Past directors of the George Washington University Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) program gathered with prominent thinkers in the field, alumni, students and fellow faculty members for a day-long celebration of the trailblazing program’s 50th anniversary.
In a series of panels and conversations on April 14, experts discussed five decades of changes and challenges in the field while reflecting on the historic legacy of WGSS at the Columbian College of Arts & Sciences (CCAS)—the first-ever graduate program in women’s studies in the United States and a community that current WGSS Director Ashwini Tambe called “scrappy, but mighty.”
“We are scrappy because all of our gains are an outcome of struggle,” she said. “But we are mighty because of the life-changing impact we have.”
The CCAS WGSS program was launched in 1972 and began enrolling students the following year. But its roots stretch back to a 1965 project called Developing New Horizons for Women, one of the first continuing education programs for women in the country. Championed by the late Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award recipient Ruth Helm Osborn, M.A. ’46, Ph.D. ’63, the initiative evolved into an interdisciplinary master’s degree in women’s studies that charted a new path in the field.
Over the next 50 years, “the program has grown from strength to strength,” Tambe said. It added an M.A. in public policy with a WGSS concentration, undergraduate majors and minors in both women’s studies and LGBT studies and joint degrees with GW Law. Over the same period, the program broadened its focus on gender, race, sexuality, ethnicity and nationality studies and emerged as a leader in a field that challenges inequality and re-imagines social justice. As its offerings expanded to include expert and alumni speaker events and an international film series, the program highlighted “a diverse array of voices,” noted Professor of History and International Affairs Nemata Blyden, the WGSS director from 2016-2018.
“We work together to make the world a better place,” said Associate Professor of WGSS and English Daniel Moshenberg, who served as WGSS director from 2004-2016. “I know that sounds nice, but it’s what really distinguishes the work that we do.”
The directors described the program as a home for conversations and activism on topics from feminist theory to inequalities in policy and power structures. The program prides itself on filling a gap for “a joyful and amazing group of students” who are eager to address the most consequential issues of the time, said Jennifer Nash, WGSS director in 2016 and now a professor of gender, sexuality and feminist studies at Duke University.
Indeed, speaker after speaker applauded WGSS students for continuing to energize the program with fresh dialogues and perspectives. Professor of English and WGSS Kavita Daiya recalled how students “kept this community going” when the COVID crisis struck during her 2018-2021 tenure as director.
“They went through this really hard time together with grit, with resilience, with generosity, ambition and ethical regard,” she said.
WGSS students at the event praised the program for combining theory and scholarship with real-world applications. First-year master’s student Aliza Ali, who was born in India, searched for a program that could provide insights into the experiences of immigrant women. “I was raised by immigrant women,” she said. “I saw the unique struggles they faced.” At WGSS, she said, she was able to approach her interests from both an advocacy and policy perspective.
Likewise, Camille Padilla-Diffoot, a first-year master’s student, said WGSS offered her a unique lens into the gender-based violence plaguing her native Puerto Rico. The program “has been a good way to combine my love of feminist theory with political aspects,” she said. “It has shown me how they can be intertwined to hopefully make important changes.”
Still the program—and the field itself—faces mounting challenges, the speakers agreed, from budgetary constraints to what Tambe called a “turbulent” political landscape that includes renewed attacks on abortion access and attempts to ban some WGSS subjects such as critical race feminism. The symposium opened with Clare Hemmings, professor of feminist theory at the London School of Economics, warning against “anti-gender initiatives that are on the rise globally” including “attacks on feminism and LGBT movements frequently articulated in conjunction with anti-migrant or racist views.”
Nevertheless, the panelists noted that WGSS alumni continue to work for change around the world, pointing to one alumna who evaluates humanitarian aid in Somalia, another who founded an organization to protect children during custody disputes and others who have helped mentor students.
“I’m so grateful for the solidarity of these dynamic alumni,” Daiya said. “I thank you...for your generosity and grace in sharing your story and sharing advice with current students. You’ve helped us in immeasurable ways in building this community.”
The ceremony also marked the upcoming retirements at the end of the semester for Moshenberg and Associate Professor of WGSS, Sociology and Public Policy and Public Administration Cynthia Deitch, whose tenure as director included periods in the late ’90s and early 2000s. “When I think back, it’s always been the people—the students and the colleagues— that have been most important to this program and to me,” Deitch said. At a post-event reception, students recognized their impact as teachers.
At the close of the panels, Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies Rachel Riedner, who earned a master’s from WGSS in 1993, praised the program as “a place of intellectual rigor and a place of social justice and activism.” Likewise, Nash saluted the faculty and students for their intellectual vibrancy.
“Happy anniversary to GW WGSS,” Nash said. “I wish you another 50 years of transformative pedagogy and innovative programming.”