Women in Contemporary Society
Patricia Kaminski, an undergraduate at UNL and member of the University Women’s Action Group (UWAG), organized on-campus meetings in 1970 to discuss women’s under-representation at the university. These meetings, attended by a mix of faculty members and students, led to the creation of Women in Contemporary Society. The class was housed within the Free University— an educational counterinstitution created by UNL students—during the 1970 academic year. UNL officially adopted the course the following year, in the fall of 1971. Women in Contemporary Society was offered by the Department of Home Economics, and cross-listed in the Department of Sociology.
Women’s Studies Approved
A women’s studies program is an intellectual and political necessity for any self-respecting academic community.
-Moira Ferguson, first chairperson of UNL’s Women’s Studies program
Following the approval of Women in Contemporary Society in 1971, other departments at UNL began expanding their curriculum to better address women and gender. The English department developed a course about women writers in the nineteenth century, for example, and the philosophy department offered a new class, The Philosophy of Feminism. During this period, UWAG also created the Women’s Resource Center (now called the Women’s Center).
These new classes, alongside others, inspired faculty members to create the Women’s Studies Ad Hoc committee. The committee, headed by philosophy professor Sarah Hoagland, created a proposal for a Women’s Studies major and minor at UNL. The Women’s Studies Ad Hoc committee finished drafting the proposal in the fall of 1975, and presented their proposal to the faculty of the College of Arts and Sciences the next semester, in the spring of 1976. The proposal was unanimously approved; UNL officially offered a major and minor in Women’s Studies.
Struggles and Gains
Although Women’s Studies was recognized as an official academic discipline by UNL in 1976, the program still faced many challenges. Margaret Jacobs, professor of history and former director of Women’s and Gender Studies, commented on the program’s struggles in 2007,
We have been keenly aware of the painful irony that our position at the university has often mirrored the position of women in society. Too often, women have done important work in society, yet received little compensation for their efforts.
The most persistent obstacle the program faced was funding, or lack thereof. “The WGS program,” Jacobs said, “has always lacked financial resources.” During the first decade of the program, professors taught Women’s Studies classes for free—and it’s easy to see why. In 1987, the program had a five hundred dollar budget. It wasn’t until 1992 that UNL provided the Women’s Studies department with an office space.
“Getting more resources has been a primary goal,” said Barbara DiBernard. DiBernard was the director of Women’s Studies during most of the nineties, in addition to teaching English at the university. “When I became chair, we had one grad student, who was located in the hallway,” she recalled. “I think we spent an inordinate amount of energy on getting basic resources.” Maureen Honey, another former Women’s Studies director and current professor of English, also remembers the financial struggles the department faced. “The thing that stands out is that we had a program and virtually no resources,” Honey said. “We’ve come a long way.”
The program faced other bureaucratic obstacles as well. Every month, the directors and chairs of programs housed within the College of Arts and Sciences have a meeting; the director of the Women’s Studies department was not invited to attend the meetings until 1988—twelve years after the program began.
In the face of these challenges, the enthusiasm of the program’s professors and students did not waiver. Helen Moore— a professor of sociology and former director of the program— reached out to other social scientists at UNL, who conducted research about sexual harassment and date rape. “That was a definite highlight,” Moore said. “It took so much woman-power; it was conducted on the grassroots level; it was basic, non-funded research.”
I was really empowered through Women’s Studies. I had opinions before, but the program gave me the power to voice them.
-Janet Johnston, a 1985 graduate of UNL’s Women’s Studies program
DiBernard expressed similar sentiments. As she explained, Women’s Studies fundamentally shaped her experience as a student, a consumer of literature, and a professor of English. “When I first came [to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln], I didn’t know there was such a thing as Women’s Studies. I didn’t realize it would change everything.” She went on to add, “I just arrived here completely naïve. I thought the great books were the great books, and everybody agreed. I didn’t question the canon… Teaching Women’s Studies classes pushed me to places I didn’t even know I needed to go.”
Rose Holz, professor of history and current associate director of the Women’s and Gender Studies program, perhaps summed it up best. “That’s what makes this program so special: for all the intellectual rigor and hard work we do, there’s always a real desire to have a good time doing it”.