Celebrating Fifty Years of Outsized Impact

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Alice Skipton 06/02/2021
Assistant Professor Kemi Adeyemi and new media artist Shawné Michaelain Holloway meet with Black Embodiment Studio students in the Jacob Lawrence Gallery

By increasing understanding of how identities shape people's lives, the Department of Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies (GWSS) at UW offers a powerful way to make change. "Students are not empty vessels, they are knowledge producers — as we all are," says Assistant Professor Bettina Judd.

An artist, scholar, researcher and educator, Judd joined the department five years ago at the same time as Assistant Professor Kemi Adeyemi. They brought much-needed perspectives related to Black feminism. As intended, they increased the diversity of courses offered and joined critical conversations about who attends those classes.

This past year Judd taught Gender, Race, Sexuality, and Medicine: From the Plantation to the Clinic, making connections between colonialism, imperialism, anti-Black violence and health disparities during a global pandemic. She recognizes the challenges of teaching about the Black experience with few Black students in the room. "It makes it clear the way that structural racism at this university and at all universities has resulted in an abysmal representation of Black students," she says. 

Assistant Professor Bettina Judd

Another essential question Judd asks her students: "How many Black women faculty have you encountered?" She often finds that she is the only one. Since Judd and Adeyemi's hiring, more Black students have entered the doctoral program, and she looks forward to more change in the future. Desired changes include faculty hires across the University that push the boundaries of what it means to be collaborative and interdisciplinary.

Collaborative, Transnational
and Interdisciplinary from the Start

Fifty years ago, the UW Women’s Studies advisory committee built one of the first women's studies programs in the country, starting with one course –Women 101-- in 1970. The program’s early organizers recognized the importance of more than one perspective in measuring the human experience. They understood the need to collaborate rather than compete for limited dollars when other programs like ethnic studies intersected with theirs. They also saw the importance of developing the program in connection with the larger Seattle community and the many related organizations and coalitions. 

By 1973, the UW Women's Studies Program offered 30 courses, enrolling between 150 and 350 students per quarter. With the demand for the major growing, the program became a department in 1996.

With many women’s studies programs centered in the humanities, one of the UW department's unique aspects was its interdisciplinary focus, including historians, psychologists, sociologists, economists, and anthropologists. "In the mid 1990s, the chair of the department, Susan Jeffords, went on to be Dean of Social Sciences of the College of Arts and Sciences," says Priti Ramamurthy, hired in 1997 because of her expertise in international economic development.

Professor Priti Ramamurthy

Another area of distinction was the department's focus on transnational feminism. In addition to Ramamurthy’s work in India, faculty hired in the mid-1990s worked in Africa, Brazil, China and Indonesia. "That really consolidated our position as one of the premier institutions for women's studies in the country," says Ramamurthy. 

In 1998, they added a doctoral program, one of less than twenty in the U.S. "Our graduate students have taken us up a notch. None of them do what their advisors do," Ramamurthy says. "Every time we take one on, we are reinventing ourselves in the process."  

When they hired male chair David Allen in 2005, it spurred lively conversations about everyone’s role in women’s studies. Then in 2011, they underwent a name change, becoming the Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies Department. 

Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies graduates and faculty

The new name acknowledged that their scholarship and teaching went far beyond the simple man/woman binary frame, addressing a much more complex and fluid reality of power structures and social relationships. That same year, the UW Graduate School under GWSS established a certificate program in sexuality and queer studies, involving the Department of Sociology, the School of Social Welfare, the School of Law and the Department of English.

"UW GWSS has been at the forefront of being responsive to activists and keeping up with the next generation of students who have broader ways of thinking about gender," says Associate Professor Amanda Swarr. "When I taught my first class on critical transgender studies 20 years ago, it problematized scientists and social scientists who pathologize gender and exploded the idea of the 'real' woman -- none of us fit these impossible standards. Now we are in such a different place with the explosion of trans-authored scholarship."  

