30 Years of Women Studies at UND

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30 Years of Women Studies at UND

This fall the Women and Gender Studies Program at the University of North Dakota has a lot to celebrate. 30 years ago in 1982, the program, then called Women Studies, was founded. It was born of much work and collaboration—occasionally even protests—by students, faculty, and Dean Bernard O’Kelly. The current WGS Program is housed in 133 O’Kelly, named after the dean whose support helped establish it. Last year the program underwent a name change.

“This program originated out of student and faculty activism,” notes Women and Gender Studies Program Director Kathleen Dixon, professor of English. “It still thrives on the passionate conviction of its students, faculty, and instructors.” The name change is meant to signify an expansion of the program’s reach, while maintaining its historical focus on women’s achievements and struggles with systematic oppression. “We expect that students interested in the gender theories that underlie the newfound LGBTQ identities, will also find a home here.”

Almost forty years ago, the supporters of UND Women Studies began to organize to persuade colleagues, administrators, and the State to establish an actual program, with a director, regular course offerings and funding to instruct the courses, as well as office space, equipment, and supplies. The first course with a consciously women studies’ orientation was taught in 1971 by one of the program’s founders, Elizabeth Hampsten, then associate professor of English (Hampsten later became a Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor and is now professor emerita). It centered on novels with female heroines, and was provocatively titled, “Fallen Women.” Hampsten ultimately developed a course, ENGL 357, Women Writers and Readers, that has been offered regularly by the UND English Department for over 30 years.

Thanks to such actions as Hampsten’s, UND was in the vanguard of women studies in the 1970s. However, by the early 1980s, there were 50 Masters and 12 Doctorate degrees available in universities throughout the United States, according to Dixon. At UND, faculty such as Hampsten, Nursing Professor Bonnie Clark, Journalism Professor Zena Beth McGlashan, and English Professor Sandra Donaldson, now a Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor, were finally able to achieve, first, a Women Studies program, then, an undergraduate minor and a major through Interdisciplinary Studies.

Students and faculty from a wide array of disciplines joined to form the first Women Studies committees. Nursing, Education, and numerous majors in the College of Arts & Sciences were represented. In an interview with the Grand Forks Herald in 1984, Donaldson explained some of the initial impetus for Women Studies. “Traditional courses tend not to consider women’s issues or women’s roles….I argue that [women studies] makes the study of humanities truly the study of all humans.”

Interviewed by Sociology undergraduate David Arel in 1990, English Professor Sherry O’Donnell pointed out that times had changed since the 1970s. “The discipline is 20 years old, and we can no longer pretend that it is a marginal part of the academy. Isn’t it a central part of academe? The scholarship of women has influenced every discipline, and it’s time that we take responsibility for that and stop pretending that we’re on the outside, looking in. Let’s quit pretending women don’t have any power; they do!”

Currently, the WGS minor has attracted more students than in the past, and WGS 480 Feminist Theory, which used to register so few students that it was offered only every other year is now offered yearly. “The title of this course contains two of the scariest words in the English language: ‘feminist’ and ‘theory’!” jests Dixon. “However, we had no trouble filling this course last spring. This spring we’ll be reading from gender theorist Judith “Jack” Halberstam’s Gaga Feminism, a book hot of the press.”

Shelby Baker, a Women Studies major/pre-med minor from New Town, ND, testifies that the courses in Women and Gender Studies “have made me grow more as a student and a person than any of my other classes. They have influenced my undergraduate career with being able to open up and share experiences with others, being able to have a better understanding of theory, being compassionate towards others and their experiences and so much more. I know that my writing skills have advanced as well.”

A new WGS minor from Nairobi, Kenya, Barbara Tisi is also pre-med, majoring in Medical Laboratory Science. She recently said of her experience in WGS 225, Introduction to the Study of Women that the course “was a mind blowing class for me. I never really thought outside the box about issues impacting not only women but the society as a whole. This class also made me feel comfortable in expressing my views and thoughts about certain issues that are usually very sensitive to speak about. I also liked that it was more of a discussion class so I got to hear from my other classmates and have a perception of what everyone’s mindset on the issues affecting women all over the world are. I am now more knowledgeable on various issues in our society and this class was a worthwhile experience not only to my undergraduate career but my life too.”

Today, Women Studies strives to investigate the gendered lives of women and men throughout the world. Social Work assistant professor Dheeshana Jayasundara, an active faculty member of Women and Gender Studies, continues to perform research on women’s reproductive rights in North America, Asia, and Africa. Recently the WGS Program sponsored a well-attended panel at the International Center to celebrate International Women’s Day. On the panel were students representing North America, Eastern Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

The expansion to Women and Gender Studies also comes with a renewed focus on gender. WGS faculty member Melissa Gjellstad, assistant professor of Norwegian and Norwegian Program director, recently gave a Faculty Lecture entitled, “When Men Speak: Masculinities and Fathering in Millennial Norwegian Literature.” Another WGS faculty member, Michelle Sauer, professor of English, has recently published an award-winning book, The Lesbian Premodern.

Some things seem not to change. In an interview in 1990, McGlashan still fumed that “[i]t was goddamn impossible to get funding….The ‘pay’ was working with wonderful, bright and inspired women.” Dixon is currently seeking to establish a Graduate Certificate in Women and Gender Studies, but funding is difficult to secure. “Every year we have many women, and some men, who request graduate work in Women and Gender Studies. Every year, we have a number of theses and dissertations that would profit by instruction specifically in feminist and gender theories. A WGS Graduate Certificate is long overdue.”

But Dixon focuses on the positive. “This program has grown significantly even in just the past few years, thanks to the dedication of many and to the continued interest of students. We stand on the shoulders of giants, as the saying goes, and so I must quote my esteemed, recently-retired colleague, Sandra Donaldson. Now, more than ever, the Women and Gender Studies Program helps make university inquiry ‘truly the study of all humans.’”

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