March is National Women's History Month. Here at Tell Me More, we're hosting a few conversations to highlight and celebrate the accomplishments of women. Today, we spoke with Beverly Guy-Sheftall, president of the National Women's Studies Association, about the history of women's studies programs in American universities.
The first women's studies program was founded at San Diego State College, now San Diego State University, in 1970, on the heels of the women's movement. It was a time, particularly in progressive California, when women were ignited with a passion to gain equality with men in the home, the workplace, the university — in all sectors of life.
Women's studies programs spread around the country and became a hotbed of debate and ideas for how women could advance. And the women who came out of these programs did help change society. Their impact on the culture is seen in their positions: Supreme Court justices, university presidents, astronauts. Today, young women coming of age in the United States have almost limitless opportunities in front of them — and for that we can thank our foremothers who paved the way.
Asked what the most interesting challenge is facing her now, Guy-Sheftall said it is persuading young women, who have been told they already have it all, that women's studies are still relevant.
Of course they are still relevant. Not every problem facing women in the United States has been solved. Women have made it into the workplace at every level of the corporate ladder, and we have women serving in the highest levels of government (well, not the highest level — but she came close...). Yet, major challenges still exist for them. In her interview, Guy-Sheftall pointed out that many workplaces still do not offer equal pay for equal work. According to Census data, women earn 77 cents to every $1 earned by men.
Earlier this year NPR had a series called "Diversifying The American Workplace." In it, legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw touched on the contradictions that exist in many American companies. Often times, Crenshaw said, companies will have cosmetic policies, like recognizing Mother's Day, but they don't back that up with structural policies to support women who are mothers, like offering family leave or flex time. This leads parents, often women, to make a painful choice between prioritizing work or family.
This is just one issue worthy of attention. What are some others?