Category Archives: Historical Context

“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.

“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.

“…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.

“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.

“How could you be a feminist and yet be writing an objective history?”


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

In the early 1960s when I was still in graduate school I got involved with what was then an SDS, the Students for a Democratic Society project, a community organizing project. I think I was already pregnant at the time, in graduate school, and commuting and all that. So I was never deeply into it, but it certainly helped to shate my identity as an engaged historian. At the same time, I should note that historians in general looked down their noses at such activity. Presentism was what it was called, or relevant history. It was a dirty word. You couldn’t ask questions that grew out of the present situation. Our questions had to come out of some theoretically objective past. Women’s studies for me was a sort of release. Among other things it enabled me, along with others, to fight this notion of presentism being a bad thing. In the early 1970s there were struggles about whether a feminist history was not in and of itself a biased history and therefore not objective. “How could you be a feminist, doing history as a feminist, and yet be writing an objective history?” was the question.

Well, that’s background to your question because in the early part of the ‘70s—I guess it was ‘74, ‘75—I went off to Sarah Lawrence to work with Gerda Lerner at setting up the women’s history program there. I realized when I was there that the opportunity to work with the trade union movement, which came along at that time, was really the flip side of my interest in women—I was working on a book on women’s work, and I was into women’s history, but where was the labor background that I had begun with? After two years at Sarah Lawrence, I went to work for a trade union, District 65 of what’s now the United Auto Workers. It was then a Distributive Workers of America Local. Together with Bert Silverman and Murray Yanowitch, who had conceived the program, we worked at setting it up. My particular job was to be the onsite director of the program. The trade union had agreed to negotiate release time for the workers who came to classes at the union headquarters in lower Manhattan. We offered a bachelor’s degree sponsored by Hofstra University. We’d got special permission from the state to set up an off campus site. Most of the faculty were Hofstra faculty who taught in the union headquarters and we, the leaders of the program, were invited to sit in on the union’s executive committee meetings. We were very much in and part of the union structure, even as we remained, in some sense, people with academic heads. Negotiating, what you might call the community, the trade union and the university, was inevitably fraught. We found ourselves thinking about how we valued education and how to impart it to a non-traditional community. At the same time we recognized how much that community had to teach us and therefore struggled with how to involve it in the educational process. I have to say that that was one of the formative experiences of both my academic and my intellectual life.

“…it was invariably “the men” and “the girls.”


Professor Emeritus of of Religion
Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, 1984 – 89

The real reason I think that there was pressure then to admit women to Columbia College came not so much from faculty but from the administration. Columbia College was becoming less and less competitive, because young men didn’t want to go to an all—I mean, we were the last of the Ivies, by far, to become coed. That was the real pressure. So then they formed this committee, and I have really no idea why I was put on it. At that point, yes, I was chair of a department and I had taught at Columbia College, I had taught graduate students, and I certainly was for it, but it wasn’t until I was on that committee that I discovered just how—I think I can use the term—prejudiced some of my colleagues were. I remember for instance one of them saying…in a committee meeting, even said, “Well, now that we have an all Columbia College, men can live in a dorm, we need a girl”—it was men, they said, men—“we need a girl for every man.” Now, okay, it’s a joke, right, but it’s not something that you would say in an official meeting.

Then there was one very distinguished member who he then was for it, but he wanted a quota, because he said, “Well, there may be a lot of smart women, so maybe we should limit it to fifteen percent.” Then they talked fifty. Then someone would just say, wait a minute, you can’t do that, that’s outlawed. But it was those things that made me then realize how old fashioned. In fact, that’s right, I was the only one. I tried to get them to change. I spent a lot of time, when we used to have the minutes, changing language in the report because the person who was taking it just took down what was said, and it was invariably “the men” and “the girls.” Well, it’s a small thing, right? It just suggests they’re unequal…We were asked to edit it, and the person who was chair of the committee absolutely agreed with me. I tried at various points to tell them, because I was so shocked by all this. They then wanted—because they suddenly realized, hey, this is it. Our report I think came out in April. It was at the end of the term, and we had a faculty meeting. I tried to persuade them that we shouldn’t admit women that fall, we should wait a full year. I felt very strongly that we needed to gather administrative resources, we needed to have assistant dean of students, we need to have faculty who were made more aware of the ways in which you need to change some of the attitudes if you’re going to have women and treat them as equals, but nobody wanted to listen.

So finally I wrote a minority report. It was very short, I think it was one paragraph, in which I basically said I supported the committee in everything except I thought we should wait another year because we needed a year to really make the university, and especially Columbia College, really be able to build the resources so that women would be really welcomed as equals. I still remember the then associate dean of the college coming to me as I went to the faculty meeting, and he said, “Gill, I hope you are aware that you’re not actually a member of the faculty of Columbia College.” Well, I wasn’t aware. It happened, in those days, you see, you were appointed to different colleges, and I’d been appointed to the graduate school. My chair had simply forgotten to nominate me. I had taught undergraduates. I mean, I almost had to laugh, because I said, “Look, I want to make the report.” My vote, with a faculty of five hundred, that doesn’t matter. But again, they were so scared of this, and it was so silly. In fact the majority voted for doing it right away, but without my having any idea the provost and the president decided it was better to wait a year.

“The Open Forum on Women at Columbia meeting…”


Professor Emeritus of English and Comparative Literature

Someone on the secretarial or administrative staff within Low Library had discovered there were these disparities, but in order to make a case they had to get some men to be willing to say this, which of course I was perfectly willing to do for Joan [Ferrante]. So they were able to threaten suit or whatever. As a result, for a number of years, Joan’s and my salaries were absolutely tied, which was itself unfair because at that point Joan was much more distinguished than I was. But that didn’t matter. As long as she couldn’t say she was being paid less she had no kick coming. Then came the ‘80s, we finally decided to do something.

We sat around the lunch table in the faculty house, where you could have lunch in those days, and talked about this. It was an unlikely group. Carolyn [Heilbrun] was involved. Joan was involved. Paul Dinter, the Catholic chaplain, was involved. Betty Jemmott wasn’t there, though she obviously would have been interested…We had the first meeting [in 1982], then we talked about having an all-day conference, which shrank to this [indicating a day-long open forum] by the end of the year. After that, it sort of burbled on a little bit, but then there was the Commission on the Status of Women, the University Senate got involved, and then eventually IRWAG [Institute for Research on Women and Gender], which came later. I’m sure Joan, who was much more involved in all that than I was, would have been able to give you a much better timeline than I.

I was always very interested in this from a purely political point of view. This was an injustice that had to be—as far as getting involved in the actual studies of it, I wasn’t qualified, and it wasn’t where my primary interest was. That was for other people to do. I’d go to IRWAG events, but I don’t think I ever belonged to it. I guess I still am on their mailing list, but I guess everybody’s on their mailing list. I never was fully involved. Carolyn, of course, was. For me, it was just a question of kind of a political enterprise that had to be attended to.

It was never just an English department thing. No, absolutely. The fact that Joan and Carolyn and I were all together in the English department—we never thought of it as departmental—first of all because the English department, we felt, would not be terribly sympathetic, it was not going to be fertile ground. We didn’t see it that way. We saw it as at least Arts and Sciences wide. My recollection—which may be very faulty again—was that we batted around all kinds of ideas. How can we bring pressure? We came up with this idea of a forum, I think, fairly quickly. Not this forum, this first meeting, Open Forum on Women at Columbia. We’d have to get that done. That was a good size—my recollection is about two hundred people showed up for that. Joan might be able to correct you on that. We did a good job, and again, you have to thank our graduate students, not just the three on this [Linda Berkeley, Sandra Prior, and Beth Langon], but some of the others who were willing to go around and put posters up and make sure people that knew about it. So people were interested, mostly women, to be sure, but some men.

“Setting the picture of the women who were originally involved…”


Professor Emerita of English and Comparative Literature

Let me start setting the picture, first, of the women who were originally involved. In the early days—that is, in the ’60s—the only place women normally could teach at Columbia—and I’m not including Barnard, which was a separate operation altogether—was at General Studies. There were quite a few women on the faculty at General Studies, and because the graduate school didn’t have the same sense that the college [Columbia College] had, that our precious young men must be protected from women at all costs, they were encouraged to teach in the graduate school as well. So we taught in General Studies and in the graduate school.

That was the setting. There we were. Now, we got paid less, as we discovered later, than the men, and so forth. The men taught in the Core Curriculum. They got—I believe it was a year off after teaching three years in the Core Curriculum. We got no time off, so we had to do our research on top of the teaching, with no help at all, which meant it was much harder to get tenure for the women and so forth. That’s the sort of background.

Our department had four tenured women when affirmative action began, and all of us had come through General Studies originally, and then taught in the graduate school. By twenty years later, we had six tenured women in the department. Some of the older ones had retired and some new ones had come in, but there was a net gain of two in twenty years. Princeton, meanwhile, in those same twenty years, had gone from two to nineteen, and other places were making some sort of advances. Nobody was doing too much, but Columbia was particularly recalcitrant. It absolutely did not want to give an inch. It kept saying, “We have to worry about quality.” The truth of it is that a lot of the people, particularly in the humanities, which is what I know most about—although the sciences were never very good with women at any level—they tended to be a little old-fashioned in their approach to things. Women were not only presenting a different face to the faculty, but they were also doing different kinds of things, and that was a problem.