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The first Women's Studies program in the nation was founded in San Diego, California in 1970, and within six years there were approximately 270 such programs. The 1990 Women's Studies Directory lists some 818 programs in institutions of higher education; that is, approximately 1/4 of all accredited institutions of higher education in the U.S. have WS programs. In her recent book Feminism in Action, Jean O'Barr has noted that "the Women Studies movement called for change on at least three fronts-- the individual, the institutional, and the ideological." Thus individual women were not only to join the academy, but they were also to work for equal treatment for women and support feminist scholarship. Institutions, in turn, were to act affirmatively with regard to student recruitment and rewards, staffing, and curricula. Finally, the women's studies movement demanded that educational values systems be re-examined and altered.

The establishment of separate courses on women was succeeded by the development of interdisciplinary programs, usually on the undergraduate level, most often offering only a certificate or a minor. Later, majors and some limited graduate concentrations were established. In 1976, feminist scholar and editor Florence Howe was commissioned by the National Advisory Council on Women's Educational Programs to report on the progress of the Women's Studies programs and to make recommendations for their improvement. Howe visited 15 programs, including U.T.'s. She identified several ways or patterns in which Women's Studies programs differed from other academic programs: they had close, on-going relationships with elements of their local communities, they put more emphasis on student advising, they stimulated and supported scholarship on women, and they had specific agendas for change. She also noted the universally low budgets, lack of appropriate space and support staff, and over-dependence on women whose tenure lines were in traditional disciplines. The National Institute for Education's follow up studies in 1980 showed the continuing rapid growth of WS programs and courses, but also reported on their lack of integration into curricular requirements and the continued low levels of funding and staffing.

Paradoxically, by the 1980s the interdisciplinary Women's Studies programs had taken on all the characteristics of a discipline: a professional association, academic conferences, scholarly journals, a growing body of monographic literature, and international, as well as national, networks of scholars. By the end of the 1980s, most WS programs were still free-standing, with poor access to institutional resources and support, depending on other departments' faculty and part-timers.

The WS program at U.T. has followed this general pattern. After the establishment in 1972 of a Task Force on Women in response to pressure from faculty, staff, and students, the WS program was established along with other interdisciplinary programs such as Black Studies under a Cultural Studies umbrella in the College of Liberal Arts. In 1974, the core courses were taught for the first time to a total enrollment of 71 students. WS survived the transitions from quarters to semesters, revised its minor, added more cross-listed courses, and established a major. It also eventually acquired two GAs and a small endowment fund. Currently, WS is in the process of establishing a public WS Forum and providing for more rotation in the WS Advisory committee membership. According the 1995 self study, 588 students were enrolled in WS own courses and WS cross-listed courses that fall semester. And during the life span of the program, some 8,959 students had taken WS core courses along with 8,856 students who had enrolled in courses cross-listed with WS. The program at UT has also reflected the national patterns of having to struggle for space, being consistently under funded with respect the FTEs generated, and having to depend totally on tenure track and tenured faculty housed in traditional academic departments plus part time adjunct instructors.

WHY? I am going to argue that, in large part at least, these inconsistencies and inequalities are due to the threats to traditional values that are posed when we try to integrate gender into mainstream academic disciplines. In other words, I want to describe what happens when the ethical considerations that we assume institutions have-- such as equity, equality, and fairness--come into conflict with the deeply held values of a discipline. As a test case, I am going to consider my own discipline, history.

History as a Test Case

Transformation of the curriculum has always been a central objective of women's studies programs, and it has been relatively easy to add free-standing courses on women, such as a philosophy course about Concepts of Women, or Women and French Culture, or Women's Health Issues, or even Women in European History. But what happens when we try to incorporate gender as a category of analysis in mainstream courses that already exist? In this part of my presentation, I want to use the academic discipline of history as a test case to demonstrate the questions of values that are raised when we attempt to transform the existing curriculum so as to include gender analysis.

