The History of Women's Studies at UNL

Women's Studies at the University of Nebraska: A Brief Digital History

Created by WGS undergraduate Danielle Rue, this site provides a digital history of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Women’s and Gender Studies program. Although by no means exhaustive, it offers a brief snapshot of the program’s early years, and what life was like at UNL during that time. UNL’s Women’s Studies program (later renamed Women's and Gender Studies) was officially formed in 1976; the university offered its first Women’s Studies class five years earlier, in 1971.

Twenty Years Later: 1976-1996

by Moira Ferguson

The UNL Women's Studies Program is a vibrant, growing member of the university community. Twenty years after its inception, the program currently offers 40 courses in 11 departments and an undergraduate major and minor. In any given semester, about 500 students are enrolled in Women's Studies courses.

Twenty years ago, in the spring of 1976, a proposal was put before the faculty of the College of Arts and Sciences to approve a major and minor in Women's Studies. When that proposal passed unanimously on April 26, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln joined the small but growing number of universities throughout the United States who offered undergraduate degrees in Women's Studies.

In the spring of 1976, Moira Ferguson was appointed the founding chairwoman of the newly created Women's Studies Program. But this was no spontaneous action; it was a triumph several years in the making. Its impetus came from a national movement to elevate the standards of justice and democracy in the United States. The personal unrest and desire for social transformation that characterized this movement took place throughout the 1960s.

The Sixties was an era of radical change that began with Civil Rights and ended with the bombing of Haiphong Harbor. Television brought social upheaval daily into people's living rooms. African Americans, white women, Native Americans, and Chicanas pushed for redress of their grievances. Many new avenues for struggle opened up and inspired many lesbians and gay men to come to renewed self-definitions, despite historical hostility and employment and housing discrimination. Movements variously designated as Civil Rights, Women's Liberation, American Indian Movement (AIM), and La Raza emerged and spread widely.

Five years after Rosa Parks' historic refusal to surrender her bus seat, four black students sat in a Woolworth's lunch counter in North Carolina. In Muriel Rukeyser's prophetic phrase, the world was 'split open.' With the founding of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960, on a basis of racial equality, southern black students began to respond to racist attitudes and policies with non-violent tactics, such as the celebrated sit-ins and freedom rides. Everyone's opinion was considered equally in making decisions, and meetings did no end until consensus was achieved. Though frustrating at times, this lack of hierarchy and structure generated a keen sense of community and participatory democracy. Basing their goals on an ideal of 'beloved community,' white and black students worked together to organize and teach in freedom schools, run libraries, canvas for voter registrations, and generally raise political awareness among black communities in the South. The idea of racial equality influenced the goals of the women's liberation movement.

Toward the end of the Sixties, there was enormous student disillusionment with national politics on a number of fronts. This disillusion was precipitated by the Cambodian invasion, the Kent State University and Jackson State University slayings, and the national trauma stirrings of the Vietnam era in general. In part, it provided impetus for the first stirrings of a women's movement in the universities. The growing awareness that women had been systematically excluded from decision-making opportunities in society's institutions - including the university - promoted re-evaluations, followed by actions and demands for change.

As activism proceeded apace in the academy and outside, Women's Studies programs in colleges and universities rapidly gew. By the fall of 1969, only 17 courses offered in the country directly concerned women. In 1970 that number had risen to over 100. By 1971, almost 100 colleges around the country offered a course of one credit or more on women. A fundamental change erupted in the traditional academy: interdisciplinary studies and the link between activism and scholarship was formally opening up. By the early 1970s, Women's Studies had become a legitimate part of many university offerings. In some institutions, perhaps only a single course was added; in many others, full programs leading to degrees were initiated.

Women's Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln participated in this national trend. In 1970, an undergraduate named Patricia Kaminski, representative of the university womenÕs action group (U.W.A.G.) channeled her frustration at national events and women's under-representation on campus into organizing concerned communities to talk about change. The organizational meetings that resulted brought into being the first Women's Studies course offered at Nebraska. With input from other concerned faculty and students - Patricia Knaub, Linda Pratt, Carol Poston, Ellen Minzmeyer, and others - Patricia Kaminski shed her disillusionment and, with a sense of "great excitement and vision," mid-wifed "Women in Contemporary Society." Under the auspices of the Free University, a student-sponsored, student-run alternative to departmental offerings, this initial course received no university funding or academic credit. For two semesters - Fall 1970 and Spring 1971 - "Women in Contemporary Society" was designed and taught by two professors from Home Economics, Patricia Knaub and Connie Kies, and by student volunteers. Patricia Kaminski was the first Women's Studies graduate from the Free University. This group of women reflected and represented the concerns and interest of a growing number of women.

