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Stanford Report, June 6, 2001
Feminist Studies Program turns 20: Graduates share history of struggles, gains

BY MEREDITH ALEXANDER

Kim Warren still remembers her frustration. Now a graduate student in history and a mentor in the feminist studies program, Warren's mind awoke to gender inequality when a teacher at her Catholic school asked for volunteer altar boys. The 8-year-old Warren enthusiastically raised her hand, only to be shot down with stern words: "But you're just a girl."

"It was blatant discrimination," she recalls 20 years later. "But I didn't have the language to deal with that," she says, adding that it wasn't until she discovered feminist studies that she found a powerful way to critique sex roles. At Stanford, "the feminist studies program has been central to my graduate studies," she reports.

Laura Kay, Susan Christopher, Noelle Stout and Kim Warren participate in a panel discussion entitled “Feminist Studies and Education: Scholarship, Teaching and Program Building.” Photo: L.A. Cicero

Current students in feminist studies rubbed shoulders with the program's first cohort of graduates at Friday's "20 Years of Feminist Studies at Stanford: A Symposium and Reunion" in Tresidder Union's Oak Lounge. Participants arrived from as far as Boston, New York and rural Virginia to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the program. During the daylong event, panels of students from the program, professors and other women's advocates at Stanford gave their impressions of how the program has changed lives.

Feminist studies at Stanford was born in the spring of 1981, said Estelle Freedman, professor of history and co-director of the program. What began as an individually designed major became a program that, by the early 1990s, produced more than a dozen undergraduate degree-holders annually. Today, 35 to 40 students earn feminist studies degrees or graduate with a secondary major in the field, Freedman said.

Not all feminist studies graduates go on to be theorists of gender. Some, like Laura Kay, have become scientists. Others, like Dayna Goldfine, are artists -- in her case, a documentary filmmaker. Some recent grads are health policy analysts or community college teachers. All of them say that wherever they've landed, they've brought the perspective of feminist studies to the table.

During a panel on feminist studies and education, some recalled the struggle to create a feminist studies major.

Gaining a foothold in the academy was not an easy task, said Susan Christopher, acting assistant professor at the School of Education and director of the master's degree program in social sciences in education. In 1979, a task force was formed to explore the best way to teach "the history of women's oppression," she said. At the time, some said the university ought to call the program "women's studies" or "gender studies." But the group chose "feminist studies, which was bolder, more imaginative and truer to the intent of the program," Christopher said.

While one professor complained that the program was "ideological rather than scholarly" and an associate dean deemed it "repellent" and proclaimed it "inconceivable to him that Stanford would grant a degree in feminist studies," the program eventually did get degree-granting powers.

The feminist studies program's first group of grads has gone on to remarkable things. Among them is Kay, '82, now associate professor of astronomy and women's studies at Barnard College in New York. While these two fields might seem incompatible to some, she strives to bring them together. Kay asks her students, for example, why calendars might have been invented. They blush when she suggests that women's menstrual cycles could be at the root of marking time.

Kay has sought to find a wider audience for feminist studies by creating a women's health class that attracts pre-meds and has quickly gained a large enrollment. But resistance to feminist studies is still rife among scientists, she said.

"I've been more successful bringing science to feminist studies than in bringing feminist studies to science," she remarked.

Other panelists delved into their own family histories to explain their passion for feminist studies. Noelle Stout, '98, was raised by a single mother in a working class community, surrounded by "the feminism of survival," she said. "It was doing what you could to survive, just to get by."

But her mom also emphasized feminist writers like Gloria Steinem and made Stout feel that education is the best way for women to empower themselves.

"In feminist studies, I really found a language in which I could express what I'd experienced," she said.

In the academy, Stout has discovered her niche using the theories of feminist studies to approach real women's lives: She shared stories of her travels to India, where she interviewed Buddhist nuns who'd trekked across the border from Tibet. Feminist studies isn't just an academic pursuit, she suggested, but part of a larger struggle for social justice.

It's a struggle that has continued, with a degree of success that feminist studies professors and students are still debating. But some tangible things have changed in recent years: Warren's little sister got to be an altar server, for one.

And today's feminist studies students probably won't have to face the withering remarks that confronted Goldfine, '82, when she decided to become a feminist studies major after she'd nearly completed an international relations degree. Upon hearing that she was switching fields, her adviser dropped his pencil and said, "Does your mother know?"