On Aug. 26, 1971, Women’s Equality Day was celebrated for the first time to commemorate the anniversary of the adoption of the 19th Amendment and women’s suffrage in 1920. Fifty years later, Furman’s Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies program is entering its third fall as an official major and its 17th as a minor. In August 2021, the university awarded its first Bachelor of Arts degrees in WGSS, and will award three more in Spring 2022.
But the history of women’s studies at Furman goes back to its first course in the subject, sponsored in the mid-1970s by then-Professor Elaine Nocks of the psychology department. The course was requested by the students themselves.
“The idea that it would have been student initiated doesn’t surprise me at all, given the flexibility that faculty have in terms of getting a sense of student interest and then creating a course,” says Savita Nair, professor of history and Asian studies and the director of the WGSS program.
Momentum increased in Spring 1992, when Marian Strobel, the William Montgomery Burnett Professor of History, offered Furman’s first regular catalogue course in women’s studies, The History of Women in America, which is being taught this fall. In 2001, WGSS became available as an interdisciplinary concentration, and it became Furman’s first official minor in 2005.
Vision becoming reality
The drive to create a WGSS major was sparked in part by a conversation Lynne Shackelford, professor of English, had with Ken Peterson, who was then dean of faculty and is now vice president for academic affairs and provost.
“I told him before I retired, I wanted Furman to meet my vision of having a WGSS major and having a faculty member and director who would have WGSS as the primary teaching and research focus, rather than the volunteer administrative work the faculty have done throughout the years,” said Shackelford, who is retiring at the end of the 2021-2022 academic year. “Well, my vision is slowly becoming a reality.”
Once again, student enthusiasm helped spur growth in WGSS, as Nair found when she polled her Issues in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies course in 2019.
“Dr. Nair – and a lot of the other professors in the WGSS classes – took it upon themselves to ask our feedback,” remembered Olivia Glad ’21, the program’s current postbaccalaureate fellow, who was a sophomore that year. “There was the offer of the minor, but up until that point, there was still conversation over whether or not they wanted to broaden that to include the major.”
Encouraged by student support, Nair, Shackelford and English Professor Gretchen Braun drafted a proposal for the major – “with a lot of help from others,” says Nair – and sent it to every department chair who offered a class that counted toward WGSS. After the faculty approved it in Spring 2019, the WGSS major officially launched Sept. 26, 2019, at a reception, archival exhibit and panel discussion in Hartness Pavilion, with Shackelford and Braun as co-directors.
Sometimes uncomfortable, always necessary
Over the years, courses on gender and sexuality began appearing in the curriculum; current offerings include Introduction to Queer Theory and Sexuality Studies, Women in Islam and Thinking Sex: What’s Love Got to Do With It?
Some of the subjects admittedly pushed a few students outside their comfort zones.
“If you grow up in a socially conservative environment where you understand the human population in those two categories of ‘male’ and ‘female,’ it can be disruptive, it can be uncomfortable,” Nair said. “But I think college should be a place where you get a little uncomfortable, whatever the subject is.”
The subject matter of WGSS courses, including discussions about intersectionality, identity and LGBTQ+ issues to name a few, are heavily dependent on a fundamental understanding of the fluid categories of gender, sexuality and identities themselves, says Glad.
“The distinction between gender and sexuality is one of the most important things to learn about in women’s and gender studies,” she says. “Often people have a perspective that if you look a certain way and you act in a certain manner, that subsumes exactly who you are and who you are attracted to. My biggest approach to WGSS is recognizing that I don’t know everything and that things are far more complex than even I’ll understand.”
Understanding those concepts is necessary, stressed Nair – no matter what career a student ends up in. WGSS students have found meaningful employment in a diverse set of professions, including education, medicine, nonprofit management, law, human resources, social work, marketing and journalism.
“We live in a gendered world,” she said. “I see this as far more than curricular, and it relates to every possible field.”
Future plans fueled by student enthusiasm
Furman’s WGSS major is still growing. Among the more than 800 programs nationwide, Furman’s is still relatively small, with six current majors and three seniors – Riley Hughes ’22, Miriam Stevens ’22 and Queen Trapp ’22, who were also the first to declare the major in 2019 – set to graduate in the spring. (Maddy Lock ’21 received Furman’s first WGSS BA in August 2021.) At this year’s Opening Convocation ceremony, Trapp received the Rosa Marie Bodkin Meritorious Award for Diversity and Inclusion.
Part of Nair’s mission, with help from Glad, will be to nurture the program’s growth. On their to-do list is increasing visibility on campus, connecting with student groups and other partners on campus, fundraising and leading a national search for a full-time director. She’d also like to see the return of the MayX course Sex Goes to School: Sex Education in the United States and Sweden, a study away course canceled by the pandemic.
Student interest – which helped sparked the beginning of the program in the mid-1970s – continues to fuel it today, said Glad, who has seen many of her classmates and newer students take on WGSS as a minor or major.
And Nair is happy to see that interest stretching into the future.
“I’m meeting my freshman advisees later today,” she said. “All of them have WGSS as one of their possible majors.”