Celebrants of women's studies look to a bright future of interdisciplinary inquiry

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Joe Schwartz

Jason Koski/University Photography
Panelists at the 40th anniversary of Cornell's women's studies kickoff event talked about how the discipline has influenced their careers. From left: Shelley Feldman, director of Feminist, Gender & Sexuality Studies (at podium), FGSS graduate minor Rachel Lewis, Cynthia Bowman, Suman Seth, Ileen DeVault and Dagmawi Woubshet. Not pictured is Susan Henry.

Women's studies at Cornell has come a long way in 40 years, but those attending events to celebrate that history were urged to look forward to how academic inquiry rooted in feminism continues to inform understanding of gender relationships across the disciplines.

Cornell's 40th anniversary celebration of what was once called Women's Studies, renamed Feminist, Gender & Sexuality Studies (FGSS) in 2002, drew a wide range of participants, including some who were faculty or students during the program's early years. Throughout the Oct. 30-31 celebration, panels of former students, faculty and others addressed such topics as the body; justice, imperialism and militarization; and state and community formations.

"I think we want to look forward instead of backward," said Shelley Feldman, FGSS director. "What is interesting to note are the connections between the program now and the movements that generate and sustain it."

The weekend was billed as one event of a series, and organizers said they hope more students will attend future events and become interested in what FGSS and related disciplines offer.

The Oct. 30 kickoff featured panelists who described how women's studies had helped shape their academic careers. At Feldman's invitation, audience members contributed reminiscences, questions and the links between FGSS and their research.

The diversity of the panelists' fields -- from Ileen DeVault, professor of labor history at the ILR School, to Dagmawi Woubshet, assistant professor of English -- demonstrated FGSS's interdisciplinary reach.

Panelist Suman Seth, Cornell assistant professor of science and technology studies, used a clip from the movie "Blade Runner" and told how mid 20th-century scientist Alan Turing was condemned for his homosexuality (for which the British government recently apologized) to demonstrate ideas about gender that pervade many aspects of history and daily life.

"I think many people have forgotten that as a mode of questioning, feminist and queer theory have proved powerful in areas way beyond their original domains," Seth said.

Though the program has grown from an ad hoc operation 40 years ago to a thriving interdisciplinary field that offers an undergraduate major and graduate minor, some audience members felt there is room for improvement.

Nimat Barazangi, a research fellow studying women's identity and the Qur'an, wondered at the lack of academic work at Cornell and FGSS on Muslim women. Law School adjunct professor Marcia Greenberg questioned whether an overhaul of the university's departmental structure was necessary to allow FGSS access to expertise in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences on gender and development issues.

Feldman said looking critically at organization is worthwhile, considering that interdisciplinary programs like FGSS that are not linked to one particular department are often seen as "extras," especially during difficult economic times. DeVault also pointed out that FGSS cannot make its own hires and depends on other departments to jointly appoint faculty.

But if there is room for improvement, Michael Cobb, Ph.D. '01, reminded the group that there is much to celebrate.

Cobb teaches at the University of Toronto and was the first queer theory hire in a traditionally conservative English department. He recalled the "extraordinary things" that were happening at Cornell when he was a student.

"In light of all the scarcity, or maybe because of it, extraordinary people were here teaching me," he said. The sentiment was shared by many others in the audience.


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