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How it started, how it's going: ISU Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies reflects on 50 years

In a glass display case, a typewritten letter, photograph from the 1990s and several vintage Equal Rights Amendment buttons.
Emily Bollinger
Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies at 50 includes artifacts and photographs from every era of the the program at Illinois State University, where it launched in 1974 with non-credit bearing classes taught by faculty volunteers.

In the early 1970s, Patricia Chesboro and Beverly Smith gathered a group of Illinois State University faculty to offer a course on women's issues. Classes took place in the dorms for no credit. Faculty were not compensated. Topics ranged from women's history, to self-defense, to automotive skills.

“That was part of the landscape,” said Alison Bailey, director of ISU’s Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies [WGSS], which arose from that first course. The program offers a minor, plus a Queer Studies and graduate certificate.

“People wanted to know women’s history — what have we missed, why haven’t we heard it — and they also wanted some very practical advice and community building,” she said.

The program celebrates its 50th anniversary this year with an exhibit at Milner Library. The Women's Studies program, as it was called in the beginning, was part of a nationwide movement on college campuses.

“The people who were connected to this emerging women’s studies program were very much invested in the national conversation about women’s rights,” said history and WGSS professor Kyle Ciani. “They were very connected to the Equal Rights Amendment protests and conversations. Springfield, Illinois was a big pull.”

In 1972, Title IX established guidelines prohibiting sex-based discrimination in schools receiving federal funding. A year later, a landmark Supreme Court ruling, Roe vs. Wade, decriminalized abortion.

“Students were asking for these classes and asking for the conversations,” Ciani said, “but the faculty and staff were also hungry for it.”

Two women stand side by side against a red wall with the WGLT and NPR logos
Lauren Warnecke
Alison Bailey, left, joined ISU's faculty in 1993 with appointments in Women's Studies and Philosophy. She has served as WGSS director for two decades. Kyle Ciani, right, specializes in history and has worked for ISU for more than 20 years.

While faculty and students did not feel much push back or resistance to the program, Bailey pointed to structural barriers outlined in early WGSS newsletters.

“A lot of these courses were taught without compensation,” she said. “A lot of the tenure-track faculty who wanted to teach these issues were concerned they would not be taken seriously, or it would harm them in the tenure process. Students took a big risk, too, because in their home departments, maybe their research interests or their work on these projects wasn’t taken seriously.”

Even today, scholars in gender and sexuality studies find themselves defending the legitimacy of their field.

“Something that sometimes the general public and even the campus community doesn’t quite embrace is that we are an academic unit,” Ciani said. We are an intellectual program.”

A program, not a department

The WGSS program is a unit within the College of Arts and Sciences. Its interdisciplinary nature draws affiliated faculty from a wide array of departments: history, philosophy, criminal justice, nursing and fine arts, to name a few. Thus, the student body intersects all areas of campus, while existing on their own.

“Our whole architecture and infrastructure on most campus is siloed,” Bailey said. “To do interdisciplinary work requires a lot of scrambling. It makes it very difficult to do fundraising. But our inter-disciplinarity is also our strength. Our students are asking for this. They are so excited to be able to tie ideas and histories across their coursework. And when they leave ISU, they have this added value to their education. It’s a challenge, but it’s also a great joy.”

Mission [never] accomplished

The WGSS at 50 exhibit, on view through May 11, presents a timeline on the library wall and companion digital archive. Materials detail various milestones of the program, including its gradual move from Women's Studies to the current wider focus encompassing gender and sexuality studies.

“The first move during the second wave of feminism is very white. It’s very liberal,” said Bailey. “But it’s also a movement to make women and girls’ contributions visible.”

Campus-wide programs like Take Back the Night and the Clothesline Project, both of which raise visibility about sexual assault and intimate partner violence, arose from a collective desire to effect social change. But Ciani categorically denies that Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies is solely — or even centrally — about social and political activism.

“Sometimes people erroneously believe that we are protesting in our classes — that we’re all about social movement consumerism,” Ciani said. “That’s not what we do. We’re teaching our students how to critically think, read, write and craft an argument. We’re training them to be future lawyers. We’re training them to be health professionals.”

To that end, Bailey said Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, and its growing body of academic literature, are more important than ever. There's no target to aim for that renders the work accomplished [or obsolete] even as professors increasingly infuse curricula with a broader, intersectional lens.

“We don’t infuse; we start from the margins and tell those stories first,” Bailey said, “then bring those into conversation with dominant narratives. You get a very different conversation. It’s more accurate. It’s more humanized. It’s more interesting. It’s more engaging.”

WGSS at 50 runs through May 11 at Milner Library at Illinois State University. A Hatch campaign running through April 30 seeks to raise $5,000 to support the program’s annual research symposium, scholarships, a speaker series and maintenance of the community room and art gallery at Rachel Cooper Hall.

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.