Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies program celebrates 50th anniversary

Media Credit: Rachel Schwartz | Assistant Photo Editor

Faculty members and students celebrated the program's 50th anniversary in Funger Hall at the first of its upcoming speaker series Thursday.

Updated: Friday, Oct. 14 at 1:48 p.m.

As the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies program reaches its 50th anniversary this year, WGSS officials said the program’s history and multidisciplinary approach to education sets it apart from similar programs at other universities.

Ashwini Tambe, the director of the program since 2021, said WGSS has received national acclaim after becoming the first women’s studies program in the country in 1972. She said the program’s age and the diversity of faculty members’ expertise make the program “distinct” from WGSS programs at other institutions.

“We have a range of faculty from multiple departments – sociology, public policy, history, English, philosophy, anthropology – who all regularly teach our core offerings,” she said. “This gives our students training in thinking about gender from multiple disciplinary angles.”

Building the program
After students in the University’s former Continuing Education for Women project advocated for a graduate program “focused on helping women” in the 1960s to 1970s, the project’s founding director Ruth Osborn worked with the administration to develop an interdisciplinary graduate degree program.

The University launched the women’s studies master’s degree program in 1972 under the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences and enrolled students the following year. After launching their first degree program, officials added a master’s degree in public policy with a concentration in women’s studies in 1982.

Officials also created a “gender and social policy” field within the University’s public policy doctorate program in 1997, which is now a joint degree with the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration.

WGSS staff established several joint degrees with GW Law in 2000, like the joint law degree and master’s degree program that allows students to mix law and WGSS courses and earn degrees in both fields in four years.

Cynthia Deitch, the associate director of the program since 1996, said the program often draws students who are interested in politics and public policy due to its location in D.C.

“About half of our majors are joint majors with political science, for example,” she said. “I don’t know any national statistics on that but my sense is that’s probably not true in other places.”

Deitch said hiring Tambe as the director of the program in 2021 increased the number of WGSS-associated faculty members because Tambe was an outside hire from the University of Maryland, College Park who has recruited faculty from outside GW.

The WGSS program lists 35 associated faculty members who come from a variety of departments, ranging from religion to geography, according to its website. Faculty associated with WGSS teach a variety of courses in the program, including Varieties of Feminist Theory and Anthropology of Gender: Cross-Cultural Perspectives, according to the schedule of classes.

“In recent years at GW, it’s very hard to get permission to get a slot for an outside hire and there’s a lot of competition for those,” she said. “So being able to get the dean’s office and the provost office to approve it, I think we felt really showed their confidence and support for the program.”

Celebrating the program
WGSS faculty and staff are hosting a speaker series throughout the fall semester with the program’s alumni to celebrate the 50th-year anniversary and highlight how their WGSS education influenced their careers. Faculty and students celebrated in Funger Hall for the first in-person event of the speaker series Thursday, which featured two alumni who reflected on their accomplishments that WGSS aided.

Priya Purandare, an alumna who received the program’s master’s degree in women’s studies in 2009, said the WGSS program gave her the education and “language” she needed to lead discussions on gender inclusion with her co-workers through her position as executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association.

“I get to think about how AAPI women show up in the legal profession all the time,” she said. “I think this degree has broadened my worldview in ways that serve me so well because I get to lead conversations about gender within my association.”

Sharon Rogers, an alumna who received the program’s master’s degree in public policy and women’s studies in 1996, said the relationships she built with WGSS faculty members, like Deitch, gave her the mentorship opportunities that helped her succeed in her career in international development.

“I think without that kind of mentoring and without the kind of relationships that I built with Cindy Deitch and Phyllis Palmer, who is gone now but was a founder of the program, I wouldn’t have succeeded because those friendships and that mentoring in the program helped me as well,” she said.

Looking to the future
Tambe said the program recently launched a search for a tenure-track faculty member with expertise in Black feminist studies to strengthen the program’s course offerings surrounding Black feminist theory.

“We had to really push for it, and we’re really pretty excited to be going through the national, international search right now for a faculty member who we can hire in this area,” she said. “Black feminist thinking, Black feminist theory, Black feminist thought is really what I see as the pulsing core of the field of WGSS.”

Tambe said faculty members in the program have “discussed” the prospect of becoming a full department under CCAS. She said becoming a department would give WGSS its own “secure” group of faculty members who would not have to divide their time between the program and other departments.

“If they’re fully in this department, then that means we have faculty who can give us all their time for their teaching, as well as their service, and help us advise our growing number of students,” she said. “So there are definitely benefits to being a department as far as having a stable number of devoted faculty goes.”

The number of students majoring within WGSS has increased from 21 to 48 students between 2012 and 2021, while dipping to a recent low of 17 in 2015, according to institutional enrollment data – which is limited to the last 10 years of enrollment. The number of applications to the WGSS master’s degree program for Fall 2021 tripled compared to Fall 2020.

Maya Vela, a second-year graduate student in the program, said she hopes the program can hire more faculty to increase its course offerings and provide students with “specialized attention” on the subject they are studying within WGSS. She said she hopes the University allocates more recognition and funding to the program.

“I think we’re doing great work training the next generation of feminists in practice and professionals, so just continuing on the path that we’re on and continually trying to improve is always our goal to make sure we are doing meaningful work,” she said.

This post has been updated to correct the following:

The Hatchet incorrectly quoted Tambe, who said “faculty who can give us all their time for that teaching, as long as there’s service.” Tambe said, “we have faculty who can give us all their time for their teaching, as well as their service.” We regret these errors.

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