On June 23, the Women and Gender Studies Program at the University of Colorado Boulder reached a historic milestone, officially becoming the Department of Women and Gender Studies.
This change in stature from program to department was the culmination of more than 40 years of hard work by the diligent faculty, students and staff who founded and promoted the program through the years. The elevation of women and gender studies to departmental status confirms their position as a first-rate academic unit and recognizes their scholarship and curriculum as being on par with the other 50-plus departments and programs in the College of Arts and Sciences.
The formation and evolution of CU-Boulder’s Department of Women and Gender Studies has been a reflection of the greater struggle for women’s civil rights and gender awareness. The Women’s Studies Program was created at CU-Boulder in 1974, one of the first such programs in the United States.
The program was a revolutionary idea at a radical time. In the early 70s, the modern feminist movement was intensifying nationwide. In academia, female scholars began to demand that more women be hired as professors and that courses that traditionally focused on a male perspective, such as history, psychology and anatomy, include a female point of view in the discussion.As time passed and the discipline matured, the program “clearly shifted from a women-centric focus to a focus on gender,” says Lorraine Bayard de Volo, current chair of the department. In 2006, the name was changed to the Women and Gender Studies Program to more accurately describe the broader issues of gender that the program examines.
“Now, the emphasis is on the study of masculinity and femininity and how a gender lens helps us better understand various social processes, such as the workplace, social movements and political violence,” explains Bayard de Volo. Students explore the ways that gender and sexuality work in diverse communities and in different cultural and historical contexts.
The new designation doesn’t change the resources or funding of the department, according to Bayard de Volo. However, it is a “statement of the importance of the discipline of women and gender studies to both external and internal constituencies.”
Bayard de Volo notes that external reviewers who assessed the program’s merits stated: “Departmental status is not only important in terms of recognizing the place of women and gender studies within the university; it is also crucial in signaling the status of the unit nationally.”
The departmental designation will also help the unit help attract “top-notch faculty” and assure employers that women-and-gender-studies graduates are not “different from or inferior to” those of other departments.
With the new departmental status, job prospects for graduates are brighter than ever.
“As with nearly all majors in the College of Arts and Sciences, the degree in women and gender studies prepares students for many jobs and careers, as we emphasize critical thinking, organizing and communications skills. Our majors have gone on to become lawyers, professors, social workers, teachers, computer programmers, entrepreneurs, health professionals and so on.”
Since the department is highly interdisciplinary, a student of women and gender studies can expect to gain a broad range of knowledge and skills from a variety of instructors.
“One of the things that makes our department stand out is how we bring together scholars from various traditional disciplines to research and teach gender and sexuality,” Bayard de Volo says. “We support the goal of CU-Boulder’s College of Arts and Science to ‘preserve, interpret and convey humane values and learning.’ Our undergraduate program fosters critical-thinking skills applied to the study of women and gender, particularly in relation to our three key areas: race and ethnicity, sexuality and global studies.”
The activism and social consciousness that helped found the program four decades ago also tend to carry over into the careers of graduates. “One common theme with our majors,” Bayard de Volo observes, “is the ambition to make a difference in the world, improve their communities, enhance democracy and help people in need.”
“With its elevated status, the Department of Women Gender Studies will now be even more empowered to help students achieve personal satisfaction with their academic lives as well has continue to have a positive effect on society in general,” says Bayard de Volo.
Laura Kriho is web and publications coordinator for the College of Arts and Sciences.