A few remarks about Women’s Studies at Kent State University ….
We belong to a tradition born of women’s struggles and movements. We’re part of a worldwide response to women’s unconscionable invisibility and exclusion
in the humanities — in every art and science long presumed keys to the future of our species, indeed, the world. The deficit was as unmistakable as the distortion.
Women Faculty (mostly women/it's true) formed communities, female students (mostly female) organized, petitions circulated: It was the beginning of a new field of study and, though not quite a shot heard ‘round the world, it was a real awakening — in its way, volcanic. It was the opening of a portal to terrain (Ursula Le Guin would call it wilderness). These 40-plus years later, we’re still mere footsteps in.
Women’s Studies was the small and mighty voice eventually granted to these pioneering women — feminists, troublemakers, truth-tellers. They were many — too often forgotten, and (this is on us), they are too rarely cited. In the fall of 1969, there were only 17 courses offered across the nation — with any prime focus on women. By 1970, 200 such classes were running; by 1973 over 2,000.
In 2008, Barack Obama delivered what we termed then his “Race Speech.” Shortly after, there was all abuzz the question, Why won’t Hillary Clinton give “The Speech on Gender?” Two Slate writers, Melinda Henneberger and Dahlia Lithwick, wrote, “There are a bunch of reasons … [she] won't give the speech on gender that her rival just gave on race.” But, in fact, the reasons they offered don’t matter; they’re fictional. What matters is: she didn’t -- and perhaps couldn't (could anyone?) — give any such speech. If we’re brutally honest, we might know why — but falter badly, explaining it.
Women’s Studies — at its best — “dives into the wreck” (that's Adrienne Rich's phrase!), such wrecks as this. We go places where the going is hard, daunting — and invite our students to do the same: to dare … revise perspectives, make dangerous inquiries, broaden and deepen understandings. Our program is bound to values: Respect especially.
Let me cut to the chase. Women’s Studies has liberation in its bones.
You've likely heard it said, for freedom we’re set free. Quite so.
In 1971, Joan Kelly — one of Women’s Studies’ founders, had an amazing intellectual adventure, begun in a four-hour conversation with revolutionary historian Gilda Lerner. Lerner had been recruiting professors to rethink their courses — with women/women’s perspectives included. She bade Kelly to “look again” at things from a new vantage point — what we’ve come to call feminist. Doing so changed everything; it altered, as Kelly put it, just ... “everything I thought I had known.”
Out of that moment came a masterpiece, feminism’s untold backstory, the 400-year-old roots from which women’s movements grew: Renaissance women-authors writing their way out of the inferiority ascribed to them, defending and advocating for women, critiquing men’s tirades against them, provoking a quarrel. Kelly called it counteracting — counteracting what was already enacted — and counteracting the consequences of what they felt, living the “steady decline in the position of women.” The French phrase was: querelle de femmes. Kelly saw Women's Studies as a hard, “long quarrel” against misogyny.
The National Women’s Studies Association notes, on its site, how simple it seemed at first — as teachers and scholars asked in earnest, “Where are the women?” Today the field’s interrogations go miles beyond that early question — and “far beyond the category woman."
Here we are; 2017 seems to many of us the edge of an unsettling era. It is as true now as it ever was — and maybe truer ....To borrow Robert Frost's famous line, "We have miles to go before we sleep."