Associate Professor Amanda Swarr

Today, Swarr's work focuses on queer, trans, and intersex studies, medical inequalities, and feminist politics in the U.S. and South Africa. Associate Professor Cricket Keating explores contemporary sexual politics from a transnational perspective, including Latin America and South Asia. They work alongside the department’s other 11 faculty members and, together, all of their classes and areas of concentration constantly recenter the conversation about gender, women and sexuality in the world today and historically. 

Just like its subject matter, the department's reach extends far beyond any fixed set of people, boundaries or borders. An extended network includes around 65 adjunct and affiliate faculty working in American Ethnic Studies, American Indian Studies, Anthropology, Communications, Comparative History of Ideas, History, Political Science, Psychology, School of Music, numerous area studies programs in the Jackson School of International Studies, and the UW Honors Program. During formative moments in various disciplines, the department also ensures that the perspectives of women, people of color, sexual minorities and the Global South, to name a few, have a voice.

Engaged in the Project of Transformation

"We're at a premier research institution, our faculty are all active scholars, researching and writing and engaging in conversations at multiple levels. We work closely with students and are constantly teaching, writing and participating in public scholarship. It keeps us engaged in the project of transformation," says Swarr. 

The department also actively participates with social reform efforts. "In addition to our courses addressing critical issues like state-sanctioned violence, domestic violence, and the theft of Native lands, both contemporarily and historically, a lot of our teaching and scholarship today also highlights grassroots activism," says department chair Shirley Yee. Looking to the future, Yee sees an imperative need to hire in the area of indigenous feminism, after the retirement of Professor Emeritus Luana Ross. 

Department Chair Shirley Yee

The technology landscape and work being done in feminist science and technology studies offers another vital area of scholarship. “People assume that the data sciences are gender neutral, and they are not,” says Ramamurthy. 

This transformative work creates a continual feedback loop. Faculty members such as Professor Michelle Habell-Pallán engage with social justice movements through her digital research Women Who Rock: Making Scenes, Building Communities Oral History Archive, a collaborative effort that joins scholars, musicians, media-makers, performers, artists, and activists to explore the role of women and popular music. 

It's no different with undergraduate alumni. "From working with the Justice Department in Washington, D.C. to degrees in naturopathic medicine, our alumni go on to all different kinds of social justice and community-oriented work," says Yee.

The transformation also extends to other disciplines and career paths, "One of the more beautiful things is the reach of our courses," says Judd. "In my winter courses about gender and medicine, my classrooms were mostly public health majors, pre-med. It makes for a really exciting classroom when the students are invested, saying, ‘I need to understand the issues of this class and how it affects my work.' This is precisely what I want this course to do and that's also when the classroom becomes more diverse in demographic ways."

"I just finished teaching my Women and International Economic Development class," says Ramamurthy. We looked at recent Seattle maps produced post-COVID on hunger levels by zip code. We asked, why does it match with COVID death rates? How is it gendered and raced? While a leading story about COVID is that more men died, we get a much more holistic picture when we look at the racial, class and intergenerational effects on women in terms of job loss, exhaustion, caring for elders, children and grandchildren. It shows the power at work behind the scenes to produce these results. The students related this to how gender, race, and class work in their own life and developed a framework for thinking that they will take beyond one quarter." 

After fifty years of change and progress, the department’s project of transformation continues to unfold. Current community connections point to more exciting opportunities to come such as the school receiving an annual scholarship from the PRIDE foundation supporting LGBTQ+ student leaders. Faculty also build on collaborations at the local, national and international, level with such institutions as the African American Heritage Museum and Cultural Center, Seattle Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI), the Museum of Popular Culture (MoPoP), the Henry Art Gallery, the Sam Wing Luke Museum, the national Smithsonian Institutions, Gender Dynamix in South Africa, the Hong Kong Arts Centre and Hyderabad Urban Lab in India. 

"It's meaningful to be part of a community drawing attention to oppression and facilitating and foregrounding ways to make change," says Swarr. "We've never been about a simple model of women's studies. We recognize that the intersection of race, class, sexuality and disability has never been peripheral to the field. It's why the department exists."

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