“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.

"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.

“…we have these needs as students that this institution is not meeting…”


Professor of English, Lehman College

When we started the [Lesbian and Gay Studies] Group, I think we did feel like it was a kind of dissident or resistant kind of thing. Here we are, we have these needs as students that this institution is not meeting for whatever reasons, and we have to do this ourselves. I think we might have felt that way, especially at first. Some of the topics we dealt with were very controversial. That and other things were really less academic issues and more issues of concern within the lesbian and gay community in some form.

Now I remember too, another day, I believe we did a day on bisexuality and the debate about do bisexuals exist or are they just gay people who aren’t coming out? Why do bisexuals have such a hard time fitting into the lesbian and gay community? They’re the outsiders to the lesbian and gay community. Again, that’s something that I don’t think had—not a lot of academic work had been done on bisexual identity or sexuality, but there was a lot of lesbian and gay community discussion and more informal kinds of memoirs and things like that about that. So we definitely did some work in that group that was less academic, and so in that way would be more outside of the traditional parameters of formal, scholarly analysis. And we had people come to the group who were non-academics, too. I distinctly remember.

Yes, because we had networks. We’d advertise. So a lot of us had different contacts around the city and we would advertise our events around the city, and then these people would show up that we had no idea who they were. So we did kind of serve an extra-university function in that way, as a kind of like community place to discuss these issues. Once we kind of became more established as a group and we had institutional support from the Institute for Research on Women and Gender, and then we got money from the provost’s office, at that point you start getting more established and institutionalized, and getting the support from the administration. I think maybe at some point we felt like we were really an acknowledged group and that the institution was financially supporting us. That’s a very typical kind of progression, where you start something that’s very scrappy and then it kind of ends up being absorbed by the institution. Which is okay, because that also does a certain amount of work. We saw ourselves as a group that––we could be there to help newer people to feel comfortable being gay because when we came into the program, that didn’t exist.

“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.

“It was being in this context at IRWGS that broadened the kind of work that I did…”


Joseph L. Buttenwieser Professor of Social Science
IRWGS Core Faculty
IRWGS Director, 2004-07

I was very excited about the anthropology department because it was the biggest thing that had happened in anthropology in the country. We won’t go into the reality versus the fantasy, but I came. Then I was half in IRWAG, and it was very small. There were only two of us joint people, who had half of our teaching there. But I was amazed at this group of women faculty that I found here who were just so institutionally savvy, so committed to this project even though it was all volunteer time for them. Thinking about how to make it good. They wanted the highest standards, but recognizing Columbia’s limitations in terms of powerful departments. People had to really be wanted in their discipline. That’s the brilliance that they had, I think, that they wanted the departments to be totally invested in this hire, and so they involved them from the beginning. They wanted the senior person to be wanted in their department. As an anthropologist, I was somebody who would bring something. As a historian, what more could you want than Alice Kessler-Harris? That was their strategy. A lot of programs flounder because you get faculty that the departments don’t really want. It means that some people can’t be considered, like the kind of cutting edge of feminist studies, which is very interdisciplinary, or cultural studies, since the scholars don’t quite fit in departments. We couldn’t hire people like that at Columbia, so we’re all people who are very well respected in our disciplines but who also have some relationship to women’s studies and sexuality studies.

So I came here. That was very different world for me, and my work actually changed. I always tell the story that probably the article I am most famous for now is this little piece that was called “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?” It’s taught in University Writing and all over. It was for a teach-in that IRWAG did. Roz Morris was the director then. There was the invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11 and she organized what she called a Forum on War. Gayatri Spivak spoke, and Judith Butler and Cathy Lutz, and I can’t even remember who else. Roz asked me, and I said, “Oh, no. I work on Egypt. What do I know about Afghanistan?” She looked at me like, “You don’t have anything to say?” I felt so ashamed. I only spoke from my deep knowledge, and our knowledge is ethnographic and it’s very specific. I thought, “Well, I’m sure I have something to say.”

So I wrote this talk for that event, which was to me kind of like Middle East/Anthro 101. I put together all the pieces that I knew, and I thought through a few more issues and it was just—it ended up being in the book that I published last year called Do Muslim Women Need Saving? I feel like it was being in this context at IRWGS that actually broadened the kind of work that I did, taking it beyond anthropology, beyond Middle East studies. I had to think: how could I reach a different audience with what I knew, but really directed at feminist issues?

“…I was not bereft of a community, it just looked different”


Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature

Essentially I was the first full-time Black faculty member in the English department. From a sociological point of view, that was really problematic, but in fact I made great friends in the English department. Again, this paradigm of lateral, horizontal mentorship, those friends taught me quite a lot about the department and the university.

One of those friends was a feminist scholar of literature and we became very close friends. Through that relationship I came to understand, or found a language for thinking about, how the institutions was as bereft of women as it was of African Americans. I knew that, but I don’t think I fully understood the ramifications of that, that the curriculum of the institution didn’t reflect society at large. There were too few women faculty to be sure, but it was also the case that a great course like Literature Humanities had no women writers. Part of the sense of community that I began to develop, largely with young women in the department and throughout the university, helped to socialize me as an African Americanist. I’d always thought of myself as feminist, but not in professional terms, not in the terms of what I did as a scholar. It was very helpful for me, because indeed I was not bereft of a community, it just looked different.

“…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.

“I would like to continue to build disability studies at Columbia…”


Professor of English and Comparative Literature

I strongly believe in service learning and I wish that Columbia were more supportive of it because I think it’s very transformative for my students. Columbia has this policy that I dislike, that it should just come from your heart and that you do service as extra giving on top of your work for the course. I have expressed my discomfort with that policy. I think it makes the class inaccessible to people who are paying for every credit at Columbia and need to work and do internships during their time here. I have not figured out how to reconcile that institutional problem. So I’m teaching a class with service this spring, but I’m not especially comfortable with it. This semester I will be thinking through how I want to proceed with that. But I have felt like IRWGS, CSSD [Center for the Study of Social Difference]—Columbia has been very supportive of my desire to work in the field of disability studies. They’re not huge resources, but I have been able to find resources to do a lot here. The people who these events and meetings bring in are not largely Columbia people. So there is still not a big community at Columbia that cares at all about disabilities. IRWGS and CSSD are very happy to have that included as one of their differences, but there’s not a huge intellectual interest in it. I hope that will evolve, especially as we build connections with people doing medical humanities type work. At the moment, the audiences come often largely from the rest of the city and not from this institution. I would like to continue to build disability studies at Columbia. That would be a very meaningful legacy for me to leave here. I wish that there were a more robust community here.

I have had two chapters of my involvement with disability studies; first with the popular culture, and my work on freak shows, and the history of disability, and then coming back more as an advocate through my experiences as a parent. It has been really transformative to me. In the tradition of IRWGS, it has been an opportunity for me to bring together my intellectual life and also my work as a teacher, and an advocate, and an activist, in ways that have been very meaningful and I think have been helpful to students and others on this campus. But it’s definitely a work in progress.

“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.