Women's Studies at Kent State - a Historical Narrative

Women’s Studies at Kent State — A Historical Sweep

On the face of it, this seems perhaps a small, even simple subject: a history of a small program that has remained a small program for going on 50 years, “doing its thing” at a midsize university founded in 1910. Something about women, something about studies.

But. This is more than the subject it seems; this is a subject tangled up in time — and change — and resistance to change, complicated by consciousness, selves, bodies, laws, traditions, media and money; it’s a subject people take personally. It is — as it is so frequently advertised — both personal and political. It never has been otherwise. You can feel both pulses in Kent State University’s Women’s Studies’ history.

As feminist scholar and Professor Emerita Jean Robinson put it: "When women’s studies was born…. politics was its mid-wife." One of them anyway. The other was life itself: the very lives women lived — their inner lives as well as their outer lives – and their life circumstances. Which … is why Gloria Steinem’s chronicle of self-discovery, Revolution from Within, is, in her words, “the most political thing I’ve written.” Which … is why we ground our study both in embodied lives and in the endlessly dramatic contexts which embed and situate them.

Considered at once radical and superfluous, Women’s Studies has proven to be an unusually precarious undertaking. Historian Marilyn Boxer observed, at the get-go (and she was there at the get-go, San Diego State, home to the USA’s original Women’s Studies program), people considered it “a radical act … merely to assert that women should be studied.” And as Kent State “wimstudzian” Kathe Davis astutely noted, we’re situated “at the mercy of perception.” Are we dangerous or frivolous? Impertinent or redundant? What happens when sentiments shift? When there’s “no perception of a need” for us? When others decide, we’ve come plenty far? When women get de-prioritized again?

Histories of feminism and of women’s studies are notoriously energized by the high stakes women feel in writing them. Are they written to no one? Or to everyone? Are they written for the sake of the struggle? For the good of a movement? Or simply to put something into words. Give that something space to holler.

A disclaimer. I am not a historian, but… I care about this history. I am a believer in narratives and narrators, and in the limited narrator (such as I am) telling her story: an invitation to any and all who’ll listen — or better yet, to any and all who’ll jump in and tell theirs. And thereby, we speak the names, fill the gaps, remake, remold, keep alive, keep going.

It was October 2006 when, in good, old-fashioned feminist rabble-rouser style, then-director of Women’s Studies, Kathe Davis, walked straight to the University President Lester Lefton and handed him a program brochure. Straight to his face, she informed him of one simple fact: Kent State University lacked a Women’s Studies major. President Lefton, as she recollected it, responded, "No major? Why not? It is the 21st century."

At what seemed like a crystalline and opportune moment, Kathe Davis announced with confidence to a Daily Kent Stater reporter, Yes. She was banking on a major — and soon. Women's Studies courses had, after all, been on offer at Kent State since 1971. By the mid-to-late 70’s, there were surprisingly many, even if, in order to find them, students had to flip and search through pages of a hardcopy schedule. In March 1978, the Experimental College offered four courses: Introduction to Women’s Studies, Sexism in Media, Women in Criminal Justice, and Women and Violence. The Philosophy Department launched Women’s Ways to ponder women’s inherited “ways of knowing, being, having, doing, feeling, but especially, of giving.” The Sociology Department delivered Male Liberation to undergo a study of masculinism. English faculty developed courses on Doris Lessing, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group as well as Literature by Black Women and Women in Italian Literature. Physical Education had Self Defense for Women; Psychology had Development of Sex Role and Identity; Nursing had Status of Health Care for Women.

The spirt of Women’s Studies at Kent State was for the longest time: Everybody could and should have skin in the game.

In 1979, a dedicated group of volunteers (conspicuously named the “Women’s Studies Curriculum Committee”) convinced the university to officially approve a certificate. Students who completed ample courses in Women’s Studies would now earn themselves a frameable piece of paper. Early in the '80s, the program forged its minor. The '90s marked the program’s first felt boom. Women’s Studies affiliates — a sizable and stellar cast — were instrumental in the founding of Kent State’s Women’s Center. There’s an illuminating paper trail that leads up to the opening of the Center in 1996. It’s like watching the credits roll after a masterly film. You learn: This was the work of many hands.

In that epoch, the program had its foundations laid: Women’s Studies collections in the Library, Women’s History Month on the University Calendar, committees at work on curriculum, events, publicity, student and faculty support. The program had the ear of the Dean of Arts & Sciences (Joe Danks). It would garner the attention and respect of Provost Paul Gaston. The word from Gaston was: kudos to a forward-thinking bunch who brought a “creative and corrective vision” to the University;” as he put it, they “exerted a strong and positive influence on…other disciplines.”

