“The separation between students and faculty was a problem…”


Associate Professor of Sociology

I think what was very surprising to many of us was not so much the institutional failing because lots of institutions were failing along those lines, but that there was no real connection between the students who were engaging in this activism and faculty on campus. That separation between students and faculty—Alondra [Nelson] and I both, and lots of us agreed—was a problem. I think it was seen as the continual separation of faculty and students. If there should be an institutional home at Columbia where students should feel like they could come and talk to faculty about this issue, IRWGS should be that place. This was before we were IRWGS. It was when we were IRWAG.

This was just a kind of meet-and-greet meeting. Not anything extensive, but more of a how can we work together to do some things with you? What are your aims, and are there ways in which we can provide support, advising, or even programming? This was in the fall and we were thinking about programming for the next year. During that meeting, the students stopped and left the room. They stopped the meeting and left the room to talk to one another. Then they came back and revealed to us that they were going to be filing Title IX and Clery Act complaints against the university. They were working with some activists outside of the institution, people from Know Your IX, and I think perhaps people from Legal Momentum—although I’m not sure—which is the legal group that used to be the legal wing of NOW, the National Organization of Women. They had yet to file the Title IX complaint, but they were planning on doing it at some point soon and that was going to be the big thing that they did in that spring. We also thought it would be useful to do some programming. Alondra really stepped into gear and organized a Know Your IX workshop where activists, a women from CUNY, someone from Legal Momentum, some of the women from Know Your IX, Annie Clark and another woman, came along with Marybeth. They did a sort of teach-in. This was the first thing that we did together with some of the activists on campus around Title IX.

There was a lot of mixed feelings on the part of the faculty about the filing of the Title IX complaint, but it was seen as something that, given our failure to support students in so many instances before, and our failure to hold the institution more accountable for its dealing with things like gender-based misconduct, a lot of those things were not expressed to students. We sort of tabled them all. I think most of us just felt really bad that we had no idea what was going on and hadn’t been there to support students. The students’ main complaint seemed justified, which was that the general apparatus of the university, the people like faculty, administrative staff, administrative offices, and then the higher administration, were either ignorant or dismissive of what was going on.

“…a space for intellectual work"


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

I’ll tell one story that I think is really important in terms of this history, because I don’t know if anybody else would remember it this way. I became director and we had our first Executive Committee meeting. I said, “Okay. Here I am. What are we going to do?” Somebody asked, “So, Lila, what would you like to do?” I was like, “Me? Oh, I’ll just do whatever you want. I’m just taking care of this thing.” Then I said, “Well, there’s one little thing that I really think was sad that it’s gone.” There was this thing called the Bunting Institute, which was an advanced study center at Radcliffe that was a very important institution for women scholars in the old days. It was for, just before tenure, junior women scholars to have a year to work on their books. It was interdisciplinary. They had a wonderful weekly seminar. I never got to go there, but it was life changing for all the women who had ever partaken in it.

I said, it’s really sad because it closed. It was merged into Harvard and became the Radcliffe Institute, which has men and women. It’s just a normal advanced study center, which is fine, but that was a very special thing because it recognized the special problems women face in the academy. I said, “It’s really too bad. It’d be nice to have something like that here, at Columbia. Why can’t we have an advanced study center?”

We talked a lot about it and we said: In the twenty-first century, you don’t have it just for women anymore. We don’t want to compete with other units that are kind of struggling at Columbia around race, like IRAAS [Institute for Research on African American Studies]; and CSER [Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race] was just starting. Why don’t we do it with them around the question of difference? Gender is one of them but there are others. All of these units are sort of organized around identity categories, which we theoretically don’t like, but they’re all people who struggle. Scholars who struggle in the academy, who aren’t mainstream, who work on things that are not as valued, who have a lot of demands on their time by students of color or women who turn to them. They do a lot of extra work. So shouldn’t they have a space for their intellectual work, and not just always doing bureaucratic things together and fighting for resources? A place to nurture our scholarship?

That was my idea. We worked on it and we had the ARC report. Luckily, we had the right people come in from outside who were shocked that we didn’t have a research institute. So they supported us and we got the Center for the Study of Social Difference.

“…those are feminist questions”


Mark van Doren Professor of Humanities, Chair of Literature Humanities

Almost all the protests and demonstrations and teach-ins I’ve been to in the last ten or fifteen years have been either about the war, particularly about the Middle East, particularly about American politics abroad, and particularly about American racist politics at home, stop and frisk [practice by New York City Police Department officers], Ferguson [Missouri], Eric Garner. Those are the ones that all the feminists I know, and my family, have been protesting and talking about and feeling are of immediate impact on everybody’s lives and political conscience and responsibility. I think in each of those instances, Do Muslim Women Need Saving? All of a sudden Republicans talking about Afghani women needing access to education—there’s a feminist critique involved in that. It’s a feminist critique that’s certainly part of why those are the things that were of immediate concern to people.

I have a lot of former students who work on the internet now, that’s where many young feminists work. Being a young feminist who works on the internet, especially if you’re concerned about racism or gender discrimination or sexual orientation discrimination, it just means getting rape and death threats every single day. I think all of those things together, for me, are totally feminist issues. I am far more concerned about Trayvon Martin than I am about gay marriage. The way we think about injustice or rights-bearing subjects, who is silenced in the public sphere, whose life is less worthy, why is that life less—those are feminist questions. They don’t necessarily always land on female bodies, but they’re feminist questions.

