GWSS Program History

The broader discipline of women’s studies emerged in the wake of the civil rights and women’s liberation movements of the late 1960s. The first women’s studies program in the United States was established at San Diego State University in 1970. The National Women’s Studies Association formed as the national organization in 1977. Nationwide, women’s studies programs began to appear in the 1980s.

The history of women’s studies at Grinnell College parallels the national movement. The first women’s studies course at Grinnell College was team taught by nine faculty members in 1976. Three years later, Jeanne Burkle, local feminist activist and part-time instructor in religious studies, lobbied then-President George Drake for the creation of a women’s studies program at the College. “Good colleges and universities have Women’s Studies programs with coordinators, introductory courses, and either ‘concentrations’ or interdisciplinary majors,” Burkle wrote. “Grinnell College has no Women’s Studies program as such.” She continued, “Grinnell College is not a good college? Let us hope not, rather let us move with deliberate haste to establish a Women’s Studies Program.” Burkle noted that the College’s peers, such as St. Olaf, Carleton, Lake Forest, Vassar, and Wellesley, already were far ahead of Grinnell in this endeavor.

Deliberate haste aside, the College did begin the process of exploring the creation of a women’s studies program. In 1981, Peg McIntosh from Wellesley College’s Center for Research on Women was invited to campus and subsequently sent a report to the dean calling on Grinnell to “integrate the study of women into the curriculum.” Three years later, the College held a two-day faculty workshop to respond to the McIntosh Report’s recommendations. Shortly thereafter, Joe Rosenfield ’25 approached the College about an endowment in his sister’s name. According to the archival record, when President George Drake suggested the fund should be used to establish a women’s studies program, Rosenfield “smiled and said ‘That should make my sister happy.’”

In the fall of 1986, the first Louise R. Noun Chair in Women’s Studies was appointed “to begin the process of integrating the new scholarship on women and gender into the liberal arts curriculum.” The first Noun chairholder, Professor Mary Lynn Broe, offered directed reading seminars for faculty interested in learning and discussing recent feminist scholarship so that they could work to bring women’s studies more broadly into the liberal arts curriculum. The Louise R. Noun Program in Women’s Studies also set to the task of creating a more permanent women’s studies curriculum at the College.

In 1989, the academic catalog included the newly created concentration in Gender and Women’s Studies. Shortly thereafter an advisory board of students and interested faculty convened to direct the GWS Program, while the Noun Chair continued to plan programming for the entire campus. The Noun Program:

  • brought to campus numerous acclaimed scholars and activists, such as Leila Ahmed, Allison Jaguar, Leila Rupp, Jane Flax, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Rebecca Walker, and many others,
  • hosted international conferences and symposia on topics such as “Reading and Writing the Female Body,” and
  • sponsored campus events related to gender and sexuality, including a 1994 Ani DiFranco concert.

The Noun Program also initiated:

  • an interdisciplinary faculty reading group called Feminist Seminar, or FEMSEM, “to encourage faculty to re-evaluate and transform their traditional courses and fields of interest,”
  • the Noun Forum, a lunchtime discussion series focused on sharing faculty scholarship, and
  • a Noun Women’s Studies Colloquium to bring “nationally and internationally prominent scholars and authors to Grinnell for lectures followed by workshops on the new feminist scholarship.”

The Noun Program also administered the Jeanne Burkle Award and, in the early 1990s, began funding summer internships for students working in GWS-related positions. When Professor Broe left the College in 2002, the GWS Program took charge of continuing to bring feminist scholars to campus and administering the student-related programs.

In the mid-2000s, Astrid Henry and Lakesia Johnson joined the Grinnell College faculty with the charge of reviving and expanding the women’s studies concentration. Committed to the definition quoted above, they rebuilt the program to reflect the dynamic state of women’s studies. In 2009, Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies became a major at Grinnell College. Since then, the program has expanded considerably, with an ever-growing cohort of alums who have launched successful careers in law, medicine, nonprofit work, and more. The two-person team of Johnson and Henry not only developed courses that reflected their own interests and expertise, such as critical race feminisms and feminist memoirs, but also courses that reflected trends in the larger women’s studies discipline, such as Introduction to LGBTQ Studies. They also brought to campus term faculty members and postdoctoral fellows who could introduce students to transgender studies, masculinity studies, disability studies, and more.

Today, the Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies Program serves the intellectual interests of more than 25 majors and hundreds of Grinnell College students each year. Currently, more than twenty-five faculty members from all three academic divisions serve as advisors for GWSS majors. In addition to taking GWS 111: Introduction to GWSS; GWS 249: Theory and Methods; and GWS 495, the senior capstone seminar; majors may select from approximately 150 courses from across the curriculum to build a program of study that not only fulfills the elective requirements for the major, but also reflects their own interests and commitments.

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