Category Archives: Core Faculty

“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.

“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.

“It was being in this context at IRWGS that broadened the kind of work that I did…”


Joseph L. Buttenwieser Professor of Social Science
IRWGS Core Faculty
IRWGS Director, 2004-07

I was very excited about the anthropology department because it was the biggest thing that had happened in anthropology in the country. We won’t go into the reality versus the fantasy, but I came. Then I was half in IRWAG, and it was very small. There were only two of us joint people, who had half of our teaching there. But I was amazed at this group of women faculty that I found here who were just so institutionally savvy, so committed to this project even though it was all volunteer time for them. Thinking about how to make it good. They wanted the highest standards, but recognizing Columbia’s limitations in terms of powerful departments. People had to really be wanted in their discipline. That’s the brilliance that they had, I think, that they wanted the departments to be totally invested in this hire, and so they involved them from the beginning. They wanted the senior person to be wanted in their department. As an anthropologist, I was somebody who would bring something. As a historian, what more could you want than Alice Kessler-Harris? That was their strategy. A lot of programs flounder because you get faculty that the departments don’t really want. It means that some people can’t be considered, like the kind of cutting edge of feminist studies, which is very interdisciplinary, or cultural studies, since the scholars don’t quite fit in departments. We couldn’t hire people like that at Columbia, so we’re all people who are very well respected in our disciplines but who also have some relationship to women’s studies and sexuality studies.

So I came here. That was very different world for me, and my work actually changed. I always tell the story that probably the article I am most famous for now is this little piece that was called “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?” It’s taught in University Writing and all over. It was for a teach-in that IRWAG did. Roz Morris was the director then. There was the invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11 and she organized what she called a Forum on War. Gayatri Spivak spoke, and Judith Butler and Cathy Lutz, and I can’t even remember who else. Roz asked me, and I said, “Oh, no. I work on Egypt. What do I know about Afghanistan?” She looked at me like, “You don’t have anything to say?” I felt so ashamed. I only spoke from my deep knowledge, and our knowledge is ethnographic and it’s very specific. I thought, “Well, I’m sure I have something to say.”

So I wrote this talk for that event, which was to me kind of like Middle East/Anthro 101. I put together all the pieces that I knew, and I thought through a few more issues and it was just—it ended up being in the book that I published last year called Do Muslim Women Need Saving? I feel like it was being in this context at IRWGS that actually broadened the kind of work that I did, taking it beyond anthropology, beyond Middle East studies. I had to think: how could I reach a different audience with what I knew, but really directed at feminist issues?

“IRWGS has been the place where you look for women leaders…”


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

At its beginning, IRWAG exists because of strong women leaders on campus. I think it’s been, not wanting to go too far with origin stories, but I think it’s no coincidence then that the women who then get hired into the lines—when the institute starts to have lines—are prominent, formidable scholars. It’s been the case in a lot of institutions, some peer institutions, some not, that women and gender and sexuality studies is the least well resourced. Often it’s scholars with low status relative to other scholars on campus, often the case that they’re spousal hires, so they’re trailing spouses—some great man of science or industry or history that they’re following—and they need a place to teach. That was never really the case at IRWAG, so you begin with, again, lots of very capable, very smart, very formidable women, for the most part, in its leadership. I think it’s not rocket science. If you are looking on campus, at a moment in the ‘90s and the ‘00s, to really do something about the fact that—in a not good way—leadership at Columbia has been mostly men. You can look at the deans of the colleges, the deans of the schools and all the higher administration. We have yet to have a woman president. We’ve yet to have a woman dean of the faculty in the Arts and Sciences.

IRWAG has been that place, for good and for naught, where you poach the women leaders. Not only people who are on the core faculty, but people who have more informal leadership roles. People like Julie Crawford, who was I think one of the chairs of the Committee on Instruction and is now running Lit Hum, she’s the director of the core curriculum program. Christia Mercer was running the [Lit Hum] before her, who’s a quarter appointment in IRWAG. Marianne [Hirsch] was doing professional service for the MLA. Jean [Howard] was the board of trustees at Brown. I mean, just on and on and on and on.

It’s tough. It’s mostly a bittersweet story. It’s mostly not a positive story about the institutional strain that IRWAG is put under. What’s been great is that I have a group of colleagues who are so committed to doing this work that, often to our detriment, we hold it together with great mentorship of graduate students and undergraduate students, exciting programming with a shoestring budget, and we still do it while having all these other leadership obligations. I mean, for a time Lila [Abu-Lughod] was directing both the Middle East Institute, I think, and the Center for the Study of Social Difference at the same time. I mean, wow. That’s a lot of work. Obviously the downsides are that that energy is siphoned off from the institute. Another way of saying that is if everybody’s energy was allowed to be focused on the institute, my goodness, what could it be? What campus juggernaut could we be dealing with here? It’s a profound compliment that this is the space in the arts and sciences, but I think that the institute is not always well compensated in the sense of restoring both that energy and, frankly, labor to the institute in turn.

