Women’s history at the U: Struggles and success

As Women’s History Month starts, we look at the University’s rich history and present.

by Emma Carew


March is a time to not only look back and honor the achievements of women past, but also to celebrate the activism of women present.

Minerva Smith Dunn was the first female student to enroll at the University, in 1869, 17 years after the founding of the institution. In 137 years women have infused the University, making immense contributions and achieving great heights. Today 53 percent of the undergraduate student body is female, and women can be found in many positions of student leadership across the University.

A leader in creating a women’s studies department, the University is also home to one of only a dozen women’s studies doctorate programs in the country.

The women the University has educated and employed throughout the years have brought about change and social justice, and March is a time dedicated to celebrate and honor their work.

Present-day feminists build upon a rich tradition
By Emma Carew; [email protected]

On her 85th birthday on Feb. 4, 1960s feminist leader Betty Friedan died.

Present-day feminists build upon a rich tradition
American Indian women face unique challenges with cause
Women’s studies embraces far more than gender issues
Activist reflects on progress thus far in her leading efforts
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Friedan, best known for her 1963 book “The Feminine Mystique,” was a catalyst for the second wave of women’s activism, said Arvonne Fraser, retired senior fellow at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.

Friedan was part of the women’s activist movement that led to opportunities for women such as higher education and equal pay for professional work. Since Friedan’s time of “second-wave” activism, the fight for women’s rights has changed hands and shifted focus.

In many ways, the fight has become “far more subtle,” said Regents’ professor of history Sara Evans.

In the 1970s, shortly after the formation of the University’s women’s studies department, Evans came to the University and became active in the women’s movement.

“When I first came (to the University), women’s studies was quite new,” she said. “It was really a demand from undergrad that led to the creation of that program, so there was a really strong sense of student activism with it.”

The early faculty members were part of “an intellectual revolution,” Evans said. “So they were exciting years, but they were not easy.”

Authors Amy Richards and Jennifer Baumgardner described the atmosphere of the early 1970s in their book “Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future,” which mostly addresses the new generation of feminism that began in the early 1990s.

Part of the picture of the early ’70s painted by “Manifesta” includes “girls can’t play in Little League Ö boys who want to learn how to cook or sew a button on are out of luck Ö a sexually active woman might Ö take the high-dose birth control pill, but her doctor isn’t likely to inform her of the possibility of deadly blood clots Ö only 14 percent of doctorates are awarded to women Ö women make, on average, 52 cents to the dollar earned by males.”

In those days, the problems many women faced “were about fundamental issues of rights and access,” Evans said.

Women’s rights activists of that period vied for women to serve on juries, get credit in their own name and get admitted to law and medical schools, she said.

Today the issues have become much more subtle, Evans said.

Modern women “come up against what some call the glass ceiling,” she said.

Evans describes this ceiling as the image that women still are not proportionally represented in upper level leadership roles and in some fields, such as medicine, find themselves trapped in professions tagged as “female,” such as family medicine and pediatrics, Evans said.

“If you zoom in on almost anything women have gone into, you will find there are still issues,” she said. “The culture is still not OK with women being in power and authority.”

At the University the Women’s Student Activist Collective is taking a role in advocating women’s rights.

Art history senior Colleen Lamb said the organization’s programming “deals with all forms of oppression.”

Women’s reproductive health rights quickly are returning to the forefront as South Dakota attempts to overturn its abortion laws, she said.

In fall the Women’s Student Activist Collective had an event that addressed women’s health and health care, Lamb said, and they’ve also done work to address issues of violence against women.

These issues need to be addressed by women because “the majority of student leaders are male and the majority of students here are female,” she said.

“People don’t realize that sexism is still alive,” Lamb said. “There are other things to fight against, too, in social justice, to include all sorts of oppression – that’s a big part of what feminism is these days.”

Two generations have passed since the days of Friedan and “The Feminine Mystique.” Friedan’s work left an indelible mark on the movement.

Fraser said she thinks Friedan would have hoped that, for the future, this generation “can pick up where they left off and keep going with it.”

American Indian women face unique challenges with cause
By lily langerud; [email protected]

At the University’s kickoff event for Women’s History Month on Wednesday, panelists brought a new perspective to mainstream ideas about the women’s movement and activism.

A panel of four American Indian activists came to agree that the U.S. women’s movement of the 1960s had little to do with issues for American Indian women.

The panel, titled “Native Women Leaders Speak about Activism,” included former vice presidential candidate Winona LaDuke, Red Lake Nation College President Renee Gurneau and University students Kate and Carly Beane.