The First Course in Women's Studies
Despite many bureaucratic hassles and the lack of funding, "Women in Contemporary Society" was finally considered a legitimate course of study, worthy of college credits. In the fall of 1971, "Women in Contemporary Society" was taught through the Home Economics Department and cross-listed in Sociology. By 1972 other courses on women poets, human sexuality, and the psychology of women were offered.

With the addition of new courses in Women's Studies, including "The Philosophy of Feminism" and "19th-Century Women Writers, " the Women's Studies Ad Hoc committee was formed. Chaired by Professor Sarah Hoagland from the Philosophy Department, the committee consisted of Mary Jo Deegan, Ann Diffendal, Moira Ferguson, Jane Hood, Ann Kleimola, Pat Knaub, Harriet McCombs, Nan Norbert, Jo Beth Nordyke, Mary Pipher, Linda Pratt, Susan Rosowski, Marianne Shaw, Barbara Smith, Theo Sonderegger, Chris Stout, Daniela Weinberg, Susan Welch, and LynnWhite. Together, they designed a proposal for a major and minor in Women's Studies which was ratified by that group in November 1975. The following spring the proposal was unanimously accepted by the College of Arts and Sciences faculty. At that point, the Women's Studies Program entered the phase of consolidation. In conjunction with department chairs, Dean Max Larsen appointed 10 faculty members to serve as the first Women's Studies Area Studies Committee: Professors Ann Kleimola, Nancyann Norbert, Theo Sonderegger, Julia Stanley, Linda Pratt, Susan Welch, Patricia Knaub, Lynn White, Sarah Hoagland, and Moira Ferguson, who was appointed as the first chairwoman of the program.

Major and Minor in Women's Studies
As a multi-disciplinary academic program, Women's Studies designed its BA major and minor with a view to intellectual richness combined with career opportunities.

Students were encouraged to learn about historical and contemporary contributions of women in various areas of society; to examine critical assumptions about women held by academic disciplines; to evaluate these assumptions from the perspective of current research and individual experience; to examine traditional and changing sex roles in various cultures; and to explore new alternatives for people. The specific courses in these early years covered such areas as history, sociology, psychology, human development and the family, life sciences, literature, political science, and philosophy. To broaden the range of offerings, Women's Studies students were also encouraged to participate in courses that had a partial focus on women. The requirements for a major and minor at that time can be found in the current bulletin for the College of Arts and Sciences and in the handsome brochre published by the program.

Courses offered through the Women's Studies Program during the 1970s that were part of the core program included Sex Roles in Literature, Women in Contemporary Society, The Psychology of Women, and The Philosophy of Feminism. Many of these courses, except where staff shortage exists, are still offered today.

Several other courses in Women's Studies, not specifically designated as core courses, were also taught. Additionally, a large number of new courses gradually developed as more faculty with an interest in Women's Studies were hired and as core faculty continued to develop new courses to add to the program's offerings. These new courses from 1979 to 1982 spanned a diverse range and included courses such as Women & Men: An Anthropological Perspective, Images of Women in Popular Culture, Native American Women: Heritage & Identity, and Black Women Writers.

Four of these courses are particularly worthy of singling out because of their subject matter: Black Women Writers (Ethnic Studies 244B), Twentieth-Century Lesbian Novelists (English 310 N), Native American Women: Heritage and Identity (English/Ethnic Studies 200) and Topics in American Government (Women in Politics) (Political Science 101). Three of the assistant and associate professors involved, Hortense Spillers, Julia Penelope (formerly Julia Stanley), Susan Welch, and Woesha Cloud North, went on to become distinguished international scholars. At UNL they helped the program break ground nationally in long-neglected yet crucial feminist areas.

The senior seminar, however, was and is the only course specifically designated as a Women's Studies course. The first senior seminar, taught and coordinated by Professor Ferguson, offered a splendid line-up, as faculty from many departments came to share their knowledge with the students. Among the faculty who gave a weekly lecture in the 1977 senior seminar were Professors Woesha Cloud North, Wilma Crumley, Sarah Hoagland, Ann Kleimola, Patricia Knaub, Julia Penelope, Theo Sonderegger, Hortense Spillers and Susan Welch. In addition, there were a number of specialized courses and areas in which independent work could be pursued. In Women's Studies 395, students took part in field studies, including internships at the Rape Crisis Center, Planned Parenthood, Friendship House, or state agencies involved with women's issues. In Women's Studies 399 and 497, students took part in independent directed reading for which they consulted with the Women's Studies Chair.

