Students of UW-Madison’s Department of Gender and Women’s Studies (GWS) have been analyzing questions such as these throughout the program’s storied, forty-year history — a milestone anniversary that the department marked in 2015. But what these students may or may not realize is just how rare this class — and the department itself — is. GWS 103 is the oldest and largest course of its kind in the country, and it’s the only natural-science credit course within the department. GWS boasts one of, if not the strongest, science and health core components of any in the country. And it always has.
“Most women’s studies programs at the time were focused on the humanities and the social sciences. Very few of them had scientists,” says Judy Leavitt, who came on board in 1975 to teach Biology and Psychology of Women, an upper-level science course, alongside psychologist Marjorie Klein. It was an offering that predated the fledgling women’s studies program and eventually became one of its first three core courses, along with Women’s Studies 101 and Women in the Arts, taught by Susan Stanford Friedman PhD’73 and Evelyn Torton Beck PhD’69, respectively.
GWS 103 came along shortly thereafter, when the late Ruth Bleier insisted on an introductory-level, science-based women’s studies course. Bleier was a tenured neuroanatomist in the School of Medicine and Public Health and a cofounder of the Association of Faculty Women. She’s also credited with winning equity salary raises for faculty women and staging a “shower-in” protest, which resulted in the first women’s locker rooms on campus.
The interdisciplinary foundation of the program as it was then wasn’t just for the benefit of women’s studies students. Bleier and her fellow pioneers — including Mariamne Whatley, then a postdoctoral fellow in plant biology who taught the first GWS 103 — hoped to influence every department throughout the university. A trained bench scientist, Whatley went on to teach several upper-level science courses within the program, including The Biology and Psychology of Women; Childbirth in the United States; Women, Sex Hormones, and Health; and LGBTI Health.
“We really saw what we were doing as transformative of knowledge,” says Leavitt. “It was part of a larger political movement, but it started with the idea that many of us experienced, and I certainly experienced: that I hadn’t had a single woman faculty member when I was a graduate student, nor had I studied a single thing about women. It was as if the world was male.”
That larger political movement also “came out of a spirit of change that was sweeping the whole university,” says Friedman, who is now a Hilldale Professor and director of the UW’s Institute for Research in the Humanities. “There was tremendous interest on the part of students in rethinking what universities are for, how we change the curriculum to keep up with new ideas, new fields, new ways of thinking.”
When the UW System Board of Regents mandated that all of the UW System campuses teach women’s studies in 1973, Friedman served as a staff associate on the committee that eventually designed UW-Madison’s program.
“Many of these new fields were interdisciplinary, and women’s studies is definitely interdisciplinary,” says Friedman, laughing as she recalls the time that she and her colleagues chose the topic of menstruation to demonstrate the importance of integrating multiple modes of knowledge — biology, psychology, anthropology, sociology, literature, art — to “very embarrassed” members of the board of regents, who’d asked why interdisciplinarity was important to women’s studies.
The story is funny now, but back then the women faced skepticism and hostility throughout campus. Friedman vividly recalls that when Bleier, a respected physician, first proposed GWS 103, it was rejected by the biological sciences divisional committee who said the description “looked like something that would go on a Tampax box.”
“In the beginning, it was extremely risky to be involved with this,” says Friedman. “To establish a whole new field that none of us had any training in, but feeling that it was so important. There was a tremendous prejudice, ignorance, fear about what it was we were doing. Life was pretty tough in the beginning years for all of us in our tenure home departments.”
But GWS 103, like the rest of the department, has proven to be a wildly successful experiment. From the start, it’s had 350 students each semester and another 300 on the waiting list. What’s more, Whatley — famously, every semester, year after year — receives a standing ovation from students after the first day’s lecture.
“The faculty who were so doubted at the beginning have won many, many awards,” says Friedman. “We’ve seen a lot of success, and I think that we feel respected on campus. But I don’t know if we would have survived if we didn’t have the women’s studies community — to give us the strength to go back to our departments and convince them that the research we did was legitimate, that we were rigorous teachers — that we were not running consciousness-raising groups, that we were not just didactic political people, that we were engaged in research just like they were.”