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Institute Supports Women’s Studies

By Shankar Mukherji and Huanne Thomas

For 16 years, the Program in Women’s Studies has provided students with a comprehensive selection of classes examining women’s issues. Though faculty members had offered occasional coursework in the area of gender-based scholarship since 1978, a formal administrative structure was not adopted until 1984. Since then, the program has grown rapidly.

“The Program in Women’s Studies was formed as a means for grouping the rising number of courses created that had a focus on women’s issues,” said Director of Women’s Studies Margery Resnick.

Resnick has served as head of the Program in Women’s Studies since 1998. An advocate of women’s issues on campus since her arrival in 1977, she was among the core faculty that initiated the women’s studies curriculum in the early 1980s.

Over the years, “the Institute has been very supportive” of women’s studies, Resnick said.

“Upon formation [of the program], the program was given an office, a coordinator, and a reading room in the Hayden library.”

As an example of the Institute’s ongoing support, Resnick noted that “the program received a great deal of funding to complete a recent event for African women filmmakers and novelists where women from Togo, Zimbabwe, and the Ivory Coast were brought to MIT for a week to share their expertise and experience.”

The program, however, is not without its problems. “Structural problems are vexing,” Resnick said. Such problems include matters of maintaining a stable curriculum and faculty grounded in women’s studies.

“Because we are a program, not a department, we cannot make appointments. Thus, should a faculty member who has been a great contributor to the program take leave of the Institute, [his or her] home department has the liberty of replacing that faculty member with someone who may or may not call women’s studies an area of expertise,” Resnick said.

Women’s studies increasingly popular

Enrollment in courses offered by the program has gone up, but “it is hard to pinpoint the reasons why,” Resnick said.

“The Women’s Studies Program is an exciting way to look at literature and history,” Resnick said.

Course evaluations echo Resnick’s statement, as women’s studies courses earn high ratings across the board.

Introduction to Women’s Studies (SP.401), for example, received an overall mark of 6.5 out of a possible 7 in terms of overall rating. The course catalogue describes SP.401 as “an interdisciplinary subject that draws on literature, history, psychology, philosophy, anthropology, and feminist theory to ... examine our cultural assumptions about gender, ... trace the effects of the new scholarship on traditional disciplines, and ... increase awareness of the history and experience of women as half the world’s population.”

The Program in Women’s Studies keeps track of male participation in the courses it offers. Here, too, the numbers are encouraging.

“Male student participation has been good,” Resnick said. She noted that in one of her own classes, International Women’s Voices (SP.431J), one-third of the students enrolled are male.

As the program has continued to grow, a humanities concentration, a minor and eventually a full undergraduate major have been added to the list of opportunities available.

Women’s studies move beyond just classes

Beyond supporting a wide range of women’s studies courses on campus, MIT is a member of the Graduate Consortium in Women’s Studies. Located at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the Consortium brings together graduate students and faculty from Boston College, Brandeis, Harvard, Northeastern, Tufts and MIT for graduate seminars and professional development workshops. Drawing on the collective resources of the six Boston-area centers of learning, the Consortium offers coursework in such areas as women’s activism and issues of control between men and women.

The MIT Program in Women’s Studies does not by any means confine its activities to the classroom. Affirmative action policy, women’s experiences of poverty and welfare, and female entrepreneurship in cyberspace are just some of the topics brought up in the many talks and panel discussions sponsored by the program.

When asked about the future of the program, Resnick expressed optimism. “We have been very successful in raising funds for the program,” Resnick said, “and the Dean of [Humanities, Arts,] and Social Science has been very supportive.” As for the program head’s goals, Resnick said that “in the next two years, the program will be broadening to study women’s issues in a more global context, rather than a parochial Anglo-Saxon content.”