How the Addition of Women’s Studies Impacted Holy Cross

Female professor sitting at table with six female students.

In 1993, Holy Cross graduated the first cohort of students to earn a concentration in Women’s Studies, a move that has influenced generations of faculty and students.

When she arrived at Holy Cross in 1989, Jennifer Moore Kickham ’93 described herself as a naïve young woman who lacked self-confidence and was unsure of her future.

Now an OB/GYN at Massachusetts General Hospital, Dr. Kickham credits her experience in the then-newly created Holy Cross Women’s Studies concentration that began her transformation into a mature, thoughtful and confident woman. 

"I take what I learned at Holy Cross in the Women’s Studies program and apply them today," Kickham said.

Amplifying Women's Perspectives

Thirty years ago, Kickham and seven other women were the first cohort of students to graduate with the concentration that focused on sharing and amplifying women’s perspectives and scholarship in the classrooms and throughout the College.  

"Women’s Studies opened the door for us to consider important areas that the academy had neglected and to hear previously silenced voices. Student and faculty scholarship of an original kind blossomed within the classroom," said Helen Whall, professor emerita of English, who joined the faculty in 1976. "It helped faculty expand our roles. It helped our students consider perspectives that otherwise wouldn’t have been introduced."

Edith Wagoner Klimoski ’93 says that being part of the concentration was the first time at the College she encountered a way of thinking to which she could strongly relate.

"It was the right time for the concentration," said Klimoski, who today is the director of Give Way to Freedom, a Vermont-based nonprofit that provides and advocates for care of survivors of human trafficking and increases awareness of the crime. "Holy Cross provided the space to have those necessary discussions and that evolution of thought. If it had been suppressed, it would have been a disservice to the community and the process that I think the College strives to have and encourage."

The concentration was years in the making and the result of several women faculty who were persistent in the pursuit of what they said were necessary programmatic and curricular changes that included feminist perspectives.

"Feminist scholarship is very much about asking different kinds of questions. Who’s speaking? Who has power? Who’s left out? You’re always interrogating," said Shawn Maurer, professor of English and former Gender and Women’s Studies director.

"Women Studies helped women find their voices in all classrooms."

In 1990-1991, a group formally proposed the concentration. College administration and the faculty approved the program in 1991 as an interdisciplinary concentration.

"It was called Women’s Studies because that’s what we needed,” said Theresa McBride, professor emerita of history and one of the first women tenure track faculty hires in the early 1970s. “We needed to somehow get women integrated into the curriculum."

The concentration found a home within the College’s Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, an umbrella program that allowed and encouraged academic experimentation and offered financial and organizational support. The structure included an introductory course and four courses from various academic departments that met specified criteria. The culmination of the program was a capstone project, completed either through formal presentation or internship.

"It was a program and a curriculum," said McBride, who taught at the College for 47 years and also served as director of Women’s Studies. "We wanted to provide a network of people – not just women – who were from within and outside the College. We focused from the beginning on developing interdisciplinary instruction and learning experience in the community."

The faculty recognized that women’s issues were global and needed to be in the foreground in a way that not only supported women faculty, staff and students as they navigated Holy Cross, but also in their lives away from The Hill.

"It was a time of consciousness raising," Whall said of the opening years. "It was through the program that women were able to make an impact on the general curriculum, open up the canon, and look at topics not originally seen as important. Women Studies helped women find their voices in all classrooms."

An evolution of inclusivity

In 2003, in recognition of the changing times, the program marked its first evolution, as faculty recognized the program needed to more accurately reflect the cultural shifts within the Holy Cross community and beyond.

At a workshop that spring, faculty decided it was time to change the name to Women’s and Gender Studies to more "accurately represent the field itself, which has undergone significant transformations" since its inception, according to notes taken during that meeting. The new name went into effect in the fall of 2004 and was intended to recognize and include members of the Holy Cross community (students and faculty) who might have otherwise felt marginalized or excluded.

"It allowed us to expand our reach and our awareness," said Danuta Bukatko, distinguished professor of education, professor of psychology and former Women’s Studies director. "At each stage, as we became more and more inclusive, it felt like the right thing to do. Studying women’s issues was breaking open other areas that deserved attention."

Through the past three decades, the concentration has expanded to a variety of marginalized group experiences and voices in order to respect the intrinsic dignity of all people and promote social justice.

"Issues concerning diversity, equity and inclusion have always been a fundamental part of our purpose for the concentration. Women’s Studies was always intersectional, but there have been challenges because it was also a middle-class white women’s movement in some of its incarnations," Maurer said. "You can think about the evolution as always responding to who’s been left out and trying to make it more equitable and include more voices."

Vickie Langohr, current program director and associate professor of political science, said the program encourages students to be more intentional when talking and thinking about the women and LGBTQ communities by not centering their study solely on white experiences.

"Gender oppression is not just about gender. It’s compounded by racial attitudes and other ways that people discriminate in today’s society. We need to call attention to the intersectionality," Langohr said.

In its current form, the program, renamed to Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies in the fall of 2015, remains an interdisciplinary academic concentration and self-designed major that uses gender and sexuality as central frameworks for exploration, analysis and action.