NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–Shayela Sharmin, a 29-year-old wife and mother from Bangladesh, used to think that “women’s studies” meant courses in cooking, housekeeping and child care.
Now Sharmin believes that women’s issues –and women’s empowerment–extend far beyond the hearth and home. A liberal arts major at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, Sharmin is currently preoccupied with the cultural and systemic forms of violence against women and interested in ways that women can assert their independence. Sharmin credits her change in perspective to three women’s studies courses.
“Before taking these classes, I was just a mother and wife,” this self-described feminist says. “My opinion has changed. Now I want to be a successful woman in the job place.”
Sharmin came to the United States seven years ago to join her husband, an American citizen. She says she would like to eventually return to Bangladesh and work for a women’s rights organization.
“I want to do something for the women of my country,” she says. “They need to maintain their own rights.”
Sharmin is proof that the discipline of women’s studies is moving into wider, more affordable access. The field first took root at San Diego State University in 1970 and rapidly proliferated at four-year schools around the country, many of which were state-run institutions that already had an active feminist movement. While the initial programs were interdisciplinary (and many still are), stand-alone departments flourished in the ’80s and ’90s, leading to graduate and doctoral programs.
Tentative Shift May Not Last
But advocates say the current shift is very tentative and highly susceptible to setbacks.
Community colleges are two-year colleges. Students can earn an associate’s degree before transferring to a four-year college or university to complete a Bachelor’s degree. Only five of the country’s 1,157 community colleges had women’s studies programs in 2002, according to the Department of Education’s count of students receiving degrees and certificates from federally funded schools.
The true number is probably higher than that, but courses are packaged in a variety of ways, such as certificate programs and concentrations, and are often integrated into other disciplines. Most programs consist of a loose amalgam of classes juggled by one or two overworked, underpaid professors recruited from disparate departments, such as English or sociology. This makes it difficult to assess the true scope of women’s studies at community colleges, but those who teach at these schools admit that it is limited.
Administrators tend to see women’s studies as too theoretical, says Catherine Silver, director of the women’s studies certificate program at The Center for the Study of Women and Society at the City University of New York Graduate Center.
“In two years, they want students to acquire skills. Women’s studies gives students a vision of the world, it helps them in many ways, but it doesn’t supply ‘concrete skills.'”
City University of New York Reflects Trends
Kingsborough Community College, which costs New York City residents $1,540 per semester, is part of the City University of New York, the nation’s largest urban university with six community college campuses, 11 four-year campuses, a graduate school and a law school. In keeping with national trends, over half–63 percent–of the students at City University of New York (CUNY) community colleges are women.
CUNY teachers say that compared to the students at the system’s senior colleges, students at community colleges are older, more likely to have worked full time and more likely to be parents. CUNY community college students also come from widely diverse ethnic backgrounds.
Based on these demographics, proponents say women’s studies programs should be a natural fit at CUNY community colleges.
“You couldn’t find a better match,” says Katie Hogan, who directs women’s studies at Carlow University, a Catholic women’s college in Pittsburgh.
Jerilyn Fisher agrees. Fisher, an associate professor of English at CUNY’s Hostos Community College in the Bronx, says the themes of equality in the workplace and economic independence that are stressed in women’s studies classes have a special resonance with community college students.
“The empowerment that women’s studies offers is supportive for students like ours,” she says. “These women are ready to see some of the systematic ways they’ve been held back. They are ready to learn more about the achievements of women.”
Struggling to Keep a Toehold
Basic programs at community colleges are struggling to maintain their toehold at a time when these schools are intensifying their traditional emphasis on practical work-force training.
Kingsborough is the only one of the six CUNY community colleges to offer a women’s studies concentration.
This certificate program, co-directed by Frances Kraljic and Susan Farrell, is housed in the liberal arts department. Farrell and Kraljic are given extra time to plan the women’s studies course.
Most of the other five CUNY schools are trying to lift programs off the ground, with varying degrees of success.
For 12 years, Fisher says, she presented proposals to administrators and organized women’s studies workshops for faculty to set up a women’s studies program at Hostos. In the fall of 2002, Hostos finally introduced a women’s studies “option,” which allows credits to be applied to a women’s studies major or minor at any of four senior colleges in the CUNY system.
Fisher attributes that breakthrough to the appointment of Daisy Cocco DeFilippis as provost in 2002.
“What made the difference was that we were blessed by being given a provost in 2002 who is an academic feminist, someone who publishes in women’s studies and is committed to female empowerment. Once I had her support, I could take my proposal through the usual process of approval.”
Cheryl Fish, an associate professor in the Department of English at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, on the other hand, says her school has not made any progress in terms of women’s studies in the past three years.
“Our faculty’s research and teaching interests reflect an interest in women’s studies, but institutionally, there is no support for it,” she says.
Fish founded the women’s studies project at the college, which offers between four and five courses and organizes female-themed programs and events. Students, however, can not concentrate on women’s studies, or receive a certificate in the discipline. Fish is not optimistic about women’s studies at CUNY, or elsewhere. “We don’t seem to be making any headway,” she says.
Hogan tried to implement a women’s studies program at LaGuardia Community College while she was teaching English there between 1997 and 2003. Her lack of success, she says, was the main reason she left the school to join Pittsburgh’s Carlow College.
“People in power don’t really want to fund women’s studies,” Hogan says. “If you want to do it all on your own, as an unpaid project, that’s fine. But if you want full-time, tenured faculty and administrative support, that’s a problem.”
Gail Mellow, president of LaGuardia Community College, argues that an academic women’s studies program is only one way to teach community college students about women’s issues.
“A women’s studies program really decides to take gender as its singular focus, the lens thorough which it looks at a multiplicity of issues. LaGuardia infuses the perspective of women throughout most of the curriculum.”
In refuting the need for a women’s studies program at her school, Mellow says that LaGuardia students are very “course-centric.” “More than half of the students at community colleges are in occupational or vocational programs. They need education for employment,” she says, adding that students often don’t have the luxury of taking classes that are more intellectually engaging.
Same Story Everywhere
Hogan says that her story at LaGuardia–no tenure, no extra periods in which to plan courses, no administrative support, no budget–is told by women’s studies teachers everywhere. But the problem is exacerbated at community colleges, she says, because the teaching loads are so much heavier and faculty and budgets already stretched thin.
Next month, the outlook for women’s studies at community college brightens as Judith Roy, program coordinator of the women’s studies certificate program at Century College, a community college in White Bear Lake, Minn., becomes the first president of the Maryland-based National Women’s Studies Association to come from a community college.
Roy hopes to use her new post to increase visibility of the community college programs and to help launch a nation-wide survey to track them.
“People working in women’s studies programs at community colleges tend to feel very isolated,” says Roy, “since they don’t know how many colleagues they have.”
Corrie Pikul has written about women’s issues and pop culture for Salon.com, Figure magazine, New York Magazine, and Runner’s World.
For more information:
University of Maryland–
Women’s Studies Online Resources:
National Women’s Studies Association:
Women’s Studies: Alive, Well and Still Kicking: