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Satisfying women's intellectual hunger

women and book

by Mary Niehaus

War is never pretty. But when television reporter Gitana Lapinskaite covered reports of atrocities against women during the Bosnian War in the early 1990s, the news was so ugly that it changed her life. It raised questions she is learning to answer only now as she works on her master's degree in women's studies at UC.

The horror was not only in the murders, beatings, mutilations and torture of civilians. It was that soldiers from more than one side of the conflict felt justified in committing brutal sexual assaults and gang rapes of their ethnic hostages because of long-standing racial and religious hatred.

Lapinskaite, an anchor at the time for the Lithuanian State Television network and a contributor to "CNN World Report," says the Bosnian experience shook her. "That was the time when I got interested in women's problems and their status all over the world," she says. "Mass rape, establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia, feminist interest in the laws of war and their effectiveness to prosecute rape as a war crime: This is my MA project."

Celebrating its 25th anniversary this academic year, the University of Cincinnati Center for Women's Studies has helped students understand the "why" of women's treatment as inferiors at various times and places throughout the world. Sometimes an "Aha!" experience about one's own relationship to the world is the result.

Lisa Hogeland, UC associate professor of English and comparative literature, tells of a student named Marcie. A "floundering" undergrad, the English major was only a mediocre writer and had little enthusiasm for her studies; an adviser told her that maybe she should forget about English. Then, everything changed. She graduated with honors and published her first book before entering graduate school. Today, she is finishing work on a doctorate.

When asked what had happened, Marcie explained that she had found a new sense of direction after taking a series of women's studies classes, says Hogeland, who is acting director of UC's women's studies program. It was women's studies that "oriented" Marcie.

Even Hogeland admits that as an undergraduate, she was profoundly influenced by a course in feminist literary criticism. "It was the first class in which I learned that you could study women writers -- and ideas about gender in women and men writers -- in a systematic, organized, rich and rigorous way. This idea was really new to me at the time and very exciting."

Since its formation in 1974, the UC women's studies program has both opened minds to new information and helped women feel at home on campus. Furthermore, the interdisciplinary approach to learning, in courses taught by 80 affiliated faculty in nine colleges, has allowed students to see "the big picture" in the subjects they study.

Dana Vannoy, the program's first director, agrees. "From the beginning, women's studies meant a place to identify with others, to find companionship with women in a work environment where most colleagues are men," she says. "Its mission was and is important, because the world is still seen predominantly through the eyes of men. We are just beginning to get women's interpretations and views out there in the public realm."

Paula Kemner, academic director of the Women's Center at UC's Clermont College, believes women often do not get enough academic or intellectual attention in public education, that they still tend to defer to men in the classroom. "That wasn't allowed in the women's studies program," she adamantly states. "We had to take the risk of giving a wrong answer."

The tendency for men to take over in the classroom was something UC history professor Hilda Smith -- women's studies director in 1987 -- first became aware of as a graduate student at the University of Chicago, in her pre-feminist days.

"I decided to try to do a sociological analysis," she recalls. "I sat in my classes in the late '60s and watched how the men dominated the conversations. How indeed the women would be passive and also how they would be interrupted. How the faculty member would make fun of their responses. And I thought, 'Maybe there is something to this!'"

Smith's most striking "moment of epiphany," as she calls it, came soon after. "When I was a graduate student, I lived in a world where most of the faculty were men and the books we read were written by men," she points out.

"I went into one of the buildings on campus where there was going to be a lecture series on British literature. Unlike most of the big lists of names for such a thing, this time they had pictures of all the people who were to speak. When I looked, I saw just a sea of male faces. I can truly say, from that time on, I've never again thought about scholarship or intellectual institutions without doing a gender analysis."

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Feminists are wise to encourage men to learn about women's issues, says Grace Auyang, UC professor of sociology and behavioral science. She believes there are male students who want to participate in women's studies courses, but who are scared away by the label or the possibility of being the only male in the group.

"This is our challenge," Auyang says, "to get male students and faculty to be part of our effort. They know us well, the barriers we have to overcome."

Just as some men understand a feminist point of view and others are mystified, not all feminists think alike. Lisa Hogeland, women's studies director, calls feminist values and beliefs "very diverse." "We are a very fractious lot," she laughs. "A lot of feminist political ideas are often contradictory -- contradictory in themselves and very contradictory among each other."

Nevertheless, it is possible to agree on a definition of feminist theory as a field of study. "What feminist theory investigates is the structures and systems of gender, its interrelation with other social structures and things like race," the director explains. "Obviously, theory and politics are connected. Your political beliefs are going to have a great deal of impact on the position you take theoretically."

Even with their differences, many faculty find "women's studies is a place for a different kind of collaboration, a different kind of collegiality, warmer and funnier than many of our home departments," Hogeland says.

This collegiality has a beneficial effect on students, as well. For Paula Kemner, MA (A&S) '96 & '98, it enticed her to earn a second master's degree.

While working on an MA in English, "I met all these wonderful people who were teaching in the women's studies program, and I wanted to learn more," she says. "The interdisciplinarity of it was wonderful. You're getting information you're not going to get anywhere else. Most mainstream programs are not integrated nearly as well."

The program's interdisciplinary character is often what draws students. The wide range of available courses "stunned me," says journalist Lapinskaite. "I wasn't able to find that in other universities. It's amazing how this program works closely with the community and other organizations."

The reputation of UC's women's studies program makes Cindy Berryman-Fink, a professor of communication, proud. "When I run into folks at a conference in my field of communication, they say, 'Oh, my goodness, you have a wonderful women's studies program, one of the earliest ones to offer a graduate degree.' That's very gratifying."

"And I've been very impressed in the last few years by the quality of graduate students attracted to the program from across the world," she adds. "These are very powerful, successful women coming to UC."

Whether working toward a certificate or one of the master's degrees, students quickly find out the women's studies curriculum is "very rigorous," Kemner asserts. "I was used to the volume of work of a master's program, so that aspect was not so different," she says. "It was that the professors took their own intellectual work, and mine, very seriously.

"They were very committed to their students' intellectual growth. They didn't hesitate to 'kick butt' when necessary. It was boot camp for your head."

While the process may be demanding, Hogeland is proud of the results. "I've found there's an enormous hunger among students to know these things, to learn about a kind of politics they've never heard much about before," she says. "Whether they believe it or not, I don't care. That they want to know it is very exciting.

"One of the happiest things for us as a program is when we do our assessment interviews with undergraduates. They tell us the best thing about our program is how much it improves their critical thinking skills. How much we teach them to question, rigorously and repeatedly, received ideas, underlying assumptions and preconceived notions."

"The goal of women's studies has always been to raise consciousness, so that students want to engage in some corrective action," says UC language arts professor Deborah Meem. "I'm a facilitator for opening up to them a vision of a society that is more just.

"I want to encourage students to challenge the sacred cows. Even if I outrage them. Even if they are shocked and surprised. I believe college is the time to question everything you've been taught. Every student should have that challenge.

"The reason I'm still in women's studies is the students," she continues, "the students who are willing to take a hard look at society, with a view to constructive social change. Who wouldn't want to deal with students like these?"