‘Almost Like Home Base’: Women’s Studies at the University of St. Thomas

Angela High-Pippert, associate professor of political science, reflects on how the Women’s Studies program has influenced the academic development of students, the professional development of faculty and the leadership development of women at the University of St. Thomas.

Early in the fall of 1999, my department chair, the late Bob Farlow, took me to a reception for new women faculty and staff at the Luann Dummer Center for Women. He introduced me to psychology professor Ann Johnson, who was director of the Women’s Studies program from 1997 to 2001. Bob told her that I would be teaching a course in women and politics. Beyond encouraging me to have it designated as a women’s studies course, Ann also took the time to tell me more about the program and ways I could become involved in it. I met other women’s studies faculty from different departments, and I quickly realized that in the program, I would have exceptional colleagues across the College of Arts and Sciences and the university. What I didn’t yet know was how much being a part of the women’s studies community would enrich my teaching, research and service at the University of St. Thomas.

I tell this story because it is representative of so many others, as I have learned through serving on the Women’s Studies Advisory Committee, serving as director of women’s studies from 2007 to 2013 and researching the history of the Women’s Studies program at UST. Recently, I was privileged to receive a research grant from the Women Faculty Leadership Council and the Luann Dummer Center for Women, which allowed me to examine the impact of the Women’s Studies program on the University of St. Thomas, particularly in terms of the development of women leaders across the university. As is typically the case, the scope of the project grew, and I learned about myriad ways that the Women’s Studies program has influenced the academic development of students, the professional development of faculty and the leadership development of women at the University of St. Thomas.

The first women’s studies programs were established in 1970 at San Diego State University and Cornell University. Within a decade there were 300 programs across the United States, a number that would more than double by the early 1990s. According to the most recent reports from the National Women’s Studies Association, there are approximately 650 women’s studies programs in the United States today. As Florence Howe writes in The Politics of Women’s Studies: Testimony from 30 Founding Mothers: “On hundreds of campuses in the 1970s and on hundreds more in the next two decades, intrepid women – students, faculty, administrators, members of the community – collaborated in a movement called women’s studies. This movement has altered the curriculum and style of teaching and produced research that has shifted the paradigms and changed the content of most disciplines.”

As with many women’s studies programs across the United States, the Women’s Studies program at the University of St. Thomas began with a particular course or set of courses. In spring 1986, English professor Brenda Powell taught a topics course titled History of Literature by Women. The following year, she and theology professor Gale Yee team-taught an interdisciplinary course, Women’s Place, Women’s Nature. According to Brenda Powell, “It started with Homer and the Old Testament and went through The Color Purple. There was no textbook to use, so we pulled readings together. We had over 40 students in that class. To me, that speaks to the pent-up desire on the part of students to have a place where they could learn about women’s studies.”

Around this time, Associate Academic Dean Pauline Lambert was involved in discussions concerning a joint Associated Colleges of the Twin Cities (ACTC) program in women’s studies, including Augsburg College, the College of St. Catherine, the College of St. Thomas and Hamline University. She quickly drafted English professor Luann Dummer, who would become UST’s first director of women’s studies, into this effort, along with faculty members from English, political science, psychology and theology. In December 1991, the ACTC women’s studies major was approved. The first Foundations in Women’s Studies course was team-taught by English professor Catherine Craft and psychology professor Ann Johnson in spring 1992, the same year the women’s studies major was first listed in the undergraduate course catalog. From that start, the Women’s Studies program has grown to include crosslisted courses in art history, biology, business law, classics, communication and journalism, English, history, music, political science, psychology, sociology and theology.

At the University of St. Thomas, women’s studies is an interdisciplinary program with associated faculty rather than an academic department with its own faculty; therefore, professors in women’s studies have chosen to become involved within an academic program beyond their home departments. They have chosen to teach crosslisted women’s studies courses, participate in women’s studies events, help recruit majorsand minors and serve on the program’s advisory committee. The program depends upon individual faculty members whose commitment creates a collective, a community and an academic program. As Brenda Powell said, “I think in the early years, the Women’s Studies program brought together women from different disciplines at St. Thomas to get to know each other, to support each other, to become the beginnings of a community.”

By bringing people with shared interests and perspectives together, the Women’s Studies program continues to empower faculty and students. There are opportunities for both community-building and informal mentoring, such as Women’s Studies Breakfast Talks, reading groups, feminist research presentations and celebrations of the graduations of women’s studies majors and minors. The Women’s Studies Advisory Committee also plays an important role in informal mentoring, as it serves as an entry point for leadership within women’s studies and beyond. Sociology professor Buffy Smith said her progression of involvement within women’s studies dovetailed with a progression of her own leadership ability: “The Women’s Studies Advisory Committee was one of the first committees that I was invited to join at the university. Being on the committee, with such powerful women, gave me the confidence to participate more at the college and university level. Their leadership styles certainly allowed me to have a model in terms of, ‘Well, if I was a leader, I would like to be like that.’... And by being on the committee, I was able to really experience the sort of joy and excitement that students get from women’s studies.”

The ACTC Women’s Studies Program recently has increased opportunities for students in two significant ways. First, there is an ACTC Women’s Studies Student Conference each spring, which provides a chance for students to present their research, demonstrate their leadership by assisting with the conference and interact with women’s studies faculty and students from UST and other campuses. Second, the ACTC Women’s Studies Committee has increased financial support for women’s studies majors and minors to attend the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) Conference each fall, which certainly has enhanced the development of student leadership within the UST Women’s Studies program and across campuses. Increased support from both the ACTC Women’s Studies Committee and the Luann Dummer Center for Women also has made it possible for more associated faculty in women’s studies to attend NWSA as well, which benefits not only the professional development of those individual professors but strengthens the program as a whole.

