Forty years ago at Cornell, the program known today as Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies was in a much different state –– in fact it was non-existent.
Non-existent is also a suitable term to describe the availability of courses relating to women in general on the campus of any major American university at that time.
A conference held at Cornell in the winter of 1969 brought to light this exclusion of women in traditional academic disciplines in front of more than 2,000 attendees. The result of the conference was the creation of one of the first women-focused courses ever offered by a major university.
“The Evolution of Female Personality” was offered to Cornell students in the spring semester of 1970. It was taught jointly by faculty from several departments in a lecture series format — every class broached a new topic with a new speaker. The class drew 250 undergraduates and another 150 auditors to Martha Van Rensselaer Hall.
Esta Bigler ’71 was one of the first students to take the course. She attended a celebration at the A.D. White House last weekend honoring the 40th anniversary of that first class. She described the course as an “awakening” for her and her fellow female students.
Bigler came to Cornell as a freshman in the fall of 1966, two years after Title VII in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed employer discrimination on the basis of gender and race.
She described a Cornell experience much different than a typical modern-day female experience; one including curfews, exclusion from off-campus housing and formal attire in dining halls.
“You had to wear a skirt or a dress to get into the dining hall, otherwise you wouldn’t have been allowed to eat,” Bigler said.
According to Bigler, the general consensus on campus during that period was that women needed to be taken care of. There was, for example, a dean for women and forms to be filled out if you wanted to go out on weekends.
“We were pretty much babied,” Bigler said, “We never thought to question that kind of treatment because it was what we were used to.”
That way of thinking changed after taking “The Evolution of Female Personality,” according to Bigler.
“The course challenged me to question what was going on for the first time in my life, something I had never thought to do before,” Bigler said.
The enthusiasm from students in that first class eventually led to the approval of a Female Studies program as an experimental academic program in the fall of 1970.
The program consisted of five female faculty members who met together in a windowless converted psychology lab on the fourth floor of White Hall.
“There used to be a running joke that you had to be in shape to be in women’s studies because of that terrible climb of stairs,” said Prof. Mary-Beth Norton, American history, one of the early faculty members involved in the program.
According to Norton, the program was made up of about seven courses, and there was no guarantee that a course would persist from one semester to the next.
“There was no continuity,” Norton said of those early years. “All our courses were taught by adjunct professors who could only be counted on for a semester.”
In the spring of 1972, the program received a four-year trial period in the College of Arts and Sciences, and changed its title to Women’s Studies.
During those trial years, the program struggled to secure funding and receive cooperation from other departments to conduct joint faculty searches. However, by 1978, the program had gained a sense of “stability” according to Norton.
Though hampered by a small staff and an inability to offer tenure to professors, the Women’s Studies program eventually was able to capitalize on its its status as an interdisciplinary program.
“We wouldn’t exist if we weren’t able draw on other subjects and analyze them the way we do,” said Shelly Feldman, current director of the FGSS program (which changed its name from Women’s Studies in 2002).
According to Feldman, the cross listing and recruitment of faculty from other departments –– culminating in diverse classes for students to choose from –– defines the FGSS department today.
“By encompassing other subjects, you learn to apply that questioning lens that we teach to a number of things and see them in a certain way you might not have thought of before,” Feldman said.