Category Archives: Early Challenges

“…the English Department was a place that was looking to the past, not the future.”


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

Well, I came to the Columbia English department, and I was shocked. It was a very hard transition in—I had imagined something that just wasn’t true. It was a place that was looking to the past, not the future. It was very male-dominated. I just wasn’t ready, having been at Syracuse for thirteen years where there were almost as many women on the faculty as men, it was very egalitarian, it was very democratic. We did everything by votes. Everything was written down, it was transparent. I got here and I couldn’t figure out how the English department worked. It seemed to work by a handful of older men making decisions. I think that’s actually how it did work. Of course, nobody really was getting tenure from below at that point, and so there was a huge divide between the junior and the senior faculty, and lots of misunderstanding, lots of suspicion. There were just so few women.

I was just always very self-conscious because you were always aware of your difference. I had a very small office on this floor, this lovely office I’m in now belonged to Ted Tayler, and I was in a very small one. But there were all men on this floor, and so you’d walk out and there would be this sea of men talking. You’d walk by, and they’d go silent. And I’m not making this up: a decade after I first came here, Fran Dolan was a visitor when I was at Penn, and she had the same experience. She’d walk out of the office and then all the men would fall silent. And it’s just––you felt like you stuck out. People were not mean to me or anything. There were many friendly people, colleagues. But the whole atmosphere was so charged with maleness that it was very hard, as a senior woman, to feel that you were really integrated.

Then, I found the gender institute very quickly. The first year I came, I was put on a committee, because there weren’t that many senior women, to choose the first head of the gender institute—not the first, the second. Carolyn Heilbrun had fought to have a gender institute set up at Columbia, and she had won that, and they’d given her a room, and that’s about as far as she got.

Then we were getting the first formal director and I was on that committee. Carolyn Bynum chaired that committee. She was new at Columbia. That’s the search that brought us Martha Howell, eventually, who became the first director. So in my second year here, I was working with Martha right away. She was in the early modern period in history. She’s a lovely, smart woman. And I began to help create the courses and create the curriculum and all the things that had to be done, and that was a glorious community. I had that as a very active, intellectual and also social space. That was my other [way of] coping. Then I had my family, and I had lots of friends in the discipline, so I wasn’t stuck in the English department for everything. But I tell you, the English department did not nurture me in that first decade. It was a very hard environment.

The English department I live in today is a fabulous department. I’m very happy in this department. I was not happy in the ’90s.

“We did have women but they didn’t stay.”


Professor Emerita of English and Comparative Literature

Nina Auerbach, Carolyn Burke, Barbara Christian, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Kate Ellis, Judith Kegan Gardiner, Sandra Gilbert, Gail Green, Alice Jardine, Myra Jehlen, Constance Jordan, Alice Kaplan, Kate Millet, Nancy Milford, Nancy Miller, Lillian Robinson, Naomi Schor, Catharine Stimpson, Susan Suleiman, and Louise Yelin. Many of whom have had stellar careers. They were all here, and could have stayed. Imagine if even a few of them had stayed, the difference it would have made, actually, even in the prestige of the English and French departments, which didn’t have many people of that stature, at least not very many.

Susan Winnett, whose departure caused Carol [Carolyn Heilbrun] to leave, she did something like sixty MA essays in one year, because students so much wanted to work with her, and she worked very hard at it, and she did very well with them. PhD students who wanted to write on women’s studies found ways to provide for themselves. Eventually, they would somehow cobble together a committee for the dissertation that could work. If you get at least one person on there who knows something about the field, then the others sort of fill in. There wasn’t a really solid structure. I think things are much better now there. Of course, Jean [Howard] came, and Margie Ferguson came first, before Jean. That was a great boon, but she didn’t stay. Carol Kay was the partner of Jonathan Arac. She was here for a while. We did have women, but they didn’t stay.

“…what was needed was departmental buy-in”


Miriam Champion Professor of History
IRWGS Director, 1989-94

Because I had run women’s studies at Rutgers, first as associate director and then as director when the existing director left, and in fact had been participating in it the whole time I was there, I knew a lot about the problems of a separate women’s studies program and the risks of isolating it too much and of politicizing it so much that it becomes a platform for protest and loses a kind of academic grounding. I was very aware that, at Columbia, that would be death because what we needed was departmental buy-in and administrative buy-in. We needed to be able to train graduate students and not to have faculty members saying, “What are you doing over there?” That required careful planning. I think one of the things that was a good thing to do was to build possibilities for people who do women’s studies with a disciplinary focus and, in fact, we required that. You did women’s studies with a grounding in political science or economics or history. We did a pre-med women’s studies major so that the women’s studies wasn’t dragged out or positioned as an alternative to a discipline but integrated in a discipline. We also thought it would be easier for the women—it was always women—who wanted to major in women’s studies to defend the choice to their parents. There are lots of places where there’s an argument that there is a methodology and a disciplinary project of women’s studies, and that what we should be doing is thinking about women’s studies as a discipline, not as a wedge that transforms disciplines. My opinion was that, at Columbia, we needed to think about it as the latter, and that was partly the politics of the institution decision.

