Women’s and Gender Studies Program Turns 30


“Georgetown has [historically] proven to be one of the slower institutions to react to the growing need for an expansive Women’s Studies program,” the New Press, Georgetown’s former feminist quarterly, wrote in 1992. Despite its late start, the program has grown to occupy an important part of academic life at Georgetown since its first introductory course was offered in 1975. The program is now celebrating 30 years at Georgetown, and members of the program find it more necessary than ever.  

While students showed interest in enrolling for that first class in 1975, they criticized the course as incoherent, the Hoya reported in 1987. A course was not offered again until 1984, when a seminar was introduced to test the enthusiasm for a full program. After this seminar was met with enthusiasm from the 18 students who took it, the Executive Academic Council approved the introduction of a women’s studies minor in Dec. 1986. In the spring of 1987, the first students began pursuing women’s studies minors.

Some students were concerned at the time they would be associated with the negative stereotype of a feminist. “A lot of people seem to be afraid that someone will shriek ‘Feminist! Radical Feminist! Shoot her!’” said Sheila Redling (COL ‘88) in 1988 to Blue and Gray, a now defunct campus magazine.

Others doubted the validity of women’s studies as a discipline. Dean Ann Sullivan of the College reported to the Hoya in 1987 that she found others asking, “‘Is it a true discipline?’ and ‘Is it an academically respectable discipline?’”

It was not until 1989 that the program received an annual budget of $10,000, and even then, such a modest sum made it difficult to expand the program.

Campus media was not always supportive of the path the program was taking. In 1992, the Voice published an editorial supporting a women’s studies major, but imploring the program to change its name to gender studies, saying that the name minimized “the important role men and relations with men plays in women’s issues.”

“Women do not live and work in a vacuum,” the editorial board wrote. “It is impossible to develop a clear picture of how and why women have been oppressed without gaining an equally clear picture of how and why men have oppressed them.”

The program became an interdisciplinary major in 1994, which was then converted to a free-standing major in women’s and gender studies in 2006. “Since I joined the program in 2004, the number of [students who are] majors and minors has grown from 8-10 majors and 15-20 minors to 25-30 majors and over 40 minors and certificate students,” You-Me Park, director of the program, wrote in an email from the Voice.

Suzanne Mun (COL ‘21) chose to take “Intro to Women and Gender Studies” this semester to gain a wider perspective about feminism. “I wanted to find out more about what feminism is, why it’s important, and form my own opinions about it and see why I think these things.”

Park says that the program is perhaps more relevant now than ever before.  “As evidenced by the way the Department of Education is rolling back the Obama administration’s protection of rape survivors on campus, we are entering a new era of feminist struggle.”

The program also extends beyond solely feminist issues. “We will fight against the repeal effort of DACA, fight for environmental justice and the rights of the indigenous populations around the world, and we will continue to transform our own community here at Georgetown so that it will become a safe and liberating learning place for all of our students regardless of their gender, race, class, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or religion,” wrote Park.

Mun said that the course she is taking is especially relevant to contemporary life.

“Once you start learning about the topics of sexism, racism, and discrimination based on class and gender, you start to see how it plays a role in our modern society,” she said. “Feminism has a role in every topic, because you can talk about sexism and racism in any broad topic, like in the workplace and in the media, [where] women are generally presented as being sexy and men are portrayed as having masculinity and power.”

In celebration of the program’s 30th anniversary, the program has planned numerous events which will be open to all students, not just those taking women’s and gender studies courses. The biggest event will be an academic conference scheduled for March 15, 2018 titled, “Feminist Futures: Our Struggles for the Next Thirty Years.”  

“We also plan on including a student panel during the conference so that the very best feminist papers written by our students this year will be presented alongside the renowned scholars of the discipline,” wrote Park. “In the same spirit, we are also planning a separate event in March where GU student leaders and activists will convene and present their visions for feminist scholarship and activism.”

The 30-year celebration will also include many smaller events, including performances and workshops, movie screenings, discussions on various global issues including immigration and gender, as well as open mic nights, open to all students.

Park would like to renew the effort to create a five year accelerated BA/MA program in women’s and gender studies. “ While Georgetown University’s Women’s Studies program has been active and thriving, [it] still lacks any components of advanced graduate level education.”

Park said that the program’s shortcomings are particularly pronounced when in comparison to programs at neighboring universities.

“George Washington University’s Women’s Studies program offers not only a regular Master’s degree, but joint law degrees and five year BA/MA degrees as well, and these options apparently not only keep the program active and exciting, but also financially successful. The University of Maryland has an extensive program that offers MAs and PhDs in Women’s Studies.”

Park acknowledges that “we will need more lines of faculty and hopefully achieve the status of a department rather than remain as a program.” However, she remains hopeful about the program’s future.

“I am quite optimistic that our students, faculty, and administration will join in our effort to recognize women’s, transgender, and sexual rights as a worthy scholarly subject that warrants support and commitment at the highest level!” she wrote.

“If anything women’s studies is something from which everyone can draw and gain new insight,” said Fr. Royden Davis, Dean of the College to Blue and Gray in 1988. “We can only learn from those that give us a new vision.”

Jake Maher and Lilah Burke contributed reporting.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to the women’s and gender studies program as a department. 

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