Special Collections Online Exhibits

Founding Mothers: From the Ballot Box to the University

Academics: Contested Domains

"Fortunately, we were young and naïve and didn’t know what it would take—we had a lot of enthusiasm." Myra Dinnerstein, founding director of Women’s Studies[i]

The first and primary goal of the women’s studies program was to educate students about the “new scholarship on women.”  The program was structured as an interdisciplinary committee initially with only one position, fulltime chair Dr. Myra Dinnerstein. The women’s studies courses originated in other academic departments and were cross-listed.  The first set of tasks was to meet and negotiate with department heads and faculty interested in women’s studies to expand the number of courses.  The goal was to have courses established in all the major humanities and social science departments and in management. 

Feedback about the new program was positive.  In 1977, Dean Paul Rosenblatt brought Florence Howe, Professor of Humanities at SUNY/ College at Old Westbury and founder of Feminist Press, to conduct an external evaluation of women’s studies. Howe noted that “Arizona’s program has had the advantage of beginning at once with a budget and a paid (as distinct from a volunteer) administrator.  Because of the skills of that administrator and because of the institutional support provided, the talent of faculty and the interest of students, the program has managed to accomplish in two years what some older programs have taken four or five to do.”[ii]

Women's Studies Fall Classes at University of Arizona

Women's Studies Fall Classes, 1975. AWF records(MS 334), UA Libraries Special Collections 

The growth of this academic program followed a logical progression that involved institutionalizing course offerings and providing a structured curriculum (minor, undergraduate major, and graduate education).  By the fall of 1975, undergraduate students could minor in women’s studies, choosing from eleven courses.  Myra Dinnerstein noted that the minor “enriches any major because it give a female perspective not found in traditional courses.”[iii]  Introduction to Women’s Studies, an interdisciplinary course, the first course originating and listed in women’s studies, was added to the curriculum in 1977. 

As women’s studies programs struggled for recognition as a legitimate academic field, leaders in this emerging area met to share best practices, strategies and pedagogical techniques and create networks of scholars.  In 1976 Myra Dinnerstein was asked to represent the university and the western region at a meeting in Philadelphia to explore founding a National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA).[iv] 

Within the university, women’s studies raised interesting questions about power.  The program was led by a non-tenure track woman on a year to year contract, and the faculty teaching courses were primarily young, untenured women. Over the first ten years, women’s studies changed.

From a faculty consisting of untenured assistant professors in some departments, the faculty now consists of almost all-tenure professors in most of the major humanities and social sciences departments.  Interestingly, in the beginning courses were taught by women faculty because of their conviction that students should be exposed to this important scholarship.  But few if any of these women had women as a central topic of their own research.  In the last number of years, Women’s Studies specialists have been hired in history, art, and sociology and a number of Women’s Studies professors have shifted their research to women’s issues.[v]

As women’s studies grew and sought to become more institutionalized, the stakes were greater and questions were raised about the goals of the program, investment of resources, and legitimacy of this interdisciplinary field.  Dinnerstein emphasized the need for the program:  “Some people say the purpose of this kind of program is to segregate women.  We don’t want to segregate.  We want to make up for what there isn’t.”[vi] This approach was important in emphasizing the cooperative stance of the program and its role in filling curricular gaps.

The committee nature of the organization and its limited resources meant that each step of institutionalization was precarious and challenging. Dinnerstein and her supporters spent two years lobbying faculty to get the major approved in 1981. Women's studies faculty worked diligently for four years to earn sufficient faculty support for the proposed Master of Arts degree to gain approval in 1995.

The most significant battle was fought over departmental status in 1996.  The concept of department implies an intellectual area worthy of study by undergraduates and graduate students and the investment of university resources in faculty lines.  As a program, the unit did not have an independent budget and it was difficult to get sufficient resources and personnel. The idea of a women’s studies department had been unthinkable until the program proved its intellectual worth through teaching and scholarship.  Dinnerstein recalled her first years as director of women’s studies: “The idea of women being a respectable and legitimate topic, it just wasn’t in the air.”[vii]  

The proposal for departmental status was approved in Undergraduate Council but debated in the Graduate College.  Faculty raised questions about its legitimacy as a field, need for additional resources, size of faculty and students, pending budget cuts, and advantages of departmental status compared to interdisciplinary committee.  Provost Paul Sypherd supported the request for departmental status based on the quality of the program (ranked 15th nationally by external program review), stature of its research unit, the Southwest Institute for Research on Women (SIROW), and scholarship of the faculty.[viii] He told the Graduate Council that new faculty lines and additional resources had already been budgeted for the program.  Ultimately, the Provost chose to take the proposal to the Faculty Senate without approval from the Graduate Council.  The Faculty Senate supported the proposal on November 4, 1996 with a vote of 35 to 1; ABOR unanimously approved departmental status on February 13, 1997.[ix]

25th anniversary program for University of Arizona Women's Studies

25th anniversary program for University of Arizona Women's Studies. Courtesy of Gender & Women's Studies Department 

The final step in growing and institutionalizing Women’s Studies was the initiation of the Ph.D. program. The celebration of the 25th anniversary of Women’s Studies and UA President Likins’ strong administrative support reinforced the national reputation of the department and the significance of this interdisciplinary academic field.[x]  The proposal emphasized the alignment of the Ph.D. program and the university goals of strengthening world class programs, supporting collaborations across departments, and increasing diversity.[xi] The University of Arizona became the 15th university to offer a doctorate in Women’s Studies when ABOR approved the degree program on April 26,2007. 

As the conceptualization of gender became more complex and LGBTQ studies grew, the faculty voted in 2009 to change the name of the department to Gender & Women’s Studies.


[i] Sarah Garrecht Gassen, “The Power of ‘Or.’ A Tiny Word is Huge Symbol as UA Women’s Studies Celebrates 25 Years,” Arizona Daily Star, September 22, 2000, B1.
[ii] Letter from Florence Howe to Dr. Paul Rosenblatt and Dr. Herbert Carter, August 15, 1977. Gender & Women’s Studies, departmental archive.
[iii] Dennise Coggins, “Women’s Studies Minor Fills in Historical Gaps,” Arizona Daily Wildcat, September 5, 1975, 3.
[iv] Elsa Greene and Elaine Reuben, “Planning a National Women’s Studies Association,” Women’s Studies Newsletter 56, no. 2 (Spring 1976): 1, 10-11.
[v] Myra Dinnerstein, “Unit History: Women’s Studies 1975-1985.” (Report written for the University of Arizona Centennial). University of Arizona Special Collections, E9791 Univ. Pam.218.
[vi] Coggins, 3.
[vii] Alisa Wabnik, “UA Women’s Studies Seeks Full Department,” Arizona Daily Star, January 23, 1996, 1B- 2B.
[viii] Memo from Paul Sypherd on Departmental Status for Women’s Studies to Jeff Warburton, Faculty Senate, September 11, 1996, in Faculty Senate Minutes-Attachments, November 4, 1996, University of Arizona Campus Repository, http://hdl.handle.net/10150/137568.
[ix] Faculty Senate Minutes, November 4, 1996, University of Arizona Campus Repository, http://hdl.handle.net/10150/137568
[x] Peter Likins, “Women’s Studies are Going Strong” Tucson Citizen, October 11, 2000, 3C.
[xi] Proposal to establish Ph.D. program in Women’s Studies, IV. Appropriateness for the University, Alignment of proposal with University Mission and Strategic Mission, Gender & Women’s Studies, departmental archive. October 12, 2006. https://bit.ly/3oGimXt