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Wednesday, September 27, 2023

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SDSU Women's Studies 50th Anniversary SDSU Women's Studies 50th Anniversary

Women's Studies at 50

The very first program of its kind is still breaking new ground as it looks back to where it all started.
By Jeff Ristine

“Thanks to women’s studies, I have found and been able to continue to develop my passions for feminism and activism.”

As the 1970s began, no woman had yet become CEO of a Fortune 500 company or been elected governor without having married a man who previously held the job. And not a single college or university in the U.S. offered a women’s studies program.

At San Diego State College, however, a group of faculty and student activists calling itself the Ad Hoc Committee for Women’s Studies was working to make its mark, calling out “years of (curricula) where reference to the contributions of women are distorted and conspicuously omitted.”

Fifty years later, what is now the Women’s Studies Department at San Diego State University is marking the historic impact of their activism, the program that became a national first.

“Women's studies was a revolution,” said Doreen Mattingly, who started teaching at SDSU in 1995 and became department chair in 2017. “Just like ethnic studies, it transformed the other disciplines.”

The department is celebrating the milestone with a webinar celebration via Zoom, starting at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 5 (register here). A more elaborate on-campus event was in the works for last April, but was postponed due to concerns with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The more modest program is still heavy on history; live panels will feature faculty participants from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, including former department chair Marilyn Boxer. Videos, slideshows, artwork and a dance performance will round out the program.

As part of its promotion, the department has assembled a YouTube slideshow of 58 women, men and non-binary alumni and what they’re up to today; many went on to careers in teaching or the arts (including actress Kathy Najimy); many others became activists in their own favorite causes.

Mattingly said the department’s perspective grew over the years. Nationally, many programs have changed their names to “Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies” to encompass wider issues and identities; SDSU has maintained the name "women's studies" while creating a freestanding LGBTQ+ studies major and minor.

New directions

Today the program is “about the way in which race and gender and sexual identity and gender identity are all connected in our lives and in our institutions,” Mattingly said. “So in that way we're incredibly relevant because as we try to think beyond giant categories of all men, all women, and to think in a much more sophisticated way, taking into account complex identities and historical context.”

The department has not stopped breaking ground, launching what’s believed to be the first minor in feminist science, technology and society studies. Other scholars have expertise in the policing of sexual minorities, and Arab American identities.

In the fall 2020 semester just now ending, the department has 29 sections of 17 courses at the undergraduate level and three graduate-level courses. A total of 1,785 students are enrolled.

“Thanks to women’s studies, I have found and been able to continue to develop my passions for feminism and activism,” said Estefany Escobedo Solis, a senior majoring in women’s studies and linguistics who wants to remain involved with social services, education and community organizing after graduation. “Aside from helping me grow personally, women’s studies has also helped me grow professionally through internships and networking.”

An additional benefit of the program, she said, was being introduced to the campus Women’s Resource Center and similar services. “There, I found community, acceptance, understanding, and impactful community engagement opportunities.”

Amid the cultural revolution of the ’70s, the origins of the women’s studies program were very much at the grassroots level and were part of a concurrent drive for an on-campus center for women’s services.

In the era’s version of social media, volunteers passed out flyers and collected 600 signatures on petitions supporting women’s studies, according to a historical document from the time. They ultimately made a pitch where they thought they stood the best chance of a friendly reception: the College of Arts and Letters.

Former department chair Susan E. Cayleff notes the college had just started a new Mexican American Studies program (now the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies), “so there was precedent for questioning the status quo.”

For its soft launch in spring 1970, women’s studies classes included “Women’s Roles in History and Literature” and “Human Sexuality.”

With approval from the Faculty Senate, it grew into a full-fledged program in the fall with additional (and more feminist-oriented) courses that included “Self-Actualization of Women” and “Status of Women Under Various Economic Systems.” A field experience class allowed students to get academic credit for activist work, an extraordinary concept for its time.


By fall 1972 more than 530 students were enrolled in Women’s Studies courses. It expanded to a full academic department in 1974, established a major in 1982 and added a master’s program in 1995. Mattingly attributes the program's long-term survival to a continuing commitment from the College of Arts and Letters.                             

Two key activists in the original push for women’s studies were inducted into the San Diego County Women’s Hall of Fame in 2016: English professor Joyce Nower, who died in 2010, and Carol Rowell Council, a junior from Corpus Christi, Texas, a leader among students advocating for the program.

In an oral history recorded last year for the anniversary, Council was asked about the impact of their work. She again thought back to an era when women were expected to become teachers or secretaries and when some saw higher education for women as a waste of effort.

“The most important accomplishment is that lives were changed and reached,” Council said. “We taught ourselves about that we needed to learn, not just in the academic sense or in class, but we needed to go through some kind of personal growth or transformation because all of our lives we had kind of been raised to just fit a certain mold.”

“We felt confident, and we felt that we had tools to now share with other people about how to change their own lives. And that together, you know, we really could change the world.”