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Telling Her Age: Women's Studies Turns 30

By Jody Record, Campus Journal Editor
October 3, 2007

The very first women’s studies program in the country was established in 1970 at San Diego State University. UNH wasn’t far behind.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the university’s program, launched in 1977 as an undergraduate minor. Back then, only 20 percent of the faculty involved had tenure and most of those who did were from the English department.

“UNH had one of the earlier programs in the country. It’s very nice to know that we were on the cutting edge,” says Marla Brettschneider, a political science professor and the women’s studies coordinator.

The structure of the program has changed during the years in response to varying needs as well as trends in women’s studies around the country, Brettschneider says. In the beginning, a team-taught introductory course was offered (WS 401, introduction to women’s studies) along with courses that spanned at least two colleges. There was also a strong outreach component.

The Outreach Nursing Home Project, for example, featured a film and discussion series at the Parrott Avenue Nursing Home in Portsmouth and the Eventide Home in Exeter. Professor Sharon Oja and the women’s studies math anxiety committee received a grant from the Elliot Fund to develop a course for the “math anxious.”

In 1979, Catharine Stimpson, an outside consultant and founding editor of SIGNS: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, recommended the move to a full-time, tenure-track path for the program’s coordinator. Catharine Adamsky was hired as the result of a national search.

Then, in 1986, a second full-time, tenure-track position was added and Barbara White became the coordinator. She and Adamsky taught and took turns coordinating the program for the next two terms.

“This was an ideal arrangement,” Brettschneider says. “Women’s studies has always tried to navigate and meet many different expectations.”

Brettschneider notes that the demand for the course of study came on the heels of the second wave of the feminist movement when only a small amount of women were in the academy and doing the work. It was, she says, a historical moment.

“Universities have these grand images of openness, truth and tolerance. It’s not just about truth. The biases of society find their way into the halls of academia,” Brettschneider says. “The very absence of the experience of women’s lives and contributions—half of the population was not being represented not only among faculty positions but in terms of the content of our studies and teaching in a university.”

UNH’s women’s studies major was approved in 1991 after an extensive external review of the existing program. While there had been students graduating with a women’s studies degree before then through a self-designed major, the first students to earn an actual women’s studies degree graduated in 1993.

When COLA Dean Marilyn Hoskin came on board in 1995, she saw the anticipated retirement of the two coordinators as an opportunity to create four joint positions and to bring in more of the social sciences.

An overview the current program describes it as the “interdisciplinary, scholarly investigation of the rich variety of women’s lives,” past and present, in this country and around the world.

Today, UNH’s women’s studies program has more women students as well as faculty. And women faculty members are taking on new roles, moving into leadership positions around campus, chairing departments outside of women’s studies, heading up committees, etc.

“I’m really proud not only of where we came from but who we are right now; of what the program offers as colleagues and to the students,” Brettschneider says. “We have a great bunch of faculty doing really interesting gender-related research. Having more women and women's studies faculty on campus is a marker of growth and success. They’re still setting a growth course.”

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