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The women's studies minor

Barry McNamara
03/22/2011
(Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part series about Women’s History Month at Monmouth College.)

Although Women’s History Month is drawing to a close, Monmouth College is unofficially extending the observance a few days in order to welcome a distinguished women’s historian to campus.

On April 6, Edith Mayo, curator emerita of the Smithsonian Institution, will present a public lecture on campus in conjunction with the opening of a Hewes Library exhibit she created about the history of the women’s movement (1870-1920). Mayo’s talk will be given at 4 p.m. in the library’s Barnes Electronic Classroom.

An Organization of American Historians Distinguished Speaker, Mayo is the author of three books and is a regular television, radio and newspaper commentator. An authority on First Ladies, she is well-known for her curatorial successes.

“We’re lucky to have someone of Edith Mayo’s caliber among us,” said MC history professor Stacy Cordery.

The exhibit, which will be located in the library’s entry lobby, was created on behalf of Kappa Kappa Gamma, which was founded at Monmouth College in 1870. Mayo is a KKG alumna and a member of its foundation board.

In many ways, the college observes Women’s History Month year-round due to its minor in women’s studies. First proposed by sociology professor Carolyn Kirk in the late 1980s in the midst of her three-decade tenure at MC, women’s studies was added in the fall of 1990. It considers feminist theories and perspectives in courses across the curriculum.

The program’s coordinator, communication studies professor Trudi Peterson, said the current group of seven students comes from a variety of majors – English, history, sociology and communications. What Peterson called a “very interdisciplinary minor” consists of 18 credit hours – nine in the form of three required courses and nine elective hours. The required courses include “Introduction to Women’s Studies” and “Philosophy and Feminism,” as well as the 400-level capstone course. The list of electives includes such courses as “Literature of Feminism” and “Women and the Bible.”

The capstone course includes a journey paper – “a thoughtful, creative wide-ranging entirely personal paper or journal that chronicles” each student’s women’s studies journey while at Monmouth. Of the assignment, Peterson tells the students, “I hope that this will be a wonderful, cathartic experience for you, and a way to look back over the events of the past four years of your life.”

Leah Statler, a senior from Marietta, agreed with Peterson’s assessment that the minor incorporates many academic disciplines.

“I am interested in women’s studies because I believe it is the most interdisciplinary subject out there and also because it addresses every single part of my life,” she said.

Statler did not attend MC because of women’s studies but soon “fell in love” with it.

“It also affects every single person in the world, reaching all demographics as well as all kinds of issues,” she continued. “That alone is overwhelmingly powerful and that is why I love women’s studies.”

Gloria Steinem was the only feminist listed on Time’s top 25 list of the 20th century’s most powerful women. Peterson said in addition to Steinem, some of the other leading feminists taught in the curriculum are Judith Butler, the late Mary Daly and Sandra Harding, who has visited campus.

“There’s a misconception of what feminism is, including the scary, man-hating feminist,” said Peterson, “It’s important to not be afraid of feminism. It’s reasonable, not radical. Feminism is viable. It matters today.”

For an “F-word” talk in the fall of 2009, Peterson even came up with her own definition of feminism: “Feminism is a means by which an individual may rescue him/herself from the status of cultural casualty and reclaim active agency; it is a liberatory process that promotes informed, educated action aimed at ending multiple oppressions.”

As is the case with many teachers, Peterson especially appreciates the “ah-hah” moments in her women’s studies courses. Several that she has seen are tied to eating disorders, with students realizing that the “ideal” appearance for women, presented in the media in shows like “Baywatch,” is “make believe,” said Peterson. “They can’t attain it, because it’s not real. … After watching a short film on how women are portrayed, I had one student tell me, ‘I wish I had known that information before. It would have saved me so much pain.’”

Another such epiphany happened with one of Peterson’s male students, John Huxtable ’04.

“Before he took the intro course, he asked me if it was going to be all about male bashing. At the end of the semester, he came up to me and said, ‘I am so embarrassed that I asked you that.’ He is now a pastor (at the First Christian Church in Virden, Ill.) and has helped women get out of abusive situations.”

Huxtable remembers that early encounter, and he said his opinion quickly changed, aided in large part by his early meeting with Peterson.

“Having her assure me that it wasn’t going to be about male bashing kind of helped me,” he said. “It turned out to be a very interesting class. By the second or third week, I really started to understand it and to think about it in a different way. As I went on in the class, I thought, ‘This is really important.’ Women’s studies doesn’t get as much prestige as other areas of study, but it should.”

Peterson believes women’s studies is especially important because of the way it can address “what is going on right now that is relevant to women’s lives. There’s the temptation to think that everything important to advancing women’s rights has been accomplished, but it hasn’t.”

As an example, she cites attacks on the funding of Planned Parenthood. While many believe the organization promotes sexual behavior, Peterson said it’s important to understand the way the organization helps young mothers and their children.

“My ‘ah-hah’ moment was in Professor Cordery’s class when we were learning about Margaret Sanger,” said Statler. “I hadn’t realized how much women have been suppressed fundamentally by societies attempting to control their bodily rights. That realization has catapulted me into an interest in reproductive rights.”

When asked whether or not she plans to continue in women’s studies after graduation, Statler gave an emphatic reply.

“Yes! Women’s studies has affected my whole life plans. I have applied to graduate school programs with master’s degrees in women’s and gender studies. If that doesn’t end up working out, I plan on getting my foot in the door at a human services organization. I have already interned at a crisis center, working with women who are victims of domestic violence.”

Eventually, Statler said she would like do work connecting human services with women’s reproductive rights.

“I think every woman should have the opportunity to control what happens to her body,” Statler concluded. “That belief will lead me through my professional career, and I hope to end up as a professor of women’s studies so that I may teach women AND men about it.”

Huxtable agrees that men would be well-served to take a women’s studies course or two.

“As we go through life, we are exposed to a lot of stereotypes in our gender roles,” he said. “How we look at women, how we treat them – we’re taught these things subconsciously. What I learned involved being more open and respectful to women, and why some things that I hadn’t thought about might be offensive.”

If Statler goes on to earn a master’s degree in women’s studies, she will be following in the footsteps of Ann Maksymowicz ’00. Like Statler, Maksymowicz didn’t come to Monmouth because of women’s studies, but early course work prompted her to keep going in the program and add it to her environmental studies major.

“A few classes were very helpful to me, including ‘Population and Development’ and an independent study on ecofeminism,” she said. “‘Population and Development’ really tied environmental science and women’s studies together for me, and I believe caused me to pick up a women’s studies minor in the first place. My independent study prepared me for my master’s work.”

She continued, “I’m interested in women’s studies because I believe that it is important to explore and critique society while also affecting positive social change.”

After graduating, Maksymowicz had to choose between master’s programs in women’s studies and environmental science. She eventually chose women’s studies, receiving her degree from Loyola University in Chicago, where she wrote a thesis on domestic violence and immigrant women.

“My background at Monmouth was extremely helpful, as I know I wouldn’t be where I am today without my experiences there,” she said. “I entered Monmouth as a freshman wanting to do environmental science field work and graduated with the decision to improve the overall functioning of women in the environment.”

Today, Maksymowicz is an adult therapist at a community mental health agency an adult therapist in Boston. She has also added a second master’s degree in clinical mental health.

Huxtable said he applies the lessons he learned at Monmouth every day, and they are being on to a new generation.

“I chose to take the class because I had two young daughters (he now has three girls, ages 11, 10 and 5), and I wanted to understand something I didn’t understand anything about. … My daughters will really benefit from this. Each day in my family, it helps. I’ve raised my daughters differently that I would have.”