. “Women’s issues were very prominent nationally, and it was exciting to be on campus because we had the opportunity to communicate across disciplines.”

Carey Kaplan’s experience as a St. Michael’s College English professor was very different. The current Gender and Women’s Studies director, and “the driving force behind the establishment of the Gender Studies Minor” according to the college’s website, Kaplan confronted a particular institutional problem. The Catholic college was all male until 1973, when she was hired as one of its first two women faculty. “It was a very masculine culture. There were fifteen women students walking around,” she remembers with a chuckle.

St Michaels Women

Under the banner of the St. Mike’s Women’s Center: from left, front row: Maureen Saxton, Jessica Bassett, Nicole Leslie, Megan Murphy. 2nd row: Jess O’Brien, Maryse Smith, Gigi Cunningham, Victoria Townsend. Top: Ashley Green, Katie Arey.
Photo: Jan Doerler

Kaplan soon began to push for women’s studies, though a full program wasn’t recognized until 1991. She spent the intervening two decades raising consciousness by organizing college and regional conferences (the 1973 Women In Focus Symposium; the 1978-79 Women In Society Conference) and proving student interest to the administration with full enrollment in the women’s studies classes she offered. “Women in Society,” co-taught by Kaplan and psychology professor Susan Kuntz, was filled to capacity, at 125 students, for the seven years they taught it. “We had to break it down into smaller classes eventually, but it was so much fun,” she recalls.

Paula Schwartz, Middlebury College professor of French with a background in women and the Communist movement, says the college’s Women’s and Gender Studies Program “struggled for legitimacy for many years—there’s no question.” Until recently, it had a rotating directorship which contributed to the program’s instability, according to Schwartz, who led the program in adademic years 1997, 2002, and 2003. Current director Sujata Moorti became the program’s first full-time, tenured chair in 2005. The effort to gain administrative approval for the position goes back a decade or more, Schwartz says.

Women’s Studies courses were introduced at Middlebury in the late 1970s. When Schwartz arrived on campus in 1989, she wanted to teach women’s studies courses but found that the French department could not spare her. “Your primary obligation is to your department, so it’s difficult to pursue other interests. Being able to teach outside the department is a luxury.” Now, with its full-time director, she hopes the program will be able to negotiate such difficulties with greater ease.

Vermont College at Union Institute professor Margaret Blanchard began teaching at the Montpelier branch in 1990. A veteran of the woman’s movement, Blanchard had helped edit its first journal,  Women: a Journal of Liberation, while still living in Baltimore. When she joined the Vermont College faculty, the college’s M.A. and Ph.D. programs in women’s studies, which began in the 1970’s during the college’s affiliation with Goddard College and Norwich University, were pioneering programs in the U.S. “Part of the reason for this,” she explains, “was that women’s studies is interdisciplinary by nature, and Vermont College is based on an interdisciplinary approach.” That is, rather than having separate departments and programs, students pursue an inquiry-based education, drawing from different disciplines to arrive at answers to their own questions.

When the Union Institute (based in Cincinnati) bought Vermont College in 2001, they brought with them the Union Institute’s Women’s Center, which Blanchard describes as “a network of some of the best-known feminist activists and women’s studies scholars in the movement, based all over the country,” including Kirsten Grimstad and Rita Arditti. Some of those women had trained at Goddard. Blanchard now faces new hurdles: Women’s Center projects — like the annual Audre Lorde prize for a woman of color activist-writer, and programs helping disenfranchised girls in the D.C. area — have been put on hold due to administrative cutbacks and, as Blanchard sees it, decreased recognition by the administration of the importance of women’s studies.

Sanjukta Ghosh arrived at Castleton State College in 1991, four years before the college’s Women’s Studies Program went “on the books,” and immediately set to work teaching her global approach to feminism in the middle of the Green Mountains. Ghosh sees the problems that women’s studies confronts not as institutional but as ongoing and activist-related, such as the recent phenomenon among American feminists not to acknowledge their international sisterhood and global influences. Citing her own indebtedness to the Cuban, Iranian, and Chinese women’s movements, she sees a complacence in America’s sense of itself at the apex of women’s liberation. “How about reintroducing the ERA in Congress? Where is the face of the women’s movement in America?” she asks.

That Ghosh can focus her energy on new directions for the women’s movement is one measure of how well-established the field of women’s studies is. Kaplan’s perspective is that women’s studies has “changed from a transgressive notion to a mainstream interest. It doesn’t seem as outré as it used to.”

