Local Thoughts on Women’s History Month

One of the most dramatic transformations of Wesleyan was the achievement of co-education in the early 1970s. The university had experimented with co-education at the beginning of the 20th century, but the male students just couldn’t deal with women studying alongside them. The contrast with the 1970s was great, and when I arrived in the middle of the decade it seemed that men and women were treated equally on campus. Of course, that was just one guy’s perspective.

And that guy was wrong. Having now spoken with many alumnae from the early 1970s, I have come to realize how difficult gender and sexuality issues were at Wes. Women reported routine harassment, a curriculum and campus culture geared to men, and a reluctance of the institution to change. But change did come, as richly talented women joined the student body and the faculty.

One of the important changes was the development of a Women’s Studies component of the curriculum, a process that culminated in the faculty approving a program in 1979, and a full major about a decade later. More recently, students and faculty changed the name of this concentration to Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies, to better reflect the evolving teaching and research going on in the program. More on the history of FGSS can be found here.

There are plenty of other professors at Wesleyan who have been cultivating this vineyard. Suzanne O’Connell, for example, has received major support from the National Science Foundation to help women at all academic levels take part in programs that emphasize professional development in the geosciences. In addition to being a professor of Earth and Environmental Science, Suzanne also has been directing the Service Learning Center. Carol Wood has been a leader in making the mathematics field more inclusive. Carol is Chair of the Board of the American Mathematical Society, where she continues her long-term work of promoting possibilities for women in math departments across the country. The Edward Burr Van Vleck Professor of Mathematics at Wesleyan, Carol has been president of the Association for Women in Mathematics and represents the United States at the International Mathematics Union.

Su Zheng, Associate Professor Music, has been teaching and writing about the intersection of gender, sexuality, globalization and music. Her interests range from world music and experimental composition to heavy metal. Gina Ulysse, Associate Professor of Anthropology and African-American Studies, has been teaching and writing about gender, transnational feminism, race, class and performance — to name just some of her many topics. I was delighted to learn recently that Ruth Striegel, Walter A. Crowell University Professor of the Social Sciences, will be returning to the psychology department next semester. Her research and teaching on eating disorders has had a deep impact on our understanding of these phenomena, and her teaching has inspired generations of Wesleyan students.

The achievements of these fine scholar-teachers – and there are many others on this campus doing important work in this area – exemplify the Wesleyan spirit of engaging in academic work that reverberates in society. You can find a similar spirit among our campus activists fighting for reproductive freedom, gender equality and civil rights. It is Women’s History Month, and while much has changed here at Wesleyan, we can be grateful that the work of building a more inclusive community continues.