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Women's Studies: Pioneering in Scholarship, Activism, and Internationalization since 1970

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Beginnings of a Women’s Movement

The 1960s and 1970s were years of immense cultural change in the United States. The civil rights, anti-war, lesbian and gay rights, and women's movements were mass displays of social unrest that urged groups of people to join together to protest political and societal injustices within local and national communities. Racism, homophobia, and sexism were challenged by fierce outcries.

Women's Studies Banner circa 1978 that says "Lesbians for Wages for Housework"

The women's movement of the 1960s and 1970s largely rested upon the platform of political equality. Working women in the United States challenged the disparities between their wages and those of men. Discriminatory hiring policies were identified and protested.  Ubiquitous public forms of sexism betrayed deeply-rooted inequalities in private settings, and women began to question the gender roles enforcing their traditional positions as wives, mothers and homemakers.

The women's movement was often referred to as the Women's Liberation Movement because it was an effort to liberate women from restrictive social expectations and patriarchal norms. Entrenched sexism in countless aspects of day-to-day life made the goal of change all the more challenging.  Feminists launched multifaceted campaigns to gain mainstream support for their aims. Underground newspapers and progressive publications circulated nationwide and chronicled the movement.

Critiques of early feminism have reduced the movement's ideals to burning bras and anti-male sentiments. In actuality, the women's movement offered a rich array of ideals for social improvement, and many women found solace in the community of like-minded activists.

library display of books and newspappers

The Birth of the Department

In the late 1960s, the student community of San Diego State University became very much involved in the social movements of that era. New academic departments emerged from the demands of cultural causes. Africana Studies, Chicana and Chicano Studies, and Native American Studies all emerged within a short time. In the midst of these upheavals, the Women's Studies Program was born.

documents from library display about department beginnings

In 1969, students from SDSU's Women's Liberation Group, in cooperation with faculty and community women, formed an Ad Hoc Committee for Women's Studies. The committee collected signatures from over 600 students in support of establishing a Women's Studies Program at SDSU. In response, the university started an informal Women's Studies Program for the Spring 1970 semester. By the start of the Fall 1970 semester, SDSU had formally established a Women's Studies program which offered 11 courses. It was the first such program in the United States. In spring of 1974, the Faculty Advisory Committee undertook a nationwide faculty recruitment campaign to develop women's studies as a strong academic department.

Student at Wall of Protest at SDSU from Carol Council's Book "The Centaur for Women"

The faculty developed an eighteen-unit minor, which was approved by the University Senate in May 1975. That same year the university officially established the Women's Studies Department in the College of Arts and Letters. In 1983, the department began offering an undergraduate major in Women's Studies. Thirteen years later, the department created a Master's degree. In 2000, it began a program offering admission into a 12-unit Certificate Program in Women's Studies through the College of Extended Studies.

The demographics of Women's Studies students were diverse from the beginning. Course offerings mirrored the concerns of first-wave feminism. The program publicized classes using colorful flyers that mimicked the grassroots model of raising awareness through local advertisements. These flyers were designed to catch people's eyes and draw them into pertinent issues of the time.

library display of women's studies 40th anniversary

Reaching Out to the Community

The Center for Women's Studies and Services (C.W.S.S.) opened in 1969 as the first women's center in Southern California. The organizing group behind the CWSS was supportive of women's liberation efforts, and the center's aims were strongly influenced by feminist ideals. The off-campus location of the CWSS made it a complimentary community organization to the emerging Women's Studies academic department at SDSU until an on-campus center was later opened.

In 1974, the Associated Students granted funding for an on-campus Women's Resource Center (WRC.) The intent of the center was to provide much needed information and assistance to the women of the university community. Riding on the excitement of the Women's Movement, the WRC was deemed successful in its mission. The WRC hosted numerous special events to bring attention to women's issues, including famed speakers and health fairs. However, it was not long before the center felt the strain of the budgetary crisis and faced total closure. In 1977 there was renewed dedication to keeping the WRC open on behalf of the Women's Studies Department and new volunteers. While there is no longer a permanent WRC at SDSU, there remains the spirit and dedication of those who fight for a sustained representation of women's voices on-campus.

Women's Resources Center Table circa mid 1990s

Andrea O'Donnell was a Women's Studies student and the director of the WRC on campus. O'Donnell was strangled by her ex-boyfriend in November of 1994. Her death was a crushing blow to the efforts of a community seeking to prevent that exact crime. The Women's Outreach Association at SDSU has dedicated their organization to celebrating O'Donnell's work for women, and our community remembers her enthusiasm. Addressing ongoing violence against women will always be an objective for the Women's Studies department at San Diego State. Currently, the Andrea O'Donnell Women's Outreach Association—a student run group—works to address the needs of students by hosting events that address women's issues. Take Back the Night is a rally held annually to raise awareness about violence committed against women.

pamphlets on display at library

Celebrating Our Past, Looking Towards the Future

Over the years Women's Studies has hosted many memorable events. For each of our milestone anniversaries we have taken time to commemorate the hard work and success of all the students, faculty, and administrators who have aided in our continued growth as an academic discipline.

Poster from the Women's Studies 25th anniversary library exhibit in 1995

As a new department, Women's Studies instituted an annual colloquium series that has continued to the present day. Well-known figures of the women's movement and advocates for women's issues, like Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, and Bella Abzug, visited SDSU.

Bella Absug Lecture circa 1985. Standing: Ashley Phillips and Lynda Hamilton. Seated Barbara Watson and Bella Abzug.

In celebration of prominent female figures, the women's groups on campus collaborated to institute the Susan B. Anthony Birthday Celebration. The campus also celebrated Women's Week and International Women's Day. Some of our most memorable photos of past decades are of the "Feminist Follies."

Feminist Follies- Marilyn Boxer, Carol Perkins, Barbara Watson, Peg Strobel, Pat Huckle, Elyse Rotella, Bonnie Zimmerman and Leslie Horst. May 1978

All of our past events and our more recent special occasions are an important facet of the department's relationship with our community supporters and those involved in similar activist pursuits. We will continue to host engagements that increase awareness surrounding issues of gender and sexuality, acknowledge the social change we hope to foster, and celebrate the transformations we have accomplished.

The Women's Studies Department at SDSU is dedicated to academics, community activism, and service. Currently we have several ongoing partnerships on and off campus with: the Women's History Museum of San Diego, the Women's Hall of Fame of San Diego, the Healthy Border Women Program, the Andrea O'Donnell Women's Outreach Association, Safe Zones, and the Young Women's Studies Club of Hoover High School. Both undergraduate and graduate students have the opportunity to earn units through community-based internships.

Outside of our local activism, the Women's Studies community at SDSU has also established international ties with travel-study trips to Mexico, India, South Africa and China. Faculty and students have had extended research trips to such places as Palestine, Haiti, and Australia.

Throughout the years and changes that Women's Studies has undergone, there have been traditions and histories kept and cherished. The 40th anniversary of the establishment of the first Women's Studies department presents the ideal occasion for celebrating and honoring our history and achievements. The Department of Women's Studies continues to be a critical component of academic work at SDSU. Women's Studies has challenged many diverse forms of discrimination and fostered hope for change in students, faculty, and administrators. Our dynamic department will continue leading the way in an ongoing revolution.