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The Struggle for Women’s Studies at Swarthmore

By Laura Markowitz ’85

david1.jpgStudents today have a hard time imagining the fiery debates that took place from the 1970s to the mid-1980s about the need for women’s studies at Swarthmore. With the Second Wave of feminism came a new and growing consciousness that women’s voices, women’s scholarship, and women’s contributions had been omitted or were grossly under-represented in academia. Peter Schmidt, professor of English literature, was finishing a Ph.D. at the University of Virginia in the mid-1970s and remembers the energy and excitement of women’s studies programs exploding onto the academic scene.

“Women’s studies was not just a shift in methodology and content but also a challenge to the status quo of how departments were run,” says Schmidt. “When I got to Swarthmore in 1980, there were only about a half dozen tenured women on the faculty—all of them world-famous scholars who published twice as much or more as their male colleagues in order to be respected here.” There were three women department chairs at that time: Helen North, classics professor; Susan Snyder of the English Department (who hired Schmidt); and Jean Perkins of the Modern Languages Department. “The tenured women had huge administrative burdens because there were so few of them, and they were asked to serve on tons of committees that suddenly wanted a woman member. And that was on top of sky-high expectations to be first-rate teachers and scholars.”

The argument for women’s studies wasn’t just about the gender breakdown of the faculty. While Swarthmore dragged its feet on the question, feminist scholarship galloped ahead at major universities and other liberal arts colleges. Yet these exciting new ideas were barely trickling into the Swarthmore curriculum, which was still overwhelmingly dominated by white male scholarship.

When the question of starting a Women’s Studies Program at Swarthmore was put on the table for discussion in the early 1980s, the response of many faculty and administrators was cautious. Some dismissed it as a passing fad. Others questioned the academic rigor of the young field. According to Schmidt, it was politically dangerous for nontenured women to speak out too loudly in favor of women’s studies. But a number of male professors came out in support, and the handful of tenured women, including Jeanne Marecek, professor of psychology, kept the pressure on.

By the mid-1980s, the College finally decided to create an interdisciplinary Women’s Studies Program. The committee then faced a major logistical challenge: What courses would it offer? “Obviously, we didn’t want to start a program and not have any courses in it,” Marecek remembers, “but Swarthmore’s faculty in those days was academically conservative. People weren’t being hired to teach courses about gender. If they wanted to teach one, they could seek permission from their department heads to offer it, but the program was at the whim of what the departments chose to offer from semester to semester. In the beginning, it was very uneven. There would be piles of English courses one semester, and then none the next semester.”

Many students were thrilled that Swarthmore was finally getting women’s studies, but one memorable, anonymous note on the Women’s Center bulletin board in Parrish Hall in spring 1985 was a bit skeptical: “It would be better if women’s studies wasn’t necessary because women’s contributions and perspective were already included in every class at Swat. Integration, not ghettoization!”

Twenty-three years later, a lot more attention is paid to gender throughout the curriculum, says Marecek. And for the first time in its 145-year existence, the College has a woman president. Perhaps those changes may be credited, in part, to the presence of women’s studies at Swarthmore.

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