Curriculum in Women’s Studies celebrates 30th anniversary
By Elizabeth P. Smith
Ph.D. Candidate, Department of History
Graduate Assistant, Curriculum in Women's Studies
By this time next year, the Curriculum in Women’s Studies will have a new place on the Carolina campus. The Mary Ann Smith Building, the first on UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus named for a woman, fittingly symbolizes the past, present and future of this dynamic program, which has just celebrated its 30th anniversary. Dr. Barbara Harris, professor of history and women’s studies, has guided the program as a three-time chair since arriving in Chapel Hill in 1989. Dr. Harris takes pride in a program that inspires its students, male and female. Women’s Studies is so valuable to students because, as she explains, “It makes them, through what they learn about the past and the present, aware of the huge number of areas where women have in the past and can in the present make a difference in their societies over a wide range of issues.”
Dr. Harris came to Carolina with a mandate to get approval for a degree in Women’s Studies, a process already under way but needing completion. She accomplished this and much more. “As a degree program,” Harris notes, “it has been extremely successful.” The program granted its first degree in 1992, three years after Harris’ arrival. Now Women’s Studies has between 30 and 45 majors at any one time, many of whom graduate with a double major. “That is wonderful,” Harris says, “because they’re taking what they learn in Women’s Studies and using it in all kinds of fields and preparing for all kinds of careers.”
“My fundamental approach,” Dr. Harris explains, “was to bring together as many people from all over the campus and the University as I could.” The campus-wide interest in Women’s Studies has shown Harris that “if you assume that people will be receptive that, with very few exceptions, you will be happily surprised.”
In addition, the program reaches many more students through its popular introductory course and cross-listed courses across the curriculum. Thirty departments cross list courses with Women’s Studies, allowing the program to teach around 2,000 students a year and involve more than 100 faculty across the campus in the effort. Students can also participate in Women’s Studies through its internship program, its involvement with campus and local feminist organizations and its lecture series, including the popular Lunchtime Colloquia that present cutting-edge feminist research to a largely undergraduate audience. Graduate students from all disciplines are also invited to serve as teaching assistants for the program, further spreading its profile across campus.
While Women’s Studies courses are concentrated within the College of Arts and Sciences, extending the program across the University is one of its top priorities, a goal that distinguishes Women’s Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill from similar programs at other universities. The Women and Science Program, established in 1993, exemplifies this effort. Under the direction of Dr. Silvia Tomaskova, associate professor of women’s studies and anthropology, it highlights the contributions and experiences of women in the sciences. “My fundamental approach,” Dr. Harris explains, “was to bring together as many people from all over the campus and the University as I could.” The campus-wide interest in Women’s Studies has shown Harris that “if you assume that people will be receptive that, with very few exceptions, you will be happily surprised.”
The program’s growth under Dr. Harris’s stewardship extends to its faculty. Women’s Studies has now hired six other faculty, including a new appointment this year. Harris explains, “What is particularly wonderful is that we are in very different fields.” This diversity among faculty is one of the program’s strongest features, a breadth unmatched even by many other interdisciplinary programs. Women’s Studies faculty have been trained in a variety of fields and now research an expansive range of questions from history to health, prehistory to the present, the local to the global.
Continued support of the faculty is one of Harris’s top priorities for the program’s future. “What is hardest for a small unit,” she explains, “is that we really need to have funds that will allow us to support faculty research in a whole range of ways . . . This is an amazing faculty in terms of how much they publish and the fellowships they win regularly and they deserve that support.” Funding its first distinguished professorship, the Drucilla French Distinguished Professorship in Women’s Studies, is one such achievement the program has made this year. (Click here to see related story.)
In her 18 years at Carolina, Dr. Harris has also served the University in various other capacities. As a co-chair of the Chancellor’s Committee on Appointment, Promotion and Tenure, she helped to secure parental leave and extend the Stop the Clock provision for care of family members—opportunities available to male as well female faculty. For this and other service, Harris received the 2007 University Award for the Advancement of Women.
Making a difference in people’s lives both within and beyond the campus has always been a priority for Harris, a priority she wants Women’s Studies students to share. “I would hope that we teach students that they don’t need to be passive recipients but that they can be actors in changing the world in which we live.” In that respect, Dr. Harris has certainly led by example.