UW News

November 6, 2015

UW women studies department marks 45th anniversary

News and Information

Nancy Kenney came to the University of Washington in 1976 with a joint appointment in psychology and women studies.

The arrangement was typical — women studies professors at the UW then had joint appointments, Kenney said, because the program wasn’t expected to be around long.

“Women studies was not expected to be a viable academic department,” Kenney said. “There was an expectation that issues like those covered in women studies would be brought into mainstream departments. We all had to have split appointments so that we had a place to go when they disbanded the unit.”

Instead, the program, one of the first nationwide when it launched in 1970, is marking its 45th anniversary with a Nov. 9 event for current and former faculty, staff and students. Its longevity is something Kenney could not have imagined in the early days.

“I did not think we would ever reach the point that women studies would be a highly respected part of the academy here at the University of Washington,” said Kenney, who is now an associate professor and the department’s director of undergraduate studies. “But it did.”

UW’s women studies program, born out of the second-wave feminist movement of the 1960s, was catalyzed by demand from both inside and outside the university, faculty members say. There’s some debate about whose program started first, the UW’s or San Diego State University’s, but the UW’s was the first in the Pacific Northwest. The program became a department in 1991, and eight years later was one of the first nationally to offer Ph.Ds.

“It marked the University of Washington as an institution that backed women’s studies way back when nobody else was doing so, and that has had the foresight and the vision to keep with it,” department chair Priti Ramamurthy said.

But the path forward was not always smooth. Given the political aspects of feminism, Kenney said feminist scholars were initially not taken seriously among their peers. The term feminist was “a dirty word on campus,” Kenney said, that when used in reference to a faculty member suggested someone a little flaky and not a serious scholar.

“We were inventing a new field,” she said. “It was scary, it was hard and you certainly didn’t get a lot of respect for what you were doing.”

The department was unique from the start in a few ways. Its founders were adamant about naming it “women” studies and avoiding the possessive, reasoning that the subject matter was about women but not owned by them. The department also started with a focus on social sciences, while others around the country were typically rooted in English or literature, professor Shirley Yee said.

Since the 1980s, Yee said, the department has expanded along with feminist scholarship to become interdisciplinary, merging various areas of social sciences and blending social sciences with the humanities to bring a broader lens to questions about gender relations.

It has also expanded areas of teaching and research beyond the United States, adding a transnational dimension to its work.

The department changed its name in 2011 to the Department of Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies, reflecting both the field’s expanding focus and the expertise of its nine faculty members, who have backgrounds in areas ranging from art history to American Indian studies.

Notable projects coming out of the department in recent years include Women Who Rock: Building Scenes, Making Communities project, a multifaceted collaboration that explores the role of women and music in shaping social justice movements. Graduate students and family members are currently working on research about the history of Latino radio in Eastern Washington’s Yakima Valley, anti-violence efforts in the Puerto Rico feminist community, and gender and globalization in Chinese contemporary art, among others.

While interest in the social sciences and humanities has declined nationally in recent years, enrollment in UW’s Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies department has increased by double digits for the last three years, Ramamurthy said. She attributes the growth to the addition of courses in topics, such as gender in sports, global feminist art and transgender studies, that appeal to a range of students.

“These are topics that students are interested in,” she said. “They come into our courses and see how relevant gender relations and feminist analysis are to understanding various issues.”

Kenney sees women’s studies as more relevant than ever.

“Feminist scholarship presents a truly unique view of the world,” she said. “One of the things it’s really good at doing is looking at the complex interactions between race and class and gender, and how all these things are intertwined. It really is a fascinating way of looking at the complexity of humanity.

“I’ve had the pleasure of watching the field grow up, and it’s been amazing.”

The Nov. 9 event is from 4 to 7 p.m. in Walker Ames Room in Kane Hall and will include a photo and storytelling booth, reception and awards ceremony. Attendees are encouraged to bring photos and other mementos of the department’s history. For information, contact Catherine Richardson at car945@uw.edu.