A Celebration of USM’s Women and Gender Studies
The first Women and Gender Studies program to offer a degree in Maine celebrates its 40th anniversary this spring. The program at the University of Southern Maine allows students to think critically about gender, race, sex, class, and other social categories, in hopes that students can bring positive change to the communities around them.
In 1980, the focus was to “provide a physical and intellectual space for women to study women,” as Dr. Nancy Gish recalls. At the time, these types of spaces for women were not common and were dismissed all over the country as not of great importance. But when she arrived at USM, she was intrigued by a committee that was just beginning to form. Bob Woodbury, President of USM, had started a committee to study the changing roles of men and women. The formation of this committee led to what was known then as the Women Studies program in 1981.
Dr. Nancy Gish, a professor who taught at Penn State University, Michigan University, and Wayne State University, was one of the founders and first directors of the program. Once the committee was formed, two separate groups were established. One group focused on planning the programs curriculum, while the other planned a convocation. It took many months of planning, organizing, and gathering tenured professors to formally assemble the program.
One of the difficulties, Dr. Gish remembers, was finding tenured or tenure-tracked women professors. During the 1980s, there were very few of them. Dr. Gish’s hope, as the first director, was to bring awareness to women’s contributions throughout history. A student at the time questioned her, “Is it true that there aren’t women philosophers?” Her response was, “No. Students just never have been given works done by women.” A true statement of the time.
In 1984 the program was recognized, allowing the faculty involved to assemble courses. At first, they were unable to offer a degree, due to their unofficial status. After some time, the program could offer a degree through the College of Arts and Sciences. Their mission, as Dr. Gish explains, “wasn’t simply to offer degrees in the program, but to create courses that would be available to other departments.” In 1997, the Women Studies program was considered a free-standing major.
Dr. Gish was the director for ten years. She notes that the extended duration of her directorial duties was due to the continued lack of tenured full-time professors. “You can’t have an untenured person in that political position because they have to have a certain degree of safety.” As director, Dr. Gish was responsible for conducting reviews, organizing the curriculum, delegating meetings, and developing the structure of the program so that they could make it a program with standing and faculty.
Dr. Gish credits Kathy McPherson as being “one of the most important people in the beginning.” McPherson was the first Chair of the program, and her ability to handle political positions was critical to making the program official. As Dr. Gish stresses, “we had wonderful administrators, presidents, and provosts who supported us.” The most heroic, she states, “was Mark Lapping, who always took up with the board of trustees.”
Over the years, the program was able to bring guest speakers including Maya Angelou, Jacqueline Margaret Kay, Sonia Sanchez, and Betty Friedan. After Wendy Chapkis became director of the program, she changed the program’s name to Women and Gender Studies, in 2007. She encouraged students and emphasized the importance of obtaining degrees.
The WGS program at USM has produced many graduates, some of whom have moved on to work in their communities as social workers, family crisis advocates, peace organizers, teachers, advocates for domestic violence survivors, prisoner rights advocates, and educators for the Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine. In conclusion, Dr. Gish says, “There were always women, and they were always brilliant: this is our inheritance. This is a serious, serious study, and it changes our thinking of the world.”