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Are Women's Studies Programs Still Needed?

Are Women's Studies Programs Still Needed?
SDSU's Women's Studies Department, the first of its kind in the country, turns 40 this year. We'll look at why it was needed and what the future for such programs.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): Considering all the challenges facing public education and SDSU in particular, the fact that SDSU's women's studies program is celebrating its 40th anniversary becomes even more remarkable. San Diego State founded the first women studies program in the nation back in 1970. Since that time the program has grown not just on campus, even overseas, collaborating internationally on women's studies issues. Here to talk about the women’s studies program on this International Women’s Day are my guests. Dr. Bonnie Kime Scott, professor and chair of the SDSU Department of Women's Studies. Dr. Scott, Bonnie, welcome.

DR. BONNIE KIM SCOTT (Chair, Department of Women’s Studies, San Diego State University): Thank you, nice to be here.

CAVANAUGH: And Dr. Patricia Huckle is professor emeritus of Women's Studies at SDSU. And Dr. Huckle, Pat, welcome.

DR. PATRICIA HUCKLE (Professor Emeritus, Women’s Studies, San Diego State University): Nice to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Bonnie, if you could, help us remember the cultural climate back in the late 1960s when the idea for women’s studies developed. What was happening then in San Diego and around the country to set the stage for this program?

DR. SCOTT: If you remember the late sixties and early seventies, it was a wonderful period, really, of movements, civil rights, there were departments being founded simultaneously with women’s studies here, Africano studies, Chicana-Chicano studies, and the sense that women’s studies really was a grassroots movement around the country. That’s the kind of setting this comes from. I know Pat has some thoughts about this as well.

DR. HUCKLE: Well, I’ve been here at State since 1975 and in 1974, after the initial period in which people who put together women’s studies courses, students and faculty, decided, many of them, they wanted to work in the community on activist projects. The Center for Women’s Studies and Services moved off campus. In ’74, the department changed and we had new people in. I came in in ’75. What I remember most is the enthusiasm of the students, the kind of excitement, particularly about things like social justice issues. I came from the civil rights movement so I had been well trained in understanding the context of social issues and my background is public policy analysis so I was working on legal issues. I taught a course on international women’s movements…


DR. HUCKLE: …in the seventies. The students’ enthusiasm, push, drive, I think, was responsible in part for this. We have thousands and thousands of students in San Diego who took a women’s studies course and many of them said to me, I didn’t understand, this changed my life.

CAVANAUGH: Bonnie, why was women’s studies needed? What were people learning about history in the 1960s and earlier than that that women’s studies needed to address and amplify?

DR. SCOTT: The personal is political, is, I think, one of the great sayings that came from that time. And it used to be that women’s lives just were regarded as a domestic thing and not something that had politics involved in them. I think women became aware of that. I think women became aware of issues relating to their bodies and especially to their minds. I come from women’s studies way back in the 1970s but in a different location, and part of the things we were noticing on what we taught was women weren’t part of history. Women were rarely cited in literature. They were out there, you could go back to Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own,” if you cared to. And also I think that there were challenges to make universities more relevant, more connected to the community, as Pat has been saying.

CAVANAUGH: And, Pat, amplify on that, if you would, because it’s sort of like, I would imagine the beginning of women’s studies was sort of like rediscovering parts of history, rediscovering the contributions made by women that just had never made it into the mainstream history books.

DR. HUCKLE: Well, not only history but other fields as well in which only what we used to call ‘dead, white men’ were focused on. And so one of the early concerns was where were women? What did they do? And this generation of the sixties and seventies really didn’t have much idea about that, and so they were happy to do that. When I put together a course on women and science in the eighties, it was hard to find material. When I taught the international course, the thing – the major thing about women’s studies across the country, I think, is the explosion of studies. When I taught the international course, maybe half a dozen sources on women in other countries existed, now it’s thousands, and with the emphasis in ’95 on the international conference in Beijing, that focus on women all over the world has become a very important one.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Dr. Patricia Huckle and Dr. Bonnie Kime Scott and we’re talking about the SDSU Department of Women’s Studies celebrating its 40th anniversary. Once again, you can’t say this too often, it was the first women’s studies program in the nation. Patricia, Pat, you’ve been with, as you said, the SDSU Women’s Studies Program since 1975. I wonder what kind of reaction did the Women’s Studies Department get across the board on campus? Was there – Did you feel you got your proper respect? Or was it tough going there for a while?

