History of IRWGS


In the second half of the twentieth century, feminism played a significant role in the transformation of institutions like Columbia. In response to the women’s movements of the 1960s, the first women’s studies programs were founded in the early to mid-1970s, with San Diego State College, SUNY-Buffalo, and Cornell University as examples of early leaders. Closer to home, Sarah Lawrence College founded a Master of Arts in women’s studies in 1972 and Barnard College established women’s studies in 1977.

While the changes here and in other colleges and universities were inextricably linked to national and international developments, they took place in specific institutional settings that shaped the pace and character of change. The story of feminism and Columbia is both a distinct story that must be studied as a particular case, and part of a large collective story that reveals a great deal about the relationship between feminism as a social movement and the responses of educational institutions like Columbia to its emergence. The Institute quickly became the site where many distinguished feminists teach and are affiliated, and it is the home for the undergraduate women’s, gender, and sexuality studies major and interdisciplinary graduate courses on issues of gender and sexuality. But the Institute did not emerge seamlessly, nor was its interface with the larger institution unproblematic.


The Institute for Research on Women and Gender was established in 1987—a decade after many of its peers—due in part to the fact that Columbia only began admitting women to its undergraduate college in 1984, making it the last of the Ivies to accept coeducation. Up until this time, women faculty had primarily taught in the School of General Studies, where they taught non-traditional undergraduate students, and in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Balancing heavier teaching loads with fewer options for research leave, advancing professionally within a system that often functioned as an “old boys network” posed a unique challenge for many women.

Funded in large part by a grant from the Mellon Foundation, the Institute was founded with the general mission of “advancing scholarship and teaching about women and gender at Columbia University.” Its first director, Carolyn Heilbrun, focused on two goals: making it possible for Columbia students to major in women’s studies by taking the Barnard major, and inaugurating a series of lectures and seminars that would bring speakers to campus and enable faculty and graduate students working on gender access to one another and to new developments in a field of study that was rapidly transforming.


Despite Carolyn Heilbrun’s foresighted leadership, the challenges facing the Institute’s second director, Martha Howell, appointed in 1989, were painfully obvious. The Institute budget covered only a small staff and basic operations. No faculty held even partial appointments in the Institute, and it was difficult to get permission from departments for women faculty to commit real time to teaching and to administering the Institute’s developing programs. Columbia undergraduates who wanted to major in women’s studies had to do so through Barnard’s program. Graduate students had sparse access to feminist theory or cross-disciplinary studies within their individual departments. Faculty interested in or already committed to feminist work, many of them untenured, were so dispersed among various departments and schools that they had little opportunity to share scholarship or students.

Additional challenges as the Institute grew included addressing the limits of women’s studies with the advent of post-colonialism and post-structuralism, the lack of diversity within the feminist movement generally, and at Columbia specifically; African American studies would not have a formal program until 1993, a dedicated space for ethnic studies would not be established until 1999, and queer studies in the early 1990s existed only in the form of colloquia self-run by graduate students. The Institute was thus not only ineluctably charged to help recast the feminist theoretical project, but also, as the first scholarly institute at Columbia born of the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, to advance teaching and scholarship concerning and by people who were not white, heterosexual, or western.


One of the Institute’s early undertakings during the leadership of Martha Howell was to initiate relationships between the Institute and the traditional departments. Working within her own department, History, and with the help of Jean Howard in English and Comparative Literature, she reached out to Anthropology, Philosophy, Political Science, Sociology, and Economics, in efforts to establish connections that would result in the hiring of feminist faculty across the Arts and Sciences. The Institute also developed an undergraduate major in women’s studies taught in concert with faculty at Barnard, and attempted to bring feminist perspectives to the Columbia College Core Curriculum. It developed a graduate certificate in feminist studies, and began to offer interdisciplinary graduate courses and feminist pedagogical training.

Successive directors of the Institute built on these achievements, forging early collaborations with the Law School, the School of Social Work, the School of Public Health, and the School of International and Public Affairs. Because of a successful Academic Review Committee report in 1996 during Victoria de Grazia’s directorship, the Institute was granted four senior half lines to be filled in conjunction with individual departments. These four lines were essential to anchor the Institute’s teaching, administrative, and intellectual projects. Beginning in 1998, and under the directorships of Jean Howard and Rosalind Morris, the Institute oversaw joint recruiting committees to appoint to distinguished senior faculty who represented important fields in the humanities and social sciences: Alice Kessler-Harris in History, Lila Abu-Lughod and Elizabeth Povinelli in Anthropology, and Marianne Hirsch in English and Comparative Literature. These faculty immediately took leadership roles both in the Institute and across the university.

A second Academic Review Committee report in 2006 endorsed the Institute’s vision to develop the crucial fields of gender, race, and science. With key support from the Diversity Initiative, led then by Jean Howard in her role as Vice Provost, two additional cross-appointed faculty were hired: Saidiya Hartman in English and Comparative Literature, and Alondra Nelson in Sociology. Through these appointments, and the active participation of many additional faculty from across the university, the Institute has enhanced its intellectual presence, assuring Columbia’s prominence in contemporary, historical, theoretical, and global scholarship in feminism, sexuality, and gender studies.


