Category Archives: Sarah Chinn

"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.

“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.

“…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.