A Lack of Concentration

Women's Studies at Harvard

The last five pages of this year's course catalogue are easily overlooked. With thousands of classes to choose from, most Harvard undergraduates will have plotted]. their schedules long before they turn to page 15. But a few students--and a few Harvard faculty members and administrators--believe that these pages should be the core of an undergraduate program. Listing a group of courses called from regular departmental offerings by the Committee on Women's Studies, they center on, or are at least "relevant to" an interest in the history, literature and sociology of women.

These pages are Harvard's response to one of the most persistent and controversial curricular debates in recent years. Ever since the early 1970s--when the women's liberation movement spread across the nation--administrators and academicians have debated the legitimacy of women's studies programs. Some scholars have argued that the study of women is a unique entity that should be treated separately from traditional curricula; others contend that it is too integral a part of the standard disciplines to be distilled out. Some universities have created women's studies departments; many have ignored the issue altogether. Harvard has chosen the middle ground--leaving the study of women's history and issues in traditional departments while creating a special committee to guide study in these fields.

"No one is really sure how they pick courses to go under Women's Studies in the course catalog," says Constance M. Dahlin '82, who helped coordinate an alternative guide to women's studies courses funded by the Radcliffe Union of Students. "Obviously something is really wrong when not all the professors even know their course is on the list."

Judith A. Kates, coordinator of the Committee on Women's Studies, contends the list is intended merely to point students in the right direction toward classes that deal with any aspects of women's studies, and that it is in no way intended to be a "solid, coherent program."

"Students always say 'I want to major in this--I want this to be the central focus of my studies at Harvard,'" Kates says. But the Committee on Women's Studies has no power to grant degrees or authorize joint majors. And because offerings in women's studies are "so random, scattered, and transient," Kates says she still believes that students are better off in the departments.


Students who have persisted in their attempt to concentrate in women's studies by petitioning for a special concentration express dissatisfaction with the process. Diane Chira '82, who tried to get a concentration in women's studies after she found the committee's suggested courses limited, said that from the outset "it was extremely discouraging and very hard to find a faculty member to sponsor me." Chira believes this difficulty stems specially from a resistance by the committee to all women's studies programs. "There was a line consistently given to me by people on the committee," she says. "They said it wasn't going to pass no matter what. I had people tell me, don't call it 'women's studies' because it will never pass."

Gaye Williams '83, another student who attempted to get a special concentration in women's studies approved, agrees that the committee was particularly reluctant to consider her request. Williams, whose petition was eventually turned down, notes that she was discouraged from the outset by faculty members who doubted whether women's studies was a "discipline." "Usually, on the first try they will tell you to try a department and come back," she says. "Because my field was women's studies, they didn't encourage me."

Kates, who also serves as director of the Office of Special Programs, admits that Harvard has never been enthusiastic about its students majoring in women's studies. "So far that has not been an interest of ours," she says. "There is a feeling that it isn't right for Harvard, and possibly not a good goal in general."

Susan Ware, a lecturer in History, challenges this view. "There's been an outpouring of scholarship in women's studies in the past decade, which I think has really answered any [doubts of its validity]. I think it's an academic discipline every where but Harvard."

Kates, whose committee advocates that students study women's studies though the departments, offers as an explanation for Harvard's reluctance to grand degrees in the discipline that women's studies is "relevant to everything." Others agree, saying that it is precisely because it is so universally relevant that women's studies is not gaining greater credibility here. "Basically, what women's studies says is 'hey, what you thought was history isn't all of history.'" Chira says, "It's changing what you think is knowledge." Ware concurs, saying. "If you start looking at women, you can begin to change your whole view of historical questions."

This belief that a serious exploration of women's studies will have broad-reaching effects on all scholarship was expressed in a report by the Future Committee of the Radcliffe Alumni Association. According to Mary L. Manson '50, who heads the association, the report, released in November of 1980, urged a "radical approach, going to the root of what is wrong with academic disciplines. We felt it probably is not enough to incorporate material about women in courses," she says. She notes, however, that the report did not go heavily into specifies and was designed basically to direct future trends in women's studies generally. "We were not thinking about Harvard Radcliffe specifically."

Ironically, Radcliffe, which strongly supports undergraduate women's studies in theory, can do little to help Radcliffe students assemble a formal women's studies program in practice. In the 1977 agreement between Harvard and Radcliffe. Radcliffe explicitly delegated all responsibility for the undergraduate curriculum to Harvard "It's not Radcliffe's role to nag about what should be in the curriculum," says Mary Cox. Radcliffe vice president for development.

Instead of playing any direct advocacy role on women's studies for Radcliffe undergraduates. Cox says they "do what we can to complement students studies." In particular, Cox points to the resources of the Schlesinger library, the Mary Perkins Gillman lecture series, and the Mellon Fellowships, which allow scholars to study academic concerns of particular interest to women. "We are shaping the course of women's studies for years to come," she says. "That to me is as important as helping a sophomore get her study card signed."

Ware, however, does offer some advice for the sophomore who wishes to study women in greater depth. She points in particular to Gen Ed 100. "Introduction to Women's Studies," a new interdisciplinary offering that she says "goes a long way towards giving some coherence to courses on women." In addition. Ware suggests taking as many departmental offerings as possible in women's studies, doing independent study, and doing papers on women's topics in regular courses. Williams agrees with this advice, but says she has been relatively unsuccessful in trying to make her own concentration. Social Studies, more responsive. "I've had bad-to-horrible luck in getting them to take up the interests of women." Williams says, adding that three years ago there was an entire junior tutorial on women, but it no longer exists.

Other schools in the Ivy League--notably the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, and most recently Yale--have been more willing to establish women's studies majors. Last fall, Yale announced a new major in women's studies, which has at its basis five interdisciplinary courses on women.