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Women's Studies 'First Band Of Concentrators Remembers Trials, Joys in the Field

The Academic Pioneers

By Madhavi Sunder

Three years ago, when Julie F. Kay '90 was trying to decide what concentration to choose, Women's Studies appealed to her most.

But there were many problems with that path. It was the spring of her first year, and the Faculty had just voted to create the program--it was to be inaugurated the fall of her sophomore year.

So while most of her friends were preparing to join Harvard departments with prestigious faculty and solid academic programs, Kay remembers, she prepared to enter the unknown.

Kay knew what by choosing Women's Studies she would be taking many chances--risks that are not so easy to stomach with an education that costs almost $20,000 a year.

"No one wants to hire a feminist," Kay recalls being told by relatives who said she would not be able to get a job with the words "Women's Studies" on her transcript.

But now, after three years and hundreds of hours of work, Kay says her old fears have vanished. "Basically, I wouldn't want to work for anybody who wouldn't hire me because I'm a feminist," she says now.

Kay's memories are echoed by nine other senior women who will graduate tomorrow. They are Women's Studies' first-ever group of concentrators to graduate after spending a full three years in the program.

Choosing to join a concentration that was born out of controversy in the fall of 1986, these women were in a sense academic pioneers. From the beginning, the program they chose has been attacked by critics who charge that it is too political and not academic enough.

But now, three years later, these 10 women say they emerge from Harvard with a unique perspective, thanks to their academic study.

A Critical Eye

On her last family vacation to Disneyworld, concentrator Jennifer P. Ting '90 first recognized the Women's Studies "experience," she recollects.

On her Florida trip, it was not Space Mountain or the Haunted House that kept her attention. Instead, she found herself examining the diversity--or lack thereof--of the park's employees, she says.

"`Why were the women working some jobs, and the men working others?'" she asked herself. What was wrong with the "illusion that people were trying to create there?" Ting remembers asking herself and her family.

She says that after three years in Women's Studies, she often finds herself analyzing the world around her. "That's part of me now. It's not something I can turn off," she says.

Stellar Academics

"The first group certainly was an intrepid lot," says Women's Studies Chair Olwen Hufton of the first band of concentrators she saw through the program.

The group graduating tomorrow was a particularly one as well--three of them were recommended to receive summa cum laude degrees and four were awarded the prestigious Hoopes Prize for outstanding senior theses.

For a new concentration, the success of this small group is especially astounding. But surprisingly enough, the concentrators--many of whom say they will likely enter academia as a career--say it was precisely the newness of their department that made their achievements possible.

Being small, the department offered each of the students specialized attention. And being part of a discipline that is "cutting-edge" in academia, the students say they received special encouragement to pursue original and experimental research.

"I don't think that any other department would have let me do what I did," says concentrator Jennifer T. Kennedy '90 of her thesis on Jean Jacques Rousseau's dogs, for which she won a Hoopes Prize. "I don't think that anywhere else would I have found that kind of trustfulness--they completely allowed me to develop in any direction I wanted."

"It's a combination of the fact that they allow you to work independently, and that they all know you personally," Kennedy says, explaining the tremendous success of her fellow graduates. "The department made a huge effort to develop individually tailored programs."

Ting also authored a prize-winning thesis in an unexplored area--Asian American literary criticism. "Her thesis was a milestone piece of work," Hufton says.

"People in Women's Studies are commited to things that the University doesn't always acknowledge as being worthy of study or critical attention," Ting explains.

Students say that Women's Studies is such a tight-knit community that they often develop relationships with faculty that they are not formally studying with. More than one student recalls instances when professors they did not even know approached them to comment on work they had done.

Shaping the Department

"I was really excited about being in the first group of people to go all the way through," says Ting. "I felt we would really be able to help shape the department."

Concentrators say they have seen major changes in their three years in the program. And the students themselves--especially this first group to graduate--played an essential role in that process, they say.

In its first year, the committee's introductory seminars for sophomores, which are designed to give the concentration a historical and anthropological grounding, tried to treat everything from women's history to women's roles and images in other cultures.

But after significant student criticism and feedback, the courses were more narrowly focused for the next year's concentrators.

But while the women in the department say the committee has made them feel supported, encouraged and important, they say the lack of support from Harvard itself has been very discouraging.

Harvard was the second-to-last Ivy League school to incorporate women's studies into the curriculum. And four years after the Faculty created the program, affiliates say it still suffers from a lack of concrete support from the administration.

Women's Studies is an interdisciplinary committee, not a full-fledged department. It cannot appoint its own faculty and depends on other departments to name scholars in the discipline.

"You get a lot of support from Women's Studies, but the rest of Harvard isn't so great," says Kay.

"It's kind of like this oasis in Harvard's patriarchal desert," describes concentrator Joanne Dushay '90.

This lack of institutional power leaves the program without the stability necessary to grow, concentrators say. "You have less of a sense of permanence," says Cara W. Robertson '90. "You can't look at the faculty and say, `Ah, yes, look at what we have.'"

Concentrators say the relative lack of administrative commitment stands in stark contrast to increasing student interest in the program. They point to the increasing numbers of students taking the introductory Women's Studies course.

Academically Rigorous

In addition to questioning the administration's stance towards their discipline, the concentrators say they continually face antagonism from some of their peers.

"The people that want to be confrontational about it are the people I'm willing to be confrontational with because they're the people I need to educate the most," Ting says. "I need to show them that feminists do care about what they wear, that feminists don't automatically hate all men and that feminists do shave their legs."

Though the graduating seniors have earned exceptional honors, some complain that the department is still not taken as seriously as they would like.

"There were insinuations that it was an easy concentration," says Dushay. "It's an established concentration, but when I say I'm a Women's Studies concentrator, people will say to me, `Oh, that takes care of one course. What do you do with the rest of your time?'"

"I get that from a lot of people," says Kay. "I think that feminism has turned into a dirty word."

But the graduating seniors--many of whom double majored in Women's Studies and another discipline--say their women's studies courses were the most difficult they took at Harvard.

Despite the hard work and lack of recognition along the way, the graduating seniors say they would not trade their Women's Studies experience for any other.

And though it has been tiring always having to tell the parent, the friend or the antagonist what Women's Studies is or why its study is important, Ting says she does not mind.

"It's all just part of the job."

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