These independent study courses provided individual internship experience or independent scholarship or other projects that could be pursued under the supervision of and in consultation with an individual faculty member. The format ranged from individual placements in agencies focused around women's issues to individual consultation and research projects.

In 1978, the Visiting Speakers Program in Women's Studies was established and got off to a rousing start with several speakers and singers. Among the popular and very well- attended gatherings was a lecture titled "Where We Are Today" by Germaine Greer. A large number of concerts and speakers were also cosponsored by theWomen's Studies Program. Among featured singers and artists were Bernice Regan, Holly Near, Chris Williamson, Meg Christian, and Deidre McCalla who all made frequent apperances. In 1978, the Women's Studies Program assembled a distinguished panel of feminist scholars at the Sheldon Film Theatre. Titled "Feminist Aesthetics, " the panel included Tillie Olsen, Catharine Stimpson, and Mary Helen Washington. Adrienne Rich and Paula Gunn Allen were two nationally prominent poets who made regular appearances at UNL. As a spectacular cultural complement to the Women's Studies Program, Sinister Wisdom, the distinguished lesbian-feminist journal, was housed in Lincoln from 1979 to 1982. At the same time, the Lincoln Legion of Lesbians was organized in 1978 and coordinated and cosponsored a number of important women's events.

In 1979, the Women's Studies chairwoman was invited to sponsor the nomination of Tillie Olsen to receive an Honorary Degree Award from the University of Nebraska. As a result, many students from Women's Studies were involved in that visit, during which Tillie Olsen gave a public reading at the Student Union of her famous story "I Stand Here Ironing. " Also in 1979, Adrienne Rich led a round-table discussion at the Sheldon Gallery.

In 1980, the Midwest Regional Women's Studies Conference, with 750 people attending, was hosted by the UNL Women's Studies Program at the Center for Continuing Education. Three years earlier, while UNL Women's Studies was making enormous strides, women from across the country had come together to form the National Women's Studies Association. Ferguson was the first Midwest Coordinator to the NWSA Coordinating Council from 1977 to 1981. She served as the Midwest delegate to the National Coordinating Council of the NWSA from 1977 to 1980 and as the University of Nebraska representative to the International Women's Year Convention in Houston, Texas.

In the fall of 1982, Professor Helen Moore of the Sociology Department became the second chairwoman of the Women's Studies Program. Moore successfully directed the program until 1987. She also served on the coordinating council of the NWSA as the Midwest representative from 1983 to 1985 and on the steernig committee from 1985 to 1988. This participation at a national level helped the UNL Women's Studies Program to say abreast of new developments in Women's Studies and offer current information to the Women's Studies majors in the Senio Seminar.

During that period, as more faculty were hired and joined the program - among them Natalie Porter and Patricia Riddle - several important new courses that Women's Studies had long sought and needed were added to the program's offerings. This gave the program an increased strength in the social sciences that, even today, is one of the program's distinguishing hallmarks. In addition, the internship program increased its range and diversity. In the mid-80s also, a comprehensive study on sexual harrassment and violence against women was undertaken. Moore, Porter and Riddle were member of that committee.

Another significant innovation by Moore was the introduction of the Women's Studies Colloquium Series, the first funded program in Women's Studies at UNL. This series featured monthly speakers who addressed timely topics in Women's Studies. Among diverse speakers were Porter on women and psychology, Professor Ella Robinson on literature, and Professor Mary Jo Deegan on female sociologists. Other prominent speakers and musicians visited the program during this time, including such a distinguished host of featured feminists as Jacquelynne Eccles, Sandra Lipsitz Bem, Janet Spense, Joan Martin, and Judith Rodin at the Nebraska Symposium on Motivation: Psychology and Gender in 1984. As part of a women's speakers project in 1985, Professor Jessie Bernard was one of the celebrated national speakers who gave a stunning presentation to an overflow crows. In March 1985, a Midwest Women's Studies Association conference was sponsored by the Women's Studies Progrm and held in Lincoln. Nationally known lesbian poet Pat Parker was a keynote speaker, with lesbian- feminist Mary Daly as featured speaker. Beatrice Medicine was a keynote speaker on Native Women's Culture, in a conference cosponsored with the Center for Great Plains Studies.

