And she looks me right in the eyes and says, “If you really want to be helpful, you could help us develop a Women’s Studies major, we’ve been trying to do this for a long time, and I said, “Of course!”1
Above is a blurb taken from a part of the interview with Philosophy professor, Nina Mikhalevsky, where she recounts a conversation she had with a professor Art History professor, Margarie Och. In the months following this conversation, Former President Hample and the academic board would approve the Women and Gender Studies program proposal in the beginning of 2010, and, after two failed attempts in the past two decades, finally establish the major for undergraduate students in Fall 2010. While serving as the acting provost (senior academic administrator), Mikhalevsky helped the group of faculty, led by Margarie Och and Allyson Poska, move the proposal through the final stages of the approval process. Mikhalevsky’s academic, professional, and political experiences regarding Women’s Studies, led her to promote this program. Based on these past experiences, Mikhalevsky has many ideas and goals for the future of UMW’s Women and Gender Studies program.
According to Mikhalevsky, the Women’s Studies discipline has a number of strengths that are attributed to its methodology and content. When Women’s Studies programs first developed they functioned not only as an area of study that recognized contributions from female scholars who have been historically marginalized, but also as a place where women could achieve academic goals without constraints of the patriarchic academic society. Women’s Studies program do not only serve the students involved in the major, but the student body alike by giving the community an academic location to actively engage in issues that privilege women. As the field developed, scholars have incorporated questions challenging universal notions of gender, sexuality, and race creating an extremely varied and complex course of study. Mikhalevsky understands the interdisciplinary nature of the discipline as a major asset, since it forces students to critically study an issue through a variety of viewpoints.
Mikhalevsky support for Women’s Studies dates back to her undergraduate education at Boston University during the early 1970s. As a philosophy major, Mikhalevsky immersed herself in feminist’s theories and participated in pro-women campus activism. During her professional career, Mikhalevsky served as a professor at Mount Vernon College (MVC), a private women’s college in Washington, DC. When working as a professor at The George Washington University (GW), Mikhalevsky served on the Women’s Studies advisory board and taught courses for their program.
In both institutions, Mikhalevsky worked with inspirational figures involved in Women’s Studies that reinforced their political beliefs through their academic work. At MVC Mikhalevsky worked with Betty Friedan, a leading figure in second wave feminism and author of The Feminist Mystique. Mikhalevsky’s memories of Friedan include her “genuinely” and “passionately” caring “about changing the economic and political status of women”2 At GW Mikhalevsky worked with Diane Bow, an anthropologist who served as the chair of the Women’s Studies program at GW. Bow used her expertise in the Austrailian aboriginal cultural practices of a specific group of women to defend the conservation of their sacred lands.
Mikhalevsky’s exposure to Friedan and Bow has made her set high standards for the future of Mary Washington’s program in how it serves the student body and the Fredericksburg community. Her idea of an effective program will assist students to recognize issues that are both specific and important to women by providing them with strategies and resources to take action. Mikhalevsky hopes the program engages in forms of community interaction and activism, common in many Women’s Studies programs at colleges and universities across the country, by setting up internships that research and aid in these women specific. According to Mikhalevsky, regional engagement will dissolve “the walls of the university so that we are connected and that our students are— and our faculty and staff and the community are kind of permeating through our educational environment and in our region”3
Given that the program is inherently interdisciplinary, Mikhalevsky calls for an overall strengthening in interdisciplinary studies. Improving the faculty for this program will serve to strengthen all interdisciplinary studies. The Women and Gender Studies program must hire faculty for the program that have specialized in Women’s Studies in order to provide a substantive base to branch out to other disciplines. She envisions incorporating “faculty who are specifically trained in and grew out of graduated programs in Women’s Studies in addition to people who are historians and sociologists and anthropologists and art historians and musicians and others, who also teach in that program” 4
The future of Mary Washington’s Women and Gender Studies program has yet to be written, but hopefully through the commitment of faculty, like Professor Mikhalevsky, and a growing group of student majors a strong interdisciplinary program will develop that questions universal concepts of gender, provides a space for new intellectual conversations, and widens the scope of the university.