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Opinion / Analysis / Essays

MHC Hosts Gender Studies Conference

May 2, 2007

Jen Gieseking had recently settled into a job as administrative associate at the journal WSQ when she heard that Mount Holyoke was launching a Department of Gender Studies. A member of the class of 1999 and active in the MHC Collaborative Learning Project, which connects alumnae to the intellectual life on campus, Gieseking keeps tabs on her alma mater and she wanted to know more. She spoke with Mary Renda, the chair of the fledgling department, and some synergistic potential soon became apparent to them both.

Renda, associate professor of history and gender studies, was organizing a conference to celebrate the inauguration of the Department of Gender Studies and was considering themes that would capture the significance of the field for rethinking and remaking forms of civic engagement. Gieseking explained the process of reinvention her journal, which was founded as a four-page newsletter in 1972 as Women's Studies Quarterly, had recently undergone, including its name change to WSQ: Women's Studies Quarterly. The "aha" moment ensued, as they recognized that each institution was part of a larger evolutionary transformation in women's and gender studies. It made sense to team up, and not trivially, the latest themed issue of WSQ, "The Global and the Intimate," provided an apt topic around which to build the sort of scholarly gathering that Renda and the new department envisioned.

That's the short version of how last weekend's (April 27-28) conference, The Global and the Intimate: Gender Studies and the Present Crisis of Citizenship, came to be. The long version has to do with discussions bubbling up in academic circles over many years about the concept of women's studies. "There was a question about the category," said Victoria Rosner, professor of English at Texas A&M University and a guest editor of the WSQ issue. Building on ideas advanced by historian Joan Scott in an essay titled "Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis," feminists had started to ask whether a focus on women appeared to limit a discipline that sought to ask questions about power relationships at many different levels.

Ferment in the field expressed itself in internal discussions at Mount Holyoke, where the Women's Studies Program was disbanded in 2003 after almost three decades of existence. Associate professor of sociology Eleanor Townsley, now a faculty member in the new gender studies department, said that the Women's Studies Program had been plagued by a "weak institutional structure" that might have been addressed with patches and piecemeal fixes. From her perspective, "Mount Holyoke solved the problem honorably" by closing the program yet preserving its faculty lines. That allowed for discussions that led ultimately to the launch of a brand-new effort. Moreover, giving gender studies the status of a department, Townsley said, "makes us independent and allows us to compete with other departments for resources."

Then there was the question of a name. While "gender studies" doesn't perfectly capture the range of questions that scholars in the new department are asking, Renda said, it gives an indication of the expansive thinking the field encompasses, including the study of sexuality as well as gender, and of gender in relation to systems of power such as race, class, and colonialism. Therein lay an important connection to the theme of the recent conference. Framing questions of power in terms that are both "global" and "intimate" expresses the notion that gender studies engages with the widest range of human experience, according to Renda.

The conference, which opened with a look at the journal WSQ's recent transformation, covered an array of topics. Included were presentations on the experiences of immigrant Korean "picture brides" to Hawaii in the early twentieth century, lessons learned about and from a women's creative writing course taught in prison, implications of so-called "medical tourism" in Thailand, and the intersection of debates over abortion and immigration in the United States as expressed in a recent court ruling. Additional topics were the use of theater to open up debate on militarism and forced migration, the proliferation of prisons in the United States and the chilling statistic that 70 percent of those incarcerated are people of color, and an examination of feminist theory and its impact on policy debates relating to war and conflict zones.

Mount Holyoke President Joanne V. Creighton, addressing the conference, spoke about the importance of women's education and the empowerment that will be promoted through scholarship within the new department. "We are especially aware here of the need for gender balance and gender sensitivity," Creighton observed in her remarks, noting that "our male-dominated world is badly in need of the kind of attention that you are giving to gender."

In one presentation, Carol Cohn, director of the Boston Consortium on Gender, Security, and Human Rights, recounted her experiences at the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) at the United Nations and commented on the ways that the word "gender" has supplanted the word "women" in policy initiatives aimed at addressing oppression and exploitation based on sex. The donor community, Cohn said, has embraced the word "gender," leading many nongovernmental organizations to use it even when their primary concern is with the rights and welfare of females.

Echoing Cohn's experiences and observations in the policy arena, Renda acknowledged concerns that "gender studies" could be perceived as a " weaker version of women's studies," that is, less threatening because of the more neutral word. But that would be a mistake, she said. "Under whatever title, what is powerful about this field is the challenge it presents to civic spaces that exclude, impoverish, and dehumanize through racism and global economic inequality as well as along gender lines."

The confluence of growth phases at two institutions she cares about deeply made the collaboration leading to the conference especially gratifying to Gieseking, a doctoral candidate at the City University of New York Graduate Center, where WSQ coeditors Cindi Katz and Nancy K. Miller both teach. The changes at what was formerly called Women's Studies Quarterly, leading to its rebirth as WSQ, grew out of the same concerns percolating throughout academia regarding the discipline of women's studies. Giesking noted a new vibrancy at the journal, exemplified by its more aesthetically sophisticated presentation and the simultaneous broadening of its scope and ambitions. "It meant a lot to the Department of Gender Studies to have one of the oldest continuing women's studies journals involved," Gieseking said, "and it meant a lot to WSQ to hold the first conference to celebrate and build upon what we've been doing, at the oldest continuing women's college in the world."

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All articles © Eric Goldscheider

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