On November 22, 2010 I interviewed Dr. Judith Parker on her thoughts about the newly created Women and Gender studies major that had just been approved at The University Of Mary Washington.  Dr. Parker is currently a Professor of English and Linguistics, and has been teaching at UMW since 1978.  One of the reasons that she first came to UMW in the late 70’s was to teach an intro to women’s studies course.  During the interview, which lasted a little over an hour, Dr. Parker’s responses reinforced the idea that the women and gender movement is not, and should not be taken as, a different entity towards other minority right’s movement, so it would be illogical to describe the founding of the Women’s and Gender Studies program at UMW without mentioning the other voices, which took the interview in an unexpected direction from my point of view as the interviewer.

Dr. Parker got her undergraduate degree at Sarah Lawrence College, which a small private liberal arts college in New York.  Parker herself described it as a “fairly progressive women centered college,” and a place where she was able to do work for Gerda Lerner, who was a large figure in the early women’s studies movement.[1] She then got her advanced degree at Brown, where, though she focused on psycholinguistics, which she categorized as “fairly straightforward scientific work,” she joined a women’s graduate group, which discussed different issues of what it was to be a women.[2]

In 1978 she came to teach at UMW for a variety of different reasons, one of them being that she would teach an introduction to women’s studies course.  She described the school as having awareness with certain members of the faculty about the importance of women’s studies courses and talking about women as a group.  Still, the campus was far from having a complete acceptance of the idea of women’s studies.  Early on in the interview she described going to a small faculty meeting, when she was still relatively new at Mary Washington.

The Dean of the faculty Phil Hall l was there and I remember us having a discussion about what kinds of goals we might want to achieve and Phil said “there will never be a women’s studies program on this campus,”[3]

Dr. Parker was initially shocked by the comment and the lack of support throughout the campus.  She recalled how difficult it was to keep the Introduction to Women’s Studies course offered to students, despite its popularity among students.  From that point it would take decades of resistance to eventually create the Women and Gender Studies program that is in place today.

The interview I did with Dr. Parker was part of a larger community study, which focused on faculty that dealt with, in some way, the Women And Gender Studies major and program on campus.  I did not have any decision in the choice of narrators for this project, and when I choose to interview Dr. Parker I knew very little about her.  On the other side Dr. Parker, knew very little about the interview project I was part of, which may have affected her interest in the interview.[4] Though the interview did not go in the direction I had imagined, I felt I got a lot of insightful comments and was able to develop a good rapport.[5] What I got from the interview was that to Dr. Parker, the creation of the Women and Gender Studies major and programmed was not a simple linear progression of obstacles that were overcome until the eventual creation of the program and that talking simply about women’s issues was missing the bigger picture.

Though she mentioned that she came to Mary Washington in part to teach an introduction to women’s studies course, it was not her only reason.  Her other reasons for coming to Mary Washington were for the interdisciplinary position that she would hold and to help work with students with disabilities.  One of the first programs that she mentioned she got involved with was the Society for the Advancement of Learning Disabled Students, and throughout the interview she mentioned the importance of all different kinds of identities and how the relate to one another.

And the point is, is that it’s not just take this and take that (the different identities) and put them in the same pot and that you know it’s together, it’s together in one person so you need to uh you need to recognize that a person can have many different types of identities and they are going to be distinct and if that person comes from a small town in the South or an urban center in the South if that person you know is impoverished or not, if that person is an immigrant or not, if that person has a college education or not , if that person has a physical or mental disabilities or not… Just thinking about those categories uh they’re going to be much richer if you understand all they different possible ways that those characteristics could manifest.  And power, I’m talking about the power difference.[6]

This goal of understanding all types of identities and how a person creates his or her own with the different identities is important to understanding Dr. Parker’s ultimate academic goal.

Dr. Parker mentioned different identities throughout the interview.  When describing the history of how the Women and Gender studies program finally came into existence, she frequently mentioned a race and gender grant that started in the later part of the eighties.  Once again, this grant did not simply focus on women and gender, but all kinds of diversities.  Like many of the women who founded women’s studies programs across the nation, Dr. Parker had a background with the Civil Rights movement, and her background played a very important role in her contribution to the Women and Gender Studies program here at Mary Washington.[7]

The Women And Gender Studies major and program is a big step for the University, but it is still only a step and not the definitive goal. Dr. Parker would like to see the new major help create a physical space, such as a library or social center, for the program.  She would like to see the majors get involved within the community more.  And she is also excited about other possibilities in the school, such as the possible James Farmer freshman seminars that have recently been getting administrative support, once again with on the larger picture of all of kinds of diversities.[8]

[1] Judith Parker, interview by author, Fredericksburg, VA, November 22, 2010

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Narrators are more likely to have an interest if they know the significance.  See: Valerie Raleigh Yow, Recording Oral History (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1994), 147.

[5] Ibid., 60-66.

[6] Judith Parker, interview by author, Fredericksburg, VA, November 22, 2010

[7] Florence Howe, ed., The Politics Of Women’s Studies: Testimony From 30 Founding Mothers (New York: Feminist Press, 2000), xxiii.

[8] Judith Parker, interview by author, Fredericksburg, VA, November 22, 2010

Comments are closed.