The Politics of Women's Studies: Testimony from 30 Founding Mothers

The Politics of Women's Studies: Testimony from 30 Founding Mothers

by Florence Howe, Mari Jo Buhle

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The true stories of those bold women who espoused feminism in the world of academia and forever changed our educational system and culture.
In the patriarchal halls of 1970s academe, women who spoke their minds risked their careers. Yet intrepid women—students, faculty, administrators, members of the community—persisted in collaborating on women’s studies programs. In doing so, they created a movement that altered paradigms, curricula, teaching styles, and content across disciplines.
In these original essays “we hear the voices of feminists exhilarated by the opportunities and challenges of creating women’s studies programs in American colleges and universities, nurtured by the women’s movement of the 1970s,” from young graduate students and newly hired faculty to tenured professors in search of ways to improve their students’ capacities to learn, veteran academics at last witnessing change, and even a few administrators (Library Journal).
In all of these programs, these “founding mothers” grappled not only with issues of gender, but with those of class, race, and sexuality in a decade infused with political unrest and questioning, when civil rights and anti-war activism, as well as feminism, shaped academic worlds.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781558617865
Publisher: Feminist Press at CUNY, The
Publication date: 08/01/2000
Series: Women's Studies History Series
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 440
File size: 3 MB

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Learning from Teaching

For many different reasons, including the presence of Carol Ahlum, an intrepid work-study assistant who taught me that "routine work is not boring if it has a social purpose," from before 1970 until the late 1980s, I functioned as the historian and record-keeper of the women's studies movement. Especially after moving in 1971 from Goucher College to the new College at Old Westbury/SUNY, I divided my time among women's studies — speaking and consulting on as many as forty campuses a year — The Feminist Press, and the Modern Language Association, in addition to organizing and teaching in the women's studies program on campus. In 1973, I held a Ford Foundation fellowship to research the origins of women's studies in the archives of a dozen colleges and universities. In 1975, at the request of the National Advisory Council on Women's Education Programs, established by Congress as part of the Women's Educational Equity Act in the education amendments of 1974, I spent six months on leave visiting fifteen women's studies programs on campuses as far apart as the University of Hawaii and the University of South Florida. Ten thousand copies of the monograph summarizing my research, Seven Years Later: Women's Studies Programs in 1976, were distributed free by the federal government, and for some years, along with the collection of essays published in Myths of Coeducation in 1984, remained the only history of the movement. In the mid-1980s, for Mariam Chamberlain's Women in Academe: Progress and Problems, I wrote the chapter on women's studies. I have published widely on many matters having to do with education and literature. I am perhaps best known as the editor of No More Masks! An Anthology of Twentieth Century American Women Poets. I am at work on a memoir.

In the mid-1980s also, The Feminist Press and my academic appointment moved into the City University of New York, where we are currently in residence at CUNY's Graduate Center. I am a professor of English; The Feminist Press, though an independent entity entering its thirtieth year, is one of the many institutes and centers in residence at the Graduate Center.

Although I was a political activist through much of the 1960s, the impulse for my entrance into what eventually became women's studies emerged from teaching composition. In the fall of 1964, I returned to teaching at Goucher College, still astonished by the quality of poetry and prose written by young, black Mississippi women students who could not have parsed or punctuated a sentence correctly, yet had written memorably, with remarkable energy and conviction. They had something to say, I concluded, and my privileged white Goucher College students did not. I knew that I could not transfer that "something to say" easily, for though I talked to many audiences, including students, about Mississippi's Freedom Summer, the experience remained mine. I knew I could not transfer experience. Of that, I was profoundly certain.

But I had returned from Mississippi also with a set of pedagogical tools. I would teach my composition classes, I decided, seated in a circle with my students, and from that position I would seek the theme that would unlock their abilities to write even as talking about being black in a white society had unlocked the freedom-longing voices of my black students. But what was that theme for white, middle-class females? In hindsight, it seems obvious, but in 1964 and 1965, I was not a feminist. I was a person who had rebuked young white and black women in Mississippi for "selfishly" refusing to continue sweeping floors and making coffee or for insisting that their voices needed to be heard in meetings. I told them that racism was the most important problem to be solved in white America, that once we had conquered racism we could worry about ourselves. I couldn't help repeating nineteenth-century white women's history, since I knew none. Luckily for me and for my students, I accidentally hit on a key question one day while discussing D. H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers.

It happened somewhat awkwardly, as I was trying to get them to understand the idea of "point of view" by asking them to consider what the novel told them of Miriam's home life. Were there clues, I asked, to help them imagine how her parents treated her? The students were mystified. So I explained that Lawrence did not present Miriam's parents to his readers. They would have to imagine the parents from thinking about how Miriam acts in the novel. I told them that this was one way of determining that Lawrence's point of view was not focused on Miriam. I got nowhere. Perhaps I had an unimaginative class that day. Perhaps my students were still traumatized by what was for them in the mid-1960s a very unusual classroom.

Whatever the cause, their silence led me to ask, in some exasperation, the question that became key to my own development of feminist consciousness through the next several years. "What about your families," I asked. "How were you treated? Were you treated as your brother was?"

"Of course," one student volunteered at once, "we were treated equally."

We went around the circle, each student more emphatic than the one before. Even those with no brothers said that their parents would have treated them "equally." I knew at once that I was on to something, for I remembered vividly my childhood complaints about "unfairness," when I had to do all the housework, and my brother was excused even from making his own bed or picking up the dirty clothes he had dropped on the floor. But I was not, in those days, about to reveal my family's origins.

Instead, I asked a series of questions: "Who took out the garbage? Who washed the dishes? Who mowed the lawn? Who got paid for family work? What was your graduation present? Your brother's? Who had a curfew? Were allowances equal?" Even as we went around the circle with each question, the students became more and more visibly agitated and defensive. Mowing the lawn deserved payment, one student said, since it was harder work than washing the dishes, and she wouldn't want to mow the lawn. Besides, another student said, her brother needed money in order to take girls out on dates. She didn't need such money, since boys paid for everything. Probably none of us in that room understood the significance of that sentence. Just before the hour was to end, one intrepid student said, "I really don't want to talk about such trivia," knowing that I was accepting of seemingly outrageous statements in class.

"Fine," I said. "Then I will assign these topics as themes for this week. I want you to write about what you are supposed to do either socially at home or on campus and what you think your brother is supposed to do socially at home or on campus, or in high school, if he is younger than you." The students groaned, frowned. No one was smiling but me. I knew I had found the subject I was looking for.

And I had, although I didn't understand that I had also found something else. For I was still quite innocent about the dailiness of sexism and the persuasiveness of patriarchy. Those words were not yet in my vocabulary, though I had by then published a review of three of Doris Lessing's novels, including The Golden Notebook, and had read The Second Sex. I needed years of discussion in the composition classroom, as well as the experience of some events outside the classroom, before I could call myself a feminist. When an intrepid reporter named Malcolm Scully, who had come to visit my composition classroom early in 1970 to interview me, wrote in the new Chronicle of Higher Education that I was "teaching consciousness," I was insulted and insisted that I was teaching writing, that students in my class were gaining information that allowed them to write more clearly and profoundly.

Scully's front-page story brought me forty-eight letters from teachers all over the country who wanted to know exactly what I was doing in my classroom. Rather than answer each of them separately, I wrote a seven-thousand-word mimeographed "letter," which I continued to mail as a response to other requests. In October of that year, I was invited to Wesleyan College to talk about my freshman writing course, now called Identity and Expression. One of the editors of College English then asked for permission to edit my mimeographed letter into an essay for publication in that journal. And so the idea of what was, though I could not for years have called it that, a feminist composition course spread its news as part of what was clearly by 1970 a burgeoning women's studies movement.

From 1965 until 1971, when I left Goucher, I continued to experiment with my freshman English classes, adding fiction by women writers each term to the staples of Lawrence's Sons and Lovers, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, and Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex. Until 1969, my course was the least popular section of Freshman English. The grapevine told students what themes faculty used to teach their composition courses, and students did not want to read "lady" writers, who were, of course, all inferior to any man. One rare student, who announced that she wanted to be a writer "like D. H. Lawrence," was profoundly important to raising my consciousness, for without pausing to think, I said, "But you never could be 'like D. H. Lawrence.' He's male and you're female." She and the class were shocked. I was shocked. But I then began to understand what still kept me from writing. In my family I had been taught that I was not male, and in college I was taught that only males were good writers.

After 1964, I also began to make changes in the Introduction to Poetry course I regularly taught each year. Placed in charge of Goucher's Poetry Series, I had begun by inviting four male poets, including Robert Lowell, who, in 1963, had at first offended me by bringing along with him Adrienne Rich, and insisting that she read a few of her new poems. I learned quickly that she was a person beloved in Baltimore, and I was ultimately gratified to be invited by the Baltimore Sun to review her groundbreaking volume, Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law. Following that experience, I altered the design of the series by inviting one woman poet each year: Marianne Moore, Denise Levertov, Muriel Rukeyser, and Anne Sexton. Of course I wanted my students to read these poets, and I couldn't help noticing that they were not often included in anthologies I used, or in other anthologies I began to review. I had to type and mimeograph their poems, or order small volumes to go along with the anthology I still could not label "male-centered." During these years I also began to ask the women poets to hold a writing workshop for student poets the morning after their reading. It was probably those workshops that led me to the idea of creating a project for teaching in Baltimore's high schools by the best students in my poetry class each year, some of whom were to become poets, others teachers.

By 1969, the year that the women's movement was making headlines that freshman students had seen, my course was the first to fill, and students were eager to write about "women," not "girls." Other students in my literature classroom began to ask me questions I had not asked myself. Nor could I answer them. "What were 'real' women like in the eighteenth century? Did women go to college? Did they write books? Why are there no women writers in this course?" The library was no help. Even art history was no help: I returned to class with slides of Hogarth's Shrimp Girl and paintings of elegantly dressed and coiffed patrician women by famous masters. What was I to do about my ignorance?

Several other events external to my life as an assistant professor helped me. In 1969, I was appointed one of the first two cochairs of the Modern Language Association's Commission on the Status and Education of Women, and shortly thereafter asked the Executive Council for permission to divide my time between the formal study of the status of women faculty in five thousand English and Modern Language Departments — a given in the commission's mandate — and the curriculum. I knew something had to be done about the literary curriculum, but I didn't know quite what. Because I had by now published three essay/reviews of Doris Lessing plus an interview with her, editors at three university presses wrote to ask whether I'd be interested in writing a book about Lessing. "No," I responded, "but I'd like to talk with you about another project." In each case, and later also at the New York Review of Books, I described what I thought my students and I needed: a series of small, pamphlet-sized books written by distinguished women about other women — in history, in the arts, in politics, and perhaps even in science and other areas of life. I mentioned that I could see Doris Lessing writing on Olive Schreiner, or Marianne Moore writing on Emily Dickinson. The editors or publishers were clearly intrigued, but in each case, the financial officer of the press or the magazine intervened, always with the same statement: "It's a great idea, but there's no money in it."

By late June of 1970, I was discouraged enough to consider giving the whole thing up, when my ex-husband suggested that I do it myself. Thus in mid-July I decided to find collaborators among Baltimore's women's liberation group. Twenty-five women thought the idea was fine, but they were all too busy, they said, with their magazine, Women: A Journal of Liberation. I left in a fury and returned home, determined to forget the whole idea.

At Cape Cod with family for a month, I worked on the study of English departments for the MLA meeting in December, and I prepared my courses and finished other writing assignments. Hence, when I returned to Baltimore to clear out the curbside mailbox usually stuffed only with junk mail, to my surprise — and then horror — there were a hundred or more envelopes addressed to "The Feminist Press" at 5504 Greenspring Avenue, Baltimore, Maryland 21204. Fury does not aptly convey the mixture of emotions I felt as I read the letters. Apparently Baltimore Women's Liberation had included, in their July newsletter, an announcement about "The Feminist Press," stating that its publishing goals were to be "biographies of women and children's books." How could this have happened, since I had never mentioned children's books? I fussed and fumed for more than a month, then mimeographed a long letter, describing "the confusion," the mixed messages, and stating that if more than twenty people turned up on November 17, 1970, and agreed to work together on this "project," there would be a Feminist Press. If not, I would return the small checks and dollar bills — amounting to about one hundred dollars — and we would forget the whole thing.

Many more than twenty people turned up, including Cynthia Secor from the University of Pennsylvania. From Baltimore, there were two Goucher students, Barbara Danish (who wrote our first children's book) and Laura Brown (now on our board of directors), Elaine Hedges from Towson State University (who stayed closely involved with The Feminist Press until she died in 1997), Mary Jane Lupton from Morgan State College (who wrote the first of our small biographies), and many of the women from Baltimore Women's Liberation, one of whom, Judy Markowitz, volunteered to manage the distribution of our books from her garage in Columbia, Maryland. For a year, we met monthly about how to respond to all the mail we were getting, how to begin to think about contracts, and how to raise money enough to publish the first children's book, The Dragon and the Doctor. While I was always present at meetings, I did not feel in charge, certainly not around children's books, and we tried to make all decisions by consensus, with different people taking turns chairing.

In fact, I had many other things to work on, even beyond my teaching, for the MLA Commission met four times a year, and I still had to write the study of women faculty, both for a scholarly audience in PMLA and for a more general one in College English. I had also begun to be invited to campuses to talk about the status of women or women's education and the development of women's studies, and I could not speak without writing a new lecture. When, for my ex-husband's sake, we decided to move out of Baltimore, and I had accepted a job at Old Westbury, I fully expected that The Feminist Press would remain a Baltimore project, and that I would come down for meetings once a month, since I still needed to go to the dentist in Baltimore.


Excerpted from "The Politics of Women's Studies"
by .
Copyright © 2000 Florence Howe.
Excerpted by permission of Feminist Press.
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