June 4, 2003: Perspective

Women’s studies at 20
“I really thought I was from Mars,” one professor recalled.

By Christine Stansell ’71

Christine Stansell ’71 is a professor of history at Princeton and author of three books, including American Moderns: New York Bohemia and the Creation of a New Century (2000).

This year marked the 20th anniversary of Princeton’s Program in the Study of Women and Gender, formerly the Program in Women’s Studies. “I for one am glad to have something to celebrate,” quipped Director Deborah Nord, professor of English, as she kicked off a panel discussion commemorating the program’s founding. In a grim season of world politics, the celebration of achievement was that much headier for the panelists: professors Maria DiBattista, Suzanne Keller, Froma Zeitlin, and me, all program participants from the beginning; and Mary Harper, director of Princeton’s Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts, who in the early 1980s had helped establish the Graduate Women’s Studies Colloquium. “Let’s not forget how much fun we have all had,” DiBattista said.

Princeton’s women’s and gender studies program, one of the most stable and distinguished in the country, graduates a dozen or so concentrators each year. Thesis topics range from Sarah Seo ’02’s account of the Korean comfort women, to Sondra Hausner ’91’s political analysis of Tanzanian population policy, to Meighan Elder ’94’s history of the mastectomy. The classes tap the interests of a loose, shifting confederation of some two dozen faculty and reach hundreds of students each year. As in other women’s studies programs, about 90 percent of undergraduate participants are female, although graduate students participate in more even proportions.

From the beginning, women’s studies has been bound up with the situation of women at Princeton, a crucial part of the long, patient, and often stumbling effort to fulfill the promise of coeducation, which began in 1969. Keller, a sociologist who in 1968 became the first woman tenured at the University, recalled at the celebration how uncomfortable the campus was for women in the early years. Women graduate students and staff members had worked on campus for some time; women undergraduates came the fall after she was promoted. Yet it was as if women were invisible or, at best, an uncomfortable anomaly. “I really thought I was from Mars,” Keller said. “It was as if the men had never seen a woman.”

Change came slowly. Despite the huge impact of new feminist scholarship across the country, Princeton’s overall curriculum was heavily traditional. DiBattista, the first woman tenured in English, recalled that cautionary tales surrounded the talented feminists who left: Scholarship about women seemed to doom one’s prospects at Princeton. In 1979, eight women came up for tenure; all eight were denied.

The episode catalyzed protest and rethinking. Led by Janet Martin, associate professor of classics, faculty and students called on the University to address sex discrimination in hiring and to bring women into the curriculum. A group of senior faculty proposed a women’s studies program, which in 1982 came before the faculty. It passed by a nearly unanimous vote.

My own role in this history stretches back to my senior year at Princeton in 1971. I had come two years before with the first class of women, and I responded to the campus with alternating elation and dismay. I was surrounded by plucky, brainy women, but, taken as a group, we seemed vaguely suspect; secret agendas and secret doubts hovered around us. Rooms full of men fell silent when I walked in. But I was elated by my senior thesis work, on the then-unknown Southern writer Kate Chopin, a topic suggested by my adviser Ann Douglas, today a professor of literature at Columbia.

That spring she and Nancy Weiss, now Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel, offered a seminar on American women’s history and literature. It was a vibrant, argumentative, fascinating course. The relatively equal representation of men and women in the seminar was itself a welcome rarity. The syllabus was an enchanting cabinet of curiosities, many of the readings photocopied because so little was in print: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s eerie story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which would become a canonical text of feminist protest; a female slave narrative; a biography of reformer Margaret Sanger. Finally, there was the marvelous spectacle of two female professors, erudite, deeply engaged by their experiment, and clearly buoyed by the success of the class. The concentration of women seemed odd to others as well. As I stood one May afternoon outside McCosh, talking with Professor Douglas and a woman from the class, a male professor walked by and tossed off a joke about witches.

That course, along with my research on Kate Chopin, propelled me to graduate school at Yale, where I became a historian. When I returned to Princeton in 1982 as a junior professor, it was in some respects a different campus. Women’s studies was beginning, and the history department had hired me expressly to teach American women’s history in conjunction with the program. There was a rich community of feminist colleagues.

Still, there was an undertow of hostility. The number of senior women faculty was abysmally low. (Even today, the figure is dismaying: women make up only 18.6 percent of tenured faculty members.) In my own department, no woman had been tenured since Malkiel, 10 years earlier. Despite the strong faculty vote to establish the program, most colleagues were, at best, benignly uninterested in feminist work and, at worst, courteously hostile. I encountered one retired professor who, concerned lest the program indoctrinate unwitting students with objectionable views, made it his business to vet syllabi and monitor courses. And for a time in the early to mid-1980s, conservative students, in league with like-minded alumni and peers from Dartmouth, targeted Princeton’s women’s studies program in their small but vociferous publications. A program widely known for dazzling scholarship and tolerance for a wide range of views emerged in their writing as a heavy-handed, clumping, dogmatic affair.

But over the years, the scholarship has only flourished; the thinking and teaching have grown more sophisticated and complex. I think of historian Natalie Zemon Davis lecturing on early modern witchcraft; of English professor Valerie Smith enrapturing students with her description of Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) as “the text of all texts” for black women; of the graduate students whose work, first presented in our colloquium, has expanded into important books; of the groundbreaking books written by so many of our faculty. Undergraduate alumni tell us how much their feminist education has meant to their work and lives. To my mind, the enterprise of coeducation has yet to be fully completed, but a healthy, vigorous women’s studies program has done much to bring it this far.


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