The recent establishment of Women and Gender Studies program at the University of Mary Washington may strike many as oddly late in its arrival, considering the campus’ historically feminine nature.  Contrary to popular notions, however, its status as a formerly all-women’s college does not necessarily mean it was automatically in a prime position to support such a program.  In fact, as Claire Sahlin points out, the same negative stereotypes that women’s institutions face, that they “promote antipathy towards men or encourage lesbianism” are the same stereotypes encountered by those who support the development of women’s studies programs, making it “somewhat precarious” for the two to go together. 1 Of course, this negative conception of female-dominated campuses and programs is only one of many issues that together held back the foundation of the Women and Gender Studies program.  Dr. Craig Vasey, head of the Classics, Philosophy, and Religion Department at Mary Washington, has been with the university since 1986 and has long been involved in promoting women’s studies here, provides a long-term and unique perspective on the process of how Women and Gender Studies finally became a major and the problems facing the program and others like it.

One of the unique experiences Dr. Vasey brought with him to UMW was the time he spent in France as a doctoral student at the University of Paris from 1976-1979. 2 Coming into the interview with him, I had expected to find that France was a center of the feminist movement, after all, the famous feminist work, The Second Sex, was written by a French woman, Simone du Beauvoir.  This expectation was shared by Dr. Vasey, but to his surprise and my own, he found that French culture was “less sensitive … to issues of women’s equality or inequality than back in the United States.” 3 Of course, in the 1970s, feminists and proponents of women’s studies in America still faced plenty of obstacles, but from the founding of the first women’s studies program at San Diego State in 1970, women’s studies had spread to 1500 campuses across the nation by 1976. 4 Clearly, it was a fast-growing phenomenon on American campuses; while in Paris, Dr. Vasey found that even his relatively minor discussion of the feminine in his dissertation was considered to not be of scholarly importance. 5 The resistance he faced in Paris, rather than discourage his interest in women’s studies, seemed to help foster it.  This did not appear to be something he consciously pointed to as an influence, though, since my question concerning the connection between his current attitude towards women’s studies and his experience in Paris surprised him.   Nevertheless, seeing the discrepancies between French and American attitudes towards the Women’s Movement would have probably brought the issue more to the forefront of his mind, as it is often not until people confront another culture’s differences that they consciously begin to take notice of their own.

If nothing else, the resistance to viewing women as a valid academic subject that Dr. Vasey faced in Paris would prepare him for administrative resistance at Mary Washington.  He recalled that during his job interview for a position here, the dean at the time, Philip Hall, said to him, “We’re never going to have a Women’s Studies major.”6  Dr. Vasey followed this recollection with laughter, presumably at the irony of the statement, but he was quick to become serious again as he emphasized how Hall’s adamancy that no women’s studies major would ever be developed at the college  “kept it from making any progress.” 7  Later, Dr. Vasey wanted to clarify that it should not be set up as “too much as a confrontation with him.” 8 In other words, the former dean should not be viewed as the only thing hindering the establishment of women’s studies.  Still, it is clear from the way Dr. Vasey speaks of people’s reactions to Hall that he was considered at least one of the major roadblocks to the development of the program.  Dr. Vasey speculated that Hall’s resistance came from thinking women’s studies was a not viable academic topic. 9 This is an understandable speculation, as many academics of Hall’s generation felt that way.  But there is also the strong possibility that Hall’s resistance stemmed from the institution’s overall attempt to draw in more men to the college, which Dr. Vasey mentions later. 10

In any case, the lack of administrative support for the program had to be worked around, and is during that time that Dr. Vasey and another faculty member, Dr. Carole Corcoran, created the Race and Gender Curriculum Development Project, which educated faculty members in the fairly new fields of Gender Studies and Race Studies and encouraged them to take these ideas and make them part of classroom curriculum. 11 This was a vital first step towards the eventual creation of the Women and Gender Studies major, as it helped create a community of faculty who were committed transforming the curriculum so that it did not simply reflect the values of white, upper class men.

This idea of transforming university curriculum is a major goal of women’s studies programs across the country, it is not simply enough to have their own separate program. That can be easily dismissed as a niche sort of program that need not interfere with the rest of the departments.  Instead, women’s studies must act as a transformative program, which changes how all the departments in a university think and teach and discuss.  Despite not having a women’s studies program to promote this, Dr. Vasey and Dr. Corcoran managed to accomplish some of this goal through their project.  In around 2003, they decided that the program had changed enough of the campus-wide curriculum that the program was no longer necessary. 12 After that, though he did not play a key role in the logistics of starting the Women and Gender Studies program, Dr. Vasey continued to support the program and the work he had done in previous years had laid down an invaluable groundwork for the new major.

  1. Sahlin, Claire L.  “Vital to the Mission and Key to Survival: Women’s Studies at Women’s Colleges.” NWSA Journal 17, No 2 (Summer 2005): 165.
  2. Craig Vasey, interview by author, Fredericksburg, VA, November 11, 2010.
  3. Ibid.
  4. The Politics of Women’s Studies: Testimony from 30 Founding Mothers.  Edited by Florence Howe.  New York: The Feminist Press, 2000. xv.
  5. Vasey, interview.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.

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