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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained
"Until that ideal world comes into existence, it is a good idea to have at least one department that pays very close attention to gender issues."
--SUSAN R. SULEIMAN
The proposal was two years in the making, and the debate consumed most of the Nov. 18, 1986 Faculty Meeting. But just before 5:30 p.m., the Committee on Degrees in Women's Studies was approved by an almost unanimous vote of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
One lone voice was heard in dissent, that of Kenan Professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield Jr. '53.
In the fall of 1986, of Stanford and the Ivy League schools, only Columbia and Harvard remained without a degree-granting program in women's studies.
Next month, Harvard's Committee on Degrees in Women's Studies turns 10 years old. Students and faculty members in the concentration have planned a year-long series of events, which kicked off with the appearance of author Maxine Hong Kingston earlier this month.
Yet in spite of a decade of recruiting well-known scholars, awarding magna and summa degrees and advising Hoopes prize theses, controversy remains about the worth of women's studies as an academic discipline.
"I still think more than ever that women's studies is a disgrace to Harvard," Mansfield says today. "It's characterized by shoddy scholarship, crackpot theories and tendentious, politicized classrooms."
One of Mansfield's strongest objections is that the faculty perspective on the committee lacks diversity.
"They're all conformist," Mansfield says. "They don't have any critics [of feminism] within the department, and they never invite any. They have nightmares about Camille Paglia."
However, both faculty and students adamantly defend the program.
Claire Patricia M. Prestel '98, who is a Crimson editor, says she thinks the women's studies concentration presents a reasonable variety of viewpoints.
"I think that a fair amount of diversity is allowed," Prestel says in an e-mail message. "But obviously, there isn't as much room for the antifeminist or the politically conservative point of view because the department naturally stands for inclusivity and interest in the problems of a historically subjugated group."
Women's studies concentrator Naomi K. Seiler '98 says the interdisciplinary nature of the program adds a lot of diversity to the women's studies experience.
And Mariko L. Ryono '99 cites flexibility as a positive aspect of the concentration.
"It's really interdisciplinary and pretty receptive to the kind of academic plans you have," says Ryono.
Concentrators are required to take three introductory courses: Women's Studies 10a, a history course; 10b, which focuses on literary and cultural criticism; and 10c, a social science course.
Students must also take a course listed under women's studies outside their principal area of focus. That is, a student focusing on the social sciences must take a women's studies course in the humanities or natural sciences.
Mansfield also expresses concern that women's studies differs from other concentrations focused on minority groups because "women are not a community. They live with men."
He complains that the concentration is grounded in politics.
"I don't think it provides for intellectual development," says Mansfield. "What it makes is biased idealogues."
Concentrators say there are still misconceptions about the program, and not everyone takes women's studies seriously.
"I think SOME (extremely wise) people take the department seriously," one student says in an e-mail message. "But I do not think the department is taken as seriously as it should be, or by as many as it should. People have archaic notions of feminism such as 'lesbian-butch-male-bashing-etc.' which they also apply to 'women's studies.'''
On the contrary, Phillips Professor of Early American History and Professor of Women's Studies Laurel Thatcher Ulrich says women's studies programs, such as the one at Harvard, have led to a flowering of a long-neglected aspect of academics.
She notes that when she was in college majoring in English, the only women writers she read were Willa Cather and Emily Dickenson.
"The writers who now fill the syllabi of American literature courses were dismissed, if they were mentioned at all, as the 'damned scribbling females'..." Thatcher Ulrich says in an e-mail message. "Women's studies programs and women's studies methods within older disciplines have helped to create a kind of renaissance of scholarship...one that will have improtant and lasting effects for generations."
The Advent of Women's Studies
The University established a Committee on Women's Studies in 1978. The committee sponsored various colloquia and an annual Women's History Week and listed gender-related classes in a separate section of the course catalog but could not grant degrees.
"[The committee] had very little visibility on campus," says Professor of Romance Languages and Compartive Literature Susan R. Suleiman, acting chair of the women's studies committee. "I was chair of the committee in 1984, and at that point we decided that we would make a big effort to both bring a visibility on campus and create a committee on degees."
It was not a smooth road.
"With all the support and hard work, we did get to propose...a new concentration which was voted by the Faculty after quite a lot of debate and preparation," Suleiman says.
"At that point the committee was very wonderfully active and united, and we had been working for a good year preparing for this," she says.
In the early 1980s, there was quite a lot of opposition to the idea of a women's studies concentration, according to Suleiman.
"The ill-intentioned ones said this is all a bunch of political garbage and there is no intellectual value," said Suleiman. "The well-intentioned questions, I think, are real and were real at the time."
In particular, Suleiman mentions a concern that women's studies would become ghettoized.
In the final vote, however, only Mansfield was vehemently opposed to the institution of a degree-granting program.
The transcript of the meeting quotes Mansfield as saying "the appearance of this proposal on the Faculty floor marked a foolish and almost pitiful surrender to feminism."
Mansfield's objections to the proposal at the meeting were several, according to the transcript, although the government professor focused on particularly the reading list for Women's Studies 10, the proposed introductory course.
"To see bias, one had only to look at the reading list presented for the central course in this field of concentration, Women's Studies 10," reads the transcript of Mansfield's remarks. "In his 37 years at Harvard, Professor Mansfield had never seen a reading list more shameless and more pathetic than this one."
Stanley H. Hoffman, Dillon professor of the civilization of France, spoke in favor of the creation of the Committee on Degrees in Women's Studies at the Faculty Council meeting in 1986.
"The breadth and many points of view that are represented will breed the debate, controversy and originality of a successful concentration," Hoffman said during the November 1986 meeting.
"I still would argue the same way I did 10 years ago," Hoffman says now.
Some faculty members expressed concern in 1986 that Harvard would have difficulty attracting top-notch professors in women's studies. But in recent years, the Faculty has pulled of such hiring coups as snagging renowned historian Ulrich, author of A Midwife's Tale, from the University of New Hampshire.
The 10th Anniversary
Suleiman says part of the theme of this year's events is the variety of outlooks in Women's Studies.
"I think one of the purposes of having this 10th anniversary celebration is to bring back into visibility how diverse women's studies can be," Suleiman says.
"It's sort of to say, if you thought that all women's criticism was 'x,' well, take another look," she says.
In addition to a series of speeches and colloquia, the Committee on Degrees in Women's Studies is planning a gala celebration in May.
Suleiman says the program had come a long way since its inception.
"Since then I think we have built up a program that's very, very impressive," Suleiman says. "Every year we have senior theses that win Hoopes Prizes, we have alumni that have gone on to medical school, law school, we have had very wonderful successful alumni."
The number of concentrators annually has ranged from about 15 to nearly 30. In 1995, the committee graduated nine seniors, with seven magna degrees and two summas.
"It's a kind of close-knit department where the faculty really cares about you, and they check up on you," says Ryono.
The committee includes 25 faculty members. Ulrich is currently the only professor to hold a joint appointment in women's studies.
In addition to sophomore, junior and senior tutorials, the committee lists 10 courses in the course catalog. Forty-two courses in other departments are also listed as being of primary interest.
Suleiman says the 10th anniversary of the degree-granting program will provide a good opportunity to re-evaluate the goal of the concentration.
"I think it's to make the program as intellectually exciting and innovative as it's always been," said Suleiman, "which means you can't sit back and sit on your laurels."
Suleiman insists, though, that the women's studies program fills a need in academia.
"In an ideal world you wouldn't need a women's studies concentration," Suleiman says, "but until that ideal world comes into existence, it is a good idea to have at least one department that pays very close attention to gender issues."
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