“…it wasn’t clear how the relationship with Barnard was going to work out”


George Delacorte Professor in the Humanities
IRWGS Director, 1997-99

Q: How did you relate to Barnard?

Howard: Just fine. There was some tension, largely at the very, very early years of the institute, when we were very dependent on Barnard for courses, and it wasn’t clear how the relationship was going to work out. There were, at various times, competition and rivalry between Barnard and the institute. I’d say in the last ten to fifteen years, those have almost totally disappeared as we have learned how to each do certain courses, how to team-teach the introductory course that’s always done by a Barnard person one year and then a Columbia person the next. Gradually, we no longer see ourselves as rivals or fighting for students. It took a while to work that out. They had an evolved program, we had nothing.

“…creating their own and standing on their own and insisting on their own…”


William B. Ransford Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African-American Studies

Particularly this last year has been extraordinary. I spoke to the Black Graduation this year. These are young people for whom the Obama thing was a given, and it wasn’t just a given once, it was a given twice. They’ve had two presidential terms with an African American president. These are also the young people who saw Trayvon [Martin], and who were—I was stunned by the verdict. I expected it, but I was stunned. They didn’t expect it. I talk with them, particularly this year, as they prepared to come to their senior year, Ferguson erupts, or Staten Island. Those verdicts came down during their senior year. There has been a resurgence in the level of activism, not just around racial justice and criminal justice, but also the young people who are organizing around sexual violence. They’re upset and they’re hurt, deeply hurt and deeply angry, and rightly so, but to me it is so beautiful.

They bring tears to my eyes, because it’s a level of activism and a willingness to put their bodies on the line that I have not seen. It’s not about nostalgia for a moment that they didn’t live in. They are living in this moment, and that’s something. Those two moments, the Obama moment and—like you said, not just what happens to you, but what you do with it—that they decided to step up and organize. Those of us who are feminists feel sometimes like, oh God, what happened? All these young women who think feminism is a dirty word. And then, boom, here they are, creating their own and standing on their own and insisting on their own. Their institutions are not going to tolerate sexual violence. They are not going to just take mass incarceration for granted, and this is what we should do. They can change their institution. The fact that they have to do it is disheartening. The fact that they are doing it, to me, is just extraordinary. Those are the changes I think I’ve seen in the last sixteen years. I’m just so grateful that I got to witness them, because it’s easy to become jaded. In both of those instances, you can’t become jaded.

“Theorizing Activism and the Justice Initiative…”


Gustave M. Berne Professor of Philosophy
IRWGS Core Faculty
IRWGS Director, 2000-01

I am teaching a course in prison. I’m the first faculty member at Columbia to teach a course as part of the Justice Initiative. In order to accommodate all the time that would take, Patricia Dailey and I worked together to set up another class that I would teach that would not require a huge amount of grading and so on. Theorizing Activism, which was begun and designed by Janet Jakobsen—awesome Janet Jakobsen—I picked up on. I might have made it more a philosophy course, but there was no time to do that. Unlike what Janet had done in the past, which was heavy reading, I thought it would be very interesting to limit it to activists, people who were already engaged in activism, or students from my Philosophy and Feminism class who wanted to be.

There’s two kinds of students in the class: people who had been very involved in activism already, or students who wanted to be. I thought, since I’m not a trained activist, it would be much better for students and easier for me, quite honestly—given that I was already teaching in prison—to bring activists in. I think it was a success. I had someone every week for about six weeks, I think—six, seven weeks [of the semester] in a class—come in and talk about activism. Students got to ask questions. The project for each student in the class was to be an activist, and then to write up what we called field notes about what they did. It was really good for the students. I think most of the students enjoyed it. I have yet to read the evaluations, but I think they did. I was really amazed at how eager students were to engage in that way.

Q: Can you talk about the class that you’re teaching as part of the Columbia Center for Justice, the class you’re teaching in prison?

Geraldine Downey is one of the people that began the program, and she introduced me to the amazing women who began the Center for Justice in the School of Social Work, and that’s Kathy Boudin and Cheryl Wilkins. Both of them were incarcerated for over twenty-five years. They knew one another and began activist work in prison. Geraldine and I thought that it would be interesting to try to teach a version of Literature Humanities. Part of my motivation to do that is to make the college pay attention to the program. My hope was to get some of my Lit Hum students to go in with me. It’s really powerful when students go inside. But the dean of Columbia College, Jim Valentini, who I am happy to go on record as saying has no imagination about these things, didn’t get the point of it. So I was not allowed to take students in this term, and I’m not sure when that’s going to happen.

