As stated by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, “Well behaved women rarely make history.” Women who stood by and did not stand up for one another are not recorded in the history books, but those who challenged the system are remembered. Women who challenged American politics in the early half of the 1900s paved the way for women who would transform the educational system. The admittance of women to higher education was one step but once that was accomplished women pushed for more recognition. Women wanted to develop programs that recognized their history, importance in society, and also a broader focus on gender studies in America. The beginning of a Women’s Studies Department began in 1970 at San Diego State College and flourished throughout the country. Predominately female and co-educational institutions were shifting views on women and programs were able to develop through the help of hundreds of determined professors and women who believed in the study of women. Many institutions struggled with the idea of a Women’s Studies Department while others claimed there was no need for such programs, but these departments did grow.
Today the development of a Women’s Studies Program is challenging and raises many questions of how can the program be funded, who will support the program, who will be qualified to teach, and the role feminism and gender studies will play in the curriculum. An institution that struggled to develop the program is the University of Mary Washington but with the persistence of faculty and the acceptance from the administration the Women’s and Gender Studies Program was built and opened in the fall of 2010. One of the leading professors in the development of the program is Connie Smith, whose history at Mary Washington helped shape the founding of the department. Ms. Smith stated, the development of the program was long in coming and the faculty saw a need for it to make students education better-rounded.
Connie Smith began at Mary Washington in 1970 and had never encountered feminist teachings in her college education. Her first experience with feminist writings was within the English Department when she was asked by Dr. Carol Manning to teach a course entitled Women and Literature. Smith notes that the material she presented in her class was as new to her as it was to the students. She continues by saying that the course was both difficult and enjoyable because of how the material challenged stereotypes. She further goes on to say that the administration, when she began in 1970, did not have an interest in furthering a Women’s Studies program. President Anderson allowed the Women and Literature course but beyond that a program dedicated to women did not have the support or backing to be established and the proposal for the development of the program was dropped by the Board of Visitors.
Smith commented that she was a full-time member of the faculty when she began teaching at Mary Washington but the position was viewed as temporary, “[s]he was filling in for her first year and that was viewed a typical career path for women.” Smith sought work at Germanna Community College in 1971, and that was where she pieced together her understanding of feminist studies. When asked how she ran her classrooms, Smith states, “When I first began it was more of a lecturing class, but now the class is much more interactive.” She continues that the reading of feminist studies influenced how she ran her classrooms and the seminars that she heard about Women’s Studies were influential in her teaching methods. The early feminist writings played an important role in forming how Ms. Smith viewed and taught the Women and Literature course and still help shape how she teaches the Introduction to Women’s Studies course.
Ms. Smith narrates the beginning of the Women’s and Gender Studies program through her own history and learning at Mary Washington and notes that specific fields are more supportive of the program, specifically the English, Linguistics, and Communication Department. She continues by saying the faculty pushed the most for the development of the program, especially those who already taught courses on women or gender studies, it made sense for those faculty members to create the syllabus for the program. The faculty gained administrative support this year for the program but were told they would not be given any financial help for the courses, but to “go for it” and the faculty did. Ms. Smith noted, when asked how the name for the program was chosen, that the faculty wanted the name because it was more field conscious and expanded the learning of gender as a whole. She acknowledges that the alumnae now appreciate the program and student support and involvement for the program is great for sustaining it. She feels that the program has already made an impact on campus, with eight majors within the first year, and when asked about the future of the program, Ms. Smith simply stated, “Hopeful and hopes it will be a significant impact at Mary Washington.”
The development of the Women’s and Gender Studies program at Mary Washington has been discussed since the 1970s and has now been established as a program that will move forward with the university. Connie Smith’s narration of the development of the program proves helpful in understanding the difficulties of sustaining the program and how the faculty came together under the direction of Allyson Poska to build a collective syllabus. The program brings together faculty from different departments and those involved have changed and challenged the stereotypes of women.
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. “Women’s and Gender Studies Essential Quotes,” Northern Arizona University. http://www4.nau.edu/womensstudies/quotes.html#top [accessed November 26, 2010].
Connie Smith, interview by Megan Whiteaker, November 15, 2010, video interview, Fredericksburg, Virginia.
Ibid. For more information on other women who had never encountered feminist studies in their education and needed to learn about feminism see, Katherine Borland. “That’s Not What I Said”: Interpretive Conflict in Oral Narrative Research.” (New Brunswick: Rutgers University, 1988). 74.
For more understanding on the development of a Women’s Studies program and how it transformed universities see, Claire L. Sahlin. “Vital to the Mission and Key to Survival: Women’s Studies at Women’s Colleges.” NWSA Journal 2005.