By Pat Flynn
October 1, 2010
SDSU's pioneering Department of Women's Studies, which was forged in
the social foment of the late 1960s and early '70s, tested by radical
schisms and all the while unabashedly supported by administrators, is
commemorating the 40th anniversary of its founding.
"We are celebrating the fact that we not only survived 40 years, but
we thrived and continued to expand and grow," said Marilyn Boxer,
chairwoman of the department from 1974 to 1978.
This weekend's celebration on the San Diego State University campus
is especially noteworthy in that it commemorates the founding of what
is acknowledged as the first women's studies program in the nation.
"It is the program that everyone points to as the first," said
Allison Kimmich, executive director of the National Women's Studies
Association. "There were courses being taught here and there, but to
be designated a full-fledged program by the university, we concur
that it was the first. We recognize the anniversary as an important
milestone for the field. Women's studies remains important and
necessary despite much societal progress since San Diego State's
program was established."
The anti-war and minority rights movements were already shaking up
the SDSU campus in February 1970 when student Carol Rowell (now Carol
Rowell Council), faculty member Joyce Nower and a few others
persuaded university Vice President Donald E. Walker to let them take
their proposal for a women's studies program to the appropriate
On May 22 of the same year, the last of the necessary approvals, from
the Faculty Senate, was achieved.
In the fall semester, the first officially recognized women's studies
program in the country began offering classes. It evolved from a
program to a degree-granting department in the mid-1980s.
A number of those involved with the program noted the consistent
backing for it within the university, from the time of that first
meeting with Walker.
"I think what was most interesting about San Diego State, was the
strong and broad support," said Bonnie Zimmerman, who was chairwoman
of the department from 1986-92 and again from 1995-97. While student
agitation launched the movement, she said, "faculty, the Academic
Senate, the administration all supported it."
In her memoir about the founding of the program, Rowell notes that
despite the support, it wasn't unanimous. One professor in opposition
stood at a meeting to proclaim " ... the hand that rocks the cradle
rules the world," a phrase she interpreted as "the hand that rocks
the cradle shouldn't rock the boat."
In any case, once formed, the department had to weather new challenges.
"I was part of the try-again team," said Marilyn Boxer, who arrived
in 1974 to become chairwoman of the program.
"Everyone who had been associated with it had left. They had come to
the conclusion that the purpose of the university was to train the
sons and daughters of the bourgeoisie," she said. "They resigned en
masse to work in the community. There was a split among the founders
in the first year about whether they should accept money from the
university foundation. Some of them considered themselves Maoists.
All the political fashions of the day were represented.
"I was a feminist, but I was an academic. I made it my mission to put
this program on a sound academic footing."
The department now has about 55-60 students pursuing undergraduate
degrees and about 20 master's candidates. There are 10 tenured or
tenure-track faculty, plus five part-time lecturers.
Scott, the department chairwoman, said many of the students,
particularly those working on master's degrees, pursue careers in
academia. Others have an "activist, social change trajectory," she
said, and tend to go to work for nonprofits and advocacy groups.
"It's a good liberal arts education," added Zimmerman, one of her
predecessors. "It teaches people to think. It teaches people to
write. Employers are always looking for that."
There are, of course, no shortage of critics of women's studies programs.
"These departments tend to be highly ideological, full of propaganda
and conspiracy theories about the patriarchal structure," said
Christina Hoff Sommers, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise
Institute and author of several books, including "Who Stole Feminism?"
"Just look at the introductory textbooks. They tend to include
paranoid accounts of male oppression.
"Now there are many fine scholars today in women's studies, doing
good work, so I won't say all of them, but overall there is a lack of
balance, too much indoctrination, too many mistakes that don't get corrected."
Scott, the department chairman, dismissed such criticism.
"Women's studies if fully respectable in the academy," she said.
"Women's studies has made its case."
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A look through time
The public can view a historical display, "Sustaining a Revolution:
Women's Studies Turns 40," in Donor's Hall of the Malcolm Love
Library on the SDSU campus through Dec. 20.