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“Columbia comes to the institutionalization of women and gender studies late…”


Dean of Social Science, Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies
IRWGS Core Faculty
IRWGS Director, 2013-14

One of the really interesting things about IRWAG as a women and gender studies program is that it starts late. It doesn’t start until [1987]. By this point, you’ve already had the high water mark of second wave feminism. It happens because Columbia goes co-educational and you have, on campus, people like Martha Howell, and people who have been here a very long time in the feminist trenches without any kind of institutional space, but on their own doing feminist pedagogy, on their own doing feminist mentoring on campus and these sorts of things. Columbia comes to the institutionalization of women and gender studies late, at least ten years later than many of the other programs. I think the first program—I was at San Diego State last year at some point—the first women and gender studies program starts—it would have been feminist studies or women studies actually—in 1972. San Diego State lays claim to being the first one. Columbia is more than a decade later. That means that this program looks differently.

I think one of the things that might have been difficult for students is all of our work, at first glance, doesn’t look like feminist and gender studies work. I work on genealogy and what’s called kin-keeping and root-seeking. For me, that’s very much about thinking about norms around the family. All of this stuff around genetic genealogy assumes a heteronormative, normative family. That critique and that engagement with that conversation is part in parcel of what I’m always doing. Saidiya Hartman’s last book was on root-seeking in Ghana. Jean Howard works on Shakespeare. Roz Morris has been running a series on Africa and South Africa.

For the faculty, we are feminists. Everything that we do, our intellectual work, is always imbued with that. An example I use all the time is that when I was in graduate school looking at dissertations from the ‘80s and early ‘90s, there would be dissertations on labor or citizenship, name a topic, and there would be a gender chapter. I remember talking to people, older graduate students or people who are assistant professors, and that was the strategy. You do a gender chapter. But I come of age as a graduate student, as an undergraduate, where I don’t know how to think without always having a gendered perspective and a feminist perspective. That antenna is always up and active. It’s not isolated to a chapter. This book on the Black Panther Party’s health activism, there’s not a gender chapter, but there’s gender throughout the book in, I think, a matter of fact way. It’s less about the objects, like you mentioned some people work near history, far history, text, not text. Marianne [Hirsch] has worked on the family, but she’s also been working on memory. So I think if students don’t understand that history and they’re looking for a women and gender studies program that everybody’s work, every title, everything is “Gender and this,” “Women and that,” “Sex and this,” we’re just a little bit different. Part of that is because we come late. Women and gender studies is institutionalized late at Columbia, so Columbia is able to chart a different path.

“…it wasn’t clear how the relationship with Barnard was going to work out”


George Delacorte Professor in the Humanities
IRWGS Director, 1997-99

Q: How did you relate to Barnard?

Howard: Just fine. There was some tension, largely at the very, very early years of the institute, when we were very dependent on Barnard for courses, and it wasn’t clear how the relationship was going to work out. There were, at various times, competition and rivalry between Barnard and the institute. I’d say in the last ten to fifteen years, those have almost totally disappeared as we have learned how to each do certain courses, how to team-teach the introductory course that’s always done by a Barnard person one year and then a Columbia person the next. Gradually, we no longer see ourselves as rivals or fighting for students. It took a while to work that out. They had an evolved program, we had nothing.

"We were totally self-starting."


Professor of English, Hunter College

We were totally self-starting. That’s why we went to the Institute for Research on Women and Gender. I don’t remember who was the director of the institute at that point.

Q: Martha Howell.

Yes. She was great. She was great! We went to her and we said, “All we want is a space once a month, and a little bit of money for refreshments and photocopying. That’s it. We’ll do everything else ourselves.” She said, “okay.”

We’d pick topics at the beginning of the year, and then we’d have a calendar for the semester, and we’d read. Then we’d also have speakers come in. We had Douglas Crimp. It’s so amazing to me now, and I know him a little bit now, not well, but I know him a little bit. I don’t know if he’s still at Sarah Lawrence, but he was at Sarah Lawrence then. So we wrote to him and said, “Dear Professor Crimp, We’re this brand new group, Lesbian and Gay Studies Group at Columbia. We’d really love you to come and give a talk.” We had no money. I don’t even remember where we got the money from. I guess we got some money from the institute, we got some money from English, we got some money from Art History, we kind of cobbled it together. We were like, [gasps]! Eve Sedgwick came, and she came for free. I think Judith Butler even came for free. She was in New York, and she was like, “Fine.” Also they realized this was brand new, and we were a totally student-run group. We said, “Look, when you’re in New York, let us know and come.”

