(From the Fall 2005 edition of the Cornell Report)

When Charlotte Vaughan arrived in 1972 as a sociology professor, the Cornell maintenance worker who came to Vaughan’s college-owned home asked her what she planned to do all day while her husband was at work.

That wouldn’t happen today—in part because of the advancing climate for women, and in part because of the influence of the college’s women’s studies program, founded by Vaughan and French Professor Diane Crowder in 1984.

According to Vaughan and Crowder, the program was born out of scholarship and activism. And in its first two decades, it has advanced on both fronts. One of the first women’s studies programs in the Associated Colleges of the Midwest (ACM) began when Vaughan was assigned to explore women’s issues in the late 1970s. She identified several problems, particularly pay inequity, male to female ratio of faculty members, and the lack of women’s perspectives being taught across the disciplines. Also at this time, notes Crowder, “women’s status was clearly a debatable topic, and proponents of open sexism were not only tolerated but respected.”

Based on conversations about the status of women with colleagues in the ACM, in spring 1983 Vaughan decided it was time for Cornell to build a women’s studies program from already existing courses. After a series of faculty luncheon discussions, Crowder authored the proposal that was approved in the spring of 1984, and the first women’s studies major graduated in 1985.

The program grew from a concentration (later called a minor) to a full-fledged major in 1989. Like other interdisciplinary courses of study, such as environmental studies, women’s studies is not a department. For the life of the program, faculty members have volunteered to provide leadership, direction, advising, and instruction in addition to full-time responsibilities in their primary disciplines.

Since 1984, courses have been offered in nearly every discipline, and the program has funded faculty members as they develop courses based out of their primary department. This financial support of feminist scholarly work has changed the face of teaching and learning on the Hilltop, critically impacting nearly every discipline on campus.

At its 20th anniversary, the program hired its first faculty member, Aparna Thomas, who has a joint appointment in politics and women’s studies. Thomas describes women’s studies as “an interdisciplinary field that applies a feminist perspective to various issues that affect both men and women.” According to Thomas, feminist perspectives involve “not just women’s lives but how gender relationships in society affect both men and women, including politics, economics, the workplace, education, and the family.”

When Charlotte Vaughan is asked why women’s studies is important as a field, she responds, “Because it didn’t get included in the first place.”

“A popular view of women’s studies is that it is simply propaganda,” Diane Crowder adds. “That assumes that there isn’t any scholarship there, which is false. It also assumes that there is such a thing as totally unbiased thinking. We all know that this isn’t true. A feminist perspective assumes that a female experience is equally valid even if it differs from a male experience.”

Senior Amanda Hauser is a typical women’s studies major. She chose it to complement her pre-med study and appreciates the opportunity to learn with a different group of students. She praises the broad range of material available to a women’s studies student: “In 18 days you can talk politics, education, family, and sexuality.”

Psychology Professor Carol Enns has chaired the Women’s Studies Program Committee for five years. She emphasizes that students who engage in this scholarly approach are equipped with applied critical thinking skills and an expanded worldview. “There is a tendency to assume that women’s studies must be some tea party or therapy session when in fact the core and cross listed courses provide a new lens for examining every discipline that students approach.”

Feminist perspectives have brought more than solely academic contributions to Cornell. As women’s studies developed as a program, women’s issues received more attention. Most notably, since 1984, the number of women faculty members has more than doubled, from 17 percent to over 40 percent.

“Women on campus have been very active and brought about a lot of change,” says Vaughan, pointing to safety issues such as outdoor lighting, faculty women’s salaries, and increasing the number of women faculty members. In March 1987, the faculty passed a resolution that required all faculty members to incorporate appropriate works by women and people of color in their courses.

“The faculty as a whole realized that not knowing anything about feminist scholarship in your field meant that you weren’t keeping up with your field very well,” Crowder says.

“The liberally educated person has a broad perspective,” adds Vaughan. “An aspect was left out for many years in this world. Women’s studies is vital for shedding light on the broad perspective of the human condition.”