One of our women’s studies students who I met through IRWGS is going in with me. In fact, she’s the one I recommended and maybe you talked to. In the spring we did three ancient plays, all from Lit Hum: The Oresteia, The Medea, and Lysistrata, and the students loved it. We discovered in the middle of the semester that students weren’t even taking it for credit. We thought they were taking it for credit, but they knew that they weren’t. Nobody informed us of that, by the way. It’s a little bit disorganized, I have to say. But I was struck by the fact—and the students said this—that it was so much fun to them that they were taking it anyway.

“My hope for the next generation of women’s studies…”


R. Gordon Hoxie Professor of American History in Honor of Dwight D. Eisenhower
IRWGS Core Faculty

As I think about where IRWAG should go or might go in the future, I think that the intellectual directions have to be first on the agenda because as we begin—now, there are, I think, six joint faculty lines in women’s studies. But one member of the faculty has just gone off to be a dean, another has pulled out of her teaching commitments. I’m about to retire. That gives us an opportunity to re-think the whole intellectual direction of the project. One of the things that’s most exciting, I think, is when a department or a program has the chance to say, “Well, we’ve got three—possibly more if we can twist a few arms—but at least three new hires that we can think about, new people to bring in. How should we think about the program as a whole so that these people fit?”

For whatever reason, gender seems to have surfaced or bubbled up in all kinds of places. Questions of work and wage work and what it does to the family or what it does for the family within the United States, of how the labor force has to be changed, of what the impact will be on capitalism or on social rights on the global movement of labor through caring work. All those questions are questions that involve gender profoundly. So there’s a piece of me that thinks its moment has come. The moment has come when we so deeply, deeply need to understand how gender functions in this society that it’s an opportunity to open up a women’s studies program, both as a teaching program and as a research program, that attempts to grasp some of these issues, to understand them, to push them forward. I think that’s my hope for the next generation of women’s studies.

It’s about a gender that we now understand as fully and completely racialized, about a gender that we understand as rooted in class, as rooted in nation. It’s a conception of gender that we could never have imagined when the concept first emerged on the scene in the later 1970s. I think Columbia is poised to take advantage of it. Let me put it that way. We have so many very good, very smart people at the cutting edge of their fields, who just need an institutional support system to enable them to move in creative directions.

“Organizing teach-ins on Title IX…”


Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature
IRWGS Director, 2014

I asked [James] Valentini’s office and Sharon Marcus’s office—the dean’s office—if they’d be willing to provide funding for events related to Title IX, or any subset issue. Valentini’s office gave us two thousand, Sharon Marcus gave us, I think, a thousand. We put on what was called a teach-in, but it was an information session that we held in the fall, which was really successful. We had over a hundred people. It was in the Law School. Suzanne Goldberg—at first I didn’t want her to speak because I thought it would be too institutional. Then I invited her. She said, “If we don’t include Columbia as one of the factors, what kind of a comment does that say? That we’re in some ways against Columbia? We have to give Columbia a chance to be a participant.” I said, “God, you’re right, sorry. Please join us!” And she did, among other people.

I invited two people who were part of No Red Tape, who are also self-identified as survivors, and so they sat on the panel too. They said it was very helpful at least to even have somebody to speak to. It was a good panel, because we started off with bystander interventions, and not just talking about post, but pre-preparation, or what you can do. Bystander intervention, someone who had done training on that, a Title IX person, an attorney who knows Title IX very well, and also telling people the options. Like, here legally are the different things you can do in various registers, and know that if you do X, Y is excluded, or Y isn’t excluded and all those kinds of technical things that people sometimes have to reinvent the wheel to figure out.

We had a big fall event. It was really successful. I was working with No Red Tape, I was put on their board for a fund outside of Columbia with donors to help develop funding sources for people to have alternate means of funding, either bystander intervention or projects, or whatever it was. I did an independent study with Zoe Ridolfi-Starr, allowing her activism to be counted academically (so long as she wrote a paper), helping her that way, recognizing the work that she was putting in. Then we scheduled a workshop for the spring and did a screening of The Hunting Ground, and another thing through the Law School on sexual harassment in the military. We did a good number of events that were mostly well-attended, partnered with the Law School on two. Bernard Harcourt in the Law School teaches a lot on law related to sexual assault, so he had a whole class that he wanted to attend. That’s been our involvement.