Claire Walter-Marchetti, director of the Office for University Women, said she asked the panelists to think about what they would like white female feminists to know.

LaDuke said that while the white feminist movement in the United States encouraged women to rankle against the oppressive power of men, it didn’t apply to American Indian women in the same way.

“Changing power structures of white men for white women does nothing to change my oppression,” LaDuke said.

Gurneau added that American Indian communities have their own issues, which are not always understood by those outside the community.

“White feminists will phrase things in a way that makes us sound oppressed,” Gurneau said.

She said that when someone asks why a woman isn’t allowed to sit at the drum, they neglect to ask about the meanings and the traditions behind it.

When asked by the moderator about whether women in the American Indian rights movement were struggling against sexism, Gurneau and LaDuke agreed that that perception was not true.

“The media played a very significant role in portraying leadership,” LaDuke said.

Imagery with men as warriors or chiefs instead of women was used in the media because it was familiar to mainstream society, she said.

Walter-Marchetti said the program focused on interculturalism rather than assimilation.

“Interculturalism differs from the melting pot concept in that it helps people to retain and respect their own identities, while gaining understanding and respect for other people’s identities,” she said.

Kate Beane said retaining identity can pose a difficulty for American Indian students.

“We’re under fire for appearing like we’re segregating ourselves,” she said. “We’re constantly having to define to people what community is.”

Panelists also were asked about what they thought are important issues for activists today. All of them spoke about the importance of an educational system that taught American Indians about their background.

“I believe very strongly in having our own empowered education,” said Gurneau, who is in the process of forming a tribal college.

Carly Beane said neither she nor her sister graduated from high school.

“We’ve been very successful (in college) because we’ve taken our education into our own hands,” she said. Both Carly and Kate Beane are senior American Indian studies students focusing on Dakota language and working toward second majors.

Giving back
A general consensus among the panel was the need to share academic achievements with the rest of the community.

“As somebody who’s learning their language, I can’t just learn it, I have to give something back,” Kate Beane said.

Panelists said a holistic approach to activism was important for the healing process.

Gurnea said post-traumatic stress induced by colonization was a major issue for American Indian communities.

“We’re just starting to come out of the trauma,” she said, emphasizing a need for the retention of indigenous culture and the teaching of American Indian culture in schools. “I want our world to make sense to us.”

Dawn Begaye, a student and staff member at the University, said she attended the panel to hear LaDuke speak.

Begaye received her undergraduate degree from the University of Arizona in psychology with a minor in American Indian studies. She hopes to return home to the Arizona Navajo reservation she grew up on after she gets her master’s degree.

Begaye said she is interested in the effects of postcolonial trauma with regard to education in native communities and wants to develop materials to best evaluate the educational needs of native children.

The idea of giving something back to her community has to do with need for balance, she said.

“It’s inherent in our culture. There’s a sense of reciprocity,” she said.

Women’s studies embraces far more than gender issues
By Emma Carew; [email protected]

When Amy Kaminsky came to the department of women’s studies in 1984, she had to give up “a sense of mastery” in the classroom.

Kaminsky, now interim chairwoman of the department, said she is part of the generation that brought women’s studies into existence and therefore never got the chance to study it before teaching.

When the women’s studies department was founded in 1973, it was part of a small but growing trend nationwide.

“A group of mostly undergraduates but a few graduates and junior faculty decided that it was really important to do women’s studies here at the University,” Kaminsky said.

One of the unique aspects of the department at that time was that it hired its own faculty members, she said, as opposed to departments elsewhere that pulled faculty members from other departments.

Women’s studies senior Jen Mohnkern said people often think of women’s studies as “a group of women studying women,” but that the program is more than that.

Women’s studies addresses a lot of “isms,” Mohnkern said, such as colonialism, racism, classism, ablism, heterosexualism and genderism.

“We study massive social justice issues,” Mohnkern said. “We simply look at them through a more feminist frame.”

Then faculty members Janet Spector, Anne Truax, Toni McNaron, Sara Evans and others created the Center for Advanced Feminist Studies in 1983.

The center offers graduate students the chance to pursue higher degrees in the area of feminist and women’s studies, Kaminsky said.

The center was among the first in the nation, and today remains one of only a dozen programs offering doctoral degrees in feminist studies, she said.

Kandace Creel, a doctoral student in feminist studies and instructor in the women’s studies department said she chose the University’s program because of the other students in the program, and because she thought Minneapolis had a strong “feminist feel.”

Connections with student and community groups, as well as the development of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender minor, have helped to improve the program, she said.

These options “strengthen the way the program, the discipline and the department can provide different resources for students,” Creel said.

