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SDSU Celebrates 40 Years Of Women Studies


Did you know San Diego State University is home to the nation's first women's studies program. Its now celebrating its 40th anniversary.

Did you know San Diego State University is home to the nation's first women's studies program? It's now celebrating its 40th anniversary. Joining us on Morning Edition to talk about how the program has forged the way for women's issues is one of the early professors in the program, Carol Perkins.

DWANE BROWN (Host): San Diego State, Carol, has grown considerably since 1975. Today it's the largest university in the region with about 30,000 students. What comes to mind when you think about the college environment for women 40 years ago?

CAROL PERKINS (Professor): There were very, very few classes that acknowledged women as contributors to society in very real ways. There just was very little consciousness about what we now call women's liberation or women's rights.

BROWN: So what was the big idea behind creating the Women's Studies program?

PERKINS: There was a confluence, I guess you would say, both from the larger society into academia, into the campuses. At the time that I became aware of the Women's Studies department at San Diego State, I was teaching English at Grossmont College. There, because of re-entry women, that's what we called them then, women who had been displaced by divorce, or simply needing to go out into the job market and not having background skills to make a living. These women were returning to campus in great numbers -- kind of counterparts to the men coming back from Vietnam. And those women at Grossmont had begun to ask for things like campus daycare. They initiated the kinds of questions that led to people developing coursework that revolved around the study of women. And San Diego State had been doing the same thing, and had the same exact interplay between society and the campus. It was just a very exciting place to be as Women's Studies began to develop.

BROWN: You spent about 14 years in the Women's Studies department. How did the coursework change over that time?

PERKINS: Enormously. In the very beginning, we were creating our own curriculum. There were no set textbooks as there were in well-defined and older disciplines. I would say in every one of our course titles in those days the word 'woman' or 'women' appeared, and in my Women & Film class we had one text. I would say in the 14 years I taught that course, by the end of that 14 years, I had hundreds of books to choose from, of new journals that addressed women and media and that sort of thing, so that was a huge change. I think we had a little saying then that one formula, which was called add women and stir, and that's how a lot of people addressed women's studies. We were going much beyond that, and beginning to just develop whole research models.

BROWN: Add women and stir. So I take it you faced plenty of opposition.

PERKINS: Oh yes, that was true nationally, as women's studies programs and departments developed across the country. There were plenty of naysayers, people who said this isn't a discipline. This is no academic or scholarly or research-based reason to be, and it just became pretty clear that it did have all of those, and became one of the most productive research areas in modern times. And paralleled the development of black studies, the development of chicano studies, and Native American studies, so there were allies, that's for sure.

BROWN: We started this interview looking back 40 years. How would you assess the prospects for women moving forward?

PERKINS: In an academic sense, there are very few barriers today. Women outnumber men as undergraduates, but there are men who are feminists. There are men who are very much involved with studying gender issues. In the larger sense, women still make a lot less for work of equal value than men do, and they are not sitting on boards of corporations, and in our country there still is a lack of representation at the levels of power which -- change happens.

BROWN: Carol Perkins taught in the Women's Studies department from 1975 until 1989. SDSU is celebrating the program's 40th anniversary this weekend with a series of events on campus.

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