Joanne Frye, Professor Emerita of English and Women’s Studies

My own background in Women’s Studies

Before I came to Wooster in 1976, I had no particular background in Women’s Studies.  Indeed, Women’s Studies was still in its earliest phases, with courses just beginning to emerge late in the 1960s and the first Women’s Studies program formalized in 1970, at San Diego State.  It would not have been remotely possible to have a PhD in Women’s Studies, since the first PhD program didn’t become available until 1990.  My own PhD was in English literature, and I was just beginning to develop an interest in feminist thought. 

I had come to feminism in two ways: first, through life experiences; second, through literary understandings.  I completed my dissertation on Virginia Woolf at Indiana University in 1974. Two years later, I divorced my children’s father and took the job at the College of Wooster, arriving in the fall of 1976, a single mother of two daughters, ages five and one and a half. These immediate life experiences were very pertinent to my feminism.  My work on Virginia Woolf was also pertinent, though in the academic environment of those years, I focused on esthetic and philosophical concerns in her novels much more than on her feminism.  Still, by the time I finished the PhD, I was very drawn to writing by women and especially to literature that helped me understand other women’s lives and the ways in which gender influenced those lives.

Arrival at Wooster and development of the Women’s Studies minor

One of the first courses that I proposed on my arrival at Wooster was a course called “Major Fiction by Women,” to be offered under the English department’s rubric, “The Experience of Literature,” an introductory course.  Given this evident interest in women’s writing, someone thought it would be appropriate to appoint me to the Committee on the Status of Women, a committee I was asked to chair in my second year at Wooster, 1977-78. I was also urged by the previous chair to make it my first agenda item to propose a Women’s Studies minor.

At that point I still knew little about this emerging discipline, but I was very pleased to work with a fellow committee member, Jim Turner, a history professor who had just developed an interdisciplinary course on Women in Contemporary Society.  This course became the introductory course in the minor that we set about developing.  To it, we added my course on Fiction by Women, Deb Hilty’s course on Poetry by Women, as well as courses in Psychology of Women, Women in Sports, Sex Antagonism in Western Literature, and Women’s History in America.  To these seven courses, already in early existence within their various departments, we proposed to add an eighth course, “Seminar in Women’s Studies,” a capstone course in the interdisciplinary minor that we proposed.  In order to complete a minor, students needed to take both interdisciplinary courses and to choose four from among the six single-department courses.  As you can see, the offerings at the beginning were very sparse, but it was our hope that the structure and presence of the minor would encourage faculty in multiple departments to develop additional offerings with an explicitly feminist perspective.

In January, 1978, the Committee on the Status of Women brought this proposal for the Women’s Studies minor to the faculty as a whole.  As chair of the committee, I wrote the document and made the argument on the floor of the faculty, but the effort was decidedly a collective effort, with Jim Turner playing an especially important role.  There was certainly some disagreement within the faculty, including the criticism that we ought not to develop a minor in what some saw as a “passing fad,” “a frill.”  But the minor passed with strong support and the majority of the faculty seemed to recognize the value of making this new field of study available to students.

Jim Turner and I co-taught the first version of Seminar in Women’s Studies. Of necessity, we did this as a teaching overload, meeting with a handful of eager students in Kittredge Dining Hall. Together we read whatever materials Jim and I could pull together from the sparsely published work in the field, often relying on xeroxed readings to supplement crucial texts like Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Adrienne Rich’s poetry, collections of published diaries by women, and essays addressing feminist issues.

Once we had gotten the approval of the minor, the administration appointed the first Women’s Studies Curriculum Committee to oversee current and developing courses.  As the first appointed chair of that committee, I worked collaboratively with faculty colleagues and two interested students, also appointed to serve with us, to cultivate new courses in this evolving field.

In our work, we also drew on the ways in which the field was developing regionally and nationally.  The GLCA had a Women’s Studies committee, which began to have a regular conference for students and faculty working in the field.  I was one of several who took turns serving as Wooster’s representative on this committee, thus gaining the shared insights and energy of colleagues at other GLCA colleges.  The National Women’s Studies Association had been formed in 1977, in parallel formation with Wooster’s program and other emerging programs nationally.

Students on campus were energized by engaging with ideas of gender that were often new to them, regularly telling us that their Women’s Studies courses had changed their lives. Some students became so invested in the field that they used the college’s provision for individualized majors to design their own majors focused in Women’s Studies. The first two students to graduate with this self-designed major graduated in 1986, one with an I.S. on “Female Sexuality” and another with an I.S. that constructed a feminist sourcebook for the campus. During this same time period, the Women’s Resource Center was also providing resources for taking up gender concerns.

