A Look Back At Women’s Studies Since The 1970s

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In honor of Women's History Month, Tell Me More is hosting a series of conversations about the contributions of women in history. Host Michel Martin speaks with Beverly Guy-Sheftall, president of the National Women's Studies Association, about the evolution of women's studies programs in American universities.

(Soundbite of music)


It's Women's History Month and we are hosting conversations about the contributions of women in history. We wanted to know more about how the study of women became women's studies, which began some 40 years ago as an academic discipline, so we called Beverly Guy-Sheftall to help us. She is president of the National Women's Studies Association; and founding director of the Women's Research and Resource Center at Spelman College, and she's with us now.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

Dr. BEVERLY GUY-SHEFTALL (President, National Women's Studies Association): Thank you for inviting me.

MARTIN: What is women's studies? How do you define it?

Dr. GUY-SHEFTALL: The simplest way, I think to define it is to say that its like black studies, Chicano studies, gay and lesbian studies. It actually is the study of women and issues surrounding women such as: race, class, gender, sexuality.

MARTIN: It's my understanding that the first women's studies program was founded at San Diego State College, now San Diego State University in May of 1970. Do I have that right?

Dr. GUY-SHEFTALL: That's right.

MARTIN: What was some of the dialogue or what was happening at that time that led to the creation of this department?

Dr. GUY-SHEFTALL: I think that it came on the heels of the women's movement. It saw itself as the political arm of the women's movement, which had been going on maybe for about five or six years. And I think California, which was probably a more progressive academic site; is the place where it formally began, even though lots of colleges and universities were teaching courses about women. And I think it came on the heels of the black studies movement. In other words, we learned a lot about black studies.

MARTIN: Well, it's true that the first black history department was founded at San Francisco State two years before in 1968.


MARTIN: So there was clearly, kind of a lot of the same kinds of conversations going around at that time. And to that, and last month for Black History Month, we spoke with Elizabeth Alexander, who chairs the Department of African-American at Yale, and I asked her a question that I'd like to ask you, which is that there are those who reject the idea of these departments as academically valid. They think well, this is just identity politics dressed up in other clothing.

Dr. GUY-SHEFTALL: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Would you address that?

Dr. GUY-SHEFTALL: I would say the first thing is that academic disciplines departments were remiss in their lack of attention to issues having to do with, not just women, but issues having to do with race and gender and so forth. So women's studies, is not just about looking at women. It is also about looking at ways in which societies imagine or treat women and gender issues. So it is really an intellectual pursuit; it is academically rigorous, and it is really not about identity politics in that way. In other words, it really is about trying to understand 50 percent of the human family.

MARTIN: What drew you to this field?

Dr. GUY-SHEFTALL: I went to Spelman College in the 60s and got very interested in African-American studies. And then I began to realize the ways in which African-American studies was not sufficiently attentive to issues of women. And so I found myself when I was working on a master's thesis interested in women's literature and interested in the ways that male authors, in this case, William Faulkner, treated black women. So I got interested, in the 60s actually, as a person who was a child of the civil rights movement.

MARTIN: What else is exciting to you about it?

Dr. GUY-SHEFTALL: The thing right now that's the most exciting thing to me is how we can persuade a generation of young women who have been told that women now have it made. So I'm really interested in enabling young women - young girls to understand that women's studies and feminism are something that they should be as passionate about as many women in my generation are. And so I spend a lot of time with young women talking about this field.

MARTIN: Well, one reason that women - young women may not feel that there is this sense of urgency around these issues is that they look around them on campuses and they see more women than men. I mean according to 2008 census data, women had a larger share of high school diplomas as well as associate, bachelors and masters degrees. Although, men still have more professional or doctoral or terminal degrees. And I'm curious about why you think that is and if that reality will effect the way women's studies proceeds in the years ahead, since women are dominant in some parts of life, like the academic scene.

Dr. GUY-SHEFTALL: Let me address that. I'll focus on African-American women. One of the reasons that there's this huge gender gap in college matriculation rates, with respect to African-American women and men, is because of the very high dropout rate of African-American men in high school. One of the things that I argue is that women's studies helps young women and men to understand masculinity issues and helps us really to explain why it is that there is this gender gap in colleges.

MARTIN: What is the one course people should take if they are interested in women's studies? Whether they be men or women, what's the one course they should take?

Dr. GUY-SHEFTALL: I will say that intro to women's studies is probably one of the most transformative important courses that any students could take during their four years in college, women and men. It's the course that I still teach, the one I love to teach, and the one I think that does the most politicizing and the radicalizing of male and women students if they manage to get into one of these classes.

MARTIN: Do you still get queries from parents who say, well, that's fine Dr. Sheftall, but how will my child get a job after majoring in women's studies? What do you tell them?

Dr. GUY-SHEFTALL: I tell them that they will be able to get the same kinds of jobs that they would get if their students majored in English, sociology, philosophy, history. I tell them that our students go to law school, they go to med school, they go to work for non-profits, they go to work at the U.N., they become filmmakers, they become writers, they become poets. And so, women's studies is just a discipline that enables their sons and their daughters to do all kinds of things, including teach women's studies.

MARTIN: Okay. All right. Beverly Guy-Sheftall is president of the National Women's Studies Association and founding director of the Women's Research and Resource Center at Spelman College. She was kind enough to join us from Atlanta.

Thank you so much for contributing to our Women's History Month series.

Dr. GUY-SHEFTALL: Youre welcome and thanks for inviting me again.

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