With a decade of courses in women’s studies and seven years of existence for the Luann Dummer Center for Women, the St. Thomas community has made gender issues a vital part of campus life. Scholarly research, supportive programming and exploring definitions of what feminism means today have been some of the results.
However, these occasionally function as "lightning rods" for some negative comments about women’s studies, explains Dr. Brenda Powell, professor of English and former director of the Center for Women. "It’s good that these programs, rather than individuals, become the focus of comments," Powell said. "I try to make those negative comments the basis for a conversation. We talk about an opportunity for learning, and learning is what St. Thomas is all about. If I have time, I take a critic to the bookstore to look at required textbooks that focus predominantly on male authors and thinkers and I ask, ‘What might be missing from these courses that women’s studies might provide?’"
More than 260 students, men included, took courses in women’s studies during the 1999-2000 school year. They could choose among 19 courses involving 11 departments, classes like Women, Writing and Film; Gender, Race and Mass Media; Psychology of Women; Gender in American Society; Anatomy of Violence; Women in the Early Church; Marriage and the Family; and Gender and Science.
"I’m a big fan of our women’s studies major for two reasons," said Dr. Tom Connery, academic dean at St. Thomas. "First, the program, by its very nature, is interdisciplinary. It’s a fine example of a major that can help students ‘connect the disconnects,’ that allows students to see the interrelationship of academic disciplines as well as the ideas and principles that form their foundations.
"But women’s studies also makes a major contribution to the undergraduate college by filling intellectual and knowledge gaps, by asking questions that have been ignored, by looking at ideas from a fresh perspective. Plus, I’m delighted to see that many of our brightest and most talented faculty teach in the program," Connery added.
A typical class might be English 218: Literature and Women. (Many Women’s Studies Program courses are listed in other departments and thus fill requirements there also.) The aim of the class is to paint a more complete portrait of women writers.
How women wrote
"Ideally, all college classes should be ‘people’ studies. We should look at the work of men and women together in history and study them as a whole," said Dr. Catherine Craft-Fairchild, "but, unfortunately, that balancing of women’s and men’s contributions still rarely occurs in many courses."
Fans of the brilliant 19th century novels Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights may be surprised to hear that they were originally attributed to two men — Currer Bell and Ellis Bell. Sisters Charlotte (Jane Eyre) and Emily Brontë (Wuthering Heights) used pen names when they submitted their manuscripts because they were aware that "women’s writing was expected to be delicate and charming," said Craft-Fairchild, who holds a Ph.D. from the University of Rochester, N.Y., and has taught English at St. Thomas since 1989. "The Brontës wanted to write a different kind of novel — serious, gritty books — and felt their work would be more readily accepted if apparently written by men. Even under the male pseudonyms, the Brontë’s novels were considered somewhat coarse, shockingly direct and raw-edged," Craft-Fairchild explained.
"Well-meaning friends sent Charlotte copies of Jane Austen’s novels, such as Pride and Prejudice and Emma, which were considered above reproach because they were novels of manners. Charlotte Brontë, however, was underwhelmed, and insisted, rather unfairly, that Austen lacked both passion and profundity, claiming that, ‘Her business is not half so much with the human heart as with the human eyes, mouth, hands and feet.’" Austen, unlike the Brontë sisters, spent much time in social settings, but had far more limited leisure and space to write; she was continually sliding her work under the blotter to accommodate visitors or accomplish household chores.
Austen did, nevertheless, have the satisfaction of being widely read during her day, as did George Eliot (born Mary Ann Evans, 1819-1880), whose novels such as The Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch were always considered among the best of serious literature.
"Literature by Women," Craft-Fairchild said, is an effort to look at the history of women’s writing. Students begin with the works of medieval mystics such as Julian of Norwich and Margery Kemp, and move on to Elizabethan writers, including Queen Elizabeth herself, in whom there has been a resurgence of scholarly interest.