So we got these people who were huge figures in the field. Jim Saslow, the same. He was really the one. So Douglas Crimp and Jim Saslow were the two openly gay art historians basically in the United States, and Douglas did contemporary and Jim does early modern. That was it. They were both in New York, so they both came. We had a session on separatist feminism, separatist lesbian feminism. It was amazing. We had a session on intergenerational sex. Because we could do anything. The field was so embryonic at that point that kind of everything was up for grabs. It wasn’t fully calcified. Well, calcified is a negative word, but it wasn’t fully jelled. So whatever you wanted to talk about, if you could find the readings and get them together, you would do it.

“…we have these needs as students that this institution is not meeting…”


Professor of English, Lehman College

When we started the [Lesbian and Gay Studies] Group, I think we did feel like it was a kind of dissident or resistant kind of thing. Here we are, we have these needs as students that this institution is not meeting for whatever reasons, and we have to do this ourselves. I think we might have felt that way, especially at first. Some of the topics we dealt with were very controversial. That and other things were really less academic issues and more issues of concern within the lesbian and gay community in some form.

Now I remember too, another day, I believe we did a day on bisexuality and the debate about do bisexuals exist or are they just gay people who aren’t coming out? Why do bisexuals have such a hard time fitting into the lesbian and gay community? They’re the outsiders to the lesbian and gay community. Again, that’s something that I don’t think had—not a lot of academic work had been done on bisexual identity or sexuality, but there was a lot of lesbian and gay community discussion and more informal kinds of memoirs and things like that about that. So we definitely did some work in that group that was less academic, and so in that way would be more outside of the traditional parameters of formal, scholarly analysis. And we had people come to the group who were non-academics, too. I distinctly remember.

Yes, because we had networks. We’d advertise. So a lot of us had different contacts around the city and we would advertise our events around the city, and then these people would show up that we had no idea who they were. So we did kind of serve an extra-university function in that way, as a kind of like community place to discuss these issues. Once we kind of became more established as a group and we had institutional support from the Institute for Research on Women and Gender, and then we got money from the provost’s office, at that point you start getting more established and institutionalized, and getting the support from the administration. I think maybe at some point we felt like we were really an acknowledged group and that the institution was financially supporting us. That’s a very typical kind of progression, where you start something that’s very scrappy and then it kind of ends up being absorbed by the institution. Which is okay, because that also does a certain amount of work. We saw ourselves as a group that––we could be there to help newer people to feel comfortable being gay because when we came into the program, that didn’t exist.

“It was a place where women could come together…”


Professor Emerita of English and Comparative Literature

One of the things I liked about it when I first came was that it’s a centrifugal place. People do not live in each other’s pockets the way they do at so many universities. They tend to want to have lives in New York, not in Columbia. Building community in that sense is not easy. We could get people together around political issues, and the University Seminars did, to some extent, get people together around intellectual issues, but a lot of the people who make up those seminars come from other parts of the city and other universities. They come partly for the intellectual exchange and partly, it has to be admitted, because they get library privileges at Columbia.

I think you’re going to be hard-pressed to find groups—the center, yes, because the center was—that’s one of the reasons I think Carol [Carolyn Heilbrun] wanted to set it up. It was a place where women could come. There were lectures. I’ve gone to lectures even since I’ve retired, interesting things that were all over the map, but of great interest, and they always got a small group of people together—students, graduate students, junior faculty, and some senior faculty—outside lectures and stuff, and those were interesting, and that was a community. They met over even undergraduate papers in women’s studies once women’s studies got through as a possible major, but they always had them at Barnard, and they had them at General Studies. So there were women, and they would come together to celebrate the theses that were done there, and the MA essays and that sort of thing. That became a community, but that’s after the establishment of the center, not before.

“It was not fully prepared for coeducation quite yet…”


Associate Director of IRWGS
Associate Director of the Center for the Study of Social Difference
Adjunct Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature

I was completely clueless. In fact, I didn’t even know that Columbia had not been coed before I applied. So I had no idea. I knew Barnard existed as a women’s college, but I didn’t apply to Barnard. It wasn’t something that—it just never even occurred to me to apply. So I think I was, not unusually, one of many clueless women in that class. We just kind of assumed this was always the way. A lot of us, this was just the way it was and it was only once we got here that I think we all learned that this was a really new thing.

