Birth of a Notion

Collage of female figure holding a hammer and bottles with with symbols of women

Nevertheless, They Persisted

By Monique Beeler
Photo by Polly Becker

At the height of the cultural turmoil of the ’60s and ’70s, female scholars broke down barriers to establish a revolutionary new discipline: women and gender studies.

Richard Nixon was in the White House. Vietnam War policies sparked nationwide protests, and activism on college campuses surged. At SF State in 1970, following a headline-making student strike the year before — led by the Black Student Union, the Third World Liberation Front and others — the new School of Ethnic Studies enrolled its first majors. It was also the year when a cluster of “focus on women” classes first appeared in the course catalog.

“The Third World students strike had happened, and there were students, faculty and staff interested in social justice being more at the forefront — and that included race and gender [equity],” says Professor Julietta Hua, chair of the Department of Women and Gender Studies from 2016 to 2019. 

University curricula increasingly reflected those interests.

In the early 1970s, for instance, the “CSU, San Francisco Class Schedule” listed a few women studies courses across disciplines, including “History and Ideology of American Feminism,” “Women in the World” (offered for social science or international relations credit) and the Department of Psychology’s “Women and Madness.” 

By 1974, Sociology Professor Rachel Kahn-Hut handed out on campus blue-inked mimeograph copies of an “Invitation to Women Faculty.” It reported that she and like-minded colleagues had proposed a new women’s studies degree to the Academic Senate, which accepted the proposal for the University’s 1974-79 master plan. The memo called on SF State faculty to attend an informal Oct. 7 gathering in Library 426A. The order of business? “We want to be sure that we know all the women faculty who have an interest in participating in such a program.”

The department was officially founded two years later, joining the first wave of similar programs created nationwide in the late 1970s. (As of 2007, nearly 650 programs had formed.) For the first time, in the 1977-78 academic year, courses appeared under a formal “Women’s Studies” heading in the San Francisco State University Bulletin. The seven offerings ranged from “Feminism: The Basic Questions” to “Women in Groups: Communication and Process.” A decade later, “W.S.” courses had tripled. 

“You’ll come out with a changed perspective on the world.”

Takiyah Larkin (B.A., ’18)

 By 1992, a graduate degree was offered. And in 2009-10, a new name, the Department of Women and Gender Studies (WGS), was adopted. In its nearly 50-year history, cultural icons have taught in the department, including activist Angela Davis, a one-time Black Panther member; Gloria Anzaldúa, author of “Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza”; and writer bell hooks, who penned “Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism.”

Does the substance of today’s coursework — which serves about 100 WGS majors annually — differ dramatically from early years? Hua says no.

“It’s always been an academic field of study that’s interested in understanding how inequality is part of our social structures,” she says. “In that sense, that hasn’t changed. We still have the same social structures.”

 Talk to any WGS alumna or faculty member about the field and the terms “intersectionality” and “transnationalism” spring into the conversation. Intersectionality refers to categories of identity — such as race and gender — and structures of inequality that are enmeshed and must be examined and understood in relationship to one another. As Hua explains: “You can’t talk about class and equality without talking about race, sexuality and gender.”

Transnationalism, in the words of the National Women’s Studies Association,  focuses on cultures, structures and relationships that are formed as a result of the flows of people and resources across geopolitical borders.

In tandem, the two concepts equip WGS students and alums with a multifaceted lens through which to view culture, society and world affairs, says Takiyah Larkin (B.A., ’18). She considers the first WGS course she took — “Gender, Politics and Citizenship” — a validating life experience. “I remember feeling, ‘Wow, I’m finally being told the truth and learning not the romanticized version of history,’” Larkin says. “I learned about the different systems of oppression that I didn’t have the terminology to [identify] before.”

WGS graduates have pursued careers in a broad range of fields, from nonprofit leadership to health care.

At WGS Alumni Day in April, speaker Jessica Tiju (M.A., ’16), a law school hopeful who works for an immigration attorney, told participants their degree has prepared them well. “Be confident in yourself,” she said. “You have a lot of skills to offer a new employer.” In addition to strong skills in critical thinking, writing and interpretation, Tiju points out essential “soft skills” WGS students acquire: empathy and compassion for those from diverse backgrounds.

Larkin agrees, adding that she recommends everyone take a WGS course. “You’ll come out with a changed perspective on the world, whether it’s checking your privileges or having more compassion,” she says. “Take one: you’ll become more informed.”