25 Years of Inclusion

Women’s and Gender Studies Program celebrates a milestone anniversary.

By Linda Lenhoff / Photography by Haley Nelson

Those of us women who once parted our long hair down the middle and wore aviator glasses as part of the 1970s women’s movement remember when Women’s Studies courses began taking off across the country. Finally, classes started to examine the role of women in literature, science, communications, mathematics, and more. In 1993, Saint Mary’s students got their first opportunity to take classes toward a minor in Women’s Studies, which grew into the Women’s and Gender Studies (WaGS) Program in 2005—now proudly celebrating its 25th anniversary.

“Dedicated people got the program going and had all the debates with the College’s senate,” said WaGS Director and Professor Denise Witzig, acknowledging the commitment of the faculty involved in creating the program. “It was a hot potato in those days.”

WaGS has proved its relationship to Saint Mary’s liberal arts and Lasallian Catholic tradition—asking the SMC community to envision an inclusive and just society, then engaging each person to make this a reality. WaGS professors have expanded the traditional boundaries of intellectual investigation to address class, race, sexuality, and global concerns.

As the slogan from the ’70s said, “We’ve come a long way, baby”—but how are we really doing?

“I think WaGS at Saint Mary’s is thriving from the perspective of the students in it, from the faculty—I think it’s the best it’s ever been,” said History and WaGS Professor Myrna Santiago, a former director of the program. “The classes, the curriculum: It’s top notch for an institution our size, in its diversity, inclusion, and global view. We have a fabulous faculty.”

“If we keep the humanities alive,” Santiago added, “Women’s and Gender Studies has a lot to offer young people today to help them understand the current gender dynamic in the world and also to offer them a vision of a better world. They come to WaGS and they become very engaged citizens committed to the program’s mission of showing that another world is possible and desirable.”

"Women’s and gender studies has a lot to offer young people today to help them understand the current gender dynamic in the world and also to offer them a vision of a better world.” —Myrna Santiago

A SMALL PROGRAM WITH A LOT TO OFFER

Despite having only one full-time professor— Witzig—WaGS offers students an impressive selection of classes. “Our core courses—Introduction to WaGS, Special Topics in Gender, Feminist and Gender Theories, Community Engagement in Gender, and Senior Capstone—are the heart of our program, and we’re really proud of them,” said Witzig. “We also have a great course (one of our core, WaGS 100) called Masculinities, taught by Communications Professor Scott Schönfeldt-Aultman, and one called Queer Theory, taught by Psychology Professor Jose Alfonso Feito.”

In addition, this spring’s class, Performing Arts Women Playwrights Center Stage, investigates how an evolving sense of female identity has affected the images of “woman” that appear on the American stage, including a look at playwrights Cherie Moraga and Suzan Lori Parks.

Over 25 years, WaGS has also brought us notable speakers, ranging from Gloria Steinem to Anita Hill. “It was a thrill to bring Anita Hill to discuss issues of women’s lives and workplace,” said Witzig. “I’d like to continue to bring speakers who challenge our students.”

CELEBRATING THE FUTURE

Several festivities are on tap for WaGS’ quarter-century anniversary. March brought a library exhibit in honor of Women’s History Month. On April 2, WaGS held a panel discussion to celebrate all WaGS faculty, including its former directors. Then on April 26, WaGS sponsored its second symposium on research by its faculty and staff.

“It’s clear to the entire nation that gender issues still have a ways to go toward achieving parity, the kind of world where everyone can aspire to be their best selves. That’s what WaGS does for the students and College,” noted Santiago.

Despite the contentious national political climate, WaGS’ future looks bright. “I’m looking forward to the program continuing to be a place where students thrive and continue to find their true selves and get practical education to go out and change the world,” said Santiago. “Our alums do amazing things in terms of social change. Even a small program at a small school can graduate students who are deeply committed to social justice. That’s embedded in our mission and aligns with the mission of the College.”

“When you notice how gender operates, you see it everywhere,” added Witzig. “It impacts who we are and how we live our lives. The fact that we’re still seeing it as strange that women are running for office, for example, means that we’re still stuck in broad stereotypes about gender, with unexamined ideas about femininity and masculinity. A critique of gender can lead to new ways of seeing the world and ourselves in it.”