I think that the college itself was kind of scrambling to change the culture of Columbia in order to accommodate what was really a pretty big change. So a lot of the discussions, for example, around the Core [Curriculum] really heated up with a focus on gender, in particular. Gender then, not gender and sexuality. It was a real focus on women. So that was one of the things that really stood out from the years that I was here, that that was sort of a thing that was being talked about…If you had any interest in feminist anything, you’d find that either at Barnard or almost nowhere. So that was really the culture of it…It was more of a culture that we were coming into that was not fully prepared for coeducation quite yet. That, I would say, was almost—it was a combination of social, but also academic. So like I said, the ways in which the conversation kind of heated up around the Core Curriculum in those years—I got here in 1984. So it was ‘84 to ‘88 that I was here. Everybody was talking about the canon, and the Core, and all these fights over inclusion of women, in particular. Books authored by women, that was what people were talking about. It was prompted—a lot of it, at least on the level of student conversation, was the fact that now there were all these women in the Core classes. So there was conversation that way, but other than that, no. I certainly didn’t feel like there wasn’t a place for me.

I found that the interest that I had, which kind of preceded college, in feminist issues, I was able to find a way to explore those. I came here wanting to engage with “the tradition.” So that was part of my attraction to the college, but particularly in a way that felt, to me, an invitation to wrestle with ideas. I never felt that I couldn’t explore other things. There were very few course offerings at Columbia in anything gender related at the time. I think I took every single one of those courses. There were very few. If you really wanted to do anything women studies related, you really had to go to Barnard, but that’s what you did. So you just kind of found your way that way.

“…creating their own and standing on their own and insisting on their own…”


William B. Ransford Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African-American Studies

Particularly this last year has been extraordinary. I spoke to the Black Graduation this year. These are young people for whom the Obama thing was a given, and it wasn’t just a given once, it was a given twice. They’ve had two presidential terms with an African American president. These are also the young people who saw Trayvon [Martin], and who were—I was stunned by the verdict. I expected it, but I was stunned. They didn’t expect it. I talk with them, particularly this year, as they prepared to come to their senior year, Ferguson erupts, or Staten Island. Those verdicts came down during their senior year. There has been a resurgence in the level of activism, not just around racial justice and criminal justice, but also the young people who are organizing around sexual violence. They’re upset and they’re hurt, deeply hurt and deeply angry, and rightly so, but to me it is so beautiful.

They bring tears to my eyes, because it’s a level of activism and a willingness to put their bodies on the line that I have not seen. It’s not about nostalgia for a moment that they didn’t live in. They are living in this moment, and that’s something. Those two moments, the Obama moment and—like you said, not just what happens to you, but what you do with it—that they decided to step up and organize. Those of us who are feminists feel sometimes like, oh God, what happened? All these young women who think feminism is a dirty word. And then, boom, here they are, creating their own and standing on their own and insisting on their own. Their institutions are not going to tolerate sexual violence. They are not going to just take mass incarceration for granted, and this is what we should do. They can change their institution. The fact that they have to do it is disheartening. The fact that they are doing it, to me, is just extraordinary. Those are the changes I think I’ve seen in the last sixteen years. I’m just so grateful that I got to witness them, because it’s easy to become jaded. In both of those instances, you can’t become jaded.

“Theorizing Activism and the Justice Initiative…”


Gustave M. Berne Professor of Philosophy
IRWGS Core Faculty
IRWGS Director, 2000-01

I am teaching a course in prison. I’m the first faculty member at Columbia to teach a course as part of the Justice Initiative. In order to accommodate all the time that would take, Patricia Dailey and I worked together to set up another class that I would teach that would not require a huge amount of grading and so on. Theorizing Activism, which was begun and designed by Janet Jakobsen—awesome Janet Jakobsen—I picked up on. I might have made it more a philosophy course, but there was no time to do that. Unlike what Janet had done in the past, which was heavy reading, I thought it would be very interesting to limit it to activists, people who were already engaged in activism, or students from my Philosophy and Feminism class who wanted to be.

There’s two kinds of students in the class: people who had been very involved in activism already, or students who wanted to be. I thought, since I’m not a trained activist, it would be much better for students and easier for me, quite honestly—given that I was already teaching in prison—to bring activists in. I think it was a success. I had someone every week for about six weeks, I think—six, seven weeks [of the semester] in a class—come in and talk about activism. Students got to ask questions. The project for each student in the class was to be an activist, and then to write up what we called field notes about what they did. It was really good for the students. I think most of the students enjoyed it. I have yet to read the evaluations, but I think they did. I was really amazed at how eager students were to engage in that way.

Q: Can you talk about the class that you’re teaching as part of the Columbia Center for Justice, the class you’re teaching in prison?

Geraldine Downey is one of the people that began the program, and she introduced me to the amazing women who began the Center for Justice in the School of Social Work, and that’s Kathy Boudin and Cheryl Wilkins. Both of them were incarcerated for over twenty-five years. They knew one another and began activist work in prison. Geraldine and I thought that it would be interesting to try to teach a version of Literature Humanities. Part of my motivation to do that is to make the college pay attention to the program. My hope was to get some of my Lit Hum students to go in with me. It’s really powerful when students go inside. But the dean of Columbia College, Jim Valentini, who I am happy to go on record as saying has no imagination about these things, didn’t get the point of it. So I was not allowed to take students in this term, and I’m not sure when that’s going to happen.