Part of this came from struggles I had seen at Rutgers. The decision at Rutgers was like the decision we made here. Puerto Rican studies was my model of how not to do it because it had been carved out as a special discipline. It had no connection to history, Spanish, and the faculty in those disciplines didn’t take Puerto Rican studies seriously. So the students—and a lot of Rutgers students were Puerto Rican heritage or, in fact, they’d come from Puerto Rico themselves—they would be clustered in that department with no access. They could take undergraduate lecture courses in other disciplines, and I’m sure they got advice from their professors to do that, but they weren’t taken up by the disciplines. I never believed—and this is just me—that there really was a particular methodology of ethnic studies that could be separated from thinking systematically about the history, and using the methods of inquiry that historians use, or thinking about how economic systems work and studying economic sociology and then thinking about the Puerto Rican experience through that and then rethinking the models that come out of economic sociology once you inject that particular experience of this ethnic group in America. That’s an intellectual decision that I made, but the decision I made here was really governed as much by, I just thought it would fail as a program if we isolated it. Most people agreed.

“…was it happening curricularly on the graduate level? Not really.”


Professor of English, Hunter College

Intellectually there wasn’t push back. No one said no, you can’t do this, or this isn’t an appropriate field. The students were very aware of lesbian and gay studies, queer theory, as a thing. Well, for example, when we brought Eve Sedgwick or Judith Butler, it was standing room only. There was just no room in the room. But was it happening curricularly on the graduate level? Not really. Anne McClintock was there, and she was starting to do works on the sex industry. I took a class with her on narratives of the sex industry. So there was that, and she was super queer friendly. There were definitely faculty there who were very open to queer work, and did gender and sexuality in their work. So a lot of the Early Modernists, the work that was being done on cross dressing and that kind of stuff. But there was not a sense of a political commitment to lesbian and gay studies in the same way. Do you know what I mean? And there were no courses, to my memory, that were focused on that. No, we felt like we were doing this thing, but there was no negative response. People were like, “Oh, okay, great. Go ahead, go for it. We have a little bit of money we can give you, but that’s about it.”

IRWAG was very supportive, very supportive from the very beginning. I don’t know if we could have done what we did really without them, because they had a space we could use, and they gave us like forty dollars a month for refreshments and stuff like that, and that’s not nothing. Also as someone who’d come out of women’s studies and been really involved in the Yale Women’s Center, to me the place you go is where the feminist work is being done. That’s where you go, and it’s true here at Hunter as well. The really important gender and sexuality work I think is happening in women’s and gender studies. That’s where it’s happening, and that’s where it’s happening on the ground with the students. That’s where the nurturing of students doing sexuality studies is happening, in a concentrated way.

"It was the first time that we had a graduate student conference dealing with lesbian and gay studies issues."


Professor of English, Lehman College


All I remember was someone had the bright idea of, you know, we’ve been doing these local events now for several years and we’ve been bringing in these great speakers, and why don’t we do a conference? At the time there was the annual lesbian and gay studies conference, and I think right around then that conference started at Yale, and I think maybe around that year it was at Rutgers, so there was kind of an annual, big, national lesbian and gay studies conference that was being held in the Northeast around that time, but we thought, let’s just do a conference for graduate students.

I remember that we just came up with a bunch of questions that we wanted to address in this conference and we sent out a call for papers––we got a mailing list. We made this really cool poster and we sent to English and gender studies departments and stuff all around the Northeast, and we thought it has to be local-ish because we just can’t afford. So we sent them to colleges and stuff all over the Northeast. I don’t remember the questions we asked but they were probably just things like, how as graduate students do we negotiate the challenges of doing work in an emerging field? What are the personal and professional possibilities, but also risks that we take? I went on the market in 1994, and I remember having discussions with all of these people––my friends––about to what degree do you come out as a job candidate. What do you write on your CV? Do you occlude things? Do you euphemize things? We were really talking about it, which is kind of shocking to think. In the end, I don’t think any of us did [occlude anything]. We were like, well, this is silly––I wrote a dissertation on homoeroticism, I’ve got to say that! What am I going to say? But I think other things like involvement in activist groups and other things that were less academic but were gay, I think we had serious discussions about to what degree do you occlude those kinds of things, because people––if you’re applying to a job in the Midwest or the South, people might be freaked out if you say you’re a member of ACT UP or you did community organizing for ACT UP. Whatever it is. Those were also the kinds of questions that we wanted to ask. How you negotiate your personal identity? So it was that kind of––very pragmatic. Just how do we survive and thrive as graduate students, as teachers and researchers who are working in a new scholarly area that also comes with certain risks? Being that it’s a possibly controversial subject.