The same 2006 Academic Review Committee also endorsed the Institute’s plan to develop a robust research arm for the Institute in conjunction with four other centers and institutes concerned with questions of social difference. This collaborative model reflected an increasing scholarly consensus that gender and sexuality cannot be addressed separately from other modalities of social difference like race and class. Two senior members of the Institute’s faculty, Lila Abu-Lughod and Marianne Hirsch, along with Jean Howard, subsequently helped to establish the Center for the Study of Social Difference (CSSD) in 2007. An advanced research center funded in large measure by the President’s Office, CSSD promotes innovative interdisciplinary scholarship on the role of gender, sexuality, ethnicity and race in global dynamics of power and inequality, and fosters collaborative work among departments and schools at Columbia and in the greater New York area. Besides IRWGS, CSSD includes the Institute for Research in African American Studies, the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, the Barnard Center for Research on Women and Gender, and the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society.

Using a working-group model that encourages participation from a wide range of faculty, graduate students, and visiting scholars, CSSD has sponsored several extraordinary multi-year research initiatives, including projects on Black women’s intellectual history, neoliberalism, disability studies, and the implication of gender, sexuality, and race on archival practices. Encouraged by President Lee Bollinger to bring issues of women and gender to the Columbia Global Centers, CSSD initiated a new project in 2014, Women Creating Change, that utilizes the expertise of Columbia’s many distinguished feminist scholars to focus on how contemporary global problems affect women and the role women play in addressing those issues.


In 2013, under the direction of Alondra Nelson, the Institute added “sexuality” to its name to reflect the rising importance of sexuality studies in the Institute’s curriculum, in faculty research, and in the interdisciplinary landscape of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. Thus the Institute officially became known as the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality, or IRWGS. As a relatively new site of inquiry, sexuality studies emerged in the last two decades as one of the most exciting areas of feminist studies. While, in its beginnings, the field attended to matters of identity politics, it more recently has focused on the construction of sexuality and on its political dimensions.

The Institute had long been the locus of sexuality studies at Columbia, despite the lack of faculty hired specifically for this specialization. Since the early 1990s, the Institute provided a meeting space for the Lesbian and Gay Studies Group, formed by graduate students in English and Comparative Literature, which created an opportunity for people within and outside the Columbia community to gather and discuss issues of identity construction and queer politics. By the late 1990s, the Institute housed an advanced course on sexuality that was taught alternately by faculty in East Asian Language and Cultures, by graduate students in English and Comparative Literature, and Barnard faculty. In the last major revision of the curriculum of the Columbia and Barnard major, however, it was decided that, on the basis of contemporary intellectual developments in the field and strong student demand, a new introductory course in sexuality studies should be instituted to complement the longstanding and popular gateway to the major, Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies, providing an alternative entry to the major that serves the growing constituency of students wanting to study the cutting edge theory and research in this area.


Born as a struggling pedagogical unit, the Institute has now become a teaching entity linked to many other institutes and centers within Columbia and abroad. Today, six senior faculty members have half lines in the Institute, and one, Christia Mercer of Philosophy, has a quarter line there. Programming, both for graduates and undergraduates, has expanded, and the Institute has a regular series of lectures, seminars, and conferences. The Institute draws its faculty from many disciplines, not only from all three divisions in Arts and Sciences, but also from the School of International and Public Affairs, the Mailman School of Public Health, and the Law School, providing rigorous training in interdisciplinary practice. Courses provide in-depth knowledge of the history and theory of gender and sexuality studies in both local and global contexts, preparing students for professional work or further academic engagement in a vast array of fields.

While none of these achievements was unproblematic or easy to bring about, the Institute was well served by its early decision-makers. Some searches failed and the faculty labor necessary to sustain the Institute’s work is still difficult to secure. On the positive side, close ties with Barnard have produced a richer and more stimulating curriculum than would otherwise have been possible; greater coordination has enabled a lively intellectual community in which faculty and students at all levels engage. Under the direction of Patricia Dailey in the Institute’s most recent years, these topics have included theorizing activism and the university’s response to sexual misconduct on campus, bringing a contemporary scholarly approach to issues that have long been feminist concerns.

While built upon a foundation of feminist study, the Institute’s academic mandate now includes interdisciplinary teaching and research on gender and sexuality more broadly and does so in the context of both domestic and global forms of politics, power, and inequality. Moreover, and despite its early struggles to establish itself—and feminist scholarship—as a keystone at the university, the Institute is now broadly recognized as a training ground for strong institutional leaders, counting among its core and affiliated faculty individuals who are regularly recruited to lead and participate in some of the university’s most highly respected programs.


Carolyn Heilbrun (1987-89)
Martha Howell (1989-94)
Victoria de Grazia (1994-96)
Jean Howard (1997-99)
Rosalind Morris (1999-2000, 2001-04)
Christia Mercer (2000-01)
Lila Abu-Lughod (2004-07)
Marianne Hirsch (2007-08, 2015)
Elizabeth Povinelli (2008-11)
Saidiya Hartman (2011-13)
Alondra Nelson (2013-14)
Patricia Dailey (2014)