Every history major and beginning graduate student has to consider the definition of history: What is history? Although there is no absolute agreement within the profession, the generally accepted consensus among the majority of practitioners is that history is the story of the human past which focusses on change and continuity over time, that history contains both narrative and analysis based on the critical use of evidence, and that history advances limited truth claims. The postmodernist minority within the profession disagrees with this definition. To them, history is a story rather than the story, and thus should not advance any truth claims. Since time is not linear but can fold backward and forward upon itself, change and/or continuity are impossible to determine (and not important anyway). Finally, the evidential base for analysis may be narrow and exclusive rather than broad and inclusive, the explanatory form should be narrative, and historians should not even try to be relatively objective. While postmodernist approaches to history offer both challenges and opportunities, they are not the focus of this presentation. Rather, I will use the definition of history that underpins the overwhelming majority of courses and all history textbooks as the basis for my analysis.

What is important, then, for purposes of this test case are the ideas about chronology, use of evidence, objectivity and truth claims that are central to the mainstream of historical endeavors today. Chronology is simply how we divide up time into manageable periods, such as the colonial period, the Jacksonian era., the Civil War and Reconstruction, etc. Chronological periods are identified by what is deemed to be important or of value, and in most fields of history the periods are political, and, to a lesser degree, economic. Rarely are the periods socio-cultural; the old Renaissance/Reformation subfield of long ago has become Early Modern History. The evidence relied upon by most historians is documentary: material in government archives, legislative debates and reports, treaties, letters, diaries, newspapers and magazines, etc. And although no historians believe that they can be completely free from their frame of reference or climate of opinion, they agree that objectivity is their goal. Most, in fact, think that they can overcome their biases and obtain a considerable degree of objectivity. Finally, this objectivity combined with a careful and critical use of evidence leads to truth claims. Mainstream historians believe that they are telling the story of a part of the human past, stories which, like building blocks, can be fitted together into a larger edifice to provide a meaningful synthesis of knowledge.

But what happens when we try to incorporate women into this formula-- not just add them on somewhere, as most textbooks do, but actually integrate women into the story of the human past? Using gender as a category of analysis raises questions and has the power to transform radically each element of history as it is currently practiced.


Women's experiences do not fit well or even fit at all into conventional political divisions of time. For example, it does not make sense to talk about child rearing in the administration of Teddy Roosevelt or the impact of the Civil War and Reconstruction on birth control technology. This raises questions about what is important to know about our history. Central to the understanding of women's experiences (and, one could argue, to the understanding of men's experiences also) is the social construction of gender--how men and women are socialized, what kinds of behaviors are perceived as acceptable and appropriate, how class, race, ethnicity, region, and religion intersect with gendered expectations, etc. Further complicating the issue is that while women share some experiences with men, such as the Great Depression, they may experience the event differently. Other experiences such as child birth and child rearing have different impacts on women's lives than on men's lives. If we divided up time according to changes and continuities in the social construction of gender, the chronology of history would be very different indeed. Social and cultural history would become central, while political and economic history would become less important.


Traditional sources of evidence usually yield only very limited information about gender issues. Upper class and middle class women, especially those related to famous men, women such as Abigail Adam or Eleanor Roosevelt, will be best represented by such sources. There are also sources about deviant women, as seen through the eyes of men, such as the accused witches of Salem, and exceptional women, such as temperance activist Carrie Nation. But bias toward traditional documentary sources often eliminates ordinary women, e.g., wives and daughters of farmers, artisans, sailors, and laborers who lack the political voice and visibility of their male relatives. Women of color, like their male counterparts throughout much of history, are even less likely to appear in traditional sources of evidence.