Students meet playwright and novelist Aphra Behn of the 17th century, the first woman to make a living by her pen. Behn was important enough in her day to be buried with male literary greats in Westminster Abbey. Craft-Fairchild is particularly im-pressed with the writing of Eliza Haywood, a novelist and journalist who died in 1756. Haywood published a well-known weekly paper in London called The Female Spectator.
The rights of women — and men
"Till women are more rationally educated, the progress in human virtue and improvement in knowledge must receive continual checks," stated Mary Wollstonecraft in her 18th century work, A Vindication of the Rights of Women (she later wrote a vindication for the rights of men, too). "Women are systematically degraded by receiving the trivial attentions which men think it manly to pay to the sex, when, in fact, men are insultingly supporting their own superiority." Wollstonecraft was termed a female agitator because she called for rights for all the oppressed — the poor, the uneducated, the victims of political upheaval and war.
"In Wollstonecraft’s time," said Craft-Fairchild, "English writers didn’t deny that women were intelligent, but expected that women’s intelligence would be used domestically, for running a proper home and rearing children. Many resourceful women, however, did write and some were very widely published." Over the past 20 years, scholarship in women’s studies has laid to rest the old notion that the "important books" were written by men; classroom instruction, however, has yet to catch up with scholarly insight.
"By the way," Craft-Fairchild added, "there have been, over the years, quite a number of men in my women’s studies courses and they do well. Women’s studies is not male bashing — it is serious, meticulous academic inquiry into the history, writing, and achievements of women."
"Intellectual honesty in a college education calls for us to include a wide variety of perspectives," stated Dr. Sherry Jordon, who has both a Master of Divinity and a Ph.D. in theology from Yale. "We need to include voices that haven’t been heard for a long time and use women’s perspectives to reflect on the Christian tradition throughout history."
In her course on Women in the Christian Tradition, which both men and women students quickly fill every semester, Jordon begins by placing the women of the Bible in their social and historical context. In the Old Testament, Deborah is both a prophet and a judge. In the New Testament, the roles women played in the narratives of the Resurrection of Christ are central to the event; Mary Magdalene is named in all four gospels. Paul refers to women using the terms "apostle" and "deacon" in Romans 16.
Another voice in the history of Christianity is Argula von Grumbach, a 16th century noblewoman. "She was the first Protestant woman to use a printing press to support her theological opinions and defend her right to speak," Jordon explained. Students also investigate Americans like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the 19th century abolitionist and feminist who wrote The Woman’s Bible, a commentary on biblical texts from a woman’s perspective. Students also learn that 19th and early 20th century Catholic nuns helped to deflect the anti-Catholicism rampant in America at that time through their work in education and nursing.
"We can’t ignore these women," Jordon said. "I see my students inspired by them. They continue to be relevant today, in part because they give us a fuller sense of where we have come from and a greater vision of where we might go in the future."
Is it a practical major?
Over its 20 years of existence, "women’s studies has evolved into a very rigorous and active field of scholarship," explained Dr. Ann Johnson, head of the Women’s Studies Pro-gram. St. Thomas is part of the Associated Colleges of the Twin Cities consortium-based program that also includes St. Catherine, Hamline and Augsburg. Macalester and the Uni-versity of Minnesota also offer women’s studies majors and minors.
"But, is women’s studies a practical major?" Johnson is often asked. "Yes, it is. It’s one aspect of the diverse world around us. The study of gender and how gender beliefs and systems organize our lives and our relationships results in graduates who are critical thinkers and are comfortable with diversity. It’s very useful in the business world — in promotion and hiring, what’s possible for men and women. If you can’t manage diversity, you won’t go far. Women’s studies promotes analysis of race, class, and other forms of diversity, too — so our students are really well-prepared."
Heather Rein ’94, the first women’s studies major at St. Thomas, would agree. She is leadership assistant to DFL State Sen. John Hottinger, the assistant majority leader of the Minnesota Senate. Previously she was the committee administrator for the Health and Family Security Committee.
