1850: Ohio Wesleyan University established as an all-male college.
1853: Ohio Wesleyan Female college established.
1877: The two colleges merge.
1960s-1970s: Feminist Fortnight first held on campus.
Spring 1976: The first introduction to Women's Studies course taught by Prof. Kaaren Courtney.
1981: The Women's Studies major officially approved by OWU faculty.
1982: The first Women's studies major is declared by Kim Keether Ball, class of 1983.
2003: The department officially changed its name to Women's and Gender Studies.
Historical Sketch of Ohio Wesleyan Females
In 1850, long before thoughts of a women’s studies program were entertained, Ohio Wesleyan University was founded as an all-male college. The institution’s founders felt the need for women to be educated as well, so they established the Ohio Wesleyan Female College in 1853.
In 1877 the two colleges merged, enabling women “to secure an equal educational opportunity with men,” according to the Board of Trustees minutes from June of 1877. Curfews, special brochures for parents, all-female dorms and other strict regulations were put in place to protect the fair sex.
From this time forward, the woman’s role at OWU gradually changed. The all-female residences of Monnett Hall and Stuyvesant Hall were replaced by the co-ed dormitories of today’s campus. Organizations such as the women’s booster chapter of Mortar Board, the Women’s Resource Center and the Women’s House were established for the promotion of women’s issues.
As early as the 1960s and 70s, a Feminist Fortnight was held on campus. This was a two week period focused on women’s issues and personal growth for females. “It is our hope that the program will foster new consciousness for women and men who wish to make change in their own lives and stimulate an increased awareness of women’s roles as agents of change within our present social structure,” from the 1974 Feminist Fortnight brochure.
Women’s Week, the contemporary version of Feminist Fortnight, continues to this day. Documentaries, the Take Back the Night sexual assault awareness program and other activities are held during this time. As OWU faculty members and students became more active and outspoken about women’s issues, the need for a women’s studies programwas recognized.
The Beginnings of a Discipline
Kaaren Courtney, professor of modern foreign languages, came to OWU’s department of romance languages in the fall of 1967. Courtney said she had recently received tenure when several older women got together and picked her to help them get the women’s studies program started. “I thought I could do it and I liked the challenge of it,” she said. “I think it’s fair to say that the other female faculty members in romance languages backed me up. They all said yes, that’s a good thing to do. So, I felt supported by my friends and colleagues.”
Courtney taught the first introduction to women’s studies course in the spring of 1976. She said there was an even distribution between men and women in the course. “They were hippie men,” she said. “This was the 1970s, people were still anti-war and everything. I loved developing that first class.OWU’s women’s studies major, the first in the GLCA, was officially approved by the faculty in 1981, but Courtney said there were some men who didn’t want it to happen.
Courtney said while she was in a department where many females were teaching, the climate for women on campus was overall not very good. “I think by the end of the 1960s the female faculty knew that we were getting shorted in terms of numbers, pay and a lot of things,” she said.
Courtney said despite these issues of equality, many older male faculty members did understand the issues of the day and were “immediately behind the advancement of women and the major.” She said there were some male faculty members who had major sexual harassment issues with female students.
“I think the climate for female students today, vis-à-vis their academics, has improved a lot,” she said. “However, I’m not sure that socially on campus the situation has changed as much as it should have by now.”
A former student’s perspective Kim Keethler Ball (’83) was a women’s studies and journalism double-major. She said from her first year at OWU she was on track to become a women’s studies major. After the Academic Policy Committee approved the major, she officially declared her junior year. Ball was the first women’s studies major. Her first class was Women in American History.
“My head sort of exploded,” she said. “My whole world became new again with that course, and I fell in love with women’s studies. I wanted to take any course which said ‘women and’.”
She said areas of women’s studies and feminism were new topics and diversity was beginning to be explored at this time. She added that the major “drove my student involvements and extracurricular activities from the start.” Ball was the president of the Women’s Resource Center and worked on the Athena, a feminist literary magazine, as an independent study. She was a member of the women’s studies committee, the committee on the status of women and the affirmative action committee. “The WRC was really vibrant back then,” she said.
Ball, who lived in Hayes Hall, said the climate on campus was socially scary. “It was the tail end of the 70s so it was wild here,” she said. “I was here when the Betas hauled their furniture out and torched it.” She said part of the social climate on campus involved a divide between the heterosexual and lesbian feminists on campus. “Back then there wasn’t an in between in the muck that was feminism,” she said. “It was important to know that you could still be heterosexual and feminist.”
Ball also said it was difficult telling her parents she was a women’s studies major – her father said he didn’t want to see her carrying signs on the news and her mother asked why she had to call herself a feminist. “I certainly didn’t fit in anymore when I went home,” she said.
Women’s Studies Incorporates Gender
Shari Stone-Mediatore, interim director of Ohio Wesleyan’s women and gender studies program, said the shift to WGS came in 2003. “We fought about whether we should change it to gender studies and we decided to make it WGS because there are still issues that affect women,” she said. “There are women’s studies that need to be addressed, in addition to the various ways that gender constructions affect identity.”
Stone-Mediatore said she thinks the major will stay with WGS for a while because it covers anything which is important. In addition, she said if there is a shift in the make-up or naming of the program, it will hopefully come from a collaboration between students and faculty. She said the WGS major will continue to be important in the future because it is another lens to view the world through.
“To use gender as an analytical tool and to realize how gender ideology, as a way of thinking, allows us to look critically at the way we view the world,” Stone-Mediatore said. She said the incorporation of gender in the name of the major highlights additional issues related to women’s studies.
“We’re all gendered and we’re all influenced by gender ideology and it’s partly about women’s struggles,” she said. “Gender is something which has organized all of our lives and our society, so it’s something all of us need to learn about in order to reflect critically and be informed about our world.”