Thus it is clear that to study gender one must expand the kinds of evidence one analyzes. Historians of women have especially relied upon artifacts of material culture, such as clothing, houses, furnishings, household implements, paintings and drawings, etc.; prescriptive sources such as sermons, advertisements, etiquette books, etc.; statistical data, especially information about age at marriage, number of children, etc.; and oral history for the more recent past. However, these kinds of non-conventional sources raise issues of interpretation--how do you "read" clothing? What is the relationship between prescriptive evidence telling women how to behave and the influence on women or the realities of women's behavior. What the profession has always called the "rules of evidence" do not work well for these kinds of sources. Far more useful to historians interested in gender have been concepts and even models borrowed from other disciplines such as cultural anthropology or sociology. Use of these concepts or models, of course, tends to blur disciplinary boundaries.


Even more problematical to historians interested in gender have been the goal and assumptions of historical objectivity. Many historians of women became historians specifically because they felt the lack of a usable past, wished to give women an historical voice, and were committed to social change. The entrance of women into the historical profession has also tended to coincide with periods of intense feminist activity; the 1910s and early 20s and the 1960s and early 70s were two such periods. As Linda Kerber and Jane De Hart have pointed out, women's history has gone through four stages: first compensatory, rescuing extraordinary women from oblivion; next contributionist, adding women as actors into traditional political and economic history; then reconstructive, trying to test and change some of our historical generalizations; and finally, focussing on gender as a social construction and making that central to our historical understanding. It is worth noting that Kerber's and De Hart's textbook, Women's America, is now in a fourth edition. The integration of women's history into mainstream textbooks simply hasn't happened.

Truth claims

Finally, emphasizing gender as a social construction often directly challenges the truth claims of history. For example, both the Civil War and World War II are portrayed as difficult, negative periods in our history. Yet women's opportunities and options broadened during these two wars. American history in particular tends to have a progressive bias-- that things get better and better. It also often claims uniqueness-- our history is very different from that of other countries. But the narrowing of opportunities for American women (and for African Americans and Native Americans also) during several eras contradicts the supposedly progressive nature of American history, and in many instances women's experiences are much more like those of women in other nations than they are like the experiences of American men, in the Great Depression of the 1930s, for example.

Peter Novick's massive, extensively-researched history of the American historical profession, That Noble Dream, was published by Cambridge University Press in 1988. This magisterial study has gone through at least seven reprintings and was the subject of an entire issue of the American Historical Review in 1991. Novick discusses the entrance of both African Americans and women into the historical profession in the late 1960s and early 1970s, noting that both were highly visible, represented constituents outside the university, and dealt with subjects traditionally passed over. However, women budgeted into history departments, he points out, frequently "chose to publish major work in interdisciplinary journals" and shared a belief in "sisterhood" as their basic bond of solidarity and mutual support, rather than confining themselves to the narrower circle of their history colleagues and the discipline of history.

Furthermore, Novick asserts, the logical conclusion of black separatism was "a kind of moral and cultural emigration," while "the logical conclusion of separatist feminism was lesbianism." Although admitting that only a tiny minority of women historians were lesbians, Novick pointed out that straight women historians had gone so far as to suggest that heterosexuality might be a male construct. African American historians (one assumes male historians), Novick suggests, had not been nearly as threatening as women historians. Women's "moral separatism," he concludes, "was a good deal more threatening to academic life, and the domestic life of male academics, than black separatism had been."


Howe, Florence. Seven Years Later: Women's Studies Programs in 1976. 1977.

Kerber, Linda and Jane DeHart. Women's America. 4th edition. 1995.

National Institute of Education. The Effectiveness of Women's Studies Teaching. 1980.
________. The Impact of Women's Studies on the Campus and Disciplines. 1980.

National Women's Studies Association. NWSA Directory. 1990
________. Liberal Learning and the Women's Studies Major. 1991

O'Barr, Jean F. Feminism in Action. 1994.

Novick, Peter. That Noble Dream. 1988.

Women's Studies Program, UT Knoxville. "Self-Study, 1987." ________. "Self-Study, 1995."

Copyright SUSAN D. BECKER, PH.D.

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