DR. HUCKLE: I think initially some people on campus didn’t take it seriously, thought it was frivolous, made jokes about it. We didn’t have, when I came to San Diego State, any policy against sexual harassment. It wasn’t against the law. So when the Senate debate began about that, there were lots of jokes about how it’s the best way to meet students is to have relationships with them. And so I think their understanding of power dynamics had not become – been very sophisticated. Gradually, I think over time people made it clear that violence against women, that sexual harassment was about power not who you had a date with. All of that took a lot of time. At the same time, I must say that from the very beginning of women’s studies on this campus, there were men who actively supported what was going on. Both Dick Rutten (sp) from History and Richard Wright from Geography were on the initial advisory board for women's studies. Frank Murooney (sp) and Bob Detweiler, both deans, were incredibly supportive of the development and both those deans added permanent positions to the department, putting it in a position to be permanent on the campus. So I think over time that happened. Now, mind you, there still are people who can’t take it seriously or who will say, well, that was before, it’s not now. But issues of poverty, lack of education, violence against women, all of those things still exist so…

CAVANAUGH: I wonder, Bonnie you are professor and Chair of the SDSU Department of Women’s Studies, I wonder if you could give us a feeling as to how the program has changed and developed over the years. What courses have been added as time has gone on?

DR. SCOTT: Yes. One of the aspects of women's studies that’s tremendously exciting is that it’s interdisciplinary. And one of the things that’s, I think, very good about the set up here at San Diego State is faculty are in the same department. In the department I worked with at the University of Delaware for many years, you just borrowed all the faculty and they didn’t get together and they didn’t talk about course development and how everything pertains to one – to other forms of oppression, for example. I suppose the awareness of other kinds of identifications that work together with gender in power dynamics, that is a realization that’s come along the way for women's studies. Some of the hallmarks and one of the things that we’re doing for the 40th anniversary is getting together a library exhibit and that has meant students poring over old Daily Aztecs and looking at, well, what was the climate the women's studies came into. There were all sorts of contests for what guy had the nicest knees that frat girls and boys would judge. And, you know, when you think about those sorts of transformations, it’s kind of interesting. A big barrier was having women's studies courses accepted for general education and, you know, you can read back through the records and realize, well, that really was quite a victory when that happened.


DR. SCOTT: A major, a graduate program, we have had a graduate program for a little over ten years, I believe, maybe 15 by now. And I would say if there’s something that’s been continuous throughout it is the sense that community activism is tremendously important. International aspects were, in women's studies, very early but I think, you know, we’ve done travel study over the years, we’ve had policy being of interest. I think we have come into better strength representing our border position and Chicana-Chicano overlap in our coursework, courses on migration, courses on the body, courses on sexuality always sell rather well.

CAVANAUGH: Now, I’m wondering, I’m intrigued to hear about how the Women's Studies Department collaborates internationally. Do you actually go to other countries and say here’s what we do at SDSU? Or how is that collaboration achieved?

DR. SCOTT: I think it’s very important to say how are you doing things…


DR. SCOTT: …in addition to sharing how we are doing things. And there have been programs to India, China, South Africa, and exchanges with Fulbright Scholars from Australia and Costa Rica and students traveling in other ways with international studies to other parts of the world. I think it’s very interesting Huma Ahmed-Ghosh has led a number of programs to India and I’ve visited with them, and it’s very important to go to Delhi University, to go to see ashrams where widows are housed in India, to talk to the wonderful people running presses. Pat and I did a visit to Ireland not too long ago and it is very interesting to compare notes with them about how with administrative structure’s changing, there is peril that women's studies may disappear. Discussions of, well, what is your department still called? We’re still called women's studies…


DR. SCOTT: …because we put women really at the very center of what we’re doing. You’ll notice nationally more and more programs are called gender studies.


