“Setting the picture of the women who were originally involved…”


Professor Emerita of English and Comparative Literature

Let me start setting the picture, first, of the women who were originally involved. In the early days—that is, in the ’60s—the only place women normally could teach at Columbia—and I’m not including Barnard, which was a separate operation altogether—was at General Studies. There were quite a few women on the faculty at General Studies, and because the graduate school didn’t have the same sense that the college [Columbia College] had, that our precious young men must be protected from women at all costs, they were encouraged to teach in the graduate school as well. So we taught in General Studies and in the graduate school.

That was the setting. There we were. Now, we got paid less, as we discovered later, than the men, and so forth. The men taught in the Core Curriculum. They got—I believe it was a year off after teaching three years in the Core Curriculum. We got no time off, so we had to do our research on top of the teaching, with no help at all, which meant it was much harder to get tenure for the women and so forth. That’s the sort of background.

Our department had four tenured women when affirmative action began, and all of us had come through General Studies originally, and then taught in the graduate school. By twenty years later, we had six tenured women in the department. Some of the older ones had retired and some new ones had come in, but there was a net gain of two in twenty years. Princeton, meanwhile, in those same twenty years, had gone from two to nineteen, and other places were making some sort of advances. Nobody was doing too much, but Columbia was particularly recalcitrant. It absolutely did not want to give an inch. It kept saying, “We have to worry about quality.” The truth of it is that a lot of the people, particularly in the humanities, which is what I know most about—although the sciences were never very good with women at any level—they tended to be a little old-fashioned in their approach to things. Women were not only presenting a different face to the faculty, but they were also doing different kinds of things, and that was a problem.

“…the support came in response to student requests”


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

All the student groups: it really depends on the cohort and how active the individuals are, how politically pressing the issues appear at a moment. Different issues grab the imagination at different times. Ethnic studies takes over it sometimes. Opposition to the war became a bigger issue than identitarian politics at one moment. In my opinion, IRWAG’s executive committee was always supportive, but the support came in response to student requests. It was very student-driven. There were certainly undergraduate students who were active in many ways. Maybe more active in the classrooms than in organizational ways, but there was a graduate student group that in some periods gathered, I think, almost weekly. They had theory reading groups, they had dissertation reading groups, and so forth. I think the support was largely providing a venue, largely providing a sense of legitimacy, perhaps promotion of activities. Across the board, the student-generated groups had support, but also were encouraged to assume a lot of autonomy, particularly in the early days when there really wasn’t any kind of stable faculty.

There were a couple of moments where things acquired a slightly different character, such as when we established the queer studies prize. That involved faculty much more directly, actually, in reading the work, and actually talking among themselves about what it is that we think ought to be the function of queer theoretical writing. Sometimes those committees would have quite intense disagreements, so sometimes it’s the desire to support the students that generates interesting theoretical reflections.

There were also some very difficult moments—for a long time we had a strong support and indeed some financial support from an administrator at Columbia by the name of Annie Barry. She joined those committees for a number of years. I can’t really ventriloquize for her of course, because she would have to express her own sense of what happened, but there was a period when it felt like we were getting so few, and such bad material, and so little interest by other faculty members that the prize almost collapsed. Basically, Annie withdrew herself from the process at that time. I think rightly so, but it had also to do with her status as an administrator in the adjudication process. If I remember correctly, I think that year we decided not to give the prize. We were so unhappy with what felt like anti-feminist work being produced within the queer theory that we were nonetheless teaching. You’d have to ask Julie Crawford about that, because she was very deeply involved and carried the prize forward into a renewed and much better form.

That was one bad year. Only one. Other years have been fantastic, and as I said, I think one has to assess that in terms of the vicissitudes of politics more generally. As I said, around the early years of the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, war and opposition to war took up a lot of energy. During unionization periods, that absorbed a lot of student energy. I haven’t been so involved of late, but my sense is that, for example, around the politics of gay marriage, with big deep splits within the community of IRWAG, the issue of civil rights has also been important. Those splits also ramified at the level of courses being offered. I think in one year, following a period of real activism around civil rights, in that same year there appeared to be a lot of courses on marriage, and maternity, and so forth, and some people felt, oh, what’s happening to IRWAG? But these things—one has to assess them in terms of a long arc, not just in the moment.

“It’s not that people were against women’s studies, it just hadn’t occurred to them.”


Professor Emerita of of Religion
Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, 1984-89

We used to have a—it was a joke, because the Accounting and Budgeting Committee met twice a week for two hours, and often in the middle there would be a break…and half the time they’d go to the men’s room, and I knew they were still discussing issues. Then they’d come back and I’d have to say, “Okay, now, where are we in this discussion?” Only once I remember was there something that I brought up, and I happened to meet another faculty member that was key to what we were discussing, and he said, “Where did you find this out?” I was able to say, “In the ladies room.” But that’s just a small example of when women are really in a minority in senior positions. It’s not that people were against women’s studies, it just hadn’t occurred to them.

“This was the best part of my job visit…”


Professor of English and Comparative Literature

The visits started at ten in the morning. I had an interview with the chair, who was David Damrosch. Then there was a lunch with a lot of the faculty in American Literature. There was a talk. So a bunch of people came to the talk, but really then the only other thing was they put me in the little seminar room that’s a few doors down. I was supposed to meet with graduate students. I think it was a Friday and two people showed up. Then the day was over. I figured they’re not serious about me at all. This is not a real visit. I went over to Ann Douglas’s apartment. She made clear that she really liked me and we had tea, but that was not an official part of the visit.

The other piece was that I was sent to IRWAG to—I don’t know why I was sent there. I had an interest in gender studies. I actually thought of myself as a women’s studies person, and I was a women, but if I’m remembering right, Jean Howard was the director, but she was not there. So I was sent there and I chatted with Kathleen Savage, who was the most—this was the best part of my visit because Kathleen, she was completely schlubby and she had this gray, unassuming hair, and these glasses that magnified her eyes really big, and just very relaxed and unthreatening. I don’t remember who was shepherding me around, but they dropped me off there and she said, “Well, I don’t really know why you’re here. There’s no one who’s really an officer to meet with you. We can just sit here and chat.” I liked her so much. I was very grateful. It was purple. It was much more in this older women’s studies vein at the time. So that was a very fond memory of the job visit. I had a feeling of this must mean that I am not going to get the job. They just stuck me off here to fill up the day, but she’s very nice and this is the only time I can relax in the entire day.

“If there’s a proven breeding ground for institutional actors, it’s IRWGS…”


Mark van Doren Professor of Humanities, Chair of Literature Humanities

If we are so functional in this institute that we are constantly being asked to run departments, programs and divisions, give us more faculty. We’ve proven that we’re an excellent training ground for creating not just excellent scholars, but the great administrators, which are few on the ground. You want a lot of women, and women of color administrators, so give us more faculty lines, because we show again, and again and again, that we create the conditions that allow people to succeed in their scholarship and allow them to succeed as administrators and citizens. If there’s a proven breeding ground for institutional actors, it’s IRWGS, frankly. You just do the math. Literally everybody involved in that institute runs major, major units of this university. That’s not an accident. That’s called feminism. That’s feminist practice. That’s feminist networking, not in the old boys behind the scenes sense, but actually creating open and meaningful dialogue, collaborative practices, support networks, thinking from all levels. The reason that IRWGS has survived is because the senior people are constantly bringing in junior people, and then we in turn bring in more junior people. It’s the only way it survives.

Yes, that’s a bit of a rant, but I think it’s really a true observation. I think Lee Bollinger recognizes that. I hope other people recognize it. It’s just it’s statistically and factually true.

“…these are our collaborators, these are equal partnerships”


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

The Global Center directors had a retreat in Paris this December. They were thinking about cross-network programming, that there should be themes across the centers. Not each center just doing its own thing. Were there issues that would be interesting to do across centers? One of the ideas they came up with was they thought gender would be an interesting topic, so they came back to us, and we said, “Yes, we can do that for you.” We exist, Women Creating Change, to work with the Global Centers. We brainstormed a bit to produce some ideas for the network, to work in collaboration with them, of themes that might be good cross-center themes.

We came up with four themes that built on projects of CSSD already and things that had happened at the Global Centers, and we came up with four. One was called Making Cities Livable: Gender, Displacement and Women’s Strategies, because we have two projects that work on gender and cities. I worked on this one, Reframing Violence Against Women, because my project is ending, on Muslim women and religion and family law and women’s rights with a couple of colleagues in the Middle East.

The third theme was Women Mobilizing Memory, which is the project that Marianne and Jean have been doing. They worked in Chile with Chilean colleagues on the aftermath of political violence there. They went to Istanbul in September, and they’re probably going elsewhere. It’s about women’s activism around memory and around reparations, a whole set of things—redress about past atrocities and political violence. It’s activist women and artists and theater performers and all of that. It’s been an amazing project, and they would love to continue it and thought maybe some of the Global Centers would be interested. Then the final one—Alice Kessler-Harris has been running a project, Social Rights After the Welfare State. She started it in the U.S. and then they had comparative meetings in Europe, which turned out to be incredibly interesting, in Germany and France, the old welfare states.

So there could be whole new initiatives with the Global Centers, with international colleagues, which is what we really love, our colleagues. You don’t just export knowledge the way some of these other Columbia institutes do. Actually these colleagues know more about their regions than we do. These are our collaborators, these are equal partnerships, and that’s really been wonderful for my projects where I always have mostly people from the Arab world, the Middle East, in those workshops. Hopefully this will be the next phase of what we do through CSSD.

“More and more women getting prizes…”


Professor Emerita of English and Comparative Literature

I happened to be sitting,the first year they graduated women from the college—I was sitting in front of the alumni who were there, and they were right in the row behind me. All male, of course. Prizes handed out. More and more women getting the prizes in various fields. Finally, one guy behind me punches the guy next to him and says, “Hey, Joe, what’s the matter with the men in this class?” It was one of the great moments of my life. I cherish that.