Until the mid-1980s, most of the effort and energy for the program came from the commitments of individual faculty and students; there was not yet much institutional support.  I continued to chair the program out of my own individual commitment, though again with the support and collaboration of a growing group of other faculty.  It wasn’t until 1985 that we succeeded in getting approval for an actual half-time position in Women’s Studies, with a workload to include chairing the program, facilitating curricular development, and teaching two sections of the interdisciplinary offerings. This was to be a rotating position, with the person to be drawn from a current departmental position, retaining half-time in the original department and serving for a three-year term. I applied to be appointed to this first official position after having served as the uncompensated chair from 1978-1982 and again from 1983-84.  I then served as the first “official” chair of the program from 1985-1989, with other active members of the program taking the position for subsequent terms.  It was then and remains my conviction that this collective effort was a crucial feature of the success of Women’s Studies at Wooster.

Establishing a Women’s Studies major

By 1988, some faculty and students began a push to offer a more formalized major in Women’s Studies, developing out of the guidelines that we had developed for the individualized major.  I had been hesitant, given the still sparse scholarship in the field, but I too began to see that Women’s Studies was developing a much stronger grounding than it had had in its earliest years.  We agreed to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the program with a major symposium on campus, highlighting this developing body of scholarship, and then to propose a major during the following year, based on what we hoped would be a compelling epistemological rationale for the importance of the field and its growing body of knowledge.

The symposium, held in April 1988, became a highlight of my time in Women’s Studies, bringing together an amazing group of scholars, including our own students and faculty.  The keynote presentation was Adrienne Rich, who spoke on “Poetry, Language, and Power.” Other presenters included Marilyn Boxer, bell hooks, Zillah Eisenstein, Elizabeth Higginbotham, and Jean O’Barr—scholars from a range of disciplines, addressing the development of Women’s Studies, its relationship to activism, its projected future.

With this background, we proceeded to propose a Women’s Studies major, which we presented to the faculty in January 1989.  By then, Women’s Studies had gained much visibility both on campus and off.  The previous September, The Chronicle of Higher Education had called Women’s Studies  “one of the success stories of American higher education.” That January the faculty gave a resounding affirmation to the work we had already done and the work we proposed to continue: a Women’s Studies major, eleven years after the approval of the minor.

Clearly Wooster was not alone.  But like programs elsewhere in the country, our program took on the distinctive marks of the institution within which it had developed.  Here it grew out of a long commitment to interdisciplinary work, an openness to curricular innovation, and the strong traditions of Independent Study, giving students the opportunity to claim feminist projects of their own in an atmosphere that fosters critical independent inquiry.  Within this larger atmosphere, our own program succeeded through the efforts of women and men committed to working together cooperatively, sharing the energy of new insights in the classroom and in our scholarship.

But there was further work to be done.  Most crucially we needed to engage in careful self-examination and curricular re-evaluation, working to expunge lingering racism and heterosexism, even ongoing sexism, digging out these negative values embedded in our culture and sometimes in our own thinking.  We needed to expand emphases in areas of anti-racism, activism, the gendering of men’s lives, multiple sexualities, international awareness, and diversity of women’s and men’s lives across ethnicity, class, and culture.  We needed to resist the complacency of our previous successes, continue to develop into new areas of inquiry, and avoid settling into institutional constraints, even as we drew on the strengths available through institutional support.

Ongoing change

In subsequent years, Women’s Studies has continued to evolve, building on the early work of many contributing faculty members, particularly of Jim Turner and Deb Hilty in the earliest years, and then subsequent chairs of the program after my own terms as chair: Susan Figge, Carolyn Durham, Mary Addis, Barbara Burnell, Linda Hults, Mary Bader, Nancy Grace, Heather Fitz Gibbon and Christa Craven.  Each brought new ideas and significant redirections as the program continued to move with the new developments of the discipline.

As you know, in the last decade further changes have carried forward.  In 2006, the program hired its first faculty member with an actual half-time appointment in the field: Christa Craven.  Her arrival brought new energy and added attention to sexuality studies and to activism.  In the same time period, the curriculum committee proposed and achieved the name change from Women’s Studies to Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, highlighting some of the ways in which the discipline has grown in the twenty-first century.

Reflecting on these forty years of Women’s Studies at Wooster, I am acutely aware of the ongoing importance of studying the force of gender and sexuality in our lives, the intersecting powers of race and class, and the ways in which culture moves in response to concerns with gender.  Clearly there is much work to be done, but I take great joy from the recognition that this work carries forward in classrooms at Wooster and in the scholarship of students and faculty here and, now, around the world.

 - Interview with student, Alex Kauffman, on June 17, 2016