Celebrating 20 Years of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program

How the program worked to gain recognition and is still overcoming stigma today.

Jess Kishbaugh

The Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program turned 20 years old this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The program started in 2001, initially called “Women’s Studies” and since then has grown to become an interdisciplinary minor pulling professors from many programs to teach classes on sexuality, gender identity, feminism, sex, and everything in between.

While the program is well established now, it wasn’t always smooth sailing for the WGSS program.

An opinion piece published in the Ring- tum Phi in 2001 called posed this problematic question of the program: “Does W&L want to give radical feminists a place in the school to indoctrinate young, impressionable females? Does W&L want to support such unscholarly, irresponsible claptrap? The answer from students, alumni, and faculty should be a resounding no.”

Even then, there were many quick to defend the program, however. After the release of that article, professors and students alike jumped to the program’s defense.

“Being a feminist doesn’t mean I want to abolish marriage and kill my children,” said another opinoin piece in response. “It means that I want to look at things how they usually are not, i.e. from a woman’s perspective.”

That’s not to say that members of the program don’t still face stigma.

“When I talk to older family members, sometimes I will say I’m taking a philosophy course rather than I’m taking a course on the philosophy of sex,” said WGSS Minor Andrew Claybrook ’22. “I don’t think that there’s any deliberate stigma on this campus that I have experienced, but I know that there is still taboo around subjects like sexuality and gender.”

It took a while for the program to get even here, though. Professor Melina Bell, the cur- rent head of campus and community engagement for the WGSS program, started at Washington and Lee University in 2005, four years after the program was instituted, and was attracted by the program. But, when she got here, professors were expected to overload for no compensation to teach classes in the “Women’s Studies” program. The four credit capstone class that she taught met at 7 p.m., uncommon for the time, and was the only opportunity for her four students to be able to graduate with a Women’s Studies Concentration.

“Even in 2005,” Bell said, “the program wasn’t fully institutionalized and supported with resources as a legitimate program.”

Over the past 20 years, the program has developed into something that Washington and Lee students, faculty, and alumni are proud of.

“It’s a place, I think, for people who don’t necessarily feel comfortable in the more traditional or typically W&L kinds of spaces,” said Bell. “For me, I think, it’s the same thing. I really enjoy teaching those students who are a little out of the mainstream for W&L and think outside of the box.”

Clearly, a lot has changed. As the program approaches it’s 20th anniversary, it has hosted a number of programs celebrating women, gender, and sexuality in general as well as the program and its alumni.

In January, some of the originators of the WGSS program including Professors Sarah Horowitz, Ellen Mayock, Dominica Radulescu, and Julie Woodzicka spoke at a faculty panel discussing the beginnings of the pro- gram and how it came to be.

In February there was a showing of the film Intimate Violence which tells the story of survivors of domestic violence in America. Also in February, Inscapes: The Paintings of Evelyn Dawson Wynn debuted in the Watson Galleries. In early March the program hosted an alumni panel sharing experiences about the WGSS minor titled “WGSS Alumnae Panel: What I Do with What I Learned.”

In early April, the program will host the 15th National Symposium of Theater in Academe and a poster session on reproductive biology.

“It’s incredible to see how WGSS has persised across its many incarnations to get where it is today,” said Claybrook. “And even while there is a stigma in some people’s eyes…that it continues to grow and flourish and connect so many disciplines together I think is just really incredible and I’m very glad that it’s here.”