cademia and Activism

Nancy Ngo

This year, the University’s Department of Women’s Studies celebrates its 25th anniversary. And Catherine Orr, a graduate student in feminist studies and speech communication, is working toward her doctoral degree by researching the department’s history.
Orr is writing her dissertation about how women’s studies has developed since it was formed in 1972. She said that the department has served a number of valuable purposes for women at the University, but also has a few challenges ahead of it — especially in terms of activism.
“I think that’s the ongoing struggle with women’s studies,” Orr said. “No dean’s going to recognize a great rally. They’re going to wonder why (the women are) not in the library.”
This year’s events are causing present and past leaders of University women’s organizations to reflect on how women’s programs have evolved throughout the school’s history. Women’s resources at the University started out with common goals, but as their interests became more focused and activism on campus died down, so did large group efforts. Nevertheless, the overall goals have been maintained through the efforts of smaller groups with specific tasks in mind.
The Twin Cities boast the first feminist bookstore and the first battered women’s shelter ever formed in the United States. But the University possesses the first women’s center in the nation, the first continuing education program designed specifically for women, and a chapter of the oldest women’s membership organization in the country — the University Young Women.
“We’ve had a lot of unique firsts, and the University is part of that community,” said Jessica Morgan, acting coordinator at the Minnesota Women’s Center located in Nicholson Hall. Morgan has directed the center, which was established in 1959, for two years.
The center provides personal, educational and career support services, as well as community counseling, information and referral services to women at the University and in the surrounding area. Anne Truax, now retired, directed the center from 1969 to 1991. She said it was originally intended to help women complete a smoother transition back to the workplace.
However, the center has also expanded into counseling women who have suffered violence, assault, discrimination and harassment.
In addition, the center helped set the foundation for many programs on campus — including continuing education for women and the women’s studies department, which are now outside of the center.
Truax helped launch the women’s studies department by convincing the University that the program was needed.”It started out for women who wanted to go back to school,” Truax said.
Truax has seen the efforts serving women at the University start out with a broader community context and become smaller groups since then. She said the center concentrated on women’s general educational opportunities at first. “Now the emphasis is on more specific programs,” she said.
The branching out of programs to form more specific services has occurred throughout the history of women’s organizing at the University.
Orr, who has conducted interviews with those close to the inner-workings of the Department of Women’s Studies, found that because it emphasized academic research, it did not share the specific goal of the women’s center, which was to be a more community-based support system.
“This program tried very much to shape themselves within the institution,” Orr said. “That’s why they’re not with the women’s center which is community-oriented.”
The women’s studies department integrated both community activism and academic scholarship when it first formed. However, its move towards academic validation has compromised some levels of activism. The department needed an academic mission in order to exist and receive funding.
“I think the biggest change is that when we started, we started on the street and the academy was the last place,” said Toni McNaron, who was the first chair in the Department of Women’s Studies.
McNaron held the position until 1976, and she is now a professor in the English department. She said that today women are able to practice feminism inside the walls of University classrooms and offices. This move toward a more academic focus was inevitable, since the beginnings of the women’s studies department mainly based itself on this concept.
Orr said that there were two ideas of how to integrate women’s studies at the University, and the more academic concept defeated the more radical one. “People like Toni and Anne, who worked within the institution, knew it wouldn’t fly,” she said. “The whole quest was for legitimacy — academic legitimacy.”
Though an emphasis on academic research helped bring about a women’s studies department, community activism didn’t disappear with academic validation upon the arrival of a department.
“Our teaching was infused with the kind of need for activism,” McNaron said. “We were automatically activists. Change resulted by connecting theory and scholarship research with activity from the outside world.”
Though the department had to change its original focus from activist to academic pursuits, its current challenge is to remain true to those original roots.
McNaron said she fears that the academic focus on theory and research will continue to dissolve this type of activism.
Whereas the roots of activism in those days were visible within the community through rallies and such, today’s activism tends to be through writing and research. Articles in scholarly magazines or books discussing women’s issues and promoting women’s studies are helpful, but there is fear that it does not always reach all members of the community.
While McNaron and others are reflecting on a history in which political and social unrest often was associated with mass community activism, they also have observed how these characteristics have given way to activism enclosed inside the walls of academia. However, others have witnessed recent efforts to revisit the community through outreach.
A collaboration between women’s studies and the University’s Continuing Education for Women program will implement an initiative focusing on women’s studies in the Twin Cities this fall.
The joining of programs shows the community outreach that has always been the original initiative of the Minnesota Women’s Center.
The continuing education program for women was the first like it in the nation. Originally called the Minnesota Plan for Continuing Education for Women, it is now separate from the women’s center.
Susan Lindoo, director of the Continuing Education for Women Program, said that reuniting the programs does represent innovation, even though they were separated once before.
Recent collaborations among places such as the women’s studies department and the continuing education program help revisit the history of the Minnesota Women’s Center. However, it’s been recognized that some original goals and practices will not return anytime soon.
Though the presence of community and activism is still there, it has taken on different forms. The times of mass demonstrations are over.
Truax sees activism as continuing strong at the University, but she sees fewer numbers as the goals for women become more specialized.
“It has separated into smaller (and), in a way, more precise activities than we did at first,” Truax said. “It looks like the women’s movement has died down, but what has actually happened is that we’re starting to strand off.”
She said that smaller numbers does not mean that less progress is being made than when mass demonstrations were taking place in the 1960s.
Truax said that social change can’t happen unless groups divide. “You have to separate because the group becomes so broad that you can’t encompass everyone’s needs.”
Women’s center director Morgan sees the current state of the organization as still innovative at the University, but increased time constraints don’t allow for ’60s-style mass demonstrations. “I think that students are active, but they have more competing interests. There is a big time factor for students today,” said Morgan.
The University YW continues to take the role of community activism through organizing events such as Women’s Week and Rape-Free Zone at the University. The group has been at the University since 1891.
Erica Bridgeman, administrative coordinator of the office, said its activism goes beyond the University community, because it is led by a progressive national organization.
Bridgeman said the center is trying to change the national image that it is strictly a service organization. Three University members have applied for national officer positions.
“We don’t want to be an ambulance for people’s emergencies. We need to go beyond that and ask why do we have soup kitchens to begin with,” she said. “We want this to be about empowerment — individual, collective empowerment,” she said.