WILLA v11 - The Journey - 'The Scholarly Arm of the Women's Movement:' A Look Back at the Journey

Volume 11
Fall 2002

"The Scholarly Arm of the Women's Movement:" A Look Back at the Journey

Kim Chuppa-Cornell
Chandler-Gilbert Community College, AZ

Women's Studies' struggle to gain perspec-tive on the past while simultaneously dealing with the present and the future has not been an easy task; as women's studies pioneer Gerder Lerner has said, it is like "trying to describe the Renaissance-ten years after it began" (quoted in Musil, 1992 , p. 5). Although the field continues to address issues regarding organizational structure, faculty status, purpose and objectives, pedagogy and content, and internal dissentions; its presence has had a tremendous influence on the academy as a whole in terms of scholarship and course offerings. What began as "the scholarly arm of the women's movement" has become more than simply the study of women; it has offered the academy a new way to examine the world ( Chamberlain, 1988 , p. 10).

Development of Early Organizational Structure

An initial challenge for women's studies pioneers was how to establish themselves in the academy. Early women's studies offerings tended to emerge as programs rather than departments, which came to represent a paradox for the field ( Schmitz et al., 1995 ). On the one hand, program status allowed women's studies to adopt "female" rather than "male" models of administration and organization ( Blumhagen & Johnson, 1978 ). Many programs sought collective, non-hierarchical forms of organization in which faculty, students, community members, and administrators shared in planning and implementation responsibilities ( Howe, 1977 ). Program status also provided an opportunity to build interdisciplinary coalitions and break through institutional barriers that prevented traditional departments from mixing and sharing resources ( Hatton, 1994 ). Moreover, many women's studies pioneers preferred their outsider status because it enabled them to maintain a critical perspective on their institutions ( Blumhagen & Johnson, 1978 ). On the other hand, despite its benefits, program status came with a price. Without department security, women's studies programs fell vulnerable to cuts, termination, and declining control over curriculum ( Blumhagen & Johnson, 1978 ; Butler & Schmitz, 1992 ). In 1990, it was not unusual to find women's studies programs still housed in basements or trailers. As one observer stated, "Wherever women's studies is, the space is usually small; it's often shared; it's sometimes cramped; it's frequently windowless" ( Musil, 1990 , p. 20). Despite the institutionalization of women's studies, prominent scholars in the field continued to describe it as a "marginal discipline" within the university system ( Hatton, 1994 , p. 257; Luebke & Reilly, 1995 , p. xii).

Faculty Status

The gamble of participating in an emerging field affected those who chose to teach and conduct research in women's studies ( Butler, 1991 ; Watkins, 1977 ). Programs attempted to save money by "borrowing" faculty from other disciplines and hiring part-time instructors to teach on a course-by-course, semester-by--semester basis. As a result, young faculty faced tenuous positions in temporary faculty lines, part-time lines, or tenured lines outside of women's studies ( Howe, 1977 ). Even when hired full-time, some women's studies faculty members found their research unacceptable for tenure consideration because it did not fit within the academy's recognized bodies of literature ( Blumhagen & Johnson, 1978 ; Musil, 1990 ). Senior faculty members were not immune to the hazards either: Gerda Lerner, Alice Rossi, and Florence Howe risked their professional reputations by becoming involved in women's studies programs and research ( Chamberlain, 1988 ).

Transforming the Academy

In addition to structural and staffing decisions, women's studies had to set its purposes and objectives. First, women's studies proponents needed to make their colleagues aware of the androcentric focus in their traditional courses and to teach them how to incorporate women into the curriculum effectively. Advocates feared that without this greater institutional recognition and acceptance, women's studies would remain the special project of a few devoted professors and fall short of its goal of widespread curricular change. Thus, they turned their efforts toward curriculum transformation.

Transformation Projects

From its onset, women's studies aimed not only to develop special compensatory courses on those women "missing" in the traditional curriculum, but also to mainstream the new scholarship so that all students learned about women in their discipline-based courses ( Chamberlain, 1990 ). Initially, women's studies professed high hopes that within five years of conception the field itself might not be necessary because the curriculum would become so transformed, integrating women and men equally throughout the disciplines ( Howe, 1978 ). But the first research to measure the impact of women's studies on the curriculum quickly proved otherwise. The findings showed that the study of women played little or no part in the courses surveyed ( Howe, 1977 ). Although new scholarship appeared in a variety of disciplines, it lacked universal adoption; most courses, curriculum, and faculty remained unchanged. One women's studies scholar likened the process of curriculum transformation as to " trying to add the concept of the world is round to the concept that it is flat" (quoted in Butler & Schmitz, 1992 , p. 40).

