When Ruth Colker ’78 walked into Harvard’s second-year calculus class in the fall of 1974, she was the only woman in the room. A freshman at the time, she was proud of herself for testing out of a year of calculus. She was also excited to take an upper-level course — she had always loved math and “computation and thinking spatially,” she says.
The reality of gender inequity was nothing new to Colker. A softball player in high school, she had spent the past few years advocating for equal treatment of women athletes and worked on Title IX advocacy with the National Organization for Women. Before she left for college, her father bought her a copy of “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” the manifesto written by a women’s collective in Boston. “When I got to college, I was pretty comfortable in where I stood as a feminist,” Colker says.
This is all to say that Colker was not the type of person to let being the only woman in the room intimidate her. But when she met with her math professor to go over a concept she didn’t understand, he told her “that there were no women concentrating in math at Harvard, and he didn’t expect that I would change that,” Colker remembers. “It didn’t occur to me at that point that I should complain to someone about his attitude.” She stopped taking math classes after that year.
At around the same time, Colker was taking a class on women’s history. “I didn’t know anything about [women’s history]. They didn’t teach that in high school, at least in those days,” she says. “So I really enjoyed it. It was eye-opening.” She wanted to do further work in the field, but Harvard didn’t have a women’s studies concentration. Colker put together a petition for a special concentration that would allow her to use math and statistics to do “empirical work about women’s condition in society.” The special concentration was rejected, Colker was told, because “women’s studies didn’t have a methodology.”
She concentrated in Social Studies instead, since it was interdisciplinary and allowed for flexibility in choosing a thesis topic. She went on to write a thesis that used math and statistics to analyze three different strains of feminist thought: “radical feminist theory, liberal feminist theory, and socialist feminism.”
One reader gave her a magna cum laude plus, the other a cum laude. Since there was a discrepancy of more than a letter grade, a third reader was brought in. “That person said in his review that he began reading it thinking the topic wasn’t worthy of discussion, and he finished reading it still not convinced the topic was worthy of discussion,” Colker says. “He recommended a non-honors grade.”
Colker met with her advisor to discuss the grading inconsistency and lack of institutional support. “The response was that I had already been admitted to Harvard Law School,” she recalls, “so why did I care?” Eventually, a fourth reader was brought in, but Colker says she was too exhausted by the whole process to look at the grade.
In 1981, Colker was asked to donate her thesis to a women’s studies library that students were curating to convince Harvard to create a women’s studies concentration. By then, both students and the University had an increased understanding of the field as legitimate and deserving of attention. Students were working on grassroots activism, both to fill in the gaps of their education and to try to create women’s studies courses for future students. Harvard responded with committees, open forums, and requests for patience.
Before Colker recounts her story to me on the phone, she asks, “What year did they actually create the major?”
I tell her that it was 1986. Harvard would be the last Ivy League university to create a program in women’s studies.
“Wow.” A pause. “That much later. Okay.”
At the end of our conversation, Colker — who is now a law professor at Ohio State University — tells me that she feels the negative reception of her interest in women’s studies was reflective of the place of women on Harvard’s campus more broadly.
“But hopefully they’ve corrected their ways and made up for the past,” Colker says. “If they ever have a celebration of women’s studies at Harvard or something like that, maybe I should attend.” She laughs a little bit at the possibility.
In 1974 or 1975 — she can’t quite remember which — Judith A. Kates, then an instructor in Comparative Literature, offered a course called “The Women’s Tradition in Literature.” In the past, she had offered courses on Renaissance literature, which usually drew 15 to 20 interested students during the first week of classes. Since this new class required advanced reading ability in French, she wasn’t expecting the turnout to be much higher.
On its first day, more than 100 students tried to pack into a small seminar room in Boylston Hall to hear about the course.
Kates had to cut down the numbers, since it was intended to be a seminar. The classroom had two large tables in the middle of the room, and Kates recalls that her students didn’t want to sit around the tables, because they thought it established distance and formality. They moved “these huge tables” to the side of the room, one on top of the other. “And they were able to arrange the chairs in a circle format,” she says, “so that… the space would help engender more of an egalitarian atmosphere.”
“People in the department — men — kept talking about the ‘Amazons’ who were taking my class. Women warriors,” Kates says. “There was a subtle sense that people felt that they were being invaded.” She remembers being frequently asked if she had any male students. “Nobody ever asked whether it was problematic if a class were all men.”
The early 1970s “was just the beginning of the understanding of gender as an analytic category,” she says. This type of analysis was happening at other universities across the country: Women’s studies programs cropped up initially at state universities and schools on the west coast, the first in 1970 at San Diego State College and the second in 1971 at Wichita State University. The first interdisciplinary journal in women’s studies, Feminist Studies, began printing in 1972. But Kates remembers her course proposal as the “first time” gender was used to analyze literature at Harvard.