Mintz agrees. “I’m astonished at how the program at UVM has grown and thrived over the years, and become institutionalized,” she say.

Currently, forty-three UVM students are Women’s and Gender Studies majors; five are minors. Castleton, with only 1800 students, currently has one hundred individuals enrolled in classes categorized under “women’s studies,” and will graduate two minors this spring. “It’s not a huge number, but we think it’s significant,” says Castleton Women’s Studies Coordinator Tersh Palmer. St. Michael’s graduated six minors last year; Middlebury graduated twelve full, joint, and double majors last year. “Our classes are always full,” says Moorti. Castleton has awarded 124 doctoral degrees in women’s studies. Green Mountain College offers a minor in Women’s Studies. Five other Vermont institutions don’t yet have a minor or major — Bennington College, Burlington College, Goddard College, Johnson State College, and Marlboro College — but nevertheless offer a wide range of courses in women’s studies. As Kaplan comments, “Those ideas of feminism are still enormously powerful. I don’t see them going back into the closet any time soon.”

Gender Studies or Women’s Studies?

Of the six women’s studies programs, only two — Castleton State College and Green Mountain College — are called “Women’s Studies” programs; the others include “Gender Studies” in their name. The question of whether to focus on gender in general, or on women in particular, relates to the institutions’ histories, as well as the history of the feminist movement.

St. Michael’s is a special case, explains Kaplan. When she began to push for a women’s studies program, she found the Edmundites — the order of French priests who founded St. Michael’s — were uncomfortable with the idea of “women’s” studies, though not for the expected reasons. To their credit, she says, they found the idea to be not inclusive enough for their humanities approach, and suggested “Gender and Women’s Studies” instead, which remains the program’s focus and name.

The women’s movement in America gradually arrived at the same shift in focus, but for more politicized reasons. While second wave feminists originally put their efforts into calling attention to the exclusion of women in all areas of life, women scholars (famously, Judith Butler) came to see those structures of power and exclusion as resulting from preconceptions about gender. Gender is not something innate, the thinking goes; it is a social construct — for both women and men. This approach enables women’s studies to meet LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) studies on shared ground.

At UVM, the Women’s Studies Program gained approval to change its name to Women’s and Gender Studies, beginning in the fall. “Students still get a history of women’s contribution and roles in our society,” explains Director Helga Schreckenberger. “But now the program has branched out so that we’re looking at women’s experiences vis-a-vis those of men. For example, we now have a seminar on mainstream American masculinity. For the students, it’s a real eye-opener that gender is a constructed thing.” The idea of using gender as a lens to analyze our political and cultural environment, though, will not displace the program’s original focus on women, as indicated in the new name.

“Gender is in everything we do, every decision that’s made,” says Moorti. Middlebury’s program changed its name from Women’s Studies to Women’s and Gender Studies in 1993. In her Foundation to Women and Gender Studies course, a quarter of her thirty students are men. “Even language is shaped by gender,” she says. “I ask students to make matrilineal family trees, and most of them can’t go more than two generations back, or even remember their grandmothers’ last names. So they see how, when women change their names, whole histories get erased.” They also see how gendered expectations of men’s language ensures that their histories are recorded: it is a one-way street.

In Kaplan’s Gender and Literature class, the focus is in de-centering masculinity, and her students read both Joseph Conrad and Charlotte Perkins Gilman to see how each gender is shaped by society. “Suddenly, everything is in a new context for them,” she says of her students’ reactions.

The Need for Women’s Studies

A recurring comment among these women academics is the realization that basic consciousness-raising among students is still urgently needed.

Schwartz describes the eye-opener she had when she began teaching women’s studies at Middlebury: “I was surprised to realize that most students think that there’s no problem anymore. Women’s and Gender students are much more aware, but the average student sees struggle as a thing of the past.”

Kaplan at St. Michael’s puts it jokingly: “Sometimes I go into the classroom and I ask, ‘Is there any reason why we should call God “he”’? And they say, ‘Because he’s a guy!’ And I think, oh, no, let’s not reinvent the wheel.”

“I don’t have to coax students into taking women’s studies classes,” says Schreckenberger, “but I do have to interest them in the issues when they get here, like: we still have unequal pay, some jobs are still considered ‘women’s jobs,’ we still have reproductive issues and health issues.”

Mintz worries about popular culture in general. “Popular culture suggests that women have solved the problem — that there is no problem.” Her goal is to get students to “see through the rhetoric. If something happens to them later, I want them to be able to understand it in terms of their gender.”