One of our women’s studies students who I met through IRWGS is going in with me. In fact, she’s the one I recommended and maybe you talked to. In the spring we did three ancient plays, all from Lit Hum: The Oresteia, The Medea, and Lysistrata, and the students loved it. We discovered in the middle of the semester that students weren’t even taking it for credit. We thought they were taking it for credit, but they knew that they weren’t. Nobody informed us of that, by the way. It’s a little bit disorganized, I have to say. But I was struck by the fact—and the students said this—that it was so much fun to them that they were taking it anyway.

“My hope for the next generation of women’s studies…”


R. Gordon Hoxie Professor of American History in Honor of Dwight D. Eisenhower
IRWGS Core Faculty

As I think about where IRWAG should go or might go in the future, I think that the intellectual directions have to be first on the agenda because as we begin—now, there are, I think, six joint faculty lines in women’s studies. But one member of the faculty has just gone off to be a dean, another has pulled out of her teaching commitments. I’m about to retire. That gives us an opportunity to re-think the whole intellectual direction of the project. One of the things that’s most exciting, I think, is when a department or a program has the chance to say, “Well, we’ve got three—possibly more if we can twist a few arms—but at least three new hires that we can think about, new people to bring in. How should we think about the program as a whole so that these people fit?”

For whatever reason, gender seems to have surfaced or bubbled up in all kinds of places. Questions of work and wage work and what it does to the family or what it does for the family within the United States, of how the labor force has to be changed, of what the impact will be on capitalism or on social rights on the global movement of labor through caring work. All those questions are questions that involve gender profoundly. So there’s a piece of me that thinks its moment has come. The moment has come when we so deeply, deeply need to understand how gender functions in this society that it’s an opportunity to open up a women’s studies program, both as a teaching program and as a research program, that attempts to grasp some of these issues, to understand them, to push them forward. I think that’s my hope for the next generation of women’s studies.

It’s about a gender that we now understand as fully and completely racialized, about a gender that we understand as rooted in class, as rooted in nation. It’s a conception of gender that we could never have imagined when the concept first emerged on the scene in the later 1970s. I think Columbia is poised to take advantage of it. Let me put it that way. We have so many very good, very smart people at the cutting edge of their fields, who just need an institutional support system to enable them to move in creative directions.

“Organizing teach-ins on Title IX…”


Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature
IRWGS Director, 2014

I asked [James] Valentini’s office and Sharon Marcus’s office—the dean’s office—if they’d be willing to provide funding for events related to Title IX, or any subset issue. Valentini’s office gave us two thousand, Sharon Marcus gave us, I think, a thousand. We put on what was called a teach-in, but it was an information session that we held in the fall, which was really successful. We had over a hundred people. It was in the Law School. Suzanne Goldberg—at first I didn’t want her to speak because I thought it would be too institutional. Then I invited her. She said, “If we don’t include Columbia as one of the factors, what kind of a comment does that say? That we’re in some ways against Columbia? We have to give Columbia a chance to be a participant.” I said, “God, you’re right, sorry. Please join us!” And she did, among other people.

I invited two people who were part of No Red Tape, who are also self-identified as survivors, and so they sat on the panel too. They said it was very helpful at least to even have somebody to speak to. It was a good panel, because we started off with bystander interventions, and not just talking about post, but pre-preparation, or what you can do. Bystander intervention, someone who had done training on that, a Title IX person, an attorney who knows Title IX very well, and also telling people the options. Like, here legally are the different things you can do in various registers, and know that if you do X, Y is excluded, or Y isn’t excluded and all those kinds of technical things that people sometimes have to reinvent the wheel to figure out.

We had a big fall event. It was really successful. I was working with No Red Tape, I was put on their board for a fund outside of Columbia with donors to help develop funding sources for people to have alternate means of funding, either bystander intervention or projects, or whatever it was. I did an independent study with Zoe Ridolfi-Starr, allowing her activism to be counted academically (so long as she wrote a paper), helping her that way, recognizing the work that she was putting in. Then we scheduled a workshop for the spring and did a screening of The Hunting Ground, and another thing through the Law School on sexual harassment in the military. We did a good number of events that were mostly well-attended, partnered with the Law School on two. Bernard Harcourt in the Law School teaches a lot on law related to sexual assault, so he had a whole class that he wanted to attend. That’s been our involvement.