A few remarks about Women’s Studies at Kent State University
A few remarks composed in the context of an unfolding worldwide pandemic, a pregnant moment (as it were), envisioning a future — and our part in it. In the span of my own life, there have been but a few times when, finally, the clarion cry for truth outlasts the noise. This may or may not be one of them. As of late March of 2020, voices contradicting voices were competing to have last words, still vying for primacy, as if dominance was life’s greatest feat.
Women’s Studies purposes to know something about an era like ours — something in a blind spot, the other half of a half-truth. The work of Women’s Studies is unlike any other academic work. If you seek out the description of our program in the Kent State course catalogue, you’ll find: The Women's Studies minor offers flexible and diverse coursework across a variety of disciplines.
Distinct in its commitments — born of women’s struggles, movements, lives and work — the program invites students to revise perspectives, make fresh inquiries, broaden and deepen understandings by means of a simple but radical shift: the re-rendering of the female half of the human race not as "the second sex, but as primary, fundamental, essential and real.
This radical shift is more profound than it appears — and so much more profound than any dictionary definition or textbook rendering of feminist or feminism, it might, when grasped, “split the world open.” So suggested Muriel Rukeyser in her poetic tribute to Kathe Kollwitz: What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? is her famous question. And the answer she offers is: The world would split open.
Women’s Studies has never been — and will never be — a simple or easy proposition. The legacies of women—those deemed different, those lumped together somehow as the same—all fall within the agonizingly troubling, alternately inspiring legacies of humankind. And there is nothing simple or easy or one-paragraph summary about what we do: about where we are, much less where we’ve come from, much less what’s possible. The sheer existence of Women’s Studies hails back to a hunger felt by many, echoing in poetry, song, marchers’ chants: All I want is the truth, just give me some truth (J. Lennon).
In the 1970’s, female academics — marginalized to degrees we’re hard-pressed to fathom — joined forces, raised hell, shined a light on the unconscionable invisibility and exclusion of women in the humanities — in every art and science, every area of inquiry, study and application. Women Faculty (it was mostly women) formed communities; young women students (again, it was mostly young women) organized, circulated petitions, disrupted and perturbed administrators. It was the beginning of a new field of study, and, though not quite a shot heard ‘round the world, it was a little like “the world splitting open.” It was the opening of a portal to un-studied terrain (Ursula Le Guin would call it wilderness). These 50-years later, we’re still mere footsteps in.
Women’s Studies was the small and mighty voice eventually granted to these pioneering women — feminist scholars, troublemakers, truth-tellers. They were many—and mostly forgotten. In the fall of 1969, there were only 17 Women’s Studies courses offered across the entire United States. In 1977, the National Women's Studies Association was established. It’s still alive and kicking.
Women’s Studies — in its purest endeavors —“dives into the wreck” (that's Adrienne Rich's phrase!). And there is always a wreck. We go places where the going is hard, daunting — and invite our students to do the same: to dare. In recent years, we’ve delved into the aftermath of the 2016 Election; we’ve probed the #MeToo movement; most recently, collaborating with LGBT Studies, we dared a study of the “war” ongoing between trans-activists and radical feminists. It is never our mission to end where we began. Women’s Studies is not a doctrine. It is a way forward. We remain an adventure, willing to revise perspectives, make dangerous inquiries, broaden and deepen — and, where warranted, correct ourselves — all in an endeavor to let our understandings illuminate our lives and world — and to set us free.
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 her particular “things” from a new vantage point. Doing so changed everything; it altered, as Kelly put it, just ... “everything I thought I had known.” Out of that moment came Joan Kelly’s masterpiece on The Woman Question, a re-visiting of the Renaissance, its women-authors, writing their way out of an inferiority ascribed to them. Kelly termed this counteracting — counteracting what was already enacted — and counteracting the consequences.
Women’s Studies began its journey, searching, asking, “where are the women?”
Kent State’s Women’s Studies Program invites you to come study with us — and to bring your hunger for truth, your courage to question, your care for the world.