"I had a double major in sociology and women’s studies," Rein said. "In my job I deal with a variety of health, welfare and social issues that impact women and families. Women’s studies was a very positive influence on me, a good way to synthesize how elements come together from both the academic and career viewpoints."
How do women fare in politics? "Some people strongly argue that women seeking office are held to higher standards than men," Rein said. "In Dr. Debra Petersen’s class, Gender and Rhetoric, we studied political rhetoric and gender difference in that area and I found that class very valuable. I also took Gender and Law from Dr. Jay Erstling, and we talked about how the courts have played such a large role in securing gender equity as well as equality in a lot of arenas."
Working for social transformation
"Intellectually, the students who take our courses are interested in challenging cultural norms that are limiting and working for social transformation — making the world a more just and fair place for everyone," said Johnson, who has a Ph.D. from Duquesne University and teaches a women’s studies course called Gender and Science. "Intellectual works by women authors have been neglected historically but more than that, it is important to recognize the way gender awareness enhances critical analysis. If we ask how did conditions of a woman’s life in the 1800s shape her possibilities as a writer, we learn more about that society," Johnson said.
"Our students tend to be globally minded and oriented toward social justice. They take part in many fund-raising projects such as helping fight the repression of women in Afghanistan, where under the Taliban regime females are not allowed to go to school or hold jobs."
And, yes, the 1960s-1970s media images of feminists that are still stuck in people’s minds — feminists as radical, anti-male, anti-family — do get tiresome. "Young women now have been raised by mothers who have been more free to define themselves and are very diverse," Johnson said. "The movement is relevant to everyone — men, women, people of all colors — because there are great benefits in being free of constricting stereotypes. Finally, feminists have pursued social justice goals that are entirely consistent with Catholic social justice aims — such as increasing economic justice for women, aiding poor and homeless families, and putting an end to sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination."
Women’s Center provides education, support
The Women’s Studies Program collaborates actively with other departments and especially with the university’s Luann Dummer Center for Women. The center was established in 1993 with a bequest from the estate of the late Dr. Luann Dummer, professor of English, who began teaching at St. Thomas in 1971. Dummer also served as the first director of women’s studies. The center offers educational programming for everyone in the university community, and its physical presence in O’Shaughnessy Educational Center focuses interests in women’s issues. It presents speakers, lectures series, discussion groups and, overall, a supportive meeting place for women. The center also provides research grants and scholarships for outstanding women students.
In December 2000, representatives from the University of Dayton, a Catholic institution with about the same number of undergraduates as St. Thomas, visited the center in preparation for opening one at Dayton. "The Dayton visitors gave every indication of liking what they saw," said Dr. Debra Petersen, who has a Ph.D. in communications from the University of Minnesota and is the center’s director. "What intrigued them about our program was the focus on faculty, staff and students. We hope to get more undergraduates involved, whether through cultural events or the individual, educational and spiritual programs we offer."
Presentations offered by faculty, staff, students and outside speakers cover topics as varied as gender research, body image of students, the 2000 elections, sexual harassment, the jury system and the feminization of poverty. The semester-long Feminist Fridays talks are an active part of the university’s calendar of events.
A two-year lecture series, "Women in Christian History," brought scholars to St. Thomas to discuss the role of women during the early Christian world, through the Middle Ages and Reformation, and in American Christianity. The series was an accomplishment that Powell, director of the center for four years, says perfectly filled its mission.
"Scholars can find lots of existing information once they scratch the surface of conventional historical accounts of Christianity," explained Powell, who has a Ph.D in English from the University of North Carolina. "Women always have negotiated places for themselves in Christian history, from the early mothers of the church to St. Catherine of Siena to Dorothy Day.
