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Talking Up Women's Studies

By Amy B. Mcintosh and Brenda A. Russell

Have you talked about women's studies today? Probably not--and that is the problem, according to women's studies supporters on campus. Students posted signs challenging others to talk about women's studies. In fact, both students and the Faculty Committee on Women's Studies are pursuing a course of action that calls for talking up women's studies as much as possible. They hope that meetings, luncheons, lectures and panel discussions will make professors and students aware of scholarship by and about women, as well as the need for more work in all disciplines.

Simmering beneath all the talking is the controversial question of a concentration in women's studies. Some call it a dead issue--the Faculty will never approve it and the University does not have the resources to offer it anyway. Others say a concentration is an issue for the future, when more professors offer courses. And a third group, strong backers of the idea of studying women, nevertheless thinks a concentration is intellectually unjustified.

At the open meeting between students and the Faculty committee this spring chaired by Edward L. Keenan '57, the most vocal students challenged the committee's stated opposition to forming a concentration in women's studies. Keenan argued that women's studies has no methodology, "no way of discovering facts" that differs from the way any other researcher attacks a problem. Instead, researchers in women's studies approach questions about women using the techniques of a historian, a scientist, an anthropologist or an economist, for example.

Judith Walzer, assistant dean of the College and a committee member, adds that a concentration in women's studies faces the practical obstacles of lukewarm Faculty support and few course offerings. Forming a concentration now is "putting the cart before the horse," she says.

The committee, in conjunction with the Radcliffe Forum and the Schlesinger Library, brought Gerda Lerner, director of women's studies at Sarah Lawrence College, to Harvard this year where she poked more holes in the idea of women's studies as a concentration. Warning students that pressuring administrators for a concentration could backfire, she said that colleges forced to form Afro-American Studies departments made isolated islands of the new departments and then ignored them. "The school left them there. They were outside the university and when the departments began to falter from starvation, the schools said, 'we gave you what you asked for,'" Lerner said.

Harvard's Divinity School has a six-year-old women's studies program that critics say may be just the sort of island Lerner described. The program brings to the school five "research-resource associates," women doing doctoral or post-doctoral research in theology with a feminist perspective. The women teach courses, do research and supposedly encourage regular faculty to take up women's studies interests and incorporate them into the regular curriculum. After a Ford Foundation-funded study of the first five years of the program, the Divinity faculty this year voted overwhelmingly to continue the program for eight years--a resounding show of confidence. But the study of the program turned up one disappointment: the expectations for the pace of change in the regular curriculum were too high. The associates did not succeed very well in their efforts to develop women's studies interests among regular faculty members. The associates have offered courses in Hindu goddesses, black female notions of Christ and the legal status of women under traditional Jewish marria laws, but one critic points out, "You could go all the way through the Divinity School and never see any of that stuff."

In order to keep the College's women's studies program from becoming ancillary to the undergraduate curriculum, the Faculty committee on women's studies hopes not only to drum up new courses entirely about women in departments and the Core Curriculum, but also to encourage Faculty members to include information about women in other courses.

Judith A. Kates, assistant professor of English and Comparative Literature and a member of the committee, says, however, in some fields women's studies involves substantial new research. Historians, for example, are finding new information in women's diaries and letters and are tackling uncharted areas like family history. In psychology, a researcher starting in the field has many volumes on the psychology of women to catch up on. But other fields, Kates says, like her own specialty of literature, involves merely asking new questions and rethinking familiar literature. "Feminist literary criticism is not so much a different method, it's a matter of perspective," Kates, who teaches a comparative literature course on women in fiction, says.

The committee hopes that lectures, meetings and an upcoming Faculty colloquium will help educate Faculty members about new research and scholarship in the field and stimulate them to think about new directions to take in their own fields.

Next year's course catalogue will contain a page listing all courses about women or on subjects particularly interesting to women. Fifteen courses will make the list (although three will not be given until 1980-81), about the same number on an informal list the committee distributed this year. Some of this year's courses will drop out because their instructors are leaving. Among next year's new offerings are a course on women in modern European society and politics taught by Mary Nolan, assistant professor of History, a Government course on the politics of women's liberation given by Ethel Klein, a newly-hired junior faculty member, assistant professor of English Heather McClave's course on women short story writers, and two Afro-American studies courses by the acting chairman of the department, Chidi Ikonne, on the black woman as subject and as author in fiction.

But enriching the curriculum with women's studies is a slow and difficult process. Faculty members are only just beginning to think about women's issues in their disciplines, and if resources exist to help them investigate those problems, they often don't know about them, or don't have the financial backing to examine them. The Mellon Foundation this year gave Radcliffe $300,000 over three years, one-third earmarked for Harvard faculty to do research at the Schlesinger Library or Radcliffe's Data Resource Center. The research must contribute to a new course in women's studies or add material about women to an existing course. Abigail J. Stewart, acting director of Radcliffe's Data Resource and Research Center, says Harvard faculty proposals for Mellon money have come in rather slowly--two applications for the fall deadline and eight for the spring. She points out that response to a new program is often tepid, but some Faculty may just not be interested. Moreover, the monev can be used only for research in the two Radcliffe facilities. Stewart says research proposals have come from both junior and senior Faculty, but so far all applicants have been women.

The Faculty members most likely to be receptive to women's studies are, obviously, women, but the number of women Faculty members is small and growing only very slowly. Walzer says the committee can do very little to hasten affirmative action, and she hopes the future of women's studies does not have to depend on women faculty members alone. "Men have long academic careers, and they reach junctures where they look around to see what new directions they can take," she says, adding that the women's studies committee has several men among 11 Faculty members.

After a semester of work by this Faculty committee and over a year of work by a planning committee--as well as student efforts to talk up women's studies--the pace of change has hardly accelerated. Harvard is starting almost from scratch with only a small group of devoted supporters of women's studies. Finding interested Faculty members and the money and research material they need is the challenge the committee faces next year. The committee also hopes to keep students on its side and not allow requests for a concentration to poison the minds of faculty members whose support is crucial. Although Kates says she has been impressed with the interest the Faculty has shown so far, she admits, "I didn't have very high expectations. I have been at Harvard too long.

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