Category Archives: Founding

“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 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.

“We needed some place that would be a center for women’s issues…”


Professor Emerita of English and Comparative Literature

People came from the Medical School, and Public Health, and wherever there were women—Business, there was one. In Journalism, there was one. Law School—wherever there were women. They came, and they participated, and they were interested, and they were helpful. They all had had problems. There was no nonsense about, “I made it. Why can’t others?” They all recognized the problems.

Essentially, as I recall, we threw them open to people and said, “Look, we’re trying to set up this committee. We’d like people to work on it. We’d like to know what are the issues you think are important for women that we should work for in the university—things like childcare, obviously, maternity leave, and obviously tenure, whether you could extend time for women who took maternity leave, lengthen the clock and so forth. All the things you would expect to come up came up; salary equity, which didn’t exist at the time.

I think we had one committee, and people would send us ideas. Then, we got in the [Columbia] Senate the Commission on the Status of Women, and so a lot of the stuff from that committee, and for the Ad Hoc Committee on Women, a lot of the things that we were pressing for went through that commission, which was tricky, but we got some of them through—sexual harassment, I think some of the childcare and maternity leave and so forth, things like that, I think, went through there. I believe never anything on salary equity because, of course, that was always secret. Nobody was supposed to know what anybody else made, so you couldn’t have an established policy.

I think that the idea that we needed more than just an occasional informally-called forum—that is, informally summoned forum—we needed some place that would be a center for women’s studies, and women’s problems, and women to meet with each other around lectures or whatever—that that was a natural outgrowth of that. I don’t know that it was mentioned as something that we should work towards at one of the forums. It certainly came out of that whole movement.

“…that was why the institute was a very important move”


Professor Emerita of English and Comparative Literature

I was the chairman of the [English] department for three years, and I had been promised leave of a semester after my term. When the three years were up, I demanded my leave. It had not been in writing. I had a hell of a time getting it. I did finally get it. I had not been paid anything extra for doing this. Then I discovered, by sheerest accident—and it had to do with an entirely different case—that there was a salary discrepancy. Of course, as a chairman, I did know what all the salaries were, and I had a right to know. I discovered a certain discrepancy, and I mentioned this. I was told by the vice president, “Oh, well, that’s because he was chairman, so he got extra pay.” I said, “Oh, really? I didn’t.” He said, “But you must have. Everybody does. Everybody does.”

That was accidental proof. They never would have told me that originally. That’s the sort of thing. Of course, it went on much worse with other women, women in smaller departments, and women who were older, who felt so happy to be able to teach at a place like this that it would never have occurred to them to demand what they had a right to demand, and so they never did. There was a lot of that sort of thing, and Carol [Carolyn Heilbrun] knew, and I knew, and others. That was why the institute was a very important move.

“…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.