The Women’s Studies program also is strengthened by the community-building and informal mentoring that can develop leadership among its faculty, which, in turn, strengthens and benefits the university by creating a larger pool of potential leaders. Since the director of women’s studies has administrative responsibilities, as well as commitments to the ACTC Women’s Studies Committee and the UST program, members of the Women’s Studies Advisory Committee and other associated faculty in women’s studies are aware that their contributions of time and effort are critical to sustaining the program. And when people know that their contributions are not only encouraged but also highly valued, they tend to step up and take the lead where they can. Because the Women’s Studies program offers many opportunities for leadership, many associated faculty and former directors recognize that their experience within women’s studies prepared them for additional leadership opportunities within the University of St. Thomas. Former directors of women’s studies noted that the supportive nature of the position increased not only their confidence as leaders but their effectiveness as well.

Beyond encouraging and cultivating women’s leadership, the Women’s Studies program has affected the University of St. Thomas in many other ways. A number of professors within the program pointed to the interdisciplinary networks that develop around teaching and research, and the accompanying increased intellectual activity across departments. According to theology professor Corrine Carvalho, “Having interdisciplinary connections with other faculty is great, so that if there is something I want to explore with another faculty member, I’ve made those connections. I know what other people are doing in their fields. We always talk about interdisciplinary work in terms of what it does for our students, but interdisciplinary programs do a lot for us, too...”

Similarly, art history professor Mark Stansbury-O’Donnell said interdisciplinary connections within women’s studies benefited not only individual faculty but the entire curriculum: “I think it helps faculty with their own work, just to have colleagues who are grappling with similar issues. ... Having that set of colleagues has always been valuable to me, just even to hear and get ideas. And I think the Women’s Studies Committee is successful in supporting a focus on women and gender throughout the curriculum and engaging both the scholars and teachers. It has really created some very interesting courses.”

The impact of these “very interesting courses” on the curriculum is another benefit to the university. As many associated faculty in women’s studies pointed out, the courses that are crosslisted within women’s studies affect far more students than women’s studies majors and minors, so the impact of the program is more extensive than it may appear at first glance. As former director of women’s studies and theology professor Sherry Jordon (2004-2007) expressed, “Women’s studies provides a space for questions and issues that really need to be addressed. I like the fact that we have courses like Foundations in Women’s Studies for majors and minors, but I think it is really important that there are courses integrated for other students like Women in the Christian Tradition or Women and Politics, where students who aren’t in women’s studies get exposed to these ideas.”

In addition to solidifying interdisciplinary networks and diversifying the curriculum, the Women’s Studies program has played a crucial role in retention of women students and women faculty. As former director of women’s studies Ann Johnson noted, “There were so many students who I know would have left St. Thomas if they didn’t have women’s studies, because it was a relief for them to have classes they could go to where their own interests were respected. And really, it’s a gift to the university that we provide that space because we’re going to lose some of those students otherwise.”

Biology professor Jill Manske, who directed the program from 2001 to 2004, reinforced that point of view by noting how the university might be different without a women’s studies program: “I think it would be a different experience for some students, and I think that’s important. I think there are students for whom there would not have been a place ... there are students, that in discovering women’s studies, found a place and that matters.”

Many other associated faculty members noted that finding a place matters to faculty as well, crediting the Women’s Studies program with keeping them at the University of St. Thomas. “It’s been a highly effective retention tool for faculty, including me” was a typical statement. Of course, the presence of a vibrant and engaging women’s studies community also is critical to recruiting new faculty to come to the University of St. Thomas, as has been consistently noted by newer tenure-track faculty within the program.

Although my connection to the Women’s Studies program began at the reception for new women faculty and staff 15 years ago, many women faculty laid the foundation for the rest of us. These women leaders invested their time and talents in building a program: creating our university’s first women’s studies courses, learning an entirely new academic discipline, developing and garnering support for a joint women’s studies program across a consortium of four private college campuses, and then recruiting students and faculty to become part of it. All of their efforts meant that the Women’s Studies program, which has been such an integral and rewarding part of my career, and that of so many others, was waiting for me when I arrived at the university. As English professor Catherine Craft-Fairchild expressed, “I remember being grateful to those trailblazers because there was a paved road by the time I arrived.” Faculty and students within women’s studies owe those women a debt of gratitude that can only be repaid by continuing to build and expand the Women’s Studies program, and to follow their example of leadership within the university.

The Women’s Studies program has become a vital part of the university community over the past quarter-century. The program takes seriously its mission “to provide a rigorous, interdisciplinary major and minor that teaches students to analyze gender, race, class, sexual orientation, ability, ethnicity and nation as complex intersections of identity.” By offering a variety of courses across departments, the Women’s Studies program helps to develop students’ critical thinking and writing abilities. In addition to shaping the academic experiences of students, the interdisciplinary nature of the Women’s Studies program enhances the teaching and research of faculty, and it also has provided important opportunities for women faculty to hone their leadership skills. Former directors of women’s studies and current and former members of the Women’s Studies Advisory Committee currently are serving in a variety of leadership roles within the university, including chairs of departments and graduate programs, co-chair of the Strategic Planning Steering Committee, chair of the College of Arts and Sciences Faculty, director of Faculty Development, director of the Luann Dummer Center for Women, and assistant dean and associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

In the words of sociology professor Buffy Smith, “Since I have been at St. Thomas, I have certainly observed the continual rise of women leaders at the university ... and when I look at those individuals who are there, I know that some of them have connections and strong ties with the Women’s Studies program. So I think that it’s almost like home base, and maybe the confidence and the skill sets that you learn within women’s studies, you are able to transmit that to your next assignment.”

As the Women’s Studies program continues to grow and flourish, it will continue to shape both women’s leadership and the University of St. Thomas.