In 1908 the University of Mary Washington was founded as the State Normal and Industrial School for Women in Fredericksburg, Virginia. This women’s school has undergone many changes over the years. Through research on the formation of the new Women’s and Gender Studies program, one can begin to understand the history of the University of Mary Washington. The complexities of the history of this program are important to understand because it took years for it to finally be completed. The final formation of the program was largely due to the initiative of Dr. Marjorie Och, an Art History professor at the university. Through this effort the Women’s and Gender Studies program has finally emerged, even though the majority of women’s studies programs across the United States had long been established at other universities. The Women’s and Gender Studies program has been an important addition to this campus, especially in preserving the struggle of women’s rights and the history of a campus that has since been converted to co-ed.
During the 1970s many women at American universities became more active in the fight for women’s rights and women’s studies programs. Marilyn Boxer, a prominent women’s studies author, writes “the expansion of women’s studies was fueled by a pervasive need for a usable past and validation for change in the present.” [Note 1] This push was not just for women’s rights but also for recognition of women’s acceptance in universities and of their cognitive capabilities. Most of the push for women’s studies programs stemmed from a lack of acceptance within the male sphere that dominated co-ed campuses. It could be assumed that a women’s college would embrace such a program. However, during the 1970s, the University of Mary Washington (UMW) had taken a completely different turn. It was during this time that the university became co-ed and in the years that followed an intense de-feminization of the campus occurred. Many of the names of campus buildings were changed from full names of important women to only their last names. After the changes on campus started, as early as the 1980s but mostly into the 1990s, a small group of faculty started forming interest in a women’s studies program, but for many years there was a significant backlash by administration.[Note 2] It was not until the early 2000s that an adjustment in attitudes brought about a significant change, as well as hope, for a women’s studies program at the University of Mary Washington.
Dr. Marjorie Och was one of the founders and major contributors to the formation of the Women’s and Gender Studies program at UMW In her interview she recalls a chance meeting with Dr. Nina Mikhalevsky, in late January of 2008, that really propelled the formation of the program.
She said something like ‘What would you like to see happen here at Mary Washington?’ … I said ‘Nina, I would love to see a Women’s Studies major developed.’ And she said ‘Well why don’t you?’ And I said ‘Because the administration has always said no’. And Dr. Mikhalevsky said… ‘If you want a women’s study major Marjory, you propose it.’[Note 3]
After this meeting Dr. Och sent out an email a number of faculty and few administrators and set up meetings to develop the proposal for the Women’s and Gender Studies. This time of working on the proposal was not an easy one however. She discusses the administrative pressures that were still prevalent against such a program. Her narration is filled with careful diction to avoid naming anyone in specific opposition, but also in that she wanted to make sure that faculty were given credit for their participation. During the interview there are a few times where Dr. Och is visibly upset when talking about this time and talks about her frustrations. “Who was our president? I have- I don’t remember- okay? [laughs] We’ve been through so many presidents, it was horrific, and for faculty who were not only exhausted but also fed up with administrative shenanigans.”[Note 4] This correlates to a disparity between the administrators and the faculty and is a pertinent representation of how the faculty were growing tired of the administrative changes surrounding the administration.[Note 5]
The formation of the Women’s and Gender Studies program will be an asset in helping solidify the women’s history of this campus. The struggle between the faculty and administrators for a women’s studies program can be seen as not only a struggle for the program but also a larger struggle. A struggle that is still based in women’s rights and trying to voice those rights. While women were having this same struggle forty years before, the University of Mary Washington was opening its doors to men and started catering to their needs. Professor Och said that this campus was started more as a women’s finishing school than a women’s college. This is seen by the adamant rejection of women, who were trying to gain rights and escape from their normal gender roles, by recurring administrators.
The Women’s and Gender Studies program at the University of Mary Washington was a few years late to be a revolutionary cause, like other programs were in the 1970s. However, this program at UMW has instilled a new generation with the knowledge that anything is possible. This program is revolutionary to this campus in that it has finally been able to overcome the hurdles of a narrow minded administration. Dr. Och emphasizes the importance of forward thinking and embracing necessary change. She concludes her interview by looking directly into the camera and giving a positive message of hope for those in the future. The culmination of hard work and perseverance on the part of many faculty will make the Women’s and Gender Studies program a success. This program will help secure the history of women on this campus and not let them fade away as if they never existed.
[Note 1] Marilyn Jacoby Boxer, When Women Ask the Questions: Creating Women’s Studies in America (United State of America: The John Hopkins University Press, 1998), 10.
[Note 2] Majory Och, interview by author, Fredericksburg, VA, November 16, 2010.
[Note 3] Marjory Och, interview.
[Note 4] Marjory Och, interview.
[Note 5] While Marjory Och was speaking of her frustrations I could see a correlation between her and the ‘rank-and-file’ narrators from the Portelli reading. “Rank-and-file narrators are … more epic, and more imaginative. Their stories swell with anger- thirty years after the fact—as if it had just happened.” Alessandro Protelli, “The Death of Luigi Trastulli: Memory and the Event,” in The Death of Luigi Trastulli, and Other Stories: Form and Meaning in Oral History, (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, (1991), 8.