The third chairwoman, Maureen Honey, directed the program from 1987 until 1992. During this time, a large number of new women faculty were hired at UNL, many of whom joined the program and helped to increase course offerings: Christin Mamiya (Art), Ann Mari May (Economics), Christina Brantner (Modern Languages), Jennifer Lehmann (Sociology), Wendy Weiss (Textiles and Design), Sue Rosowski, Joy Ritchie, Sharon Harris (English), and Eva Sartori (Library). During that period, the curriculum received a further boost with the addition of more than 20 courses. These additions reflect the growing strength of the Women's Studies Program both on campus and nationwide. In addition, celebrated speakers continued to enrich the campus, including Angela Davis and Margaret Sloan Hunter, Ms. Magazine cofounder; such poets, novelists, and theorists as Toni Cade Bambara, Cheryl Clarke, June Jordan, bell hooks, Sonia Johnson, and Carolyn Heilbrunn; Tillie Olsen on a return visit; several colloquium speakers, and inspiring performers Adrienne Torf, the Washington Sisters and the Dance Brigade, cohosted with the Women's Center.

In 1992, however, UNL Women's Studies reached a turning point, in large part due to a qualitative change in UNL administration. Since the inception of the Women's Studies Program, during those 16 years from 1976-1992, no office space was made available and very limited clerical help - at best four hours of student work study per week. Only a modest amoung of funding had been made available, mainly for a small speakers' budget. From 1976-1987, the chairwomen taught six courses a year, except for the opening semester of the new program when the first chair received a course off. In 1987, however, the third chairwoman finally received a one course reduction per year - something the program had annually requested. This practice continued until 1992. In 1988, program chair Maureen Honey was invited to join the monthly meetings of the Arts and Sciences chairs and directors, unprecedented in the history of Women's Studies at UNL.

In April 1992, Professors Moore, Ferguson,and Honey requested a meeting with Chancellor Graham Spanier and made representations to him about the need for a small budget and appropriate office space. As a result, the situation changed decisively for the better. The English Department, chaired by Stephen Hilliard, procured some office space in 1993. The Dean gave additional funding and staffing, including one graduate assistant. The Chancellor gave money to set up the Women's Studies office, along with desks, bookshelves, files, and cabinets. At that point, Professor Barbara DiBernard was selected by the Dean, in consultation with Women's Studies Program members, as the next chairwoman.

The acquisition of secretarial assistance and a second graduate assistant, together with access to some important basic funding enabled the program to become even more visible; as a result, the number of Women's Studies majors more than doubled. With these added resources, the Women's Studies Program finally began to come into its own, establishing an Achievement Award for Women's Studies students and recognition ceremonies for graduating majors. Other important courses and special topics since 1992 have been added to the program.

New faculty who joined the program during this time included Laura Sanchez, Kate Ronald, Hilda Raz, Alison Stewart, and Adelaida Martinez. Further evidence of Women's StudiesÕ strength is the publication of a newsletter and the establishment of a scholarship fund for Women's Studies majors from an endowment through the Foundation. A video library has been established and funds for video equipment and updated computers procured. In 1994, Professor Emerita Theo Sonderegger donated her ChancellorÕs Award for Contributions to Women at UNL to the program as did Barbara DiBernard who won the award in 1995. In 1992, a local Women's Studies Association was formed, which is open to undergraduate and graduate students as well as members of the Lincoln community. A regional No Limits conference for undergraduate and graduate students was organized and inaugurated in 1994. This enterprising venture has put the Women's Studies Program on the national map in a resounding way. Speakers during this period include Norma Cantu, Chrystos, Lillian Faderman, Leslie Feinberg, Janice Gould, Pat Mora, Pratibha Parmar, Minnie Bruce Pratt and others.

The program is currently exploring possibilities for an Introduction to Women's Studies course, a 300-level Feminist Theory and Methodology course and one that focuses on the diversity of women's lives. Graduate studies is also a very promising and exciting area that has increasingly expanded. The program is exploring the possibility of offering a certificate in Women's Studies at the graduate level since this would considerably enhance the stature of our program, both regionally and nationally.

Now beginning its third decade, Women's Studies at UNL is forging ahead on a firm path. The promise of the next 20 years is as bright as the achievements of the first.