A bold statement

Sonia Saldivar-Hull, executive director of the Women's Studies Institute at UTSA. She specializes in Chicana literature. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

It's become fodder for op-ed columns, ivory-tower pundits, and heated discussions at off-campus watering holes: Several weeks ago at an academic event, Harvard University President Lawrence Summers was commenting on the dearth of women in traditionally male disciplines when during the closed-door session, he suggested that women's brains aren't hardwired for math and science. "In the special case of science and engineering there are issues of intrinsic aptitude," he said, further comparing the number of women in those fields to that of Jews in farming.

The subsequent flap continues, but more importantly, Summers' comments characterize the climate in which university women's studies programs must try to flourish. While these programs have evolved since the first was established at San Diego State University in 1969, students and faculty grapple with enduring issues of feminism and women of color, sexuality, masculinity, and politics.

Sonia Saldivar-Hull, a UTSA English professor and executive director of its Women's Studies Institute, is developing the first women's studies major in the University of Texas system. This is significant because although UTSA and many Texas universities offer women's studies minors, individualized majors, certificates, and concentrations, according to St. Mary's University, only two institutions offer formal majors: Rice, which calls its program the Study of Women and Gender, and Southwestern University in Georgetown. Ironically, Texas Women's University offers only a minor.

"Texas academies have resisted the idea of women's studies as a legitimate curriculum; it's legitimate knowledge," says Saldivar-Hull, who arrived at UTSA four years ago after developing a women's studies doctoral program at UCLA. "Women's knowledge counts; that's a political statement. And if you say 'women's knowledge doesn't count,' that's a political statement."

Allison Kimmich, executive director of the National Women's Studies Association, notes that women's studies programs are simultaneously on the "decline and rise," depending on the region of the country. An increasing number of doctoral programs, Kimmich says, "suggests a certain vitality in the field. The level of inquiry at the undergraduate level needs to be taken to another level. In this sense the field has gotten a lot of traction. But at the other end of the spectrum, women's studies are underfunded." The programs generally have fewer administrative resources, directors still carry a heavy teaching load, and rarely are there faculty devoted solely to the program.

Sonia Saldivar-Hull and Patricia Trujillo, assistant director of the Women's Studies Institute at UTSA. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

The curriculum for UTSA's women's studies major would be modeled on that of UCLA's, which crosses several disciplines, from anthropology to art to the hard sciences. Initially, the major would rely on faculty from other departments to teach interdisciplinary courses, which Saldivar-Hull says, will require her to "convince department chairs and faculty in very traditional departments that women's studies should count."

However, Saldivar-Hull says she has encountered "no resistance at UTSA" to establishing the major, which could start as early as Fall 2006. The university funds the Women's Studies Institute, which supports faculty conducting research in the field. According to UTSA financial documents, the WSI has an annual budget of $181,000.

If approved, the major would be funded by UTSA and could receive external funding from foundations.

The process to establish a women's studies major is circuitous. First, there must be a demand, for which Salidvar-Hull points to the 150 students who each semester routinely enroll in the Introduction to Women and Gender Studies course. The proposal, which is vetted by several faculty committees, goes to the Dean of Undergraduate Studies, who forwards it to the Faculty Senate's University Committee and on to the full Faculty Senate. From there, the proposal wends back to the Dean of Undergraduate Studies to the UT Coordinating Board; The Board of Regents must ultimately approve it.

Graduates could use their women's studies degree as they would other humanities-based bachelor's degrees, from attending law school to teaching to earning MBAs.

When San Diego State launched its women's studies program 35 years ago, its mission was, "to change women's sense of themselves, their aspirations, the realities of their lives, to alter the relations between women and men and to eradicate ... unequal power based on race, ethnicity, gender, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, and class."

It was a tall order, but by 1982, 20,000 women's studies courses had been introduced in U.S. universities. In its infancy, women's studies programs tackled basic civil rights issues, but women of color often were marginalized. A 1995 Ford Foundation report, "Women's Studies: A Retrospective," written by Beverly Guy-Sheftall and Susan Heath, also noted that these programs have to "move women of color from margins of women's studies to the center."

Women's History Month — Opening Reception
Tue Mar 1
UTSA Downtown Campus
Southwest Room, Durango Building 1.124

Can We Talk? — A Coalition of Women's Organizations
Keynote speaker: Terry Brechtel
Wed, Mar 2
Koehler Pavillion, Brackenridge Park
3800 N. St. Mary's
$15 advance, $20 at the door
Info: 219-5507, [email protected]

For a full schedule of Women's History Month events, go to utsa.edu/wsi
Patricia Trujillo, a doctoral graduate student and assistant director of the Women's Studies Institute, says academic trends point toward "women of color in the sense that we're establishing our own feminism."

That self-empowerment has concrete applications in economics, crime, education, and health care. In South Texas and along the border, Mexican women work for low wages in maquilas; hundreds have been raped and murdered in Ciudad Júarez. The crimes remain unsolved. In San Antonio, the Levi's factory closed, where the majority of workers were minority women. High rates of teen pregnancy in San Antonio prevent many girls from pursuing their education.

Moreover, women's studies programs have evolved to include men and issues of masculinity. "Men need to be in our classes, and the courses do speak to them," says Saldivar-Hull. "A few courageous souls very quickly realize this is a male issue as well. They very quickly demystify the word 'feminism' as male bashing. There are much more complex issues of gender."

The U.S.' politically conservative climate could affect funding for women's studies programs nationwide, as some philanthropic institutions have Bush appointees on their boards that allocate grant money. The Ford Foundation report notes "it would be a mistake not to take seriously the well-organized assault by neo-conservatives and the New Right on feminism."

"In writing grants for certain organizations and foundations we have to be very conscious of the political atmosphere," Saldivar-Hull says. "If the proposal is about women studies that's already one strike against you. How do we find a way to speak to them `conservatives`? We have to think of ways that talk about women in sciences."

Saldivar-Hull, who was raised in what she describes as a "very patriarchal home" in Brownsville, emphasizes that the feminist battles of the early '70s - wage equity, reproductive rights, educational opportunities - continue into the 21st century. "The danger is that we tend to think the earlier examinations are over. My concern is that we keep returning to that; none of that is passé."

By Lisa Sorg

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