Academics and Activism

But what of activism on behalf of women? Each phase of the women’s movement — from suffrage to equal opportunity — was aimed at changing society, not simply at raising awareness through study and analysis.

Several colleges have integrated activism into their courses. A requirement for both the major and the minor at UVM is activist experience: at least one semester of working for women’s advocacy groups like the Vermont Commission on Women, Women Helping Battered Women, the Vermont Women’s Health Center, and the Women’s Small Business Program. “Activism without theory is not possible,” says Schreckenberger, “but neither is theory without activism.”

Moorti explains that, currently, Middlebury students have a pool of area organizations to tap into where they can complete an internship. But the program is working on incorporating a Service Learning Component into the Women’s and Gender Studies program, requiring students to find out what they can offer the community, rather than what kinds of experiences they can get from it. “The question for them will be, do these ideas really translate from the classroom to the community?” says Moorti. “For example, if they are working on the issue of poverty, poverty affects women differently than it does men — two thirds of the country’s poor are women — so the students can take that knowledge and find out how to help Vermont women living in poverty.”

In Mintz’s “Women in Society” class, activism arises spontaneously out of the class itself. Each of the past three times she has taught it, students have organized a fund-raiser for Afghani women after they view the BBC documentary Beneath the Veil (2001). “Last time, they raised something like $300,” she says.

Dr. Isabella Jeso offers a sneak preview of the Spring midterm exam, accompanied by three confident-looking UVM students.
Photo: Chris Bretschneider

Similarly, Blanchard’s Union Institute students pursue activism on their own. “I have one student, Ann Martin, who is studying women and community development in the former Soviet Union. She gets grants from aid agencies to go there as a consultant for community development and to run gender awareness workshops.” Blanchard specifies that a practicum of some sort is required for both the master’s and the doctoral degrees in women’s studies. “We go by the Dewey theory of experiential learning, which balances theory with practice,” she says. “All our faculty have activist histories as well as being scholars.”

These women agree that women’s studies must continue to bring forward issues of class and, especially, race. Second-wave feminism was a movement of white, middle-class women, and so women’s studies’ origins are now viewed as fairly narrow. “Back then, gender (or ‘sex,’ as it was called) was privileged over race and class — in a way we’ve learned was wrong,” says Mintz. “Now we focus on the intersections of class, race, and gender.”

“You cannot separate out the vectors of oppression,” Ghosh similarly insists. “Racism, sexism—they are interlocking.”

Ghosh, an impassioned activist, locates her feminist roots in her seven years as a journalist in New Delhi, India, agitating for the anti-dowry law, before moving to the U.S. in 1985. Her teaching is contiguous with the marches she participated in there, and those she regularly joins here. “Teaching is a political act; I don’t separate activism and pedagogy,” she explains. “I try to get students to ask, how are we the oppressors? How are we benefiting from sexism, racism, and so on?” But she has a more concrete idea of activism as well: “Look at the anti-globalization rally in Seattle, in 1999 — it changed the way the WTO meets!  That’s the focus we need in feminism.”

Amy Lilly is a freelance writer from Burlington.

Student Perspectives on Women & Gender Studies

By Margaret Michniewicz

Maureen Saxton - St. Michael’s College, Junior, from Maine

Maureen chose gender studies because “I played ice hockey for 12 years, and grew up in a family of men. I was treated differently for being the only woman. So the subject has always interested me.”

Her first gender studies class was with Kim Swartz (SMC Women’s Center Director), which led her to take other classes that were taught by Professor Carey Kaplan—who teaches English and started the Gender Studies Program—and Professor Fritas, who is in the Religion Department and gave a more spiritual aspect to the class.

She is a psychology major and gender studies minor. She wants to be a therapist to adolescent girls.

Stacie Yenter - Castleton State College, Junior, Iowa

Stacie’s home town is Cedar Rapids. “Vermont seems very liberal by comparison.” She’s a Women’s Studies minor, and a Sociology major with a focus in Anthropology.

She took ‘Introduction to Women’s Studies’ her freshman year; Sanjukta Ghosh and Linda Olson both taught part of the class. “I was so impressed with both professors that I have made an effort to take more classes with them.  I’ve had several classes with Dr. Ghosh since.  She is intelligent, inspiring and enlightening.” 

Assigned readings and viewings that have interested her:

1.  “Pornography:  Not a Love Story” (film).  2. The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf.   3. The People’s History of the USA by Howard Zinn. “It changed my entire perspective on history and made it interesting.” 4. Any film by Michael Moore.

