Women Studies at the University of Washington: 40 years of growth

To close out Women’s History Month, I looked into our records for the Department of Women Studies at UW. The department recently transferred its meeting minutes for the Women Studies Advisory Committee (WSAC), dating back to 1974, which piqued my interest; I wondered when the Women Studies program was initiated and how it has developed over the years.

The progressive atmosphere pervasive on college campuses across the country in the 1960s was healthy and active here in Seattle. Sue-Ellen Jacobs, now professor emeritus, was one of the individuals responsible for the fledgling efforts to organize a Women Studies program at UW, beginning in 1969. San Diego State University is credited with establishing the first official Women’s Studies academic program, in May of 1970; at the same time, in Spring quarter 1970, the first session of “Women 101” was offered at the University of Washington [classified as General & Interdisciplinary Studies (GIS) 407].¬† Jacobs became the program’s first director in 1974, when the Women Studies major was officially offered under the “General Studies” bracket of the College of Arts and Sciences.

In Winter quarter, 1974, the first two courses classified as Women Studies (rather than GIS) appeared in the catalogue. The following academic year (1974-1975), seven courses were offered, along with more related classes from other departments than ever before. Yet despite this growth, a letter was submitted in February of 1975 by representatives of “the Women Studies Student Union” to director Jacobs, the WSAC, College of Arts and Sciences Dean George Beckmann, and UW President John Hogness, which bemoaned lack of funding for the Women Studies program and limited course offerings for students that wished to major:

“At present the number of courses being taught is woefully inadequate. What a let down to hear that we only had twelve courses funded for next year. This is not enough. There are forty-five majors in our program and we do not believe that we can seriously purchase an education with a core offering of only twelve courses in a total year. We demand a minimum of eight to twelve courses per quarter.”

In the WSAC meeting minutes from this period, the possibility of offering some Women Studies courses despite lack of funding was debated. Members worried that allowing instructors to teach for free could be construed as “exploiting faculty wives” and “setting a precedent of having women teach in the program without pay.” Among these records, I found the following excerpt from a statement Sue-Ellen Jacobs wrote in May 1975 as a response to the students’ letter:

“In 1975, we are women in a world mostly governed and defined by men. In 2001, we may be women in a world governed and defined by women and men. But we have a lot of work to do in many areas before this latter can happen. […] From my point of view, Women Studies must survive and grow in academia. If it does not, then we will have abdicated our share of responsibility for the whole movement, and thereby, I would say, for the whole of humanity.”

In 2001, Jacobs (still serving as Director of the Undergraduate program) would find that the Department of Women Studies was again facing budget reductions and defending its curriculum to the Dean – however, this time with a total of 71 courses offered during the last academic year. At present, 79 courses will have been offered for the year, with eleven faculty and three lecturers on staff. It might have taken more than twenty years to fulfill students Theresa Miles, Karen Rudolph and Liz Ilig’s request that a Graduate program be established, but this slow and steady growth is exactly what Jacobs prescribed. These students also wrote of their hope for a Women’s Center at UW, serving students as well as the wider community – another vision that has since come to fruition.

This month, we should salute the students and instructors in Women Studies for all that they have contributed to the department’s mission, “…to push the analytic edge of scholarship foregrounding gender, race and sexuality as integral components of local and global social structures, particularly within the contexts of capitalism, globalization, nationalism and neoliberalism.”

The records of the UW Department of Women Studies are open to the public, and detailed inventories are available in the Special Collections reading room.

The students writing in 1975 also pointed to the "outrageous" budget allocation of five dollars per month for paper and office supplies; had they been better funded, perhaps they might have been able to create more attractive event fliers than this mimeographed example! (From accession no. 10-001)

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