The reaction she remembers from the department head: “I don’t understand what that means.” She had to persuade him that gender was a valid and worthwhile analytic category.
Students who were on campus at the time also remember a handful of other courses that engaged with women and gender. Several students that I spoke with remembered a General Education course on American women’s history — the same one that piqued Ruth Colker’s interest in women’s studies. Many particularly remembered Susan Ware, the course’s teaching assistant.
Ware recalls that the course led to a positive feedback loop of demand: many students who took the class wanted to pursue further women’s studies coursework but found that there was none.
“By today's standards, it was such a conventional class,” says Colker. “It was the story about white women, essentially, no sensitivity at all to class or race or sexual orientation issues. But at the time, that was the only class available. So it was eye-opening.”
Several students also remembered a course on women’s biology that was taught by Ruth Hubbard ’44, the first tenured woman professor in biology. But other than that, the offerings were few.
The Divinity School had established a women’s studies program in 1973, and Lauren K. Gibbs ’77 remembers taking classes there as an undergraduate to incorporate women into her education somehow. “I took courses at the Divinity School, on women’s church history and all sorts of stuff like that. I mean, it was so stupid,” she says and laughs. “There I am taking courses on women’s church history, and I’m Jewish.”
Ware recalls that student activism was essential in ensuring that the women’s history Gen Ed was offered — specifically, activism spearheaded by the Radcliffe Union of Students. RUS served as the Radcliffe student government when Radcliffe was a separate college, and after Harvard integrated men and women students, RUS became an advocacy group for more robust women’s studies offerings, among other issues. In the late 1970s, RUS formed a student Committee on Women’s Studies, and in 1977, the Committee submitted a petition with over 1100 signatures to then-Dean of the College Henry Rosovsky asking the College to consider the creation of a women’s studies concentration. Rosovsky told students to wait for the fall.
Meanwhile, RUS’s Committee on Women’s Studies decided to self-educate. In the spring of 1977, it held a series of dinner-based colloquia to educate students about women’s studies research that their peers were conducting independent of institutional support.
Emily M. Schneider ’80 remembers giving a talk about her thesis on a Puerto Rican poet, Julia de Burgos, whose work had been largely forgotten. Schneider went on to earn a Ph.D. in literature and returned to Harvard as a History and Literature lecturer in the 1980s.
She remembers that in the 1970s, women’s studies was as much about getting women into curricula as it was about using gender and sexuality as analytic categories.
“Now, you might see more of an emphasis on cutting-edge research when you look at issues such as gender,” she says. “But at the time, we really just wanted to bring back into the picture women who had been there all along, and who were rendered invisible by this attitude of denigrating what they had done.”
At this time, Gibbs recalls that “mostly white women” were involved with the movement for women’s studies. She thought these colloquia were particularly important because they served as a venue for women’s studies activists to have conversations with activists advocating for other academic disciplines, such as African and African American Studies and ethnic studies. The African and Afro-American Studies department was established in 1969, largely because of student activism.
Candice S. Cason ’77 was quoted in a 1977 Crimson article about women’s studies saying she wanted to promote women’s studies activists working together with AAAS concentrators. In a recent interview, Cason recalls that she was active on RUS’s Women’s Studies committee for a year. When asked if there were any other women of color on the committee, she answers, “I don’t remember any. I hate to say that. But I don’t remember that there were any other women of color there.”
“I found the Committee on Women’s Studies to be a difficult experience,” she says. “And it had to do with power, and whose voice got to be heard and whose wasn’t.”
Rosovsky followed through on his promise, and Harvard created a Faculty Committee on Women’s Studies in the fall of 1977. Its mission was to decide whether the field called “women’s studies” deserved to be considered for a concentration. Kates — the instructor of the women writers comparative literature course — was the coordinator of the Faculty Committee, and Edward L. Keenan ’57, a professor of Russian history, served as the chair.
In 1979, the Committee stated that it opposed the creation of a concentration. Keenan said to students in an open forum with Committee members that women’s studies had no methodology, “no way of discovering facts” — that it was essentially just history, or literature, or biology, but from the perspective of women.
Kates recalls the Committee’s meetings as being respectful and “collegial,” but she also says she felt progress was slow. “Sometimes people’s assumptions about what they thought they knew about the position of women or some aspect of women’s history would emerge, and it got a little — what shall we say? — there was a little edge there, in conversations when somebody needed to be educated,” she says.
In 1980, in response to growing demand, Harvard added a women’s studies section to the back of its course catalog. At the time, Elisabeth M. Einaudi ’83 was a sophomore and the president of the Radcliffe Union of Students. At first, Einaudi was excited. Then she looked more closely at the classes. “I thought, ‘Hold on one second.’ They listed any course that they thought might and could be related to women,” she says. Only one or two courses were “genuinely related to gender and women’s studies.”
