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Moving toward the starting line

Setting up a women's studies program

By Anne E. Bartlett

Harvard usually prides itself on being near the top of every field, but this year a normally complacent University has to admit a lack in at least one area. Harvard has no organized undergraduate program in women's studies, an area that many of Harvard's equivalents in size and prestige are rapidly developing. Although the faculty and administration have rejected the principle of such a program, it has called for more women's experience at the undergraduate level. As yet, however, there are only a handful of opportunities for student's interested in academic feminism.

Momentum has grown to change this situation. The Committee on Women's Studies--a Radcliffe student group set up by the Radcliffe Union of Students--has worked during the past semester to establish an organized concentration in the field. The group has managed to attract substantial undergraduate support, some faculty interest, and at least cursory administrative attention.

The group has made some advances, including endorsements from several official undergraduate committees, and a petition of support signed by over 1100 students. The Faculty Standing Committee on Women approved the group's work, and Dean Rosovsky has said the committee's proposal will be discussed by the Faculty Council--which has jurisdiction over new areas of study--in the fall.

The proposal by the committee has put forward calls for a student-faculty committee to work toward establishing a concentration, hiring a visiting professor of women's studies for 1978, and creating incentives for faculty members to include material on women in existing courses. Members of the committee say they consider the proposal moderate and practical, because it leaves most details up to the student-faculty group and the administration.

Not everyone considers it so straightforward, however. The Committee on Undergraduate Education (CUE), composed of students and faculty, agreed to recommend only the part of the proposal asking for a committee to investigate the need from women's studies. Francis M. Pipkin, associate dean of the Faculty for the colleges and outgoing CUE chairman, says the complete proposal seemed to assume the necessity of women's studies at Harvard, a question that has not yet been resolved.

If a student-faculty committee ever gets around to looking into the area, it will find a growing number of schools no longer share Harvard's doubts about women's studies' validity. Of course, there are other schools that do not have women's studies programs, including Yale (which does have nine course in the field), Stanford, and--surprisingly--Smith, Mt. Holyoke and Bryn Mawr, three of Radcliffe's six sisters.

Those schools which do have women's studies programs fall into two catagories. Some, like Cornell, have either offices to coordinate women's studies courses or list such courses together to help students create their own program, but do not normally grant degrees in the field. The second type, which the Radcliffe committee seems to have in mind, are schools which have recently inaugurated programs leading to a bachelor's degree in women's studies. Such programs are now in operation at the University of Pennsylvania, Washington University, UMass-Amherst, and, as of a few weeks ago, Barnard College.

Harvard may not yet have a program like any of those, but its slow movement toward establishing a women's studies program is strikingly similar to the process undergone by the schools in the latter category. Three schools in particular--UMass, Penn and Barnard--followed patterns similar to that which Harvard may be following.

The three school show similar successes and problems. All three programs were initiated by students with faculty support. Martha Pollock, coordinating assistant of the Penn program, says agitation at her school in the early 1970s included 'sit-ins and other exciting thing." Cathy Portuges, coordinator of the UMass program, says that things were quieter there. She said the students had strong faculty support, particularly from women teaching courses on women in the English department. It should be pointed out, however, that each of these schools had many more courses in the field before the concentration was set up than Harvard has now.

In each case, student-faculty committees drew up proposals to be passed by their legislative faculty bodies. Progress was slow--the fight averaged about three years--because there was invariably some opposition. At Penn, Pollock says, hostility was less of a problem than indifference. "The administration probably didn't think it was an important area." Mary Parlee '65, associate professor of Psychology at Barnard who participated in this spring's s successful effort to get a major established there, says, "The faculty wanted to know what its substance was. They were simply unfamiliar with the work going on in feminist studies."

Portuges says at UMass those who wanted a program had to demonstrate substantial support and had to show "trend data" to convince the administration the field was not a temporary fad. She blames cumbersome administrative machinery for the length of time it took to get a proposal through.

Now that they exist, the three programs are also similar. Each is interdisciplinary, and is a program rather than a department. All three hold special administrative status, all encourage the integration of women's studies material in courses that do not deal directly with women, and several hire visiting professors in the field. Funding differs somewhat from school to school, with the Barnard and UMass programs sponsored by the University's special programs fund, and Penn's funded mainly by a National Endowment for the Humanities grant.

Most of the women on the Harvard women's studies committee think a Harvard program needs departmental status to give it political clout. But spokesmen for the UMass, Penn, and Barnard programs say they are pleased with their non-departmental rank, because it allows an interdisciplinary approach, and allows them to pressure other departments. Parlee does say that she would prefer to see a regular department, but the Barnard committee opted for a program as the most easy route.

Despite expanding curriculum offerings and rising numbers of enrolled students, each of these programs have what their administrators consider definite problems. They can be summed up in three words: money, tenure and perspective. Portuges says the problem is not finding people qualified to teach women's studies, but keeping them. Budget cutbacks at UMass have hurt the program by removing personnel. Women's studies professors are not receiving tenure at Penn either, Pollack says, "because they are women. They haven't had the experience and amount of publication men have had."

Trouble has already come from a different source at Barnard. Each of these programs claims a decided feminist perspective, but directors say they try to play it down. At Barnard, Parlee says, there have already been instances of "ambitious young men trying to get into the program with the wrong perspective," because they think women's studies is a growing field where names can be made.

The Harvard women's studies committee does not have to worry about becoming a growth industry just yet. Although the proposal will be discussed in the fall, its prospects for survival are uncertain. Dean Rosovsky refuses to express any personal opinion on the matter, pending recommendations from various committees and Faculty Council debate. Pipkin says faculty CUE members expressed no hostility to the idea of looking into women's studies, but thought anything else would be premature at this point.

Pipkin says that CUE did not feel it had enough information to really discuss the issue. "The proposal was both open ended and dictatorial," he says, adding, "The first question the Faculty Council will ask is what do you mean by women's studies." The Council is always concerned with whether a subject is substantial or not, he says, and points out that similar issues were raised in the debate over the establishment of the Afro-American Studies Department.

Questions of this sort are familiar to the schools which now have programs. If their experience is any indication, the movement--if there is one--toward a women's studies program will take several years. The process, slow as it may be, does seem to have begun, and Harvard may not be deficient in this one area for too much longer.

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