"The center is a small step toward the affirmation for women that men receive continually. St. Thomas has been coeducational for more than 20 years. However, women on campus still need to have something visual and physical — in the midst of what is historically a very male university — some presence that acknowledges women are an essential part of this campus," Powell said.
Valuing equality of men and women
Valuing the equality between women and men is the basis of liberal and cultural feminism, explained Dr. Britain A. Scott, who has a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Minnesota, and teaches The Psychol-ogy of Women in the program. "Liberal feminists downplay sex-related differences in cognitive abilities, personality, preferences, etc., as research does not reveal big differences between men and women on any of these things. The majority of men and women are similar on all dimensions but the group average score for men (in aggression, for example) may be different than that for women. Equality is the agenda and liberal feminists are working toward things like equal pay for equal work.
"Cultural feminism acknowledges differences between men and women (due to biology and socialization) and stresses valuing equally women’s and men’s characteristics. Historically, those things considered feminine are devalued. For example, it’s not really a stigma for girls to be called ‘tomboys’ when they like to climb trees or play ball. It is a huge stigma, however, for boys to be called ‘sissies’ when they nurture their stuffed animals or like to play house. Cultural feminism says on the average there are some sex-related differences, but let’s make sure we value everyone and all characteristics."
Devaluing women through pornography is an issue Scott has researched and spoken about at the Center for Women. "Scientific research demonstrates that pornography negatively impacts men’s attitude toward violence against women, and their behavior toward women," Scott said. Consistent with the ideas of some feminist scholars, and with the experimental social psychological research findings, Scott defines "pornography" as material that combines sexual themes with violence or degradation. This means that not all sexually explicit material is "pornography," and not all "pornography" is sexually explicit. According to the experimental evidence, it is not the explicitness that causes the negative effects, but instead the combination of sexual themes with violence, coercion, abuse and degradation of women.
Popular entertainment often devalues women
Many R-rated films, such as the ‘slasher,’ stalker or erotic thrillers sexualize women in a violent context. So does prime-time TV with its women-in-danger, made-for-TV movies. And so did the Nike ad that ran during the Summer Olympics, in which a woman flees through the woods from an ax-wielding man.
"Exposure increases all these negatives — sexism and hostility to women, including the premise that women cause rape by the way they dress or where they walk — and the exposure is everywhere in popular entertainment," Scott said. "It consistently devalues women."
So do stereotypes about women scholars. "If we talk about women, that does not mean we negate men. We simply want to fill in missing voices and information from the past and the present and help students think about the impact of gender.
"In my Psychology of Women class, I consistently get guys who say, ‘Everyone should take this class. It opened our eyes. We think of things — sexism, denied opportunities, sexual objectification, stereotyping — in a way we have not thought before.’"
And that’s education — the cultural awareness and intellectual curiosity that are called for in St. Thomas’ mission statement.
Katie McNamara, psychology major, women’s studies minor — "Women’s studies is not about the oppression of women. It’s very interdisciplinary, classes are taught by great faculty, and we work for the betterment of all groups that are oppressed, such as women in Afghanistan. I know I’m lucky to be living now; I have many more options than my mother or grandmother had. The modern feminist goes to work or stays home, raises children or is single, works for change in her child’s school or in a business. It’s very easy to be a feminist; it’s about personal empowerment and thinking you have value."
Robyn Tabibi, double major in biology and women’s studies — "The most empowering things I got from classes were an understanding of my rights under the law, and an appreciation of the history of feminism in this country. The long struggle for suffrage, although it took 100 years of dedicated work on the part of thousands of women, only got a picture and maybe a paragraph in all my history books up to this point. Jokes about women’s studies? They only demonstrate the level of discomfort people feel when confronted by someone who not only is not ashamed to be a woman but is actually taking steps to educate herself and others about who women are. Hopefully, as men and women further explore what their roles in this society have been in the past, it will give them a better idea of what they want to be in the future. It will give them the knowledge to break free from harmful patterns of behavior that still prevent the further progress of humanity as a whole."