The students in the program are unique because many of them are active in addressing women’s rights in the community, she said.

“Women’s studies was built on the foundation of understanding how theory and activism can inform one another,” Creel said, “and the students definitely take that up as a main reason why they’re here.”

In the past 30 years, the women’s studies department has changed and grown.

“We’ve become legitimate,” Kaminsky said. “In the ’70s we were upstart, we were radical; we were looked at as threatening. We’re really fully integrated into the life of the college and the University.”

In fall the program will expand and change its name to Gender, Women and Sexuality studies to incorporate all the work and research done in the program, she said.

The field always has included work with questions of gender and sexuality, said Jacquelyn Zita, professor of women’s studies.

The name change “represents a maturation of the field,” she said. “It’s not just a field that studies about women.”

The next generation of women’s studies majors are unique in that they will be the first to have been formally trained in women’s studies, Zita said.

“The field has shifted,” she said, “and what we started in those early years actually became a viable and really essential part of any academic institution.”

Activist reflects on progress thus far in her leading efforts
By Emma Carew; [email protected]

Peggy Flanagan graduated from the University in 2002 and just two years later became the first American Indian to be elected to the Minneapolis school board.

Flanagan is an advocate for women and children’s social justice and serves as the senior organizer and trainer for Wellstone Action.

Why is Women’s History Month important?

I think it sort of goes back to women: We are truly the foundation of the community. Understanding where we came from and whose shoulders we’re standing on is critical to how we move forward.

How far has the women’s rights movement been able to come since you became active in it?

Well, keeping in mind that I’m only 26, I think that right now, as a generation, we’re trying to figure out what it means and where we’re going. You know, sort of being the daughters of Roe; we’ve always had access to reproductive health care. Sometimes I think we take it for granted. But I think I’ve seen more and more young women stepping up and taking leadership roles and getting involved.

What contribution to women’s activism are you most proud of?

I guess, frankly, my campaign. The fact that I’m the first American Indian to be on the Minneapolis school board is huge. I think I was able to bring a lot of issues forward that folks in my community are facing. And sort of paving the way and it makes it easier for other young women who want to get involved and who want to run for office. I think young women of color need to see more and more women in positions of leadership.

What do you feel is the biggest struggle young women face today, and how can they overcome it?

I think it sort of goes back to finding out what our role is within our community. I think there’s a lot of pressure to figure out how do we remain true to ourselves and true to the movement, while at the same time, pursing things that we’re passionate about. I think we have a unique balancing act in our lives.

In 25 years, what do you hope the face of women’s activism looks like?

In 25 years, I think we’ll have a woman sitting in the White House, or at least I hope we’ll have a woman sitting in the White House. I think women are sort of figuring out what their role is (in society). I think we are of the generation where it was totally realistic for people to say, Yeah, I’m going to be president, or I’m going to be an astronaut, or I’m going to be a physicist.

What outcome of the second-wave feminists’ work do you feel has had the greatest impact on women today?

I think just, in general, our careers, what we’re able to pursue in higher education, pursuing elected office, access to health care. It touches every access of my life as a young woman, and just seeing what we are able to accomplish. They laid the groundwork for us, and we’re standing on their shoulders.

What inspired you to become an activist?

It was kind of an accident. My mom always kept me engaged and let me know how important it was to vote and to be a voice in the community, but as far as running for school board, I had been looking for something from the American Indian community to run for the board for months, and finally folks turned to me and said, Why don’t you do it? I think women often wait to be asked to get involved and to run for office. And that needs to stop. We need to just do it: The women who came before us sort of sent the invitation, and now we need to accept it.

What does it take to bring about change in society?

Authentic leadership. I think we need to speak to people’s core beliefs and values, and currently I think women do a much better job of that than men, and that’s why we need to step up and take more leadership roles, because that’s what people are missing: They’re missing authentic and engaging leaders, and once we have those, that’s when we bring people into the movement.

What can students do to change the world, or even just a small portion of it?

I think that working on a campaign, be it for a political candidate or an issue campaign, is the best way to get experience to learn more about how to organize on a grassroots level and to bring your own personal concerns forward. I think that’s why the University is such a great place. There are so many different communities on one campus where people can really find their niche and what they’re good at and gain some experience.

What will the women of the future remember about this era of feminists and women’s activists?

I hope they’ll remember that we are the ones we’ve been waiting for. It was our generation that continued to move forward. We’re sort of unafraid to challenge the status quo. And that we are the continuation of the work that our mothers and grandmothers did before us. And there are leaders everywhere that we can say, Hey, they look like me, they represent me. And if they were frustrated with the current leadership, we stood up and were those leaders ourselves.