Einaudi contacted each instructor of the 25 or so courses that were listed and asked, “Do you know that your course is listed as a women’s studies course? Do you think that your course should be listed as a women’s studies course?” She published their answers in a pamphlet and distributed the pamphlets in undergraduate dining halls.
“People were mortified,” she says. She remembers that, within a year, a new women’s history course was created and the Faculty Committee on Women’s Studies increased its activity. Students’ expectations of the field were changing: Like Einaudi, students expected to engage with how gender shaped and changed the ways disciplines were understood, not just take courses with the word “woman” in their syllabi.
In addition to pressuring the administration to take the Faculty Committee more seriously, students on RUS ramped up their initiatives to create their own spaces on campus to study women and gender. By this time, in the early 1980s, other Ivy League universities had recently established women’s studies departments and majors.
Elizabeth Young ’85-’86 — who was president of RUS and is now a professor of English at Mt. Holyoke College — remembers she had to seek out faculty members that helped her pursue her academic interests in women’s studies because of the lack of institutional support. They were all junior faculty, and all eventually moved on to other institutions.
RUS curated its own course catalogs of women’s studies offerings, based on interviews with professors and students who had taken the courses. They wrote letters to departments, asking them to incorporate women and gender into their offerings. They held an annual lecture series in the spring that brought scholars of women’s studies to campus to give talks.
RUS students also organized a feminist reading group. Toba E. Spitzer ’85-’86, a former member of RUS, invited me to her home to look over some documents that she saved from her time as a student. One of these was the group’s reading list, typewritten and titled, “INTRODUCING THE OFFICIAL, UNBELIEVABLY TENTATIVE AND DISORGANIZED BIBLIOGRAPHY FOR THE FEMINIST THEORY STUDY GROUP, TO BE USED WITH A SYMPATHETIC AND CREATIVE GRAIN OF SALT.” It features Simone de Beauvoir, Adrienne Rich, and bell hooks, among many others. Spitzer saved sign-in lists from the reading group’s meetings, which spilled onto the backs of lined sheets of paper.
While undergraduates, Spitzer and Young both served as student representatives to the Faculty Committee on Women’s Studies. After one of the Faculty Committee’s meetings in 1983, Barbara E. Johnson — a recently-tenured professor of English and AAAS — turned to Spitzer and asked her what she had thought of the meeting.
“I literally almost had a heart attack,” Spitzer says. “Because this was the first time at Harvard any professor had spoken to me or noticed me or asked my opinion. I couldn’t even believe a Harvard professor would ask my opinion. I mean, that’s how bad it was, I was in shock, I didn’t even know what to say.” She laughs.
Spitzer says that when she started college in 1981, the Faculty Committee did not seem to have much power in the eyes of students. “The way that Harvard dealt with things they didn’t want to deal with was just to create a committee and let everything die there. It was really clear to us that [the Committee] didn’t have any power and wasn’t going anywhere,” Spitzer says.
But as student activism ramped up, it seemed to her that the University began to take the Faculty Committee more seriously. A number of students, including Young and Spitzer, recall the Committee’s power increased with the introduction of tenured women faculty on the Committee, particularly Johnson, comparative literature professor Susan R. Suleiman, and English professor Marjorie Garber.
Suleiman, shortly after receiving tenure, became chair of the Faculty Committee. She recalls that as soon as she became chair, she took steps to increase the group’s legitimacy: a phone number, a listing in the directory, office space, and a part-time administrative assistant.
In 1985 — by which point Harvard was the only Ivy League university without women’s studies — the Faculty Committee began to work on a women’s studies concentration proposal that would require faculty approval. “My memories of that time are absolutely marvelous,” Suleiman says. “It was almost a magical year, because everybody was working together in a very concentrated way.” She recalls “lobbying” faculty who might be allies for the concentration during lunches, and working with the Committee to ensure the concentration had a “firm academic basis.”
At the November 1986 faculty meeting, Suleiman presented the proposal to the faculty. She remembers the room was “bursting to the seams.” After Suleiman spoke, other members of the faculty committee also spoke in favor of the concentration.
Government professor Harvey C. Mansfield ’53 then took the floor to deliver a now-infamous speech against the proposal.
According to a modified excerpt of the Faculty Meeting minutes that appears on Mansfield’s website, he said that “the appearance of this proposal on the Faculty floor marked a foolish and almost pitiful surrender to feminism.” He accused women’s studies of “bias,” and said that it was “not really a subject.” He reminded the faculty that “This was Harvard, with standards to maintain.”
The vote to approve the women’s studies concentration was almost unanimous. The only dissenting vote was Mansfield.
