Janet Wishner, a former professor of philosophy at University of Mary Washington, shared her experiences from the early formation of the Women’s Studies Program on November 14, 2010. The idea of the program originated in 1982 with Bill Kemp who was professor and chair of the English Department, along with other professors such as Elizabeth Clark, Neil Oliver, Margaret Huber, Dan Dervin, and Alice Rabson. Wishner and the members of the committee gathered at a meeting and agreed on the decision that the program was going to be interdisciplinary. The agreement indicated that each teacher in their specialized fields lectured at least once during the semester, and Wishner was the supervisor who carried out the discussions. Their main concern involved presenting the project to the faculty to get it through the curriculum. Wishner was chosen and she stated that “the program went through with no opposition. We were astonished!” This early formation is vital to understanding the changes that later took place in the Women’s Studies Program at UMW.
Once the program was officially accepted by the faculty, the members of the group held weekly meetings to discuss the material that was going to be taught in the classrooms. According to Wishner, the task of incorporating Women’s Studies within the lectures posed a challenge for many teachers. Many of the strategies agreed upon in the meetings proved to be more difficult when applied in the classroom, because it was an interdisciplinary program and each teacher had a different agenda. Wishner noted that during the meetings “it was hard to keep a central line going, but we were very fond of each other so there was a lot of collegiality in the planning of it.”
An issue at the center of the program involved reaching an agreement on the types of books that were going to be used in the classrooms. The interviewee made a clear distinction between the anthologies for Women’s Studies used today that provide the interdisciplinary approach, and the lack of them in 1982. At the very start of the program no faculty members received “desk copies,” which were books published only for faculty members to use in their classrooms. However, that suddenly changed when the program took off. Wishner discussed that they did not have the bookstores that we have now and that made it difficult to purchase Women’s Studies books. She even went as far as Washington D.C. to purchase her personal readings. This information is significant for recognizing the reading and curriculum changes over the course of the Women’s Studies Program at UMW. As Wishner makes the distinction between the few books available when she taught, and the books available now on Women’s Studies at UMW, she states that “one of the biggest changes in the courses would be reading and a focus for the discussions.”
Students were in favor of the program, but the styles of teaching differed from those that teachers use in Women’s Studies courses today. Wishner discussed her style of teaching while she was professor at the college, and explained that teachers were less likely to expect their students to be explicit about how their personal lives interrelated with their academic life. She further went on to say that teachers teaching in Women’s Studies courses today presumably assume their students are expected to have courses impact directly on their lives.
The types of students enrolled in these courses were mostly women. Wishner also describes the classroom setting consisting of three or four males and no African Americans. The male students were not in opposition or necessarily in favor of the program. In fact most of the males enrolled in Women’s Studies courses because they had to fulfill major requirements. Her recollections correlate with Still Brave edited by Frances Foster, Beverley Guy-Sheftall and Stanley James. They discuss the male criticism towards the program, and illustrate that male students accepted and participated in the program. Although, Wishner hoped that more men would have taken the Women’s Studies courses, the numbers proved far less than students that enroll in Women’s Studies Programs today at UMW.
In the second part of the interview, Wishner talked about the various ways that Women’s Studies might affect admissions in the future. Since UMW now offers more Women’s Studies and concentration courses, the attraction of students might be greater. Particularly pertaining to those students who do not want to take traditional routes, but who want something more interdisciplinary. Wishner thinks that the program will draw students in the same way that historical preservation and business administration has, in that they want something more “imaginative and that they can make their own.”
In addition, Women’s Studies courses offer female students the opportunity to build new experiences and work with other women in the field. Students have a better chance now that in the past to relate their personal lives to the courses and form new meanings in their lives. In Disciplining Feminism, Ellen Davidow shares the same aspects in the formation of Women’s Studies Programs and the women’s personal ideas that helped form the program. The same ideas originated at UMW when the program was first formed, and the more students enroll in these courses the more popular support the Women’s Studies Programs will gain.
Wishner also discussed that in the future more courses will be constructed around the Women’s Studies Program. She thinks more gendered studies will be created because as discrimination and controversies over sexuality continue, more ideas will be brought in and taught in classrooms. In result, with more diverse courses offered more students will attend the Women’s Studies Programs.
1. Janet Wishner, interview by Madalina Marcoci, Fredericksburg, VA, November 12, 2010.
3. Wishner, interview.
5.Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Frances Foster, and Stanley James, Still Brave: the Evolution of Black Women’s Studies (New York: Feminist Press, 2009.
6. Wishner, interview.
7. Ellen Davidow, Disciplining Feminism: From Social Activism to Academic Discourse (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2002), 55-65.