On the Founding of Women’s Studies at the University of Mary Washington
Analysis of an interview with Cedric Rucker, by Eric Halsey
Dean Cedric Rucker’s narration on the founding of women’s studies at the University of Mary Washington told a story centered around people. Speaking less towards a history of institutions in the style of books like When Women Ask the Questions (Boxer, 1998), and more towards the more personal perspective of The Politics of Women’s Studies: Testimony from 30 Founding Mothers (Howe, 2000). From his perspective as a student, and later as an administrator, Dean Rucker displayed both the insights of these perspectives, as well as some of their potential biases. With a persistent deference he consistently pointed away from himself when discussing the actual founding of women’s studies, and towards other faculty members. In this way the interview provides, best of all, a contrasting account of Feminism and gender awareness at Mary Washington in the late 1970s and from the 1990s on from an African American male perspective.
The first set of questions in the interview pertained to Dean Rucker’s time as an undergraduate student at Mary Washington College from 1977 to 1981. He characterizes the campus as a place where women’s and gender issues were extremely prominent both within the campus and in regards to the way in which the campus engaged the community. He discusses the social activism surrounding issues like the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and the local chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW). When questioned about why a women’s studies program did not develop during this period, Dean Rucker explained a lack of institutional support existed. Yet, he goes into detail about not only these campus programs but faculty who attempted to bring women’s issues into the curriculum during this period.
What is not clear here is how exactly this difference played out. If indeed such a stark contrast existed between the activism of the campus and faculty and a reluctance of the administration to contribute recourses, either fiscal or ideological, towards the development of women’s studies, then how did that difference manifest itself from the student perspective? Ultimately, while Dean Rucker provides an interesting student account, including fascinating tidbits on course materials, his perspective seems somewhat tainted by his current status as an administrator. If such a level of activism existed, it seems some discussion of conflict would follow. One gets the impression that this period of activism and adjustment, with some of the first male and African American students entering the college, there must have been more conflict than was discussed. This may be rooted in his desire to portray the institution in a positive light as a current member of its administration, as well as someone with an obvious passion for it.
A particularly fascinating section follows, when Dean Rucker discusses his perspective on the de-feminization which had occurred during his 8 year absence. He talks of being shocked at the renaming of buildings to rob them of their female names and the discontinuation of the practice of teaching students about their namesakes. Yet, this process and the discussion surrounding it illuminated an important element of answering the question as to why women’s studies arrived when it did. One critical reason for the administration’s opposition to the creation of a women’s studies major lay it its attempts to increase the male to female ratio. What developed here was an irony that only through the de-feminization process could women’s studies come about, that is, only when the administration felt comfortably removed from the university’s feminine character would it allow a women’s studies major. Yet, as Dean Rucker explained, it would be almost two decades before that process would complete itself.
The interview then moved into Dean Rucker’s perspective as a member of the administration during the 1990s and 2000s while the continuing battles for a women’s studies major went on. As we asked him about his particular role in these battles he generally preferred to talk about faculty members and what they did to facilitate the creation of the major. He stated that he had been on committees, but never really delves into precisely what his role was. Perhaps his direct role was limited, this question will require corroboration with other faculty and administration members.
Another interesting element is the contrast of his characterization of his time at Mary Washington as an undergraduate and an administrator is his claims of the continuity of student and faculty activism in this area. He makes this claim, yet from the modern student’s perspective this seems hard to believe. His prior discussions of the major on campus presence of organizations like NOW and the visible presence of issues like abortion and domestic violence does not seem to correspond to the campus today. Again, it is possible that his perspective as an administrator would lead him to shy away from stating that campus awareness or activism in certain areas has regressed.
On the whole then, while the interview did not provide as much specific information regarding the how women’s studies at Mary Washington came about, it did provide an excellent background in understanding the evolution of gender awareness and gender issues at Mary Washington. While his current role in the administration of the university calls into question his perspective on some issues, there is still valuable information both in his broad characterization of gender issues on campus during his time as an undergraduate student, and his specific stories of professors and organizations on campus. However, it would have helped to gain a more institutional perspective on how these changes occurred. While Dean Rucker’s personal insights are interesting, his position as a member of the administration would have offered an interesting opportunity to compare how gender issues became important within the administration to how this occurred at other institutions (as was explored in The Politics of Women’s Studies). On the whole then, while some biases and inclinations raise questions about the interviews contents, it is undoubtedly an important component to understanding how women’s studies came to Mary Washington.