It was the early years of the Women’s Studies Program at UW-Madison, and students in Susan Friedman’s “Images of Women” discussion section were talking about challenges many women in the 1970s may have been struggling with, but could never discuss in an academic setting.
“My husband won’t let me come to class until I’ve cleaned the oven,” Friedman remembers one student saying, in response to analyzing an advertisement depicting a similar scene.
Such an opportunity to analyze deeply personal and social issues in an academic setting gained formal structure in 1975, when the Women’s Studies Program—becoming the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies in 2008—was born at UW-Madison.
“It’s an academic subject. We’re talking about it academically,” said Friedman, who still teaches in the department today. “It’s still a strain in teaching gender and women’s studies. Things that are very personal, sometimes stories of violence, stories of extreme distress enter into the classroom. At the same time ... what we’re doing is an academic enterprise and it needs to be done rigorously ... but you can’t ignore when people come into class and say things.”
The GWS Department will be reflecting on its 40-year history and contemplating its future at a campus-wide conference Oct. 23 and 24, when students will be able to hear lectures and join discussions with prominent educators in the field.
This department, created by the impetus of roaring social movements, maintained the energy it was born with and now eyes new directions to expand the study of women and gender.
Momentum of the ‘Second Wave’
In 1975, women made up 51 percent of the United States population, but very few in academia studied their experiences and history.
According to Pernille Ipsen, assistant professor and conference organizer, the second-wave feminist movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s helped earn women’s studies a seat at the academic table.
“Students were pressing on universities to include many different minority studies,” Ipsen said. “It was so difficult to speak against because it makes very little sense, for, as long as academia had existed, women had been so excluded from the curriculum.”
These arguments resonated with the UW System Board of Regents, which in the early 1970s mandated that all System campuses establish Women’s Studies programs.
The UW-Madison committee tasked with creating the program wanted the autonomy to establish its own coherent curriculum, but recognized the study of women and gender was missing from many different departments.
“We didn’t want to isolate the subject of women’s studies and gender and just do it as a separate thing. We were afraid of a kind of ‘ghetto,’” Friedman said. “We wanted to integrate the existing departments with the kind of issues we believed in.”
"It was so difficult to speak against because it makes very little sense, for, as long as academia had existed, women had been so excluded from the curriculum."
—Pernille Ipsen, assistant professor and conference organizer
After its creation, the program faced a new set of issues surrounding its legitimacy. Friedman said skeptics questioned if women’s studies was “just a fad” or “too political.”
Faculty seeking to establish legitimacy through tenure in other departments found themselves scattered across the university helping develop women’s studies while also teaching in other fields.
Once GWS classes, such as Friedman’s “Images of Women,” did begin, professors faced a new set of challenges, such as teaching a subject that had little academic precedent and even fewer resources.
“I didn’t have a syllabus. Everything was so new. I was constructing the class as we went along. There were no textbooks,” Friedman said. “Each week, I’d have to say, was a little stressful.”
Stress aside, creating the introductory courses came with its own sets of bureaucratic difficulties.
According to Friedman, Ruth Bleier, a medical school professor, first proposed an introductory science course to the Biological Sciences Divisional Committee. Initially, the committee said it was not rigorous enough to give science credit and that “it reads like something that would be in a Kotex box.”
Seeking to give the committee what it asked for, Bleier responded by making a course so extremely rigorous the committee turned it down, citing it was too difficult for freshmen.
What came from the third proposal has blossomed into one of UW-Madison’s most popular classes: Women and Their Bodies in Health and Disease, more commonly known as GWS 103.
Friedman said the course has been “so successful,” and that it regularly enrolls more than 300 students with long waiting lists.
The work planted 40 years ago can be seen in a department that is expanding across the board, with more and more students joining GWS and becoming a part of its history.
The 21st century of women’s studies
Helen Powling is all too familiar with the waitlist for GWS 103.
But to her, the two and a half weeks spent waiting were more than worth it.
“The knowledge [a student] will get from GWS 103, you can’t pass it up,” said Powling, a UW-Madison senior. “I learned about my own body and I also learned about myself and my identity. Those two things I will take with me for the rest of my life.”
Despite positive feedback on GWS 103 and the department, the pressure to find a job post-graduation leads to many questions about the department’s ability to prepare students for the future.
“When students tell their parents they’re studying gender and women’s studies, that can be a hard sell,” Department Chair Judith Houck said. “We joke that many of our students end up working in NGO’s, nonprofits. And certainly that’s true, but our students also become ministers and counselors and physicians and writers. We do well. We teach critical thinking, critical writing, research skills and other things that translate to the market.”
At the same time, a GWS degree still offers traditional liberal arts training.
“When they watch movies, when they read the news, we’ve given them a way to unpack certain aspects of the world around them—the social world, the political world, the cultural world—that they wouldn’t have known was there until they took our classes,” Houck said.
"I learned about my own body and I also learned about myself and my identity. Those two things I will take with me for the rest of my life."
—Helen Powling, UW-Madison student
Houck argues GWS classes expand students’ thinking through offering diverse perspectives, which the department is also actively working on.
“There has always been an effort to make sure that we don’t just present the historical perspectives of white middle-class women,” Houck said.
Critical analysis, identity and research aside, Powling found other practical implications from her time in GWS 103.
“The other thing that will always stick out to me as one of those turning points was the day I learned about orgasms in GWS 103. I had no idea what those were until I was a sophomore in college. I also didn’t know what a clitoris was until I was a sophomore in college,” Powling said. “Both of those things were literally pretty mind-blowing.”
In 1975, the Women’s Studies Program was fighting to prove it was a legitimate field. Today, the GWS Department has established itself, leaving students with knowledge that will stay with them past graduation.
Generations coming together
Some women who will be attending the Oct. 23 and 24 conference once lived in a United States where it was not illegal for a husband to rape his wife.
All attendees still live in a country where white women make 78 cents to every dollar a man earns, and women of color earn even less.
“I was hoping that this event could be a moment to show the students the older generation, as well as bring them together,” Ipsen said. “The issues that we confront and deal with are in many ways the same, but the ways that we do it are sometimes so different that we can’t hear each other across generations.”
The conference will also address the future of the GWS Department as resources dwindle.
Houck hopes to see future improvements on topics like race, work and the environment, while adding faculty and career planning resources. Friedman said the department is in the exploratory stages of establishing a Ph.D. program, though she noted budget constraints could hinder such progress.
“Any lack of resources that we’re confronting at this point I don’t think is unique to gender and women’s studies,” Houck said.
Nevertheless, this department builds on its history of thriving in the presence of challenges.
It was the energy of advocates pushing for a spot at the academic table that brought the department into existence. It is the energy of professors and students who make GWS 103 an electric environment.
That same energy, instead of being used to clean an oven before being able to come to class, is what Ipsen sees the current generation of GWS students using to propel the department’s and students’ accomplishments.
“[GWS] won’t keep growing unless we all put energy into it,” Ipsen said. “[The younger generation] should see it as their material, their space to engage in these issues and practice their arguments and their thinking about hierarchies of difference. By having them in the same room ... they can inherit this, take it over and take it as their own.”