Women's Studies: Alive, Well and Still Kicking

Women's studies scholars met and rubbed shoulders with the stars of the 1970s movement and pondered both emerging international issues and-in the true sign of the maturity of the discipline-retirement concerns.

Editor's note: Tobias is a founding and an active member of the National Women's Studies Association.

BOSTON-On the surface, except for the preponderance of women, the recent conference at Simmons College could have been mistaken for any other academic gathering with more than 100 separate sessions, papers, plenaries and exchanges of job information in the lounges and eating places.

But, unlike gatherings of the more traditional disciplines, the National Women's Studies Association is where cutting edge scholarship and feminist politics come together, with 1,300 scholars, teachers and students reaffirming their commitment to the field and its “subversive” character.

One scholar, Paula Gunn Allen, a Native American poet and professor emerita from University of California, Los Angeles, even challenged the wisdom of the sort of writing so common throughout the halls of academe.

“If you do academic prose, you get so far away from yourself that you'll never find your ass,” Allen said.

In the hallways and restaurants, attendees at the 21st annual women's studies conference mingled with such well-known feminists as one-time Clinton civil rights post nominee, Harvard University law professor Lani Guinier, author of “Becoming Gentlemen: Women, Law School and Institutional Change;” Blanche Wiesen Cook, biographer of Eleanor Roosevelt; and journalist Susan Brownmiller, best known for “Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape” and “In Our Times: A Memoir of a Revolution.”

Among women's studies newer concerns: Where do the inter-sex and transgendered women fit in? How to respond as women's studies activists to reports on female mutilation in certain post-colonial African countries? And to “honor killing” in others?

No quick or easy answers were suggested, but the gathering was in part a celebration of a field come to maturity in the past three decades.

In fact, one of the workshops was about retirement; another, on financial security for aging lesbians. And many side discussions focused on tenure for women's studies professors and the perennial worry about the survival of programs, as colleges and universities cut back on their liberal arts offerings and reduce budgets.

Rita Arditti, gave one of the most moving presentations. The author of “Searching for Life: The Grandmothers of the Plaza De Mayo and the Disappeared Children of Argentina,” she described in detail the work of the grandmothers.

For 25 years, the grandmothers searched for the 500 children kidnapped or born in captivity to their sons and daughters, “disappeared” by the country's ruling militia, Arditti said. A member of the faculty at the College of Graduate Studies of the Union Institute in Cambridge, Mass., Arditti added that the generals believed that children of their left-wing opponents could be harvested for use by the government. The grandmothers used DNA to track down 57 of their grandchildren and all but of a few chose to return to live with their biological families.

In a discussion of gendered politics and war and peace, sponsored by the Graduate Consortium on Women's Studies at Radcliffe, Elise Boulding, professor emerita at Dartmouth College, echoed a theme from the recent United Nations special session on women's rights. Boulding reminded women's studies activists that “security for women may be very differently defined than security for the nation state.”

Radha Khumar, author of “Divide and Fall: Bosnia in the Annals of Partition” and a current fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, concurred.

“Women would bring a very different perspective to solving ethnic conflicts,” she said. “Instead of taking sides, as U.N. peacekeepers tend to do, we would be evacuating the males on both sides of the conflict, which by itself would end the wars.”

The National Women's Studies Association was founded in 1977 and as early as 1982 there were 4,000 courses and hundreds of formal programs. The field quickly expanded to graduate studies, a raft of feminist journals and thousands of books for the specialist and the general reader.

Today, the association has 319 institutional members and a new generation of students, some of whom are daughters (some fewer, granddaughters) of women's studies scholars and activists.