“Women Creating Change…”


Professor of English and Comparative Literature
IRWGS Core Faculty
IRWGS Director, 2007-08, 2015

Our central project with the Global Centers, that I’ve been involved in, is Women Creating Change. That’s already a multi-pronged project. We were actually invited to invent something on women and gender that would happen at the Global Centers. To his credit, Lee Bollinger realized that we have all these Global Centers, we have a lot of initiatives, but somehow there isn’t enough work going on around gender and sexuality. So he invited me, actually, to come see him and said, would I be willing to work on something that would make gender and sexuality much more central to what some of the Global Centers are doing. I said, “Yes, if we can house it in the Center for the Study of Social Difference,” because we already have that center.

We decided to keep the same model—we called it Women Creating Change—and be around some working groups that people were already doing. We decided to identify some crucial questions that were affecting women and that were questions around gender that are happening globally. Memory is one of them, religion is another, urbanization and the urban was another one that was really important. Another line is on social policy questions and the relationship of the state to social lives, and state welfare, and state sponsored programs that would benefit the social life of the population. Questions of education and healthcare and things like that. We’ve had a welfare state model in the developed world—not so much in the developing world, but even in developed world—that’s disappearing. So what’s taking the place of that, and how does that affect the lives of women, and families, and men, and migrants and citizens?

Those are the main projects that Women Creating Change is built on. The one that I’ve been involved in has been Women Mobilizing Memory. We’ve built collaborations with the Global Center in Chile and the Global Center in Istanbul. It’s something that could really also go elsewhere. Some of the people at the Global Center in Brazil are interested in that. So we’re really looking at strategies of mobilizing the memory of past catastrophes, and present disasters as well, toward the future and toward change. It draws on memory studies but it also draws on activism and it brings together the arts and the humanities, and the more humanistic social sciences because academic structures are different in each of these places.

“There hadn’t been a queer series yet…”


Gustave M. Berne Professor of Philosophy
IRWGS Core Faculty
IRWGS Director, 2000-01

One thing that I liked about it—I learned a huge amount. I was very eager to be around a lot and oversee activities, especially for undergraduates. But I felt, as a person identified as straight, that it would be really interesting to push queer stuff. It’s kind of unbelievable but it’s true, that even in those days—and I can’t remember exactly when, it might have been 2002—that the word queer was surely used, and there were lots of people on campus who were quite committed to queer issues, but there hadn’t been a queer series yet. I just thought, let’s do it. We did it and it was a great success and I think there’s been something like that series ever since.I felt that there—and I still do actually feel—that sometimes there’s not quite enough attention given just to students, and what life in the trenches, so to speak, is like. Patricia [Dailey] and I have actually really tried to think a good deal now about how to make what we do more available to students.

One thing that’s true, and this is what I learned as a director, is that a lot of students don’t want to major in women’s studies because they’re majoring in a couple of other things often, but they’re happy to concentrate or do gender and feminism. I think, as a director, what was really good is getting a sense of that: the need to attend to undergraduates in a little bit more robust way than we traditionally had. That has been put on hold a little bit sometimes because I wasn’t involved so much, but now I think—especially working with Patricia—we’re really paying attention to that.

“IRWGS has been the place where you look for women leaders…”


Dean of Social Science, Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies
IRWGS Core Faculty
IRWGS Director, 2013-14

At its beginning, IRWAG exists because of strong women leaders on campus. I think it’s been, not wanting to go too far with origin stories, but I think it’s no coincidence then that the women who then get hired into the lines—when the institute starts to have lines—are prominent, formidable scholars. It’s been the case in a lot of institutions, some peer institutions, some not, that women and gender and sexuality studies is the least well resourced. Often it’s scholars with low status relative to other scholars on campus, often the case that they’re spousal hires, so they’re trailing spouses—some great man of science or industry or history that they’re following—and they need a place to teach. That was never really the case at IRWAG, so you begin with, again, lots of very capable, very smart, very formidable women, for the most part, in its leadership. I think it’s not rocket science. If you are looking on campus, at a moment in the ‘90s and the ‘00s, to really do something about the fact that—in a not good way—leadership at Columbia has been mostly men. You can look at the deans of the colleges, the deans of the schools and all the higher administration. We have yet to have a woman president. We’ve yet to have a woman dean of the faculty in the Arts and Sciences.

IRWAG has been that place, for good and for naught, where you poach the women leaders. Not only people who are on the core faculty, but people who have more informal leadership roles. People like Julie Crawford, who was I think one of the chairs of the Committee on Instruction and is now running Lit Hum, she’s the director of the core curriculum program. Christia Mercer was running the [Lit Hum] before her, who’s a quarter appointment in IRWAG. Marianne [Hirsch] was doing professional service for the MLA. Jean [Howard] was the board of trustees at Brown. I mean, just on and on and on and on.

