Transcript

Dr. Vasey was the Chair for the Classics, Philosophy, and Religion department at the University of Mary Washington as of November 11, 2010 when this interview was conducted.  At this time, he also served as a board member for the newly developed Women’s Studies and Gender major program at that university. Prior to the development of the Women’s Studies and Gender major program, Dr. Vasey had substantial ties to the field of Women’s Studies at Mary Washington and beyond. For eight years, he was co-director of Mary Washington’s Race and Gender Curriculum Development Project, was a member of the Virginia Women’s Studies Association, and had done extensive graduate and undergraduate work in the field of Women’s Studies and Feminist thought.

The interview stated above conducted with Dr. Craig Vasey sought to highlight his role in the founding development of the Women’s Studies and Gender major program at the University of Mary Washington. In addition to documenting the technical development of this major program, Dr. Vasey reveals how this new program signals a positive, political shift within the University. This shift, from a politically conservative educational institution to a more progressive institution, highlights the similarities between the establishment of the Women and Gender Studies major program at Mary Washington and the development of comparable major programs nationwide.

Dr. Vasey’s position in the creation of the program at the University provides a distinctive historical vantage point because he represents the minority of white, male professors within the Women’s Studies field, and thus his insight into the major’s development takes on a unique position within this oral history[1]. Primarily, it is his gender that distances him from the traditionally female dominated domain associated with the development of Women and Gender Studies at the majority of institutions nationwide. Yet, while his gender may set him apart from the traditional women founders of most Women Studies majors across the country, his perception of this major’s impact does not deviate drastically from how his female predecessors also felt about the establishment of the Women’s Studies majors at their respective schools.

Both Dr. Vasey and his predecessors felt that these programs had the ability to positively alter the framework of their schools’ educational programs to shed light on the drastic inequalities felt by women and other minority groups that had historically been ignored in academia. They both believed as well that the nature of the curriculum at their institutions was inherently political and thus these new Women and Gender Studies programs were a means to change their schools’ politically conservative orientation.

The Women and Gender Studies major program at Mary Washington took nearly 30 years to develop. As Vasey explains, this was in large part due to the conservative mindset of the previous administration, faculty, and student body who saw little use in the institution of such a major at a former all women’s college that was focused on increasing male attendance. Vasey recounts how the Women and Gender Studies major did encounter resistance from the University of Mary Washington administrators and this was the biggest roadblock to its institution. Vasey spoke of how the major was swiftly rejected by Former Mary Washington President Anderson, “He [Anderson] said, “We will not have a major in Women’s Studies.” It was only after he was gone that we finally did put one [the Women and Gender Studies program] together.”[2]

As opposed to swiftly and fiercely countering this presidential ultimatum  however, Vasey’s interview shows the differing approach taken by UMW faculty as compared to founders of earlier Women’s Studies programs at different institutions. As Dr. Vasey makes clear, “Anderson was here for the term of twenty three years and that kind of stability at the top level of an academic institution can mean that the institution fails to keep up with developments in higher education”[3] Thus, the faculty at Mary Washington had to alter their approach to implementing a program that they, and Vasey in particular, believed would be the catalyst that would cause the institution of Mary Washington, to become “more insightful.”[4] This approach consisted of slowly and deliberately taking steps to transform the mindset of the majority of the faculty, administrators, and students in order to make them more open-minded to the proposal and establishment of such a major.

Florence Howe, in her edited volume of The Politics of Women’s Studies: Testimony from the 30 Founding Mothers, documents the narratives of thirty female faculty from a number of institutions across the United States as they detail their own individual roles in the establishment of United States’ first Women’s Studies majors. In Howe’s work, the women speak about how development of these programs embodied a slowly changing political outlook at their institutions. For some, this politicization even signaled a larger societal movement that sought to confront the mainstream, male-dominated social and political hierarchy. Likewise, Vasey’s interview demonstrates that the similar politicizing affects that this major had at Mary Washington.

Throughout the interview with Professor Vasey, he references how the “conservative mindset” of the previous administration had historically presented a roadblock to the development of this program. As Vasey stated in his interview, this program developed from a desire to change the politics of what he termed as this “conservative mindset” that was dominated by the white, male hierarchical social and ideological framework. Yet, unlike the largely feminist political aims of the development of Women’s Studies at other institutions, at Mary Washington, the new major aimed at promoting and acknowledging that there exists an opposing social and academic viewpoint to the conservative alternative and it should be taught so that Mary Washington can become more progressive.

Given these similar program aims however, the development of the Women’s and Gender Studies major program at Mary Washington was inherently unique because its inception was not marked by the fierce political and ideological resistance encountered by many of the nation’s first women’s studies programs. As Florence Howe’s edited volume of The Politics of Women’s Studies: Testimony from the 30 Founding Mothers displays, many of the nation’s first Women’s Studies programs experienced intense opposition from school administrations, and the broader American public throughout the proposal, developing, and ultimate establishment of their Women’s Studies programs in the early 1970’s. [5]

In fact, Mari Jo Buhle goes on to state, in the introduction to Howe’s work, that many of these “founding mothers” of early Women ’s Studies programs had to take with them their “experience in civil rights, the New Left’s antipoverty campaigns and the [Vietnam] anti-war movement” in order to “wage an uphill battle to establish Women’s Studies” at their respective institutions. [6]However, Vasey’s interview shows how Mary Washington’s attempt at developing their own Women’s Studies and Gender program contrasted slightly with these earlier programs because such resistance did not exist.

The Mary Washington faculty had no apparent need to tap into their own sense of organized resistance in order to counter persistent stiff resistance because there was no struggle at the major’s inception in 2010 at Mary Washington. There was no outcry from the greater Fredericksburg community nor was there an intensely passionate movement from an enraged student population pushing for the major’s development. Nonetheless, Vasey’s account shows how the politics surrounding the development of this program was in fact still very similar to the intentions of the development of similar programs at other institutions. As at other institutions, Mary Washington faculty took calculated steps to change the political mindset of the campus and as Vasey’s interview shows, the implantation of the Women and Gender Studies major program at this institution was able to accomplish this goal.


[1] The gender separation that Vasey experiences from the rest of the founders of the Women and Gender Studies program at Mary Washington has the benefit of distancing Vasey’s own oral history from what Thomson cites as his second historical paradigm of oral history where as he is not as affected by the group movement and memories that generally formulate around a historical event. Alistair Thomson, “Four Paradigm Transformations in Oral History.” The Oral History Review. Vol. 34-1, 53.

[2] Dr. Craig Vasey, interview by author, Fredericksburg, VA, November 11, 2010

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Florence Howe, The Politics of Women’s Studies: Testimony from 30 Founding Mothers(New York: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2000),

[6] Florence Howe, The Politics of Women’s Studies: Testimony from 30 Founding Mothers(New York: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2000), xx.

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