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.