We had this great one-day conference, and I think it was really, really meaningful for a lot of us, again, because we wanted to hear our graduate student peers at other institutions. It was the first time, I think, that we had really just this graduate student conference dealing with lesbian and gay studies issues. I don’t think that really had happened before.

“…a shared institutional history”


Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature

Being involved in feminist issues at Columbia shaped my work in the way that’s probably the most profound, in a sense that my training had been very masculinist. Through sharing work with Susan [Winnett], or the mentorship with Carolyn [Heilbrun], and then getting involved in the work that Jean Howard and Martha Howell were beginning to do, and others certainly, I thought: why, in African American literary studies, aren’t we attending more to questions of how women might be writing differently, in terms of the construction of a racial subject? That was very important to me and it came from my association with people at Columbia. It wasn’t a part of my training as a scholar. I donated a lot of time to the politics of the institutionalization of feminist concerns at Columbia, but it helped to shape me as a scholar, so it was time that was really well spent.

The vision of feminism was far more heterogeneous than it had been at other institutions where these programs had developed earlier on. In that sense intellectually, theoretically there was a space for me, but also in terms of identity politics it made sense that African American Studies and women’s studies had a shared history, a shared institutional history. Just as some of these people had been very helpful to me in lobbying for African American studies, I felt that I wanted to be helpful to them.

“…the support came in response to student requests”


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

All the student groups: it really depends on the cohort and how active the individuals are, how politically pressing the issues appear at a moment. Different issues grab the imagination at different times. Ethnic studies takes over it sometimes. Opposition to the war became a bigger issue than identitarian politics at one moment. In my opinion, IRWAG’s executive committee was always supportive, but the support came in response to student requests. It was very student-driven. There were certainly undergraduate students who were active in many ways. Maybe more active in the classrooms than in organizational ways, but there was a graduate student group that in some periods gathered, I think, almost weekly. They had theory reading groups, they had dissertation reading groups, and so forth. I think the support was largely providing a venue, largely providing a sense of legitimacy, perhaps promotion of activities. Across the board, the student-generated groups had support, but also were encouraged to assume a lot of autonomy, particularly in the early days when there really wasn’t any kind of stable faculty.

There were a couple of moments where things acquired a slightly different character, such as when we established the queer studies prize. That involved faculty much more directly, actually, in reading the work, and actually talking among themselves about what it is that we think ought to be the function of queer theoretical writing. Sometimes those committees would have quite intense disagreements, so sometimes it’s the desire to support the students that generates interesting theoretical reflections.

There were also some very difficult moments—for a long time we had a strong support and indeed some financial support from an administrator at Columbia by the name of Annie Barry. She joined those committees for a number of years. I can’t really ventriloquize for her of course, because she would have to express her own sense of what happened, but there was a period when it felt like we were getting so few, and such bad material, and so little interest by other faculty members that the prize almost collapsed. Basically, Annie withdrew herself from the process at that time. I think rightly so, but it had also to do with her status as an administrator in the adjudication process. If I remember correctly, I think that year we decided not to give the prize. We were so unhappy with what felt like anti-feminist work being produced within the queer theory that we were nonetheless teaching. You’d have to ask Julie Crawford about that, because she was very deeply involved and carried the prize forward into a renewed and much better form.

That was one bad year. Only one. Other years have been fantastic, and as I said, I think one has to assess that in terms of the vicissitudes of politics more generally. As I said, around the early years of the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, war and opposition to war took up a lot of energy. During unionization periods, that absorbed a lot of student energy. I haven’t been so involved of late, but my sense is that, for example, around the politics of gay marriage, with big deep splits within the community of IRWAG, the issue of civil rights has also been important. Those splits also ramified at the level of courses being offered. I think in one year, following a period of real activism around civil rights, in that same year there appeared to be a lot of courses on marriage, and maternity, and so forth, and some people felt, oh, what’s happening to IRWAG? But these things—one has to assess them in terms of a long arc, not just in the moment.

“…organizing to protect intellectual freedom…”


Moore Collegiate Professor of History
Director of IRWGS, 1994-96

So I missed that period with Roz [Morris]. At the same time, I’m hugely sympathetic with Roz’s political engagement. After I came back I worked with her, but at that time I think she’d stopped being the director. We’d worked together to founded this CU-FACT, this little network. How do we put together a listserv? Big deal. It meant a lot then in terms of all this conflict around Iran, around accusations of anti-Semitism, the lack of desire and capacity to protect junior faculty, to enable them.

