40 years ‘expanding the narrative’

Until the early 1970s, women were seldom represented in academic departments, fields, or research, says Demie Kurz, co-director of the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies (GSWS) Program and co-director of the program’s sister center, the Alice Paul Center for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality.

“Back then, when you went to college, if you studied history or psychology or sociology, it was about the study of ‘man,’” Kurz says. “The term ‘man’ was used to describe the study of all people. If you questioned that, you were told that ‘men’ means ‘everybody.’”

But with second-wave feminism on the rise, feminists began to challenge the representation of women in various sectors of society, such as law, government, and academia—including at Penn, where an increasing demand for the inclusion of women laid the foundation for the GSWS Program and the Penn Women’s Center (PWC).

Forty years later, the study of women across disciplines is thriving at the University. On Feb. 27 and 28, GSWS and PWC are hosting a 40th anniversary conference to honor the field’s decades-long evolution in academia and at Penn.

“It’s a completely interdisciplinary kind of study,” says Christine Poggi, faculty director of the GSWS Program and the Alice Paul Center. “And that’s something we want to continue. The study of women is always going to be something you have to approach from sociological, historical, literary, popular cultural, biological, and many other points of view.”

Developing a complex field

Through extended activism, women at Penn created the Women’s Studies Program, which in January of 1973 began offering a set of 10 interdisciplinary courses through the former College of Thematic Studies. In April of that same year, a group of as many as 200 protestors conducted a sit-in at College Hall in response to a series of rapes that occurred on campus. The sit-in resulted in the creation of the PWC—a physical space designed to address the evolving needs of women at Penn—and a renewed enthusiasm for the Women’s Studies Program.

“It causes you to begin to think about power, about histories not just of the ruling class, but of all the people,” Poggi says. “So I think it has made almost any field more interesting and complex by taking into account all of these other variables that weren’t before.”

Kurz says the introduction of the study of women into the curriculum served to expand academic fields across disciplines.

“When you added the study of women to the curriculum, you changed some basic concepts of your field and priorities about what to study,” Kurz adds. “Not only does the study of women transform fields, it brings attention to men, because women are constructed in relationship to men, and vice versa. That’s where the study of gender comes in. Gender is a basic organizing principle of every society.”

That dichotomy sparked further expansion of the field, which until the 1980s had been restricted primarily to the study of white, Western women. With women of color and subsequently non-Western women challenging their own representation within women’s studies, the field began to become even more comprehensive.

“There was tension there, and there are still issues,” Kurz says. “There aren’t enough women of color in scholarship and academia, but now, you can’t formally study women and gender without taking into account that kind of diversity.”

Around that same time, during the early ‘80s, faculty and staff at the Women’s Studies Program at Penn founded the Alice Paul Center, signaling further solidification of the field. It hasn’t been until the last 10 years, in response to a diversified academia and a series of culture wars around sex-radical and anti-porn feminists, that the study of sexuality was widely accepted as a key part of the field of women’s studies. In 2010, the Women’s Studies Program officially changed its title to GSWS, reflecting the field’s continued inclusion.

“When sexuality studies emerged, there was new attention to queers, lesbians, and bisexuals, but it was just very recently that the word ‘trans’ has been included, and it’s causing a lot of new thinking about gender polarities,” Poggi says. “But the program here has responded to those changes, and we have a very strong group of faculty who seek to address those issues.”

A commitment to continued inclusion

Today, the GSWS Program, which consists of a major, a minor, and a unique graduate certificate, boasts 1,700 enrollments and more than 50 courses per year cross-listed with topics ranging from English and art history to economics and music. The Alice Paul Center remains a hub for research, faculty fellowships, and seminars, and sponsors three endowed lecturers.

Kurz touts women’s studies’ stake in academia as a real feat, recalling a former colleague once warned her the field was a fad.

“It’s been a long process of adding onto the Program,” Kurz says. “But this is the way organizations work—you have to prove yourself.”

To celebrate the Program’s successes, GSWS and the Penn Women’s Center are hosting the 40th Anniversary Conference, with free, public events running Thursday, Feb. 27, and Friday, Feb. 28. Sessions of note include “Early Activism Against Sexual Violence at Penn” and “1973: Celebrating our Founders and Early Activism at Penn,” featuring some of the founders of the Program and the PWC. Feminist writer and media personality Jessica Valenti will deliver the keynote speech, “Purity, Sexism, and Activism.”

“In part, this conference is about the anniversary, so we’re looking back, we’re remembering our founders and activists, and we’re celebrating the good work that women’s studies and activists have done at Penn and what’s been achieved,” says Melanie Adley, associate director of the GSWS Program and the Alice Paul Center. “But at the same time, we’re also looking to what’s missing in the field—there’s always something new.”

Conference organizers say that in addition to highlighting the interdisciplinary nature of GSWS, they hope attendees will realize just how important understanding the history of women’s studies is to mapping out the field’s future.

“The takeaway is, you can no longer have a neutral notion of subjects like history, or sociology, or really of anything, and just vaguely assume that white males stand for all of humanity,” Poggi says. “I think the study of women destabilizes all of those assumptions, and it complicates the picture of what’s out there, and it will continue to as we expand the narrative.”

Women's Studies