Her career plans? “I want to teach English in Spain and Japan.  I will also study and write about gender construction and beauty ideals in other countries.”

Is there an experience you can identify that prompted you to be interested in this field?  “Watching several women close to me struggle with eating disorders (and many women fight with everyday self-hatred) has inspired a curiosity about self-perceptions and beauty ideals.  When my own misconceptions about welfare and abortion were brought to light, I began to feel the need to learn more about these topics and make the information accessible to others.”

Do you recommend this field of study for other students, and why? “I do, because women’s studies offer a new perspective on subjects that we take for granted. It’s like getting the other side of the story and finally understanding the big picture.

“I now see myself as a class and race-privileged but gender-disadvantaged individual and I have learned to feel responsible for working for class and race equality as well as gender equality. I don’t watch TV the same way.  I think critically about the symbols presented and how they reinforce or challenge the status quo.   

“My perception of what it means to be a good citizen has changed.  I have learned that it is not patriotic to blindly follow whoever happens to be the ‘leader’ of the country, because that’s not good for the country as a whole. Rather than unquestioningly following orders, I believe that questioning ideas, thinking critically and even protesting can be patriotic. Civil disobedience is patriotic. Democracy is not a spectator sport, and in fact, it doesn’t work well unless the general public is educated and active.”

Nicole Leslie — St. Michael’s College, Sophomore, St. Regis Falls, NY

Nicole is doing a minor in Gender Studies with a major in psychology and elementary education.

How did she choose the program? “I took ‘Gender Issues In Society’ with Kim Swartz last semester, and was completely drawn into all of the topics so much that I decided to add the minor. We had many speakers in our class who were so passionate about their work; that made me really want to get more involved.”

Her career plans? "I think I'll become an elementary teacher, but also possibly a counselor or psychologist for children or dealing with women's issues.”

Any particular moment or experience that sparked your interest in this area? “Just the overall class last semester, but when I watched a presentation by sweatshop workers from Bangladesh I was really moved.”

Do you recommend these courses to others, and why?  "Most definitely, because it opens your eyes to so many issues of inequality that you may have overlooked or felt like you had no control over before learning about them.  Also, it breaks down gender, and helps you see the differences in races, generations, socioeconomic statuses, etc.

“I have reevaluated my political beliefs and tried to examine a lot of my perspectives on people in general, after learning many new things.  I have also learned a lot about myself, and I am more aware now of my privileges that I was born with...and some things I can do to work on breaking down these inequalities.”

Chelsea Robitaille - Castleton State College, Junior, Campton, NH

"I am a communications major with a concentration in public relations. I am minoring in women's studies. I chose the women's studies program after taking a race and gender course with Dr. Sanjukta Ghosh. It was through her eye-opening research that I learned of the great injustices that women still encounter.

She also demonstrated to us that every woman counts, and really encouraged and inspired me to be heard, to stand up and be counted.

"After I graduate from Castleton I hope to work in the public relations field for a few years. I’d like to further my education, and attend law school.

Life experiences that influenced your course of study? "My mother made the choice 22 years ago, after having my older sister, that she would not re-enter the working world. It was after my younger sister was diagnosed with autism sixteen years ago that my mother knew her challenge, and today every medical professional that my mother and sister have ever seen have said that because my mother took the time to stay home and really work with my sister she is at the highest end of the spectrum. My mother is such an inspiration, and my little sister is too, I wanted the students on this campus to know that there are so many aspects that make a strong woman.”

Would you advise others to study this field? “For any student who is interested in attending Castleton, I highly recommend this program. Everyone should be aware that just because women can vote, and run for president or even hold the CEO position at a major corporation, does not mean that we are not still subject to discrimination. It is important that people know that the fight for equal rights is not over, that women still are struggling in the business world. When women are only making $.76 to every dollar a man makes how can our quest for equal rights be over?

"After taking this course, I have more respect for the decision my mother made to be an at-home mother. I can now appreciate what a gift it is to have a mother be so involved not only in my life but in the community as well. Even though she is not employed, I feel so honored when I can go home and hear the members of the town praise my mother for the strong female role model she has been able to become in the community."

Victoria Townsend — First-year, St. Michael’s College, Swampscott, MA

“I’m taking my ‘Women in Fiction’ course as a part of the English major not for a gender-studies minor. I really have enjoyed Carey Kaplan’s course, however. She’s given me a new perspective when I sit down and read now. It’s funny how things I never thought about previously seem to leap out at me now. It’s really great to be more aware of the characterizations I’m being presented by writers.”