I missed what, in retrospect, and from what you’re saying, was probably a big turning point in connecting the institute to a new level, a new kind of engagement of younger faculty, more of them crossing numbers of disciplines, and also tying to new social movements. I’m still trying to figure out the timing of that. There was a big increase in politicization around the Iraq War. We were, I think, probably the first place, which had this enormous protest, and then all the fallout—the repression and this and that, which began to make things very complicated and tortured internally. It wasn’t just women at all. There were a lot of men, Middle Eastern or—
That was disturbing, that you had to be so protective of the quality of speech in order to have an impact, and you couldn’t tolerate somebody spouting off. The organization was very good at that in those days, because we had people who had had a lot of organizational experience. It matters when you’re organizing a big event and get people lined up, and da-da-da-da-da, and they can only speak X, Y and Z. It matters.

It became very visible that certain things would be picked up on and circulated. They would be sent around and sent around, and pretty soon someone could get a monstrous email saying God knows what. That must have been the moment when this kind of ad hominem attack started when one person would be taken as representing the whole. Then the university would say, “Oh, my God, there goes five million in donations.” Then what happened after our first big protest against the Iraq invasion? On the anniversary the year after there was another moment of organization. We did a lot of organizing to prevent and to protect it, and then hardly anybody came. Then I don’t think there was a third year, nobody came.

“The other vision of what women’s studies should do and could do…”


Miriam Champion Professor of History
IRWGS Director, 1989-94

Then we did the search for Maggie Sale as assistant director, an administrator position with instructional responsibilities. Maggie was—she came right out of women’s studies, very leftist. She was convinced that there was a discipline of women’s studies. She was, in a way, a breath of fresh air because what we were doing just mystified her. She couldn’t understand why we weren’t having a revolution, and she was very active. She organized junior faculty reading groups and things like that, worked on her scholarship with other young people, and had her own agendas that she pushed. It was good to have her here because she was that other vision of what women’s studies should do and could do. She was very good to have organized junior faculty.

One of the things—I mean, this is just Jean Howard’s and my blind spot. Jean founded—it’s still called the Jean Howard Reading Group. She started a reading group—it still exists—that’s only tenured women. The idea was that you can’t have a reading group where people are brutally honest with each other with untenured people. First, they won’t dare be critical, and you’ll crush them. You might have a lot of critical comments to make about a junior faculty’s work, but you need to do that privately. I thought Jean was right about that, but what that set up was, in other people’s minds—which we’re looking around saying, what?—that there was a secret group of senior women. Then there were more and more junior women. So Maggie immediately rectified that, and that was good. It set a precedent, I think, in which junior women get together. She said, “I’m starting a junior reading group. You won’t let me into yours.” She wanted to join ours. I said, “No, let me explain to you the logic,” and she looked at me like I was talking Turkish. There’s a logic to both sides. Now, I must say, that at Rutgers, there would have been no question but that untenured and tenured women were together. Graduate students would have been in the group. It was just a different place. Which was interesting, and it would have worked at Rutgers. Partly because at a state university you write your book, then you get it published with a good place, and you get good review, you get tenure. That doesn’t happen here.

“This was the best part of my job visit…”


Professor of English and Comparative Literature

The visits started at ten in the morning. I had an interview with the chair, who was David Damrosch. Then there was a lunch with a lot of the faculty in American Literature. There was a talk. So a bunch of people came to the talk, but really then the only other thing was they put me in the little seminar room that’s a few doors down. I was supposed to meet with graduate students. I think it was a Friday and two people showed up. Then the day was over. I figured they’re not serious about me at all. This is not a real visit. I went over to Ann Douglas’s apartment. She made clear that she really liked me and we had tea, but that was not an official part of the visit.

The other piece was that I was sent to IRWAG to—I don’t know why I was sent there. I had an interest in gender studies. I actually thought of myself as a women’s studies person, and I was a women, but if I’m remembering right, Jean Howard was the director, but she was not there. So I was sent there and I chatted with Kathleen Savage, who was the most—this was the best part of my visit because Kathleen, she was completely schlubby and she had this gray, unassuming hair, and these glasses that magnified her eyes really big, and just very relaxed and unthreatening. I don’t remember who was shepherding me around, but they dropped me off there and she said, “Well, I don’t really know why you’re here. There’s no one who’s really an officer to meet with you. We can just sit here and chat.” I liked her so much. I was very grateful. It was purple. It was much more in this older women’s studies vein at the time. So that was a very fond memory of the job visit. I had a feeling of this must mean that I am not going to get the job. They just stuck me off here to fill up the day, but she’s very nice and this is the only time I can relax in the entire day.