“The review was a really big break…”


Moore Collegiate Professor of History
IRWGS Director, 1994-96

The Arts and Sciences administration reviews departments, but [David] Cohen had begun to set it up as procedure, which would allow them, others, experts to say what we were doing, where’d we come from, what we could do. And that would be the basis to allocate new resources. That was a really big break…We had arguments over outside reviewers. Why did we have to go to Princeton, or other so called peer elite private universities rather than the great state universities. They’re the ones that have the great programs. We don’t know any of these people that you’re bringing in. They’re not women’s studies, they’re part of the apparatus. I remember feeling that this had to be managed.

Jean [Howard] and Martha [Howell] said, “We will write up who we are.” They did a fantastic job. In the end, the outside reviewers came from Princeton. They made strong recommendations that we needed new faculty, we needed resources. It was on that basis that Alice Kessler-Harris would be hired and then a couple of years later, Lila Abu-Lughod. That was a huge movement.

I can remember we had very lively discussions. We had strong committees to choose the people. We had fascinating candidates, just remarkable…it was substantial. What was so gratifying was to see was that somebody like myself could move out, and others coming in…That’s part of the story the unexpected unfolding and growth, and evolution down to the present. It’s just remarkable.

“…students are pushing against the limits of the curriculum”


Professor of English and Comparative Literature
IRWGS Core Faculty
Director of IRWGS, 2007-08, 2015

Well, the field is changing. Students are changing and I think the curriculum is changing as well. I mean, the biggest shift, curricularly, is that we’ve added “Sexuality” to our name. I think we’ve always been doing sexuality and we are the place at Columbia, certainly in Arts & Sciences, that’s doing sexuality. We’ve been trying to appoint a faculty member in that field, but short of that, we have a number of people who teach it and who have come forward and been willing to teach it. I think that move towards sexuality has been a very big one. The global focus is getting more urgent. I think it already was when I first arrived here and at Columbia. IRWGS appointed Lila Abu-Lughod and Beth Povinelli, so they’ve brought that in and Roz Morris was the director when I first was hired. I think we’ve had that very much at the forefront of our mission, but it takes constant care to maintain it and to enlarge it. We’ve tried to appoint somebody in Latin American Studies, for example. That didn’t succeed but we’re hoping to do, again, this constant vigilance to try to have course offerings that are broad in that way. That’s been some of the shift.

I think what I’ve seen also is a shift in student culture. I feel like recently, really, in the last two or three years, students are just more activist. Changing things in the world seems more urgent to them. I think the kinds of sophistication about analyses of issues of social difference has just been so much more at the forefront of students’ thinking, both undergraduate and graduate. That’s been a shift from the first decade of this century when I think fighting the war was a big issue, and then the economic depression, I think, made all of us more discouraged and probably students more quiescent.

We’re doing this interview on the heels of the protests in Baltimore, so I think we’re seeing something erupt that has been building and it has to do with just tremendous economic inequalities. I’d like to think that students are beginning to realize what it costs their parents for them to be getting this education and to take a look at what that privilege means and who is excluded from it. I think that’s part of it. In terms of gender and sexuality, I think just this larger conversation that’s been taking place in the US that comes out of the gay marriage debate––I think the country’s become so polarized around every question that students are being drawn into some of these questions, whether they want to or not.

I don’t think it’s because the curriculum has changed. I think that students are pushing against the limits of the curriculum, which has not necessarily changed. At the same time, there are a lot of initiatives that are beginning at Columbia, for example, the Justice Initiative and teaching in prisons. I mean, that’s kind of new here and the opportunities to do more of that, more work with the community, public humanities––I think those spaces are opening up and I think students are seeing those opportunities.

“…we need an intellectual space”


Joseph L. Buttenwieser Professor of Social Science
IRWGS Core Faculty
IRWGS Director, 2004-07

Many of the people who still don’t have lines in IRWGS we consider main, main members of our community, like Jean Howard. She doesn’t have an official line there, but that’s one of her big homes. A lot of people were committed but a lot of people drifted off and worked on other institutes, but then we were anchored by the four lines, with half of our teaching obligation and administrative is in IRWGS, and now there are six, six or seven. So that’s pretty stable, and they’re major, senior people. There were no tenure battles. Many departments flounder over supporting or not supporting a junior person. We didn’t have any of that. We don’t have admissions. We’ve resisted from the beginning. We don’t want to have a PhD. We don’t even want an MA. We like it the way it is—it’s a place people go to because they genuinely want to be there, because they care about it, and it doesn’t get caught up in this bureaucratic stuff and fighting over resources. Why not have a space like that? We have enough of it in our own departments, so let’s have a place that’s not like that. I think most people feel that way about IRWGS, that you don’t have any of that going on.

