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Above: Daily Aztec, April 9, 1970. SDSU's women's studies department was formed during a transitional time for women, when events such as the Miss Miniskirt Contest were held on campus. Above: Daily Aztec, April 9, 1970. SDSU's women's studies department was formed during a transitional time for women, when events such as the Miss Miniskirt Contest were held on campus.

SDSU on the Frontier

The nation's first women's studies department turns 40.
By Golda Akhgarnia

In 1970, when the Daily Aztec featured the “Co-ed of the Week” and the Miss Miniskirt Contest was held on campus, a group of forward-thinking women and men were creating history at San Diego State. Together they established the first women’s studies program in the nation.

“The program received a fair amount of faculty and administrative support, both male and female,” recalled Bonnie Zimmerman, associate vice president for faculty affairs and former chair of the women’s studies department. “It had a real presence in the university, and was quite well-supported and popular on campus.”

San Diego State’s women’s studies program began as a minor with roughly a half dozen courses in different disciplines. The program had such widespread appeal that students were switching majors after getting just a taste.

One such student was Deborah Floyd, who enrolled at San Diego State in 1977 in music education. Currently director of Student Affairs at Emory Law, she was introduced to women’s studies when she took the class Women in Education.

“I wasn’t aware of the women’s movement at the time. And then my eyes were opened so wide to what was going on out there. We were on the frontier of a whole new dialectic, and it was so exciting.”

Floyd took every class she could, but soon exhausted the offerings. Disenchanted by the lack of a women’s studies major, she dropped out of SDSU in 1980 to start working. When the major was approved two years later, Floyd re-enrolled while continuing to work full time.

Acquaintances often quizzed Floyd about her field of study. She remembers trying to explain the importance of women’s studies and the role of women in society.

The new generation

Twenty-five years later, Stevie Seibert, a recent graduate of SDSU's women’s studies master’s program, still gets the same questions.

Seibert enrolled at San Diego State in fall 2008 after her undergraduate women’s studies advisor at Pepperdine University promoted SDSU’s program, encouraging Seibert to “go for the original, the place where it started.”

She immediately responded to the welcoming environment that emphasizes both academics and activism. Asked about the program’s strengths, Seibert cites the diversity of class offerings, the flexibility and support of the faculty and the exciting extracurricular opportunities offered through the program.

Looking back on 40 years

Recently, Seibert, a graduate assistant for current department chair Bonnie Kime Scott, was able to explore the roots of SDSU’s women’s studies program while doing research for its 40th anniversary. Looking through the archive of Daily Aztec publications from the period, she discovered some amusing content.

“There was this double portrayal of the sexual revolution and traditional values that ran through our culture. I’m thankful that the current paper has more representation of women’s interests, women students and other diverse groups on campus.”

Like other women’s studies students, Seibert is grateful for the trailblazers who helped establish the department at San Diego State.  

“I feel the fervor of 40 years ago. I get so tickled by the excitement and power of revolution that the women felt when they were putting forth all that work to establish the women’s studies department. I wish I could’ve been there with them!”

The women who were there, like Floyd, and other early alumnae, are grateful that students like Seibert continue to create change by publishing papers, embracing a more global approach to women’s studies and getting involved with activism and community outreach.

“If you plant a seed, it takes off,” said Floyd. “That’s what many of us who were the early feminists did. We just planted seeds.”

Future of women's studies

Looking forward 40 years, Scott believes a women’s studies department will still be relevant and necessary.

“We’ve seen women’s issues come and go. I can’t tell what world events there are going to be, but I think women’s studies is apt to ask the different kinds of questions to help us with those issues.”

Zimmerman is also optimistic about the future of the women’s studies program on campus. Having been involved with the program for 32 years, she has seen many successes, including strong support from community members, the formation of an LGBT minor; and a thriving, highly respected master’s degree program.

Feminist perspectives now permeate all aspects of the university, Zimmerman said, and the newer faculty will enhance the department’s strong reputation.

“People are introducing interesting new perspectives, new theoretical approaches and new content areas. The future is very strong.”