Where our activism lands—like I write about 16th and 17th century women. My optic is always about the stories we tell about political rights and who has a political voice. They’re definitely about a historical era a distance from us, but the questions that I’m asking are coming from a place of both how did we get to a delimited sense of political rights and how is the dominant historiographical story we tell about that actually wrong and interested. Male historians tell a very interested story, and I don’t agree with that story. It’s about re-visioning dominant narratives.

I think for almost everybody who’s a feminist, whatever they work on—where their attention is on in their activist life or in their public sphere life—is really looking at inequality, injustice, and the dominant structures of power that make some people lesser than others, whether those people are women or gay people or people of color. In America, it’s people of color. It’s not just right now, there’s a long history to that. I don’t think there’s a distance.

"It was a very contentious issue…"


Professor of Anthropology
IRWGS Director, 1999-2000, 2001-04

It was a very contentious issue. We fought a lot about it. It was one of the most contentious issue in my recollection. I think at that time I was one of the people—I probably still am—who thinks that teaching activism in a classroom is a very weird thing to do. On the one hand it can veer in the direction of internship. On the other hand, every conference you go to, you know, experiences this aporia between the people who are activists and who are often deeply anti-theoretical, if not outright anti-intellectual, and intellectuals who are frustrated by the demands for the instrumentalization of thought which often occurs, as it has to, when you’re doing strategic or tactical stuff.

My own feeling, which is not widely shared and certainly wasn’t shared by the students is that the space between these two has to be kept open. That one has to secure theoretical work from the demands of instrumentalization, and one has to allow activism an immunity, sometimes, from the slowness that is necessary for theorization–which does not mean that activism shouldn’t be theorized. I think it should. It does not mean that theoretical work should be ignorant of, or indifferent to the material consequences, and entailments, and conditions of its own possibility, for sure.

My preference is for this gap to be actively protected. Therefore, I think I wasn’t as supportive of the teaching of activism, which I think is great, and I want students to do, and I want my colleagues to do, and I do. I feel the need for there to be a differentiation of discourse and address. The idea that everything would be serving the same purposes seems to me a horror—an intellectual failure, and a political failure.

A university is a very special place where one is enabled to have the time for a kind of thinking­—a kind of critical thinking that can’t be done in any other place, where the temporal demands, and the implementation demands are different. That seems to me something to defend really vigorously. At different times—I think in the ‘90s there was a very strong, quite insistent call for a continuity between intellectual theoretical activities and practical ones, if not the effacement of the difference between the two. I myself opposed that, but lots of students demanded it, for sure. Then there was lots of difference among the faculty about it, too.



“The review was a really big break…”


Moore Collegiate Professor of History
IRWGS Director, 1994-96

The Arts and Sciences administration reviews departments, but [David] Cohen had begun to set it up as procedure, which would allow them, others, experts to say what we were doing, where’d we come from, what we could do. And that would be the basis to allocate new resources. That was a really big break…We had arguments over outside reviewers. Why did we have to go to Princeton, or other so called peer elite private universities rather than the great state universities. They’re the ones that have the great programs. We don’t know any of these people that you’re bringing in. They’re not women’s studies, they’re part of the apparatus. I remember feeling that this had to be managed.

Jean [Howard] and Martha [Howell] said, “We will write up who we are.” They did a fantastic job. In the end, the outside reviewers came from Princeton. They made strong recommendations that we needed new faculty, we needed resources. It was on that basis that Alice Kessler-Harris would be hired and then a couple of years later, Lila Abu-Lughod. That was a huge movement.

I can remember we had very lively discussions. We had strong committees to choose the people. We had fascinating candidates, just remarkable…it was substantial. What was so gratifying was to see was that somebody like myself could move out, and others coming in…That’s part of the story the unexpected unfolding and growth, and evolution down to the present. It’s just remarkable.

“Why is there not the political will at Columbia to make gender issues central?”


Miriam Champion Professor of History
IRWGS Director, 1989-94

Why is there not the political will at Columbia to make gender issues central to what they call general education at Columbia? I think that the problem is not that we haven’t institutionalized the study of gender in a way that makes it necessary that people take account of it. I mean, I think that’s part of the problem. Certainly at Columbia, it’s a big problem. I think it’s the political culture in the United States. I think that it’s both toxic and important. Race is a bigger issue in terms of what people think they have to think about as part of how this democracy works or doesn’t work. Social inequality in terms of income is now a bigger issue. The issues of gender are pretty far down the list, and some of that—you know, the backlash won. It maybe didn’t conquer, but it’s held its ground. Some of that has to do with the limitations of the women’s movement…

Now there’s feminist theory that is much more sophisticated, but that hasn’t been part of the conversation. I actually don’t have a good answer. I can describe what the problems are, but I don’t know quite how to fix them. It’s a refusal to consider the systematic social structure that produces the inequality. It’s so easy to talk about in individual terms. That’s a little bit the problem with feminism is that it’s not seen as—gender hierarchy isn’t seen as structural so much as a question of whether these women have these rights. I think we’d have to decide exactly where to pick our fight. I think if we just start screaming, we lose. So if we could mobilize around a particular issue that forced change—but I don’t know what that issue would be. You have to be able to get their ear. In other words, they have to take it seriously. It has to be an issue they, they, take seriously, or you won’t be heard. I think maybe it is time for us to be bad girls. We’re powerful now. There are too many of us.

“…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.

“…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.

“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.