Category Archives: Early Challenges

“…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 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.

“…I was not bereft of a community, it just looked different”


Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature

Essentially I was the first full-time Black faculty member in the English department. From a sociological point of view, that was really problematic, but in fact I made great friends in the English department. Again, this paradigm of lateral, horizontal mentorship, those friends taught me quite a lot about the department and the university.

One of those friends was a feminist scholar of literature and we became very close friends. Through that relationship I came to understand, or found a language for thinking about, how the institutions was as bereft of women as it was of African Americans. I knew that, but I don’t think I fully understood the ramifications of that, that the curriculum of the institution didn’t reflect society at large. There were too few women faculty to be sure, but it was also the case that a great course like Literature Humanities had no women writers. Part of the sense of community that I began to develop, largely with young women in the department and throughout the university, helped to socialize me as an African Americanist. I’d always thought of myself as feminist, but not in professional terms, not in the terms of what I did as a scholar. It was very helpful for me, because indeed I was not bereft of a community, it just looked different.

“…a time of an opening up of queer issues”


Institutional Review Board Administrator

I think the origin of the prize was actually with students themselves. They advocated for it. They knew of me because of my participation in GABLES [Gay, Bisexual, and Lesbian Employees and Supporters] activities, and therefore came to me to ask if a prize could get put in place for queer studies. Well, a very specific student came to me. He was a religion major and he was involved in the Jewish gay group. He was one of the few people, at that time, who knew I was actually a lesbian, when he first came to the department, so we just came together that way. He was still a college student, and they wanted somebody with more clout as an adult. He was an adult at the time too, but by that, I mean older people who have been around a long time but also know the university well. That’s why he came to me. It was a double reason that he knew I was lesbian. He also knew I was connected to GABLES and that I knew the university well, so could reach out to certain groups, including IRWAG, to get support for BGLAD [Bisexual, Gay, and Lesbian Awareness Days] and other activities. So I reached out to IRWAG. And Maggie Sale was here at that time. She was just like, “Yes. Let’s do it.” Yes. She and I worked to put it together.

So in 1994, we had the first Queer Studies Award. It was not really all that hard to put together. I did a lot of the footwork in terms of actually getting the award funded. I think IRWAG tossed in some money. The chaplain’s office may have given money for the award, but I’m maybe just confusing that with BGLAD. I know they sponsored a lot of events for BGLAD over the years, which was great. I actually donated some funding myself for the award. The award was only, like, a couple hundred dollars. It was never anything that would pay the rent. But it was a nice way to acknowledge that queer studies was going on at Columbia.

Even though I’m not active in those groups anymore, I really, really, really am proud of the fact that we worked so hard for so many years over so many issues, and that these groups, some of which still exist, worked so hard to make lesbian, gay, and transgender issues a part of the life at Columbia, as opposed to this satellite issue that nobody really cared about when I first came to Columbia. To see that transition and be part of the transition was really gratifying. Columbia has the oldest queer group in the world, I think [originally Student Homophile League, established in 1967]. Maybe just in the United States, but the oldest queer group. That group was always students. Obviously, it was only male students because Columbia was all male at the time. To see it move from this small, all-male group to women, to people of color, to Asians, to transgender people, to—even though I left the employee group—to employees, and to have faculty be more involved and everything. It was a time of an opening up of queer issues that I’m really glad I experienced. It’s really made my life now much more gratifying and worth—well, my life is worth it anyway, but—

Q: Worth staying at Columbia?

Yes. Worth staying at Columbia. Yes. Exactly.

"It was a very contentious issue…"


Professor of Anthropology
IRWGS Director, 1999-2000, 2001-04

It was a very contentious issue. We fought a lot about it. It was one of the most contentious issue in my recollection. I think at that time I was one of the people—I probably still am—who thinks that teaching activism in a classroom is a very weird thing to do. On the one hand it can veer in the direction of internship. On the other hand, every conference you go to, you know, experiences this aporia between the people who are activists and who are often deeply anti-theoretical, if not outright anti-intellectual, and intellectuals who are frustrated by the demands for the instrumentalization of thought which often occurs, as it has to, when you’re doing strategic or tactical stuff.

My own feeling, which is not widely shared and certainly wasn’t shared by the students is that the space between these two has to be kept open. That one has to secure theoretical work from the demands of instrumentalization, and one has to allow activism an immunity, sometimes, from the slowness that is necessary for theorization–which does not mean that activism shouldn’t be theorized. I think it should. It does not mean that theoretical work should be ignorant of, or indifferent to the material consequences, and entailments, and conditions of its own possibility, for sure.

