Nicole Kappatos

Women’s and Gender Studies Interview Essay

On November 11, 2010, an interview was conducted with Dr.Nina Mikhalevsky, a professor of philosophy at the University of Mary Washington. The interview focused on her prior involvement with the feminist movement and more specifically her role in the University’s recently established women’s studies major. Dr.Mikhalevsky was involved with the founding of the new major while she was in an administrative position as acting provost. She used her position as provost to advocate the program to the University’s administration on behalf of a group of faculty that had been trying for some time to establish a women’s studies major. Thus far she has not taught any classes in the new major, which only recently began in the fall semester of 2010, but in her interview she expresses her hopes for the future of the major.

Dr.Mikhalevsky’s involvement with the feminist movement began in the 1970’s when she was an undergraduate at Boston University. In her interview she describes her participation in student activism when she marched from Boston to Cambridge to take over a building at Harvard to become a women’s center. She later spent a number of years teaching at an all women’s institution, Mount Vernon College. In her time there, she wrote a book on the history of Mount Vernon College which focused on the development of the female seminary in the late part of the nineteenth century and the evolution of the female seminary into colleges in the early twentieth century. The time she spent at Mount Vernon College led to her familiarity and interest in single- sex education. Following her involvement at Mount Vernon College, Dr.Mikhalevsky served as chair of the women’s studies program at George Washington University. Her position at George Washington University put her in contact with some of the most influential feminists in the country such as Betty Freidan.

In Female Studies V, an account of the shifting debates about women’s studies, Marilyn Salzman-Webb defines women’s studies as “The intellectual understanding of the historical struggle between domination and submission.” (1) Dr.Mikhalevsky expresses a similar perspective; she defines women’s studies as follows:

I think women’s studies has a really important role, but I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive and I don’t think they contradict each other in any way, I think women’s studies is a particular area of interest and a particular area of study, and as I say it also has a sort of theoretical grounding to it now. That doesn’t mean that when you teach American history you don’t talk about the contributions of all of those individuals who have contributed to the particular narrative that you have argued is the narrative of this particular history, whatever that narrative may be. (2)

Like Salzman-Webb, Mikhalevsky believes it is important to understand the struggle of women and their contributions to history that have often been ignored.

Dr.Mikhalevsky described her classes in philosophy at UMW, “I would say that all of my classes, all of my courses, take seriously, particularly the ones that do historical surveys, but all of them take seriously, the contributions that are made by women.”[1] Although Mikhalevsky has not begun teaching classes for women’s studies in her field yet, she plans to incorporate varieties of feminist literature in her teachings.

In her article, “Vital to the Mission and Key to Survival: Women’s Studies at Women’s Colleges,” Dr.Claire Sahlin describes a successful women’s studies program as having mutually committed students and faculty, she says, “There is no more exhilarating and intellectually fertile place in the academic world today than a women’s college.”(3) In her final thoughts Dr.Mikhalevsky’s expressed her hope for the success of the University of Mary Washington’s Women’s Studies program. She too believes that students and faculty must work together in order to have a successful program and says, “I think what we have done is developed a program that at least to start provides students with a very sound course of study, in Women’s Studies. But one would hope that it grows. One would hope that, for example it isn’t dependent on faculty…” (4)

The interview with Dr.Mikhalevsky highlighted the importance of the genesis of a women’s studies program at UMW. Her long-standing reputation as a scholar, her experience with feminist activism, and her close contact with prominent feminist scholars, makes Dr.Mikhalevsky an important voice for UMW’s new program. At times her lack of familiarity with some of the inner workings of the program are limiting in completely understanding the new major. However, her overall qualifications, and her involvement in starting the program from the administrative level, make Dr.Miklavesky an important player in the establishment of the university’s women’s studies program.

End Notes:

1) Ellen Messer-Davidow, Disciplining Feminism from Social Activism to Academic Discourse (Durham [N.C.: Duke University Press, 2002),88.

2)“Interview with Dr.Nina Mikhalevsky,” interview by author, November 11, 2010.

3) “Interview with Dr.Nina Mikhalevsky,” interview by author, November 11, 2010.

4)Claire L. Sahlin, “Vital to the Mission and Key to Survival: Women’s Studies at Women’s Colleges,” NWSA Journal 17, no. 2 (Summer 2005):165.

5)”Interview with Dr.Nina Mikhalevsky,” interview by author, November 11, 2010.

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