Celebrating 50 Years of Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies: “Damn Straight, We Persisted”

I don’t know what I was thinking trying to squeeze 50 years of gender, women and sexuality studies (GWSS) history and future into a zine.

GWSS: Celebrating 50 Years of Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies: "Damn Straight, We Persisted"
“Persistence is Resistance” is a collection celebrating 50 years of gender, women and sexuality Studies. (University of Washington Libraries / Cover artwork: “Besando” by Veronica Eldredge)

Well, I do—I wanted inviting, no paywall and an audience way bigger than those who wander book exhibits at academic conferences. But, once I added more amazing contributors—from pioneers in the field to undergraduates who can’t even declare the major because COVID-19 made it impossible to meet with their advisor—it was clear I could not call this project a zine.

Persistence is Resistance” is an open-access book that celebrates 50 years of GWSS by welcoming existing community members and curious folks alike. I have argued elsewhere in Ms. that this administration makes the GWSS mission that much more irrefutable, and the University of Wisconsin System Women’s and Gender Studies Consortium maintains that COVID-19 makes us that much more vulnerable. Our book speaks to why.

This book is both about and a manifestation of 50 years of GWSS history. For example, students, including undergraduates, were a major force in organizing to bring the earliest women’s studies programs to campuses and faculty-student collaboration has always been paramount in GWSS.

Fifty years later, undergraduate students are everywhere in this book: A GWSS alumna’s art graces the cover; another GWSS alumna illustrated every author; other GWSS students submitted visual art and poetry; throughout, GWSS majors tell readers why they chose GWSS; I co-authored the conclusion with a student who offers parting words to fellow students; there is a standalone essay by an undergraduate student, and several by graduate students.

In other words, fifty years later, GWSS still values our students; now, instead of building the programs they are writing about and illustrating them.

Black Women’s Studies (BWS) has been part of Women’s Studies from the beginning—even if white feminists were not aware of it. So, fifty years later, I am thrilled that one of the pioneers of Black Women’s Studies, Beverly Guy-Sheftall introduces the book. There is also a piece about the first and only African women’s studies (AWS) program, and another co-authored by four doctoral candidates speaking to the power of AWS for scholarly and healing purposes.

GWSS: Celebrating 50 Years of Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies: "Damn Straight, We Persisted"
Beverly Guy Sheftall. (Nicole Carter)

However, despite the importance of AWS/BWS to the field, one thing that hasn’t changed enough, is the marginalization of women of color. As a white woman, I made many editorial decisions in an attempt to use this book as ally scholarship and hopefully put a dent in the marginalization of WOC often perpetuated by white feminists. Lourdes Torres writes about institutional barriers WOC still face in the academy and her essay forces white women to reckon with our complicity in white supremacy in the academy—a theme I revisit in the conclusion.

GWSS: Celebrating 50 Years of Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies: "Damn Straight, We Persisted"
Julie Shayne. (Nicole Carter)

Related to this, fifty years has provided feminists in the academy a good amount of time to learn the tricks of the trade. Many of the early programs were put together by women who were part timers or still graduate students, learning the ins and outs of the university as they built their programs while finishing their PhDs.

Now, we have a history of feminist administrators to help the next generations succeed and the short essay by faculty emeritus Judith Howard is a manifestation of how far we have come and hopefully a template for where we can go.


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“Persistence is Resistance” is also illustrative of a half decade of evolution in feminist pedagogy.

In the beginning of women’s studies, most founders talked about being motivated because in their own doctoral training they learned nothing about women. That meant when they started teaching, they had no texts to assign—because they did not exist yet! They had to create everything from scratch.

In this book, there are two essays about pedagogy, and both communicate how far the GWSS classroom has come from having no texts—to being able to take students on activist field trips, having their work guided by feminist critical thinking in countless published texts. There is also an abridged annotated bibliography of sources dedicated to the history of GWSS in the Americas, as well as essays dedicated to feminist publishing outside of the academy, and how our students get jobs with GWSS degrees.

GWSS: Celebrating 50 Years of Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies: "Damn Straight, We Persisted"
Cheryl Radeloff (left) and Michele Tracy Berger. (Nicole Carter)

In just fifty years, GWSS professors went from no programs, no course materials, no full-time professors, to more than can be contained in university walls, including paywalls.

Women’s studies has always maintained that women’s words matters. As the early GWSS professors did their PhDs in history or literature, they kept asking: Where are the women authors? Or women protagonists?

Sadly, we still have to ask this question—but it’s become more sophisticated, and we ask where are the marginalized communities which includes women but it’s much more complicated than gender: Where are the women of color? Especially trans women of color? Where are the two spirit Indigenous folks? Where are the disabled queers?

GWSS still asks the “where are … ?” question—and now, fifty years later, we have many more answers, including those who have survived sexual assault and previously lived as “Jane Doe.” One of the authors writes about Chanel Miller’s memoir, a book that may not have existed fifty years ago but certainly tells a story that is nothing new.

GWSS: Celebrating 50 Years of Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies: "Damn Straight, We Persisted"
Melinda Chen. (Nicole Carter)

We also have pieces of the GWSS story that are new-ish but should not be: Indigenous feminisms, ecofeminisms from an anti-colonial perspective.

“Persistence is Resistance” also tells us the backstory of some of these fifty years: the history of the first program (SDSU); the history of GWSS in the Global South; the “women’s studies” name change; why community colleges need GWSS.

A lot has happened in fifty years and the enthusiasm the authors shared with me as they worked on their pieces kept me going. It is a heady project and fortunately the students’ artwork and thoughts about the major punctuate the essays and give us a moment to breath deep and exhale.

We hope you will join us—especially those of you who know nothing about GWSS. 


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About

Dr. Julie Shayne is a principal lecturer, co-founder and facilitator of Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies at the University of Washington Bothell. She is the author and editor of four books—most recently, Persistence is Resistance: Celebrating 50 Years of Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies.