Linda Zerilli (right) and Jane Dailey at Gender Studies' weekly Faculty Seminar, the only one of its kind at the University.

Shop Talk: Gender Studies

The Center for Gender Studies was founded in 1996—"quite late in the development of women's studies," says Linda Zerilli, director of the center and Charles E. Merriam Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science. "Most of the really important women's/gender studies programs started in the seventies." Despite its late start, says Jane Dailey, former director and associate professor of history, "the center has received a lot of support from the administration over the years."

Partly because of that support, the center has achieved an impressive reach throughout the University. Its 100-plus affiliated faculty members include professors from such diverse disciplines as biological sciences, classics, divinity, economics, music, philosophy, and visual arts.

The center's first Faculty Fellow seminar, launched this year, takes a similarly broad interdisciplinary approach. The center awarded five Faculty Fellowships to "a phenomenal group of scholars," says Dailey: Mary Anne Case (Arnold I. Shure Professor of Law), Kyeong-Hee Choi (associate professor, East Asian languages and civilizations), Rachel Jean-Baptiste (assistant professor, history), Kristen Schilt (assistant professor, sociology), and Rebecca Zorach (associate professor, art history). These scholars, along with six additional faculty participants, will spend the year investigating the topic "The Politics of Sexual Freedom."

Zerilli and Dailey spoke with Dialogo contributor Carrie Golus, AB'91, AM'93, about the past, present, and future of the Center for Gender Studies.


Why is it called gender studies, rather than women's studies? Does that reflect a difference in approach?

Zerilli: Women's studies got its start mainly in the disciplines of history and English, and a little bit in anthropology. The focus was, initially, on recovering women's history—all those lost voices.

The shift to gender studies developed as it became more and more difficult to talk about femininity without talking about masculinity. There was a new focus on masculinity and femininity not only as fundamentally unstable categories, but categories that were constituted in relation to each other.

Dailey: It was easy to call it "gender" in 1996. In that sense, being founded late was fortunate, because we were able to be in sync with the latest scholarship.

Zerilli: The name is something we're still debating. We're thinking about a possible change to the Center for Gender and Sexuality Studies, because we do a lot of work on sexuality.

Do you feel that gender studies is taken seriously now, in a way that women's studies maybe wasn't in the seventies?

Zerilli: When women's studies began, it provided space for academics to use gender as a category of analysis. The big challenge for gender/women's studies is that the project succeeded, in that the work got mainstreamed. For example, I was hired to teach feminist theory in the Department of Political Science. I don't have to go to Gender Studies to teach it.

This is obviously not the case with all departments, and it is a particular problem in the sciences. That's why the participants in the Women in Science project have been so excited. For these women, Gender Studies can have the sort of life that it had in the seventies for women in the social sciences or humanities.

What is the Women in Science project?

Zerilli: A few years ago, Mary Harvey [PhD'87, associate provost for program development] put together a committee on women and science. Mary has been a major force in trying to advance the interests of women, through promotion, tenure, and retention of women in the sciences. The group Women in Science grew out of that.

Dailey: The center's contribution has been to provide a space for women scientists to get together and present their work. These women are scattered all over. At our meetings they get to know each other and sometimes realize their research is connected to an aspect of someone else's.

The center has always been patronized and run by humanities and social sciences faculty. We wanted to let the Biological Sciences Division, the Medical School, and other divisions know that we're there for the whole University.

Zerilli: When Women in Science began, quite frankly, I wasn't sure it was going to take off. But it's been hugely successful. There were all these women who had a second-wave moment, realizing that there are other women at the University who have similar problems—that it wasn't just an individual problem.

What are the goals for the new seminar for faculty fellows?

Zerilli: Strangely enough, faculty rarely get to talk about their work with other faculty in a seminar-like setting.

Each week, a faculty member presents his or her work—but it's not the usual format. When you present a paper to your department, you're going to present something that's pretty polished. At that point, you don't really want to hear any criticisms. You're just thinking, "Please love it!"

But one participant in the seminar, Lucy Pick [senior lecturer, Divinity School], asked, "What if you don't even have a chapter? How about if everyone just read the primary texts I'm working with, and then we just discussed them?" So the seminar is a working group, and that's very liberating.

Dailey: The seminar is open to all faculty members at the University, but not graduate students or undergraduates. The impulse was to find a space to talk to each other about our work without any pedagogical issues. It is a little selfish. But I think we all felt that we have so many opportunities to interact with undergrads and grads in various workshops at the center, that we could be a little selfish and make this space just for us.

Do other departments have faculty seminars? I don't think I've ever heard of such a thing.

Dailey: The Law School has a work-in-progress seminar, where faculty present their work to each other every week. But ours has a theme and is interdisciplinary. And we're not all going to vote on each other's tenure.

Zerilli: There's a little more room for taking a risk, a little more playfulness, particularly for junior people.

How does this tie in with the Sawyer seminar?

Dailey: Last fall, we were one of two groups at the University invited to submit an application for a Sawyer seminar from the Mellon Foundation. Along with Martha Nussbaum [Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics], we put together a proposal for a seminar called "Women's International Human Rights: Problems, Paradoxes, Possibilities."

We thought this was a topic that was capacious enough to appeal to our traditional constituencies in the social sciences and the humanities, but also across the Midway to the Law School. The goal was to broaden our discussion.

Zerilli: The grant was $165,000. It was a big deal for the center. As well as faculty fellowships, it will also support postdocs and two conferences.

Any other new developments?

Zerilli: We now have a Graduate Certificate, so graduate students have something official when they leave. The graduate student community has been always really strong, but now the center has a formalized relationship to these students.

Last year we had nine undergraduates majoring in gender studies. This year we have sixteen—the largest number we've ever had. There are many more minors.

The center seems to run so much interesting programming—lectures, workshops, film screenings. Are there any events specifically geared to alumni?

Zerilli: We would love to get alumni more involved. We're in the process of creating an alumni group, something like Friends of the Center. We would perhaps have dinners where we bring in a dynamic speaker to give a talk and/or have a text that everybody will have read, and have a faculty member lead the discussion.

Once you get out of academia, you lose the possibility to sit around with a bunch of people and talk about a text. It's something alumni really miss. I'd like alumni to think about the center as a place where they could do that.

What are your current academic projects? Has the interdisciplinary nature of the center influenced your work?

Dailey: I'm finishing up a book called Sex and Civil Rights. It looks at the civil rights movement from emancipation up until the 1970s, always through the lens of questions of sex and marriage. That project has been influenced very much by all kinds of chance encounters with faculty from other disciplines that I've met at Gender Studies—particularly Jackie Goldsby in English and Cathy Cohen in political science.

Zerilli: I'm working on a book called Toward a Democratic Theory of Judgment, which has a feminist dimension. One chapter is on "Feminism and the Problem of Judgment."

Interdisciplinary perspectives have been crucial for me in trying to get some kind of critical purchase on my own training. My early work was critiques of the political science canon from a feminist perspective. The only way I could engage in that was by getting to know people who were generating these feminist critiques. Literary theory was very important for me, as were philosophy, history, film theory.

At my dissertation seminar I always say to my students, you're probably thinking that people who specialize in different fields are not going to have a good question for you. But those are just the people who are going to ask the child's question: "Why? Why is that even interesting?" That is often the crucial question.