A New Issue Rears Its Radical Head: Should There Be Women's Studies at Harvard?

International Women's Day was celebrated at Harvard last Saturday for somewhat different reasons than on the occasion of its first proclamation in 1908. Almost 70 years ago, a group of working women declared their solidarity with the women of the world and protested against what they saw as the oppresion of their kind by the capitalist system. This year at Harvard, the International Women's Day program, with its speeches and cultural events, was just as serious although different in scope. The women who gathered at Emerson Hall on the weekend proclaimed a goal at once more limited and more all-encompassing than the objectives of the sweatshop workers in 1908--the creation of a women's studies concentration at Harvard as part of a general movement toward eliminating what the call the white male bias found in the structural and academic aspects of the university and country.

In 1908. Radcliffe students may not have been working in sweatshops but they were dealing with another sort of discrimination. Women students were deriving what benefits they could from a Harvard education in classes and living quarters completely separate from those of the male Harvard students, taught by professors who only deigned to teach women in return for an extra salary. Today, there is surface equality--Radcliffe women live in the same Houses, attend the same classes, and recently have been admitted on the same basis as Harvard men. However, the women on the Committee for Women's Studies, one of the groups that organized Saturday's commemoration of International Women's Day. feel that there still is discrimination at Harvard although it is not as easy to see or eradicate.

The Committee, whose activities have gathered momentum in recent months, grew out of a subcommittee of the Radcliffe Union of Students (RUS). The subcommittee thought it would be more effective if it separated from RUS and formed an autonomous organization. Since February, the new, chairmanless committee has attempted to broaden its base of student support and educate the general public about women's studies.

The committee wants to establish a women's studies concentration which would allow interested undergraduates to major in an interdisciplinary program examining women's experience. The goal also includes a specific perspective for such a major. Committee members stress that a concentration should not merely be concerned with establishing the field as a valid academic discipline but also recognize and work to alleviate the oppression of Third World and working women. Frequently, courses on women run the danger of studying only those women who "have made it in a man's world, and are chosen by men to be studied," Laura Orgel '79, a member of the committee, said.

A Women's Studies concentration is only the immediate aim of the group, which wants to work for the elimination of bias against women and minority groups throughout the University. All Harvard departments, Orgel says, are biased in a white male way. Women's Studies might be a first step toward "raising the consciousness" of the rest of the University.


Women's studies is "the recognition that women have had a different experience." Mizzy Stokes '78, another committee member, said. The group's position paper explains. "It means research and courses on all the known aspects of women's experiences and their contributions to society. Women's studies is by nature interdisciplinary." Although the committee does not want the program to be modeled specifically on that of any particular school, Stokes regards the concept behind the Afro-American studies department as a useful example for future discussion.

Considerable debate within the committee centers around whether the concentration it advocates should be formed through a department, like Afro-American Studies, or a degree granting committee like History and Literature and Social Studies. Advocates of a department, like Ruth Colker '78, president of RUS and a committee member, believe a department would have more power and status then a degree granting committee. Stokes further ads that a department might be better able to maintain the broad perspective the committee hope for, since it would be an autonomous unit staffed by faculty members with appointments in the field and a primary committment to women's studies.

Some committee members favor a degree granting committee thinking it would be less isolated than a department and attract more non-concentrators who would be more interested in taking courses integrated into currently existing department. "People might think a department was too off the wall," Stokes notes. A committee could force departments to incorporate courses about women into their curricula, a process that does not appear to be happening now.

Whether the undecided committee members eventually decide to endorse a degree granting committee or a department, they will nonetheless figuratively have an empty sheet on which to write. Harvard offers few women's studies courses although, as the field has acquired some academic acceptability isolated offerings have appeared her in an unorganized fashion. For example Catherine Widom, assistant professor of Psychology, teaches "The Feminine Personality," and Ruth Hubbard, professor of Biology, offers "Biology and Women's Issues." In odd corners of the University there are small scale attempts such as the "women in history" expository writing section, with an enrollment of ten women ad five men, and various professors in regular departments who are attempting to integrate the study of women into broader areas. Theda Skocpol, assistant professor of Sociology, plans to devote several lectures to women and the family in her Sociology of Revolutions course. Bits and pieces do not add up to an organized program, though , with one notable exception in the University.

The exception is the women's studies program at the Divinity School, which has its own office and staff, and coordinates courses, research and individual counseling. The program was created in 1973, in part because of student initiative and what its director, M. Brinton Lykes, once called the "liberal guilt" of the Divinity School. This unique project is not exactly flourishing, however, because it is currently threatened with severe budget cuts in the wake of a financial crisis at the Divinity School. The program will probably survive but with the budget of its coordinator cut in half.

Harvard's offerings are sparse and marginal especially compared to Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania, which have full women's studies programs. Stokes thinks Harvard does not take the area seriously yet, adding that Harvard is often not as responsive generally to the desires of student as are some schools. Ursula Goodenough, assistant professor of Biology and chairman of the Faculty Standing Committee on Women, looks at it from the perspective of a faculty member. She told a Cambridge Forum audience that those with an interest in the field are junior faculty members. She contends that they are afraid of being thought frivolous, a characterization that would reduce their chances for tenure. "We have a lot of pressures on us to concentrate on disciplines considered as serious," she notes.

The result is a vicious circle. Since Harvard does not offer a women's studies program, qualified professors are hesitant to come, particularly when other colleges offer growing and worthwhile programs.

Some opponents of a concentration argue there are not many courses because there are not enough people interested in taking them. Jeanine Dobbs, preceptor in expository writing and the teacher of the "women in history" expos section, says she was somewhat discouraged about the apparent lack of interest when it first appeared that not enough people would choose her expos section to fill it. The women's studies committee says this supposed lack of interest may be caused by a lack of communication.

Orgel admits that many students have not thought about the issue or even the possibility of taking such courses, saying, "Before you can ask whether there's support you have to raise the issue." Local complacency also has to be dealt with. "Some people who come to Harvard are pretty pleased with the place and don't like being told what's wrong with it." She says that when students listen seriously to discussions about women's studies, they respond favorably.

Even if they are not personally interested, Orgel thinks most students seem to be in favor of setting up a women's studies concentration for those who want it. "When I tell them that I personally could name at least 20 people who want to major in women's studies, they're interested," she adds.

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