The Department of Women's Studies is Born! (1995-2010)

Dr. Kitch shared with me that Department status would elevate WS to an interdisciplinary program instead of one that was comprised of tenured faculty from various other disciplines. She also shared that the Center had proposed for Department status in the past but it was not immediately approved by the College Executive Committee, so she and the dedicated Center fervently worked for three years to build their irrefutable case for Department status.

During this time, the Center agreed that it needed to make some new hires and increase its size to reach a bare minimum requirement for full-time faculty members. Dr. Kitch was able to make five full-time faculty member hires, an enormous among of hires for any program at an institution of higher education when tenured and full-time positions come few and far between. She shares that it was an incredibly difficult but incredibly rewarding collaborative project where the Center was able to envision and dream up a feminist future on campus.

Of the hires, Dr. Kitch mentions that they located a feminist art scholar, political scientist, and an anthropologist with specialties in gender and culture. Such hires added to the already diverse pool of disciplines the Center now had attracted. During this time, she shares that the program was able to hire their first (two!) black full-time faculty members. Part of the vision for the Women’s Studies program’s future going forward was to diversify the faculty and provide important representation as an example for both students and the rest of the university.

In yet another example, course flyers advertised new courses on lesbian experiences and black motherhood. Such examples illustrate just how interdisciplinary Women’s Studies was as a powerful field of study that embraced varying positionalities, perspectives, and disciplines.

Despite the undeniable presence the Center of Women’s Studies had on campus, there were still more pitfalls in the program’s ability to reach Department status. Following the historical trend, a handful of people in powerful academic leadership and decision-making positions were not in favor of expanding the Center into a Department. Dr. Kitch shared that the acting provost at the time of her getting hired was named Dr. Joan Huber. At first glance, Dr. Joan Huber seemed to be the Center’s greatest ally. She was a woman and specialized in gender stratification from a Sociologist's perspective. However, she was not supportive of the direction the Center wanted to take Women’s Studies beyond conventional gender analysis. The Center wanted things to be interdisciplinary and intersectional, not limiting the scope of what a course would address regarding the social differences affecting women. 

Once Dr. Huber was no longer the acting Provost, they took to the College Executive Committee with mixed results. Mirroring the stratagem of the Suffragettes, the Center of Women’s Studies argued for Department status citing the Center of Black Studies' recent Department distinction. Furthermore, to any skeptical parties involved in the decision, Dr. Kitch provided a comprehensive compilation of the Center’s resumes, CVs, and listed each and every current and former associated and full-time WS faculty members' publications. She also provided them with literature and some books to read to familiarize them with the real, robust, and growing field of Women’s/Gender Studies. In the end, the committees and boards unanimously were in favor of the Department of Women’s Studies.

Dr. Kitch shared that the next stop was speaking with President Gordon Gee, whose late wife, Dr. Elizabeth Gee, had been affiliated with the Women’s Studies faculty before her passing. As mentioned previously, the Program had a research fund in honor of Dr. Gee, so there was a lot of love and support for the Center by the current university president. In addition to the Elizabeth D. Gee Fund for Research on Women, Dr. Kitch was able to secure a million-dollar grant from the Coca-Cola Foundation, greatly encouraging and funding graduate students studying women and women’s issues.

The last stage in this gradual and arduous task towards achieving Department status was to petition the University Senate, which was comprised of the College of Humanities, the acting Provost, President Gee, and various senators and students on the acting board. Dr. Kitch shared an anecdote, stating: 

“One question from a student and I don't remember the exact question, but it was, um, ‘what is there to study about women that's different than men?’ Something like that. And president gee, who was known for saying things, maybe he shouldn't have said, said something I loved at the moment, which is, ‘that was the stupidest question I ever heard!’”

With this, Dr. Kitch served as Department chair until 2000, when she and the ever-growing faculty worked passionately to keep strengthening and adapting the program.

In 2000, Dr. Valerie Lee took up the position of Department chair. She would become the first black woman to chair the Department/Center. I was fortunate enough to interview her for this project as well. She shared with me that all of the decades worth of heavy lifting had landed her into an extremely robust and prestigious program. She shared that her visions and intentions for the program were to continue enriching the curriculum for undergraduate and graduate students, as well as increase university-wide respect for the Department.

In the same year, the Mildred Munday Endowed Scholarship was established, in honor of Dr. Munday’s immeasurable and crucial contributions to the Women’s Studies program from its inception as an ad hoc committee.

Eventually, Dr. Lee was called to chair the English Department in 2002, so she ended her chairship to assist. However, she states that, while her term was office was short, so much was able to be achieved. The basis for the program had been essentially complete. The Women’s Studies Department was now able to award minors, majors, masters, and doctoral degrees. It could hire tenured professors and broaden its horizons. Now, came meticulous feminist attention to details about the curriculum, nourishing the newly expanded graduate program, and continuing to diversify the faculty.