Courtesy of Cornell University

Jennie Farley, an early director of the Women's Studies Program, in the 1970s.

December 7, 2021

FGSS Celebrates 50 Years With Speakers, Events and Collective Contemplation

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Fifty years after the Ivy League’s first women’s studies program was established at Cornell, the feminist, gender and sexuality studies program is celebrating its anniversary with a multidisciplinary event series. Centering collaboration, the program has partnered with alumni, students and professors in several departments to commemorate their progress and organize for their future.

The FGSS program anniversary coincides with the 30-year anniversary of the LGBT studies program, founded in 1994. A year-long series of events running through May 2022, including  a roster of feminist and queer speakers across departments, is honoring the anniversary, alongside other events such as a theater history series and alumni events in New York City. 

According to Prof. Sara Warner, performing and media arts and director of LGBT studies, FGSS and LGBT faculty wanted to celebrate the two anniversaries simultaneously to examine the overlaps and distinctions between the two fields.

“We are a program that focuses on gender and sexuality,” said Prof. Jane Juffer, literatures in English and director of the FGSS program. “Those are two intertwined but distinct elements.”

This semester, both the FGSS and LGBT studies programs have hosted a variety of events exploring feminist and queer issues from different angles. The September event “Trans-Generational” united queer scholars of different academic levels, from current undergraduates to president of Amherst College Biddy Martin, to discuss changing definitions of gender studies over time.

“It was important for us, at different levels, from different generations, to think critically and reflect on what kinds of choices were made in the past,” said panelist and current FGSS minor Ximena Sanchez ’23. “How did we get here?”

Warner hosted a three-part event series this September through eCornell on feminist theater. The first event featured activists working in the 1960s, including It’s All Right to Be  Woman Theatre founder Sue Perlgut and Women’s Experimental Theatre founders Roberta Sklar and Sondra Segal. The next two centered artists in the 1990s and the present. 

This weekend, FGSS hosted an alumni event at the Cornell Club in New York City, which  included the launch of Millennial Feminism at Work: Bridging Theory and Practice, a collection of 17 essays by millenial feminists and including Cornell alumni, edited by Juffer.

According to Juffer, the purpose of the event was to connect with alumni in a centralized group, following successful FGSS career events for current majors hosted on Zoom last year.

Next semester, the anniversary celebrations will continue with a book launch for Trans Historical: Gender Plurality Before the Modern by Prof. Masha Raskolnikov, literatures in English, and events on immigration, refugees and detention through a feminist lens. Warner will teach LGBT 2290: Introduction to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Studies, where students will create documentary theater pieces based on Cornell archive research.

“We’re going to orient the class around the anniversary and take a deep dive into the Cornell archives,” Warner said.

A major purpose of the anniversary celebrations, according to Juffer, is to celebrate the evolution of FGSS and LGBT studies over time.

FGSS, originally called “Female Studies,” offered its first class in 1970 titled “The Evolution of the Female Personality: History and Prospects.” According to Juffer, it followed academic activism in the 60s and 70s to make room for marginalized groups within the University. Prof. Durba Ghosh, history, and former director of the FGSS program, noted that student activism prompted the  establishment of the program at Cornell.

Over time, Juffer stated, FGSS has changed its title to highlight gender-based activism. The program was established in 1972 as the Program in Women’s Studies. In 2002, the program name was changed to Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies to reflect its inclusion of LGBT course offerings. It has grown to include six joint-appointed professors in literatures in English, Africana studies, anthropology and science and technologies studies. Approximately eight majors and 20 minors graduate from FGSS each year.

The LGBT program, according to Warner, similarly grew out of student activism and has continued to expand since its founding in 1994. The LGBT Resource Center was founded the same year.

“It grew out of the desire for people, in the wake of AIDS activism and everything that was going on in the 1990s, to think more critically about sexuality studies,” Warner said.

Warner noted that LGBT activism became significant on Cornell’s campus in 1968 when students formed the second homophile movement in the country, following Columbia. 

Since the LGBT program’s founding, Warner said, Cornell has made strides for LGBTQ+ community members. The Loving House, a living project that began in the 1990s, opened in 2019. According to Warner, Cornell Health provides considerable resources for transgender students compared to other universities in the U.S.

“I think Cornell can be really proud of some of the policies and practices it has around transgender study,” she said. “Even if we lack a critical mass of faculty, we do offer comprehensive health care, which very few universities do.”

Going forward, Juffer and Warner emphasized the importance of multidisciplinary work for both programs. Warner noted that FGSS, LBGT studies and PMA all study representation and media, especially where they relate to feminist and queer rights. She said that they also explore justice and privilege in overlapping ways.

Ghosh highlighted the importance of expanding faculty diversity within the FGSS department. She explained how professors with multiple appointments help to integrate new ideas and disciplines into courses offered by the FGSS department, highlighting two new assistant professors Prof. Tao Leigh Goffe, FGSS and Africana studies, and Prof. Juno Salazar Parreñas, FGSS and science and technology studies. 

Ghosh added that senior majors are encouraged to complete capstone projects incorporating knowledge from different disciplines, as many FGSS students are either double majors or pursuing an FGSS minor. Sanchez, an engineering student, said she appreciates the perspective that her FGSS minor offers her.

Juffer said expanding to other colleges through cross-listed courses could help FGSS progress from a program to a department, which would expand funding opportunities and allow FGSS to give professors tenure. Over the next year or two, she said, FGSS will be looking for an environmental studies and a transgender studies faculty member to be appointed within FGSS.

Ghosh and Sanchez both shared their hope for FGSS to also expand transgender studies coursework. Sanchez stressed the importance of offering more specific classes on trans  issues, rather than including them as a side note.

“I’ve been at Cornell for 15 years,” Ghosh said. “The biggest growing population of students are nonbinary or trans. Those students are rightly pressing us for more curricular offerings that speak to them.”

As the anniversary continues, Warner noted that the anniversary is both an opportunity for celebration and constructive examination.

“It’s really important to celebrate queer joy and trans joy,” Warner said. “We’ve made a lot of gains nationally and internationally, but we are definitely at a moment when people are trying to roll back those rights for women, for queers and for transgender people. We have to remain ever vigilant.”

Surita Basu ’23 contributed reporting.