I think a lot of people feel we need an intellectual space. Not all departments are intellectual spaces for people. There are many departments that are problematic for people. Either they don’t fit in them or there are nasty histories. One’s department is not actually always the intellectual center for you and you have interests that actually go well with other people’s interests who are not in your discipline. This is an opportunity to follow the themes of your research with people who are interested in the same things.

We think this is all part of gender studies too. It’s enriching what IRWGS does and giving opportunities to IRWGS faculty to have conferences, to have working groups, to develop ideas. I know it comes up there and we know it, because we know how much effort it took to start the thing. Sometimes we think, look, why isn’t Women Creating Change under IRWGS and just skip CSSD [Center for the Study of Social Difference]? But then it would have to be curricular. IRWGS is a curricular unit. It teaches undergraduates. It has a graduate certificate and it does public programming. That’s what it does. The research side had never been part of it. All that research is done now through CSSD.

“If there’s a proven breeding ground for institutional actors, it’s IRWGS…”


Mark van Doren Professor of Humanities, Chair of Literature Humanities

If we are so functional in this institute that we are constantly being asked to run departments, programs and divisions, give us more faculty. We’ve proven that we’re an excellent training ground for creating not just excellent scholars, but the great administrators, which are few on the ground. You want a lot of women, and women of color administrators, so give us more faculty lines, because we show again, and again and again, that we create the conditions that allow people to succeed in their scholarship and allow them to succeed as administrators and citizens. If there’s a proven breeding ground for institutional actors, it’s IRWGS, frankly. You just do the math. Literally everybody involved in that institute runs major, major units of this university. That’s not an accident. That’s called feminism. That’s feminist practice. That’s feminist networking, not in the old boys behind the scenes sense, but actually creating open and meaningful dialogue, collaborative practices, support networks, thinking from all levels. The reason that IRWGS has survived is because the senior people are constantly bringing in junior people, and then we in turn bring in more junior people. It’s the only way it survives.

Yes, that’s a bit of a rant, but I think it’s really a true observation. I think Lee Bollinger recognizes that. I hope other people recognize it. It’s just it’s statistically and factually true.

“…I’m giving up a lot of what’s important to me to hopefully do this other kind of work…”


Dean of Social Science, Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies
IRWGS Directors, 2013-14

We really wanted to both create a space for students so we, when I was director, allowed students to use the space for student groups, for meetings, anything that they wanted to do. We also started this, as part of the Queer Futures series, a series of explicit talks around lesbian and gay issues but issues around transgender in particular. There was just so much I wanted to do and to accomplish. When I met with David [Madigan] in December, when he offered the job to me—so it’s the second conversation. I first said to him, “Is it a fulltime job? Can I do that and still direct the institute?” He like jumped back and said, “I don’t think so. I don’t think anybody’s ever asked. Let me think about it. I’d have to ask,” but that was my first impulse was to really want to continue that work, because I loved doing that work. I felt like we were doing—it just felt special and we were getting better at outreach. We were really expanding the Twitter feed and the Facebook feed and bringing students into the space and having more students at events. When I first came to the institute, we sometimes had big, well-attended events, but that was not the norm. We would have events where you just had a couple of people and some crickets. I always thought that that was such a shame. Part of it was, one of the first things I did was to really schedule out for almost a whole year, such that when Patricia [Dailey] became director this year—actually the event that was last week with Jeffrey McCune, I planned that event. I just was planning out so you could give people enough notice.

It was often the case that we were planning things a month ahead, two weeks ahead, and people just have other commitments and can’t make it. One of the things I wanted to do in part to increase the size of the community and grow the conversations, was to just to be able to give people more notice and be better about advertising and these sorts of things. Certainly one of my major reservations, if there were two or three, was no longer being central in the leadership of the institute, not only as director, but even DUS/DGS [director of undergraduate studies/director of graduate studies], nothing. After it became clear to me that no, I could not both be Dean of Social Science and director of the Institute for Research on Women, Gender and Sexuality, but moreover, I could probably not be Dean of Social Science and teach. That was a lot. I’m giving up a lot of what’s important and what feeds me, to hopefully do this other kind of work. Lots of reservations.

David, to his credit, took a lot of meetings with me and Sharon Marcus, who was the DGS at the institute for a time. After a few meetings we each had with David, we pretty much decided to negotiate the terms of our contracts together. I love this because it is such a feminist action, practice, instinct. Who would think to do that? It’s like, “Let’s negotiate our contracts together.” We had a little labor union of two. To be able to think that through with someone who also had never thought about this, it felt like a safety blanket that we could say, “Well, what about this?” and we would go back and forth thinking about that. That actually really helped with the decision, both because Sharon and I would be doing it together, starting together, but also because we had a lot of rich conversations in which we talked through what we thought we needed or might need or, “Had you thought about this?” “No, I’d never thought about that.” “You were thinking about that? Oh my goodness.”

That was one of the things that allowed me to feel comfortable in taking the position.