I have keen memories of this Women’s Studies era — and of its people. I myself was running a little restaurant in downtown Kent from 1992-1997, serving up vegetarian cuisine to many of the Women’s Studies’ ringleaders who frequented our wee spot, the Zephyr café. Many of them, I’d come to know through Kent State’s English and History departments; imagine my good luck to enjoy both Kathe Davis and Dolores Noll as professors of mine in grad school. Both were leaders in the forerunning that enabled Women’s Studies and LGBT Studies to take root here in Kent. Both spoke of what they were doing the way jazz musicians talk about playing jazz. Both would likely have much to say about Kent State and Women’s Studies, not to mention the whole daggone USA, if not the world right about now. I confess, I would love to hear it.

There have been such an inimitable rosterfull of women involved in Kent State Women’s Studies’ history. But for fear of leaving out some, I would begin to list them.

Come with me again to 2006 — and to its mood — hungry for something, someone, a budge, a break:

On behalf of a little program that had done its due diligence with not much to show except a growing set of people who “got it.” For them, the right thing to do was give Women’s Studies a chance. Noteworthily, one frightfully unpleasant mid-March afternoon, wending its way through the Student Center plaza was a small but feisty demonstration led by one of our stalwart wimstudzians from English, Martha Cutter. Her motto boiled down to translating feminist thought and theory (which she taught) to action, to … “Do something.”

I was there — a mere stretch of sidewalk away, teaching for the Women’s Studies program, my fourth year doing so. At the time, I was working full-time hours teaching up to five Women’s Studies courses per semester: the anchor course, Colloquium in Women’s Studies, and a continually refreshed menu of Special Topics courses. There was warm camaraderie and good energy, gravitas, investment, an upbeat faithlike momentum. We rather believed Women’s Studies’ moment had arrived, its stars aligned. And all seemed to agree, it was time.

But it never happened.

What happened instead was a stop-gap measure – a fix. In short, a full-time director for the program. Well, sort of, but only sort of. Facing fall of 2008, then-dean of Arts and Sciences, Tim Moerland, had a vacancy nobody wanted to fill, namely the so-called half-time position of directing Women’s Studies.

This is where I come in. The dean sent an email, could I come in?

Nobody told me not to, and what did I know? I said, Yes.

Kathe Davis’ advice was sound — and has carried me. Don’t worry about all the things you won’t be permitted or supported or able to do. Just do what you can.

Women’s Studies histories that appear on university websites tend to be polite histories. And so will this one be — as I wrap things up for my narrative. The tell-all book will, in all likelihood, never be written — for all good reasons.

The highlights of the past 12 years fall into three gorgeous heaps. Our students, whose names and faces and words and contributions cannot be summed, have never failed to meet the program halfway, sparking conversations, insisting where we go. Our faculty colleagues and affiliates, supporters and friends continue to surround and frame our program even as they’re so very there in the picture.

Collaborations have been our shine. With the Fashion School, we did Katharine Hepburn: A Rarity.

It ran three semesters with crazy enrollments. With Pan African Studies, we did a conference on the Democratic Republic of the Congo; I recollect fondly the student roundtable we conducted on “The Crisis of Empathy” — our Women’s Studies minors, History majors and Pan-African Studies’ students.

With the Cleveland Museum of Art, we considered Georgia O’Keefe. Was she a feminist? Did the question matter more than the answer? With the University of Akron and Electric Impulse Communications, we talked Hillary Clinton — all the while our Hillary Clinton course was making news all over the world. With Wick Poetry, we did an expo of women doing poetry. With the Honors College, we did Worldmaking. With the History Department and Ohio Arts Council, we did an around-town-style conference on Kent’s own women, their situatedness…here.

There is more to the story.

In Fall of 2021, Kent State University launched a new school: The School of Multidisciplinary Social Sciences and Humanities. That’s our new home; and it is ripe with possibility. The School picks up where all the prior roads ended. From what’s transpired already in the thus-far brief (but happy) life of Women’s Studies in its new home, our stretch ahead—and in view—is our most promising yet.

Betty Kirschner, one of our program’s pioneers, spoke quite lovingly about the little program she’d helped to find its first feet. It was 1973. Women’s Studies ached for a future. “Kent State could provide leadership…,” she said. “It has the opportunity to become the groundbreaker….”

It never quite happened.

And well, 1973—by our calculations—was half a century ago. Still … by our calculations, that’s not far from the normal pace of change—at least for women who ache for futures.

If now’s the time, you can be sure, we will seize this day.

One of our recent students, Bill Shostrand, described his experience in our classes like this:

"I have been in so many classes since returning to college and I have some that taught me, some that have reached me, and only this one that has changed my life. The conversations that I have had with women in my life would have never happened without [Women’s Studies]. … I just want you to know … how you have completely changed my way of thinking. There are absolutely no words…. This … is something that I will carry with me for the rest of my days and I promise I will keep learning and talking … to anyone that will listen."

The last words of our historical narrative, here, belong to Bill.

Will you join in creating our future narrative?