It’s tough. It’s mostly a bittersweet story. It’s mostly not a positive story about the institutional strain that IRWAG is put under. What’s been great is that I have a group of colleagues who are so committed to doing this work that, often to our detriment, we hold it together with great mentorship of graduate students and undergraduate students, exciting programming with a shoestring budget, and we still do it while having all these other leadership obligations. I mean, for a time Lila [Abu-Lughod] was directing both the Middle East Institute, I think, and the Center for the Study of Social Difference at the same time. I mean, wow. That’s a lot of work. Obviously the downsides are that that energy is siphoned off from the institute. Another way of saying that is if everybody’s energy was allowed to be focused on the institute, my goodness, what could it be? What campus juggernaut could we be dealing with here? It’s a profound compliment that this is the space in the arts and sciences, but I think that the institute is not always well compensated in the sense of restoring both that energy and, frankly, labor to the institute in turn.

“My assumptions about what was possible in this country were very different from theirs…”


William B. Ransford Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African-American Studies

The 2008 presidential election was the first time I noticed a change. Even though I was in my forties by then, but it was one of the first times that I really felt the generational difference between myself and my students. I had not felt it before, but I really felt it. It was because their assumptions about what was possible were so different from my assumptions. When Barack Obama enters into the field and says he’s going to run for president, I’m one of those people who thinks at the very beginning, that’s never going to happen. Like, really? Okay, he’s probably going to be one of the more viable candidates, but it’s just never going to happen, not in this country. My students, from the beginning, are like, “Yes, that could happen.” They had no sense that it’s not possible. At first, I think it’s because you’re so naïve and, “You wait, when racism slaps you on your face, you’re going to be shocked.” But then I had to figure out they’re not that naïve. I sort of came along. They were already there. I came along early on. I was like, oh, maybe this could happen.

For me, the sense that I would never see it in my lifetime, they didn’t have that sense. I’d stand up and I’d teach them and I realized that my assumptions about what was possible in this country, my country, was very different from their assumption, and that their assumption was, in many ways, right. Where my history mattered, that they didn’t have, is that I knew—once I realized it could happen, I knew that it wasn’t the end of racism or post-racial. I think they were hopeful that that’s who they were. I knew that it wasn’t, and I sort of felt badly, because I knew that—I was prepared for a backlash, and they were not. They were not. Their youth did not prepare them for that.


“How could you be a feminist and yet be writing an objective history?”


R. Gordon Hoxie Professor of American History in Honor of Dwight D. Eisenhower
IRWGS Core Faculty

In the early 1960s when I was still in graduate school I got involved with what was then an SDS, the Students for a Democratic Society project, a community organizing project. I think I was already pregnant at the time, in graduate school, and commuting and all that. So I was never deeply into it, but it certainly helped to shate my identity as an engaged historian. At the same time, I should note that historians in general looked down their noses at such activity. Presentism was what it was called, or relevant history. It was a dirty word. You couldn’t ask questions that grew out of the present situation. Our questions had to come out of some theoretically objective past. Women’s studies for me was a sort of release. Among other things it enabled me, along with others, to fight this notion of presentism being a bad thing. In the early 1970s there were struggles about whether a feminist history was not in and of itself a biased history and therefore not objective. “How could you be a feminist, doing history as a feminist, and yet be writing an objective history?” was the question.

Well, that’s background to your question because in the early part of the ‘70s—I guess it was ‘74, ‘75—I went off to Sarah Lawrence to work with Gerda Lerner at setting up the women’s history program there. I realized when I was there that the opportunity to work with the trade union movement, which came along at that time, was really the flip side of my interest in women—I was working on a book on women’s work, and I was into women’s history, but where was the labor background that I had begun with? After two years at Sarah Lawrence, I went to work for a trade union, District 65 of what’s now the United Auto Workers. It was then a Distributive Workers of America Local. Together with Bert Silverman and Murray Yanowitch, who had conceived the program, we worked at setting it up. My particular job was to be the onsite director of the program. The trade union had agreed to negotiate release time for the workers who came to classes at the union headquarters in lower Manhattan. We offered a bachelor’s degree sponsored by Hofstra University. We’d got special permission from the state to set up an off campus site. Most of the faculty were Hofstra faculty who taught in the union headquarters and we, the leaders of the program, were invited to sit in on the union’s executive committee meetings. We were very much in and part of the union structure, even as we remained, in some sense, people with academic heads. Negotiating, what you might call the community, the trade union and the university, was inevitably fraught. We found ourselves thinking about how we valued education and how to impart it to a non-traditional community. At the same time we recognized how much that community had to teach us and therefore struggled with how to involve it in the educational process. I have to say that that was one of the formative experiences of both my academic and my intellectual life.