DR. SCOTT: And I’m finding—I was recently on sabbatical on Australia—that is also being grouped with other things since the woman almost – there’s some danger of her disappearing as a central concern.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder, just quickly, how many students on average major in women's studies here?

DR. SCOTT: At least 50.


DR. SCOTT: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: I want to have you both talk a little bit about why you feel the women’s studies in particular, not gender studies but women's studies, are still important to keep on. People could, you know, point to the major strides made by women in our society. We almost – we had a woman running for president, didn’t quite make it but she was a contender, and, you know, women in politics, women in business, why, Pat, do we still need a Women’s Studies Department?

DR. HUCKLE: Well, we haven’t finished the issues that started us. That is to say poverty, issues of health. I mean, you look at the 30 million people in this country who live in poverty, most of them are women and children. Who’s – And many of them are minorities. The point is that it’s a matter of the long view. Activism is a life long activity wherever your focus is. We have a lot of students interested in the arts now. How does art reflect changes in society? From my point of view, I would say, since the inequities continue—and, yes, it’s true, women have made tremendous advances, but they’re still under-represented in fields like construction, they’re still under-represented in every area of administration, although we now have a woman director who won the Academy Award last night.

CAVANAUGH: That’s very true.

DR. HUCKLE: So we are still at the point where we’re celebrating firsts. Obviously, it’s not done yet.

DR. SCOTT: There are important global coalitions and coalitions of LBGTQ (sic)…


DR. SCOTT: …trans communities and, you know, the struggle is ongoing in the sense of that we understand these dynamics and can add to one another’s causes, I think, is very, very important. We have faculty members – Betsy Caldwell has been doing research in Haiti and was able to talk to us about, you know, what has been lost in the field of education and what is most needed. Women NGOs all over the world. That is a way that we can collaborate and cooperate and, of course, listen is a very important thing.

CAVANAUGH: I’m interested in the idea that a lot of these programs are sort of morphing into gender studies and I understand why you’re – you resist that. I wonder though, in forty years from now, would you like to see a Women’s Studies Department still be at SDSU? And if, indeed, the answer is yes, what would you like it to be doing?

DR. SCOTT: I think I would like it still to be women's studies, especially here, especially because it is such a significant historical marker, especially because we can see women’s moments coming and going historically so easily, what happened in the 1950s, what happens when we go to war, what happens – And, you know, I can’t tell what world events are going to be but I think women's studies is apt to have the responses to ask the different kinds of questions that can help us out of some of these morasses, to say enough when there’s certain false emphases in budgets and such things that are, you know, very current problems right now. I’m looking to an age when we will have more women in the Senate and international governments and collaborations, rethinking the military and all sorts of things. The environmental movement is terribly important, environmental justice. I’ve been teaching a Women & the Environment course lately. Women have different things, different things to say, different ways to collaborate with women like Vandana Shiva in India, and I suppose sustainability, global cooperation. The peace movement and the women’s movement have long overlapped in very, very interesting ways. And women’s health, women’s health being a key to everybody’s health. I think that’s another important reason for keeping women’s – the women’s place in women's studies very visible here.

CAVANAUGH: And, Pat, we just have just a very short time left. I wonder if you could just – when we’re not longer celebrating firsts, why do we still need a Women’s Studies Department?

DR. HUCKLE: Well, we need it because the world isn’t complete yet and it has to include half of us who are there. I did want to make a comment, though, just in closing about the thousands of women who simply took a women's studies class. They’re out there. They’re not running for the Senate. They’re living their lives as best they can, some of them well and some of them not. Women's studies gave them a tremendous ability to see life differently.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that. I appreciate it. I’ve been speaking with Bonnie Kime Scott and Patricia Huckle and to celebrate International Women’s Day, the film “The Shape of Water” will be screened tonight at 5:00 p.m. at Storm Hall. Go to for more information. I want to thank you both so much for coming in and – and happy anniversary.

DR. SCOTT: Thank you.

DR. HUCKLE: Thank you.

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