Women And Gender Studies Program Celebrates New Name, Renewed Focus And 30 Years At UND

This fall, the newly named Women and Gender Studies program at the University of North Dakota is celebrating its past, and at the same time, poising for a successful future.

The program has a lot of to celebrate.  Thirty years ago, in 1982, the program, then simply called Women Studies, was founded.  It was born of much work and collaboration by students, faculty and former longtime UND Dean Bernard O’Kelly, for whom a building is named on campus. The current program fittingly is housed in that building.

Kathleen Dixon, UND professor of English and current director of the WGS program, said the program started undergoing a name change, to Women and Gender Studies, the middle of the 2012 spring semester as a way to establish a more inclusive and accurate descriptor. She explained the program isn’t only an examination of Second Wave feminism or feminist theory and activism. WGS scholars also put a considerable amount of emphasis on masculinity research and how sexes interact.

The new name also is less limiting and better reflects research and scholarship on people in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community, she said.

These trends can be seen in the UND classroom and elsewhere because of WGS faculty member Melissa Gjellstad, assistant professor of Norwegian and Norwegian Program director, who recently gave a Faculty Lecture titled, “When Men Speak:  Masculinities and Fathering in Millennial Norwegian Literature.”  Another WGS faculty member, Michelle Sauer, professor of English, has recently published an award-winning book, The Lesbian Premodern.

“The name change is meant to signify an extension of the program’s reach, while maintaining its historical focus on women’s achievements and struggles with systematic oppression,” Dixon stressed. “Women aren’t only middle class white European Americans, but rather, 51 per cent of the entire world population.  For me, the name change also signifies a more global perspective.”

“But however many changes there may be from the 1970s to 2012, we should note that this program originated out of student and faculty activism. It still thrives on the passionate conviction of its students, faculty and instructors.”

Program history

Almost 40 years ago, supporters of UND Women Studies organized to persuade colleagues, administrators and the State to establish an actual program, with a director, regular course offerings and funding to instruct the courses in addition to office space, equipment and supplies. The first UND course with a women studies’ orientation was taught in 1971 by one of the program’s founders, Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of English Emerita Elizabeth Hampsten, then associate professor of English.  It centered on novels with heroines, and was provocatively titled, Fallen Women.  Hampsten ultimately developed a course, ENGL 357, “Women Writers and Readers,” that has been offered regularly by the UND English Department for more than 30 years

Thanks to women and men such as Hampsten, UND were in the vanguard of women studies in the 1970s. At UND, Hampsten, Nursing Professor Bonnie Clark, Journalism Professor Zena Beth McGlashan and Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of English Sandra Donaldson, achieved, first, a Women Studies program in 1982, then, an undergraduate minor in 1984, and eventually, a major through Interdisciplinary Studies.

By the early 1980s, there were 50 masters and 12 doctorate degrees available in universities throughout the United States, according to Dixon.  No North Dakota universities have followed this pattern of funding and expansion.   Minnesota State-Mankato offers a master’s degree; University of Minnesota-Twin Cities offers a masters and a doctorate.  At UND, a Stage I Proposal for a WGS Graduate Certificate has been approved, but Stage II cannot be completed until funding sources can be identified.

Sharon Rezac Andersen, former director of the UND International Centre, was one of the first Women Studies minors at UND. She graduated with the degree in 1989. She credited Hampsten, Donaldson and UND English Professor Sherry O’Donnell with influencing her.

“I became a more radical (getting to the root of the problem) feminist”, said Rezac Andersen.

Funding-raising effort

Rezac Andersen recently returned to UND to promote her new book, “The Burden of Knowing:  A Journey, A Friendship, and the Power of Truth,” and to help launch the 30th anniversary celebration of the Women Studies program and the associated “30 for 30” fund-raising campaign, which aims to enrich women’s scholarship endowments and fund growth the WGS program.

“If we can find 30, 60, or 90 women and men to send us $30, $300 or $3,000, we could do so much more than we are doing,” Dixon said.

The WGS program currently comprises more than 45 scholars and instructors representing 18 educational disciplines or divisions on campus, including anthropology, clinical neuroscience, communication, criminal justice education, history, psychology,  sociology, and social work.

Dixon said the WGS minor is attracting more students than in the past, and WGS 480 Feminist Theory, which used to register so few students that it was offered only every other year, is now offered yearly.

“The title of this course contains two of the scariest words in the English language:  ‘feminist’ and ‘theory’!” jests Dixon.  “However, we had no trouble filling this course last spring.  This spring, we’ll be reading from gender theorist Judith “Jack” Halberstam’s Gaga Feminism, a book hot of the press.”

Rave reviews

Shelby Baker, a WGS major/pre-med minor from New Town, N.D., said that the WGS courses “have made me grow more as a student and a person than any of my other classes.  They have influenced my undergraduate career with being able to open up and share experiences with others, being able to have a better understanding of theory, being compassionate toward others and their experiences and so much more.  I know that my writing skills have advanced as well.”

A new WGS minor from Nairobi, Kenya, Barbara Tisi is also pre-med, majoring in medical laboratory science.  She recently recalled her experience in WGS 225, Introduction to the Study of Women that the course, “(It)was a mind blowing class for me.  I never really thought outside the box about issues impacting not only women but the society as a whole. This class also made me feel comfortable in expressing my views and thoughts about certain issues that are usually very sensitive to speak about.

“I also liked that it was more of a discussion class so I got to hear from my other classmates and have a perception of what everyone’s mindset on the issues affecting women all over the world are. I am now more knowledgeable on various issues in our society and this class was a worthwhile experience not only to my undergraduate career but my life too.”

Phil Butts, from Jamestown, N.D., chose to minor in WGS last year, in addition to his major in sociology.  He remarked that WGS “gives a different perspective on the world.”

International flair

More than a name change, the UND WGS program, as it moves forward, also is developing even more of an international or global interest, striving to do more investigations on the gendered lives of women and men throughout the world.

Already Social Work assistant professor Dheeshana Jayasundara, an active faculty member of WGS, is performing research on women’s reproductive rights in North America, Asia and Africa.  Recently, the WGS Program sponsored a well-attended panel at the International Centre to celebrate International Women’s Day.  On the panel were students representing North America, Eastern Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

“This program has grown significantly even in just the past few years, thanks to the dedication of many and to the continued interest of students,” Dixon said.  “We stand on the shoulders of giants, as the saying goes, and so I must quote my esteemed, recently-retired colleague, Sandra Donaldson:  Now, more than ever, the Women and Gender Studies Program helps make university inquiry ‘truly the study of all humans.’”

David L. Dodds
Media Relations/Writer & Editor
Office of University Relations
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