Spurred on by the reality of the minimal impact, women's studies scholars turned their attention to seeking money for faculty development to bring about greater campus-wide change ( Zinsser, 1993 ). A variety of approaches were quickly adopted, from monographs to summer institutes to conferences to federally funded grants to multi -institutional consortia. Between 1975 and 1992, nearly 200 curriculum transformation projects were launched ( Schmitz, et al., 1995 , p.719).

Funding for such projects came from the Ford Foundation beginning in 1972 ( Hill, 1990 ), the Mellon Foundation in 1976, the Women's Educational Equity Act Program in 1979, and the Lilly Foundation in 1981 ( Schmitz, 1985 ). The Southwest Institute for Research on Women (SIROW) with support from the Rockefeller Family Fund and the National Endowment for the Humanities sponsored the multi-campus Workshop on Integrating Women's Studies into the Curriculum in August 1981. The sponsors funded seventeen projects under SIROW that represented a variety of institutions and curriculum transformation strategies. The SIROW report included a special section for administrators attending its second national conference in October 1981, which represented the first time "a group of college administrators dedicated themselves to learning about women's studies scholarship and the need to transform the liberal arts curriculum" ( Schmitz, 1985 , p. 4).

Measuring Transformation

The complexity of curriculum transformation quickly warranted specially designed research instruments for measuring the extent of change in faculty attitudes, class materials, offered classes, and professional literature. The earliest model came from Mary Kay Thompson Tetreault, who was influenced by Gerda Lerner's work on women's history questions ( Schmitz, et al., 1995 ). Tetreault's authorship of a secondary textbook on U. S. women's history and her work with content analysis of children's literature and standard history textbooks ( 1980 1984 ) led to the development of her Feminist Phase Theory. Tetreault designed the Feminist Phase Theory specifically "to build an evaluation model sensitive enough to measure curricular change, cognitive learning in women's studies, and changes in how faculty conceptualize including women in their courses and research" ( Tetreault, 1985 , p. 364). The model offers five phases of inclusion: Male Scholarship; Compensatory Scholarship (famous women included); Bifocal Scholarship (gender/sex differences emphasized); Feminist Scholarship (multi-cultural women studied); and Multifocal, Relational Scholarship (multi-cultural, holistic perspective studied) ( Tetreault, 1985 ).

Other transformation theories have offered similar five and six stage models. McIntosh calls her model " interactive phases" to explain that the succeeding phases do not fully replace the initial ones; all phases are continually experienced within the discipline, the degree to which is based on what end of the continuum the faculty is operating ( 1983 , p. 2). Schuster and Van Dyne (1985) offer a six-stage model: Invisible Women; Search for Missing Women; Women as Disadvantaged, Subordinate Group Women Studied on Own Terms, Women as Challenge to Disciplines; and Transformed Curriculum (p. 16). The authors break the fourth stage/phase of the other models into two parts to distinguish the multiple steps they see as needed in the process to go from beginning to study from women's perspectives to using that new research to transform disciplines and courses. Warren (1989) also finds the five stage models limited in that they ignore the intermediary phases or steps needed to move from Phase 4 to Phase 5. Moreover, Warren argues the five--stage models reinforce sexism by ignoring men's gendered experiences prior to Phase 5. Warren offers an alternative 7-stage model that begins like the others, but it explores men's experiences in Phase 5, men's and women's gendered experiences in Phase 6, and issues of race, ethnicity, and class throughout all phases (p. 49).

Feminist Pedagogy

To transform the academy, women's studies offered new methodology as well as new content. As Howe (1977) put it, if "curriculum is the center of women's studies, the classroom is its heart" (p. 39). Women's studies became characterized by its alternative teaching style in which instructors encouraged student questioning and a relativist perspective of truth. Instructors used small groups as a means for sharing personal experiences and frequently borrowed techniques from consciousness-raising groups, such as uninterrupted turn taking around a circle. Similar to proponents of critical pedagogy, many women's studies faculty adopted democratic practices in the classroom in an effort to model the type of power structures they were proposing for academic and social reform ( Howe, 1977 ; Schramm, 1978 Wink, 1997 ). To them, the academy's traditional emphasis on competition lay in direct conflict to their ideal vision of collective organization. Some even cited self--actualization and consciousness-raising as traditional components of women's studies classrooms ( Schramm, 1978 ). Women's studies' emphasis on groups, cooperation, and group processes offered parallels to the women's movement's call for greater equality, shared power, and collective decision-making ( Howe & Ahlum, 1973 ). Taken together, the emerging pedagogy and content typified by women's studies courses offered students a new way to become intellectually and personally engaged in higher education curriculum ( Musil, 1992 ).

Underlying Political Ideologies

Given women's studies' ties to the civil rights movement, the history of its development, and the purpose of its courses, it is not surprising that its pedagogy has been labeled political by those in and out of the field ( Butler & Schmitz, 1992 ; Chamberlain, 1988 Levin, 1985 ). Women's studies programs viewed themselves as both political and educational entities, working closely with the women's movement and with communities of women on and off campus ( Howe & Ahlum, 1973 ). In many instances, women's studies programs represented the vanguard of the women's movement on campus, striving to restructure the academy through new curriculum and methodologies as well as through women's centers and women- centered services such as counseling, child care, and medical centers ( Hatton 1994 ; Howe, 1978 ; Girard, 1977 ). The close connection between the two led proponents to describe women's studies as "the scholarly arm of the women's movement" ( Chamberlain, 1988 , p. 10).

Women's studies pioneers brought many feminist assumptions with them to the campus, proclaiming a need for sisterhood, consciousness raising, consensus, and women's culture ( Schramm,1978 ). Thus, a major issue early on was the close relationship between feminist theory and politics and the need for instructors' proficiency in both ( Howe 1977 : Tobias 1997 ; Zinsser, 1993 ). In other words, women's studies founders decided to make open politics a " manifest" rather than "a latent goal" ( Boneparth, 1978 , p. 24). As two authors put it, the "central idea of women's studies is sex bias and the status of women" ( Howe & Ahlum, 1973 , p. 404). Evidence of explicit political goals can still be found in contemporary course offerings and syllabi selections ( Kolmar & Vogt, 1995 ). According to one instructor, "one of the most important course decisions" she makes is text selection which is driven by her "effort to find the 'perfect' text(s) that will turn the most conservative student into a feminist" (p. 48).

Criticisms and Challenges of Women's Studies

Political nature taken too far?

This issue of political ideology in women's studies has been the most frequent and harshest criticism of the field. Patai and Koertge (1994) argue the result has been the indoctrination, not the education, of women's studies students. As one particularly blunt spokesperson asserted, "Women's studies is a jumble of vulgarians, bunglers, whiners, French faddists, apparatchiks, Doughface party-liners, pie-in-the-sky utopianists, and bullying, sanctimonious sermonizers" ( Paglia, 1992 , p. 244). More tempered critics have charged women's studies' ideology results in less academic rigor because the focus on feelings, collaboration, personal experiences, and discussion makes the courses easier than those taught in traditional disciplines ( Levin, 1985 ; Lehrman, 1993 ). The argument continues that women's studies' insistence on examining all experiences and inquiry through a gendered lens has made it seemingly immune to opposing views and has led to traditional research procedures being abandoned in the name of feminism ( Levin, 1985 ; Patai, 1995 ; Sommers, 1992 ; Sommers, 1994 ). The result has been a circular debate among opponents and proponents, where opponents accuse women's studies of ignoring criticism and proponents accuse their critics of operating under traditional biases and blinders ( Sommers, 1994 ). Thus, opponents have claimed that it is really women's studies, which has blinders on, allowing it to fall prey to any misguided fact or theory that fits its ideology. They claim the result has been the perpetuation of many false and unsubstantiated statistics on rape, abuse, and sexism in an effort to convince the general public that women continue to be under siege ( Roiphe, 1993 ; Sommers, 1994 ).

Interestingly some of these same themes have also appeared in advocates' work, such as Luebke & Reilly's (1995) profile of the first generation of women's studies graduates. Some students described women's studies courses as "sometimes ending in depression," "difficult and distressing," and "exhausting because of the students' emotional response to the curriculum" (pp. 183, 189). Proponents have argued such reactions are to be expected given that students and teachers are struggling with issues of mastery, voice, authority, and positionality ( Maher & Tetreault, 1994 ). In other words, they believe meaningful learning is characterized by a change process in which students fashion their voices under the guidance of teachers working to promote diversity and to balance power.

Women of color's role in women's studies

Another criticism of women's studies is that it has failed to live up to its goal of inclusion. Many women of color became ambivalent toward feminism and women's studies because, they didn't see their issues initially included in the new ideology and educational reforms. Women's experiences often meant white women, and black experiences often meant men ( hooks, 1994 ). Not only did many women of color find feminism's emphasis on sisterhood overly simplistic and ignorant of race and class issues ( Schramm, 1978 ; Zinsser, 1993 Higginbotham, 1990) , but they were also especially offended by the notion of shared oppression ( Tobias, 1997 ). Many black women in particular ( de Groot & Maynard, 1993 ) came to view feminism as a "white women's movement" and instead chose to adopt the term "womanist," coined by Alice Walker, to define their ideology ( Tobias, 1997 , p. 209). The concept of "womanist" maintained feminism's critical view of patriarchy and sexism while adding dimensions of race, culture, politics, and economics ( Schmitz et al., 1995 ). In some cases, the initial oversight of diversity resulted in sharp divisions among women's studies subgroups, leading to fights over limited resources and further factionalism along self-identification lines ( Kessler-Harris, 1992 ).

The need for greater diversity in women's studies represented more than an ideological debate. As late as 1994, women's studies programs continued to be directed mostly by white women and offered scholarship based primarily on European and U.S. women's experiences ( Hatton, 1994 ). Research found very few students of color chose to take women's studies courses ( Goodstein & Gyant, 1990 Luebke & Reilly, 1995 ). Women of color still seemed to be avoiding ethnic studies because it lacked a focus on women and women's studies because it lacked a focus on race. Such predicaments have led some faculty to call for separate courses and programs, such as Black Women's Studies, and even minor degrees offered in the specialized field of women of color ( hooks, 1989 ; Goodstein & Gyant, 1990 ).

Differing views from within

A related challenge to the issue of specialization is the continuing question of women's studies' role in the academy. Some women's studies advocates believe the emphasis should be on building their autonomy as a discipline instead of expending so much energy on changing the traditional disciplines ( McGowan, 1989 ). The debate between autonomy and integration lies in the field's origins as both an educational reform and social reform movement. Supporters of autonomy believe independent women's studies programs offer the best means for generating new knowledge through the interaction of like-minded scholars, while maintaining a critical perspective of the academy. Supporters of integration believe the two goals are mutually beneficial in that women's studies programs are strengthened by campus-wide projects and involvement, which, in turn, promote broader change ( Anderson, 1988 ).

Some proponents have argued for developing women's education separate from or different from men's ( Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, & Tarule, 1986 ), while others have countered that treating women differently can lead to additional forms of sexism because this line of reasoning can be interpreted as meaning women cannot handle the regular academic requirements ( Steinitz & Kanter, 1991 ). An ironic result of the separate approach could be that traditional departments lose their motivation to adopt curriculum transformation practices because they view that work as being done in the women's studies programs ( Hoagland, 1978 ). Lastly, long--held beliefs about what constitutes valued knowledge by the academy have represented an obstacle for curriculum transformation projects to overcome ( Minnich, 1990 ). Proponents have argued for wide-scale change (i.e. transformation) that the simple addition of a new reading, unit, or assignment will not produce. As Minnich (1990) explains, curriculum transformation must address the "errors" inherent in the traditional academy that perpetuate faulty generalization, circular reasoning, mystified concepts, and partial mode of knowing (p. 178).

Effectiveness of transformation

In retrospect, curriculum transformation has been an education for women's studies, full of important lessons regarding the role of women of color and the challenges of reform. Feminist phase theory scales have provided a useful tool for measuring change in multiple contexts. Yet the best means for achieving curriculum transformation and the new directions it should take continue to be issues of debate within the women's studies community (see Elenes, 1995 ; Belle, 1994; Goodstein, 1994 ; Shapiro, 1987 ).

The real effects of curriculum transformation remain difficult to gauge since very little meta--analysis has been produced. Given the challenges and complexities, it is not surprising that different projects have offered different views of success. As of 1995, only 10% of higher educational institutions had participated in curriculum transformation ( Schmitz et al., 1995 ). Moreover most projects took place in the humanities and social science departments of four-year institutions, leaving many other disciplines and two-year colleges still untouched. Curricular change has been defined in terms of course content, pedagogy, professional values, and effects on students. In an overview of curriculum transformation projects, Hedges (1996) explained the typical results among faculty included integrating new course materials, creating new courses, and adopting more active learning/teaching strategies, such as cooperative learning and critical thinking, which have been linked with feminist pedagogy. Of those who have participated, roughly one--quarter have reported experiencing little or no change, one-third have reported experiencing great change, and five-twelfths have reported being somewhere in the middle.


From its inception, women's studies held several common goals: to raise the consciousness of students and faculty regarding male-centered curriculum, to supplement the traditional curriculum by adding women's studies courses, and to establish women, gender, and sex roles as legitimate subjects for research. Such purposes evolved into strategies to transform disciplines, to develop interdisciplinary curriculum, to expand student career options, and to train public education teachers in women's studies ( Chamberlain, 1988 ; Gappa & Uehling, 1979 ).

Evidence of its success includes the hundreds of women's studies programs throughout the U.S. (although Smith College's website only lists 8 U.S. Ph.D. programs) and the countless articles, courses, and books dedicated to the study of women's experiences written and taught by both women and men. Evidence of its work yet to be done lies in the gap between the changed curriculum and social/cultural patterns that connect women's power with sexuality, promote men's interests over women's, and equate parenthood with motherhood. While not all goals of women's studies programs have been met, if the last four decades are any indication, the next leg of the journey should be as fascinating as the previous.

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Reference Citation : Chuppa-Cornell, Kim. (2002) "The Scholarly Arm of the Women's Movement: A Look Back at the Journey." WILLA , Volume 11, p. 3-10.