Although some faculty found Mansfield’s remarks extreme, his comments were not necessarily isolated. When I spoke with Mansfield, he said he thinks a few more people — “old people, old men” — would have voted no with him had it not been for his speech and “the passion of it, the radicalism of it.” When asked if he still agrees with everything he said in the speech, Mansfield laughs and says, “Probably not.”
Accusations of bias, like Mansfield’s, had long plagued women’s studies. Kates — the first coordinator of the Faculty Committee — recalls that in the 1970s, “Many people perceived [women’s studies] as essentially political, as an academic-looking frosting on what was really an ideological and political movement.” Mansfield’s claim that it was not an academic discipline echoes Committee chair Edward Keenan’s 1979 claim about a lack of methodology. In an op-ed published in The Crimson a few weeks after the faculty meeting, Saied Kashani ’86 echoed many of Mansfield’s claims, writing that the only reason Harvard approved women’s studies was “political expediency.”
Mansfield is still critical of gender studies scholarship, for the same reasons that he cited in his 1986 speech. He says he believed, in 1987, that women’s studies was “founded on a doctrine, namely feminism, and that it would not be academic or scholarly, mainly, but political and one-sided.” Today, he says he still believes that gender and sexuality studies programs are biased and do not make room for conservative voices.
But he concedes that he thinks the “doctrine” he fought against in his 1987 speech has succeeded.
“They prevailed,” he says, referring to women. “They have convinced men to make room for them.”
The approval of a concentration did not translate to automatic and immediate institutional support for women’s studies. Semesterly newsletters from the early years of the concentration document continued difficulties in establishing its place at Harvard.
Part of the introduction of a May 1990 newsletter on women’s studies reads, “the University has determined not to let Women’s Studies hire its own full-time faculty members.” Later on, it continues, “As things improve within the concentration, they still look somewhat grim on the outside. Harvard does not seem able (willing) to staff its departments with women in lifetime positions who can offer continuing academic support to the program.”
WGS and Romance Languages and Literatures Professor Alice Jardine says WGS received little administrative support during its earliest years. “It was a struggle. It was frustrating. It was hard. But it was also inspiring and meaningful, and thoroughly on the right side of history,” she says. “But it was hard.”
In 2003, the department’s name was changed from Women’s Studies to Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality. “The reality was that students had always worked in sexuality studies through Women’s Studies, and students had always worked on men and people who are not women through Women’s Studies,” says WGS and AAAS Professor Robin Bernstein, the current chair of WGS. “We changed the name in order to communicate that reality better to students.”
By 2003, many peer institutions had renamed their Women’s Studies departments to Gender and Sexuality Studies in response to the changes the field had seen in the last decade. Jardine recalls that there was discussion about dropping “women” from the program’s name at Harvard, too. “We just decided to keep it as a very, very important historical marker of a debate,” she says. “I don’t think in 2003, we could have imagined that in 2019, the world would be pushing back against the progress that women had made.”
Today, WGS continues to take steps to increase its offerings. “Demand for our classes has exceeded our ability to supply seats and classes. Classes are bursting,” Bernstein says. “We turn away students every single semester. And this is one of the reasons that WGS at Harvard is expanding.” The WGS committee is currently conducting a search for a tenured full professor.
In 2017, Durba Mitra became the first professor appointed fully in WGS, rather than appointed jointly with other departments. Robert F. Reid-Pharr followed in 2018. Afsaneh Najmabadi, who has been a professor in WGS since 2001, says Mitra and Pharr have helped to increase WGS’s offerings about the intersection of race and ethnicity with gender and sexuality.
Reid-Pharr describes his primary research interests as “gender, sexuality, and race, particularly around African and African American culture.” He received his undergraduate degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1987, and he recalls that the “institutionalization of gender and sexuality studies” that was happening as he was an undergraduate was part of what led him to pursue academia. “It took a while for the concept of intersectionality to become as widespread as it is,” he says. He recalls the language “really developing” during his graduate studies in the early 1990s.
He describes what he sees as a direct connection between WGS and ethnic studies.“The movement, in terms of the institutionalization of African American Studies, definitely paralleled the development of women's studies programs and what are [now] thought of as Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies programs.”
Susan Ware — the teaching assistant for the first women’s history course Harvard offered back in the early 1970s — says she views the early years of women’s studies not only as a scholar at the time, but now as a historian. “As a historian, I think it is important for people to know the history of… programs, and that it is possible to make Harvard change, in ways that are really important and positive,” she says.
“When I think about [that time], what I'm remembering more is the excitement of it, and I think I've kind of repressed all the frustration.” She laughs. “But it was — it is never easy, getting Harvard to do things that it hasn’t done before.”
—Magazine writer Nina Pasquini can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @nhpasquini.