At 25, women’s studies struggles for recognition

Feminism is about being a women’s advocate, not about hating men – that message was echoed by several alumnae of GW’s women’s studies program.

“I was going home to a husband and sons,” said Sandra Van Fossen, a GW alumna, who was among the first students in the women’s studies program, which began in 1974. “There was no way I hated men.”

GW offered the first interdisciplinary women’s studies master’s degree in the United States, according to a pamphlet distributed by the department. But as GW celebrates the 25th anniversary of its women’s studies department, students still are forced to make disclaimers about their decisions to take women’s studies classes.

Sophomore Tracy Watson, a women’s studies minor, said she often finds herself defending her education to other GW students.

“Any type of empowerment is scary to people, especially one specific to women,” Watson said.

Van Fossen, who completed her master’s degree in general studies with a concentration in women’s studies in 1976, said she thinks today students have to defend themselves more than those in the early days of the women’s rights movement.

Another woman said she feels somewhat removed from others in the movement.

“I consider myself an anti-racist and pro-sex feminist, and that distances me from others,” said Melinda Chateauvert, a 1986 master’s graduate, who will speak at the 25th anniversary celebration Wednesday. The celebration will include a panel, reception and lecture from 2:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Marvin Center.

Van Fossen said the second wave of feminism in the 1970s ushered in new ideas about education. She said universities and colleges around the country accepted the challenge to “meld feminist street politics with academics.” Women needed a way to legitimize their arguments for equality, she said.

“No one believed me that women were getting discriminated against,” Van Fossen said. “I thought if I had a master’s degree, they’d have to believe me. But of course, they didn’t.”

Anne Kasper, who completed her master’s in 1982, said women’s studies is as important as any other academic discipline.

“Women’s studies gives us a different lens with which to view the world, which is vital,” she said.

The women said the program has come a long way from its early days. Kasper said the program was located off campus when she came to GW, a symbol of the animosity toward women’s studies students.

“The location of women’s studies was very telling,” she said. “It said women’s studies should be set aside.”

Chateauvert, a more recent student, said the women’s studies program was the only place on campus where change was taking place. Chateauvert said the program gave her a good background in public policy. In 1977, Virginia Allan, chair of President Nixon’s 1969 task force on Women’s Rights and Responsibilities, developed public policy courses for women’s studies students.

By May 1997, GW’s public policy and women’s studies program affiliated with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research to further emphasize public policy issues, according to the pamphlet.

A growing demand for women’s studies courses at GW led to the establishment of a minor in 1989.

Cynthia Deitch, associate professor of women’s studies, said she would like to see greater interest in the subject from students and faculty outside the program because women still have a lot of work to do.

“Any girl who thinks she is as well off as her brother is kidding herself,” Van Fossen said. “You can fight for your opportunities but you’re not just getting them like boys do.”

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