Women's and Gender Studies at Illinois State University, as at other colleges and universities, grew out of the resurgence of the women's movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Today, the program offers an undergraduate minor and graduate certificate with a curriculum of 35 courses in ten academic departments, in addition to the Women's and Gender Studies core courses.
The first appearance of women's studies came in 1968 in the form of non credit residence hall classes on self-defense, women's health, and career choices. By the early 1970s, students petitioned academic departments for courses, and the May 1972 Affirmative Action Plan for Women called for the creation of a women's studies program. By fall of 1972, courses were already in place in sociology, psychology, political science, history, and women's studies. In November 1974, women's studies became a sequence within the newly established Ethic and Cultural Studies minor.
Given a quarter release time from the Department of Psychology, Dr. Patricia Chesboro served as coordinator of Women's Studies from its inception in 1973 until her retirement in 1987. Developing the curriculum was not always easy. Departments sometimes resisted using resources on courses dealing with women, and tenure-track faculty often felt that teaching women's studies courses would work to their disadvantage in departmental evaluations. Many courses were taught by non tenure track faculty, as well as tenured faculty. Financial resources were scarce. Nevertheless, a committed core of faculty, both tenure and non tenure track, developed the program, complete with co-curricular programming.
At the time of Chesboro's retirement in 1987, the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Virginia Owen, convened a Women's Studies Task Force (chaired by Dr. Dorothy E. Lee, Sociology) to evaluate the program and make recommendations for its future. The task force resoundingly affirmed the continuation of the program but warned that the program needed administrative support including, as a beginning, a half-time director with a budget and support staff, and a "place of its own."
While the College of Arts and Sciences conducted a search for a new director, Dr. Beverly A. Smith, from the Department of Criminal Justice Sciences in the College of Applied Sciences and Technology, served as acting director for 1988-89. With a quarter release time for her assignment, she taught one class and administered the program. She did receive a graduate assistant and a faculty office in the Center for the Visual Arts for her women's studies work, where she began collecting what is today the Women's and Gender Studies Library. In 1988, feminist students began the Gender Issues Forum, a student organization that has since gone by several different names: Feminist Alliance, Women and Gender Coalition, Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance (FMLA), and now Feminist Led Activist Movement to Empower (FLAME).
Dr. Cynthia Huff arrived on campus in the fall of 1989 as Director of Women's Studies and Assistant Professor of English. With the assistance of her unpaid chief assistant and husband, Joel Haefner, and an undergraduate student worker, Huff ran the program from upstairs rooms in a university house at 302 Normal Avenue. During her five-year tenure as director, Dr. Huff increased the staff to include a graduate assistant, oversaw the program office's move to the first floor of a small house at 604 S. Main Street, instituted a faculty/student research/reading group, produced a semi-annual newsletter, did community outreach, and organized extensive year-round co-curricular programming.
In 1991 the Illinois Board of Higher Education approved her proposal for a free-standing minor. She negotiated a yearly two-course buyout with the Department of Philosophy for newly hired feminist philosopher Dr. Alison Bailey in 1993, making Bailey the first faculty member, besides the director, hired specifically to teach in the Women's Studies program. Enrollment in the minor grew to nearly 50 students by 1995, a significant increase from 1989.
Dr. Huff moved full-time to the English Department in 1995 and a search for a new director took place. Dr. Sandra D. Harmon, a non tenure track professor of history and one of the founding faculty members of the program, served as acting director on a half-time basis from July 1995 through December 1996. During that time, a second graduate assistant and a half-time secretary joined the staff. The newsletter became a monthly publication, and the first Women's Studies Symposium, in March 1996, showcased the work of undergraduate and graduate students and featured an outside women's studies scholar as keynote speaker.
Dr. Valentine Moghadam became the first full-time director in January 1997, holding associate professor rank in the department of Sociology. The program moved into more spacious quarters in Rachel Cooper Hall, and a new full-time secretary, Ms. Rozel White, joined the staff. Harmon filled a new half-time position as assistant director and academic advisor.
A scholar who studies women in the Middle East and North Africa, Moghadam set about internationalizing the women's studies curriculum and co-curricular programming. Under her leadership, the Wome'’s Studies Program sponsored a conference on women and employment, joined with other units on campus to present a weekly international studies seminar series, and teamed with the School of Social Work to create the Women's Capabilities Initiative (WCI). This was an academic, training, and community outreach program that addressed the situation, needs, and prospects of low-income women in Central Illinois. The Women and Employment Conference Team won the university’s 2001 Team Excellence Award. Along with the Curriculum Committee, Dr. Moghadam began planning a graduate certificate in women's studies.
In the spring of 2001, the Women's Studies Program and Professor Emeritus Joseph Laurenti endowed the first scholarship for Women's Studies minors, the Luellen Laurenti Scholarship, in memory of the his wife, the woman whom the Chicago Tribune called "the mother of women's rights in Illinois."
When Moghdam was named a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., for 2000-2001 and again when she received an educational leave in 2003, Dr. Harmon stepped in as acting director, and Dr. Jill Josephson took the position of acting assistant director. The graduate certificate proposal received approval in the fall of 2001. WCI continued through the 2001-02 school year but fell victim to budget cuts the following year.
During the 2003-04 school year, Women’s Studies helped support a new program, the Women's Mentoring Network for nontraditional women students, and became the fiscal agent for the Dorothy E. Lee Endowment Fund for Nontraditional Women Students, which supports a scholarship and grants for women students 25 years of age or older. In this same year, the Curriculum Committee received a Scholarship in Teaching and Learning grant from the Center for Advancement of Teaching to hold a series of four sessions on feminist pedagogy.
With the retirement of Harmon in July 2004, Dr. Alison Bailey became the acting director while Moghadam continued on leave. Dr. Becca Chase, English, became acting assistant director and academic advisor. In the summer of 2005, Val Moghadam resigned to take a position at UNESCO in Paris, and Gary Olson, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, appointed Dr. Bailey to become the new program director. Dr. Chase became the permanent assistant director and academic advisor. In Spring 2006, the program hosted a series of retreats. The name of the program was changed to the women's and gender studies program and a new five-year strategic plan was drafted.
Tom Gerschick stepped in as acting advisor in 2013 and helped grow the minor and certificate until Stacia Kock was hired as the new assistant director and advisor. During this time, a core group of WGS faculty and staff members began to explore the possibility of offering a queer studies certificate. Currently, two courses are in place for the potential certificate.Many of our alumni have gone on to graduate and professional schools. They are teachers, professors, social workers, counselors, attorneys, nurses, university administrators, librarians, Peace Corps volunteers, directors of women's centers, and stay-at-home mothers. They work as staff members and volunteers in restorative justice programs, shelters for battered women, residential facilities for senior citizens, peace organizations, rape crisis centers, reproductive rights organizations, and political campaigns. Many of them credit women's studies with broadening their knowledge and horizons, challenging them to question and think critically, helping them become information producers and critics instead of consumers, and helping them grow as individuals.
Today over 69 Illinois State University faculty members from 21 departments/schools within five colleges are affiliated with the Women's and Gender Studies Program. They teach classes in the undergraduate and graduate curriculums, supervise independent study students, serve on committees, and participate in co-curriculum programming. They continue the work of the small core of faculty members who envisioned a women's studies program over 30 years ago and who could only dream of the resources and support the program enjoys today.