My preference is for this gap to be actively protected. Therefore, I think I wasn’t as supportive of the teaching of activism, which I think is great, and I want students to do, and I want my colleagues to do, and I do. I feel the need for there to be a differentiation of discourse and address. The idea that everything would be serving the same purposes seems to me a horror—an intellectual failure, and a political failure.

A university is a very special place where one is enabled to have the time for a kind of thinking­—a kind of critical thinking that can’t be done in any other place, where the temporal demands, and the implementation demands are different. That seems to me something to defend really vigorously. At different times—I think in the ‘90s there was a very strong, quite insistent call for a continuity between intellectual theoretical activities and practical ones, if not the effacement of the difference between the two. I myself opposed that, but lots of students demanded it, for sure. Then there was lots of difference among the faculty about it, too.



“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.

“Why is there not the political will at Columbia to make gender issues central?”


Miriam Champion Professor of History
IRWGS Director, 1989-94

Why is there not the political will at Columbia to make gender issues central to what they call general education at Columbia? I think that the problem is not that we haven’t institutionalized the study of gender in a way that makes it necessary that people take account of it. I mean, I think that’s part of the problem. Certainly at Columbia, it’s a big problem. I think it’s the political culture in the United States. I think that it’s both toxic and important. Race is a bigger issue in terms of what people think they have to think about as part of how this democracy works or doesn’t work. Social inequality in terms of income is now a bigger issue. The issues of gender are pretty far down the list, and some of that—you know, the backlash won. It maybe didn’t conquer, but it’s held its ground. Some of that has to do with the limitations of the women’s movement…

Now there’s feminist theory that is much more sophisticated, but that hasn’t been part of the conversation. I actually don’t have a good answer. I can describe what the problems are, but I don’t know quite how to fix them. It’s a refusal to consider the systematic social structure that produces the inequality. It’s so easy to talk about in individual terms. That’s a little bit the problem with feminism is that it’s not seen as—gender hierarchy isn’t seen as structural so much as a question of whether these women have these rights. I think we’d have to decide exactly where to pick our fight. I think if we just start screaming, we lose. So if we could mobilize around a particular issue that forced change—but I don’t know what that issue would be. You have to be able to get their ear. In other words, they have to take it seriously. It has to be an issue they, they, take seriously, or you won’t be heard. I think maybe it is time for us to be bad girls. We’re powerful now. There are too many of us.

“No one ever questioned the fact that I wanted to do feminist oriented work…”


Professor of English, Hunter College

In fact, I remember I was there when this New York Times Magazine article about Carolyn Heilbrun came out, and I was part of a group of graduate students that wrote a letter saying, “This [experiencing outright institutional hostility towards our feminist scholarship] is not our experience. This is not true for us.” Were they like super, super supportive in strategic ways? No. But Anne McClintock, Ann Douglas, Priscilla Wald. I don’t think Gauri [Viswanathan] was there yet. Even the male faculty, John Archer, like all these people, were incredibly supportive of feminist work. No one ever questioned the fact that I wanted to do feminist oriented work, no one, and I was supported and encouraged in it. So, no, I never, never felt that. Quite the opposite. Quite the opposite. I felt like other people may have had that experience, and it certainly happened on the faculty level where women did not get tenure nearly as much as men did, absolutely, and you could see it institutionally. Within our department, on the day-to-day basis, not at all, and I never felt as a woman that somehow I was less important or I should be less listened to. I was very, in fact, involved in and very active in the life of the department. I was our department representative to the Graduate Student Council, I did this newsletter, I was really involved, and I never ever felt any of that.

Q: It’s predominantly the faculty that were experiencing that.

Yes, absolutely, because they had to deal with the upper administration, which was an old boys club. But in our department, I think because our program was so big—there were thirty of us per year, so there was a huge amount of variety—but also I think there were enough people both on the faculty and among the student body who were just like, I don’t understand why being a feminist is a deal. Do you know what I mean? That was just like, I came in a fully-formed feminist. Obviously I had a lot to learn, but my political sense of self was formed. I never was closeted on my CV, because it’s like, look, this is the work I do, this is who I am, either you want me or you don’t.

So yes, I’m sorry, but I understand it was an institutional truth for many, particularly the older women faculty who had really got screwed over. It’s just a total sea change, and I thank our feminist foremothers for it, because we could not have done it. We absolutely are standing on their shoulders. They had to take a huge amount of shit so I could live this life, and I’m totally appreciative of it, absolutely.