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Wednesday, September 27, 2023

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Esther Rothblum Esther Rothblum

Esther Rothblum: Reflections on a Career in Women's Studies

Set to retire in August, the SDSU professor helped create the Lavender Graduation ceremony.
By Jeff Ristine

The signature event for San Diego State University’s LGBTQIA+ community, Lavender Graduation, began as an idea to build on the university’s reputation for inclusion.

Women’s Studies professor Esther Rothblum, who is retiring in August after more than 15 years at SDSU, organized the commencement celebration with a colleague, Susan Cayleff, following through on an idea from alumnus Ben Cartwright. That first year the audience was small enough to fit into Scripps Cottage; it now draws well over 100 graduates and guests.

“We wanted to have a chance for students — they could be engineering majors or classics majors or kinesiology — to celebrate being on a campus that is LGBTQ friendly,” Rothblum said. The university had just launched an LGBT studies minor and earned its first five-star rating on the Campus Pride Index, one it has retained ever since.

Lavender Graduation will live on past Rothblum’s departure from SDSU Aug. 20, when she vacates her role as interim chair for Women’s Studies. She started in the department as a full professor in 2005 after 23 years as a psychology professor at the University of Vermont.

“The particular position I applied for was for lesbian studies, psychology of women and body image,” Rothblum said via Zoom from her new home in San Francisco. Previously, while earning a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Rutgers and completing her post-doctoral fellowship at Yale University, Rothblum had researched clinical depression and came to realize how common certain mental health disorders were among women.

“None of my faculty at Rutgers had been women nor had any of my supervisors in my clinical internship in Mississippi,” she noted. Rothblum joined a panel on why women predominate in certain mental health issues, and edited the first of her 28 edited books, “The Stereotyping of Women: Its Effects on Mental Health,” while still a graduate student.

At SDSU, Rothblum was instrumental in establishing the LGBT studies minor in 2009. She traces its origins to a campus staff and faculty group called GLIC (Gay and Lesbian Issues Committee), made up of both out and closeted members.

Rothblum and other faculty members drew up a proposal, which was approved and followed just two years later with a major. The latter was a notable milestone, with only one other college in the nation — Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y. — already offering a major in the field at that time. Since then, the program, now called LGBTQ+ Studies, also has a graduate certificate.

SDSU’s progressivism in LGBTQ+ matters, Rothblum said, is partly because “women's studies was already so well established and so well-known.” It also owes credit, she said, to supportive presidents — specifically Stephen Weber (1996-2011) and current President Adela de la Torre — and deans of the College of Arts and Letters, including current dean Monica J. Casper.

The academic work that has defined Rothblum’s career is partly the result of a “very well-meaning mentor,” as she puts it, who advised her to steer away from the study of women as “too narrow” a field for serious scholarship. Rothblum had already identified as lesbian herself, and continued research on sexual and gender minorities, with over 130 publications in academic journals and books. 

Her research has focused on methodological issues, including factors unique to lesbians as well as ways that gender and sexual orientation intersect. Before the advent of national population-based studies that included items about sexual and gender identity, she compared lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals to their heterosexual siblings, and trans women, trans men and genderqueer individuals to their cisgender brothers and sisters. She has also conducted research on queer identity, asexual identity, lesbian/bisexual parenting, and transgender parenting — research connected to her role as Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the Williams Institute at UCLA.

Rothblum now edits two academic journals. She was founding editor of the Journal of Lesbian Studies, a position she has held for 27 years but will step down from next year. The other is Fat Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Body Weight and Society, which speaks to her interest in body image and the stigma of weight.

The COVID-19 era of virtual instruction with its technological complications helped Rothblum decide it was a good time to retire. “It's been a really wonderful, congenial faculty (and) the climate has been great in women's studies and LGBTQ+ studies,” she said. “The students have been great. So yeah, I’ve really enjoyed it.”