For those of us who weren’t here in 1970, it’s hard to reconstruct how limited women’s opportunities were.
Women had won the right to wear Bermuda shorts in the library, and, yes, they no longer had to wear dresses to eat dinner in the dining hall. Gone were the residence hall curfews that had been imposed on women and not on men. There had been progress.
But women still couldn’t join the marching band or compete in varsity athletics. They could not make up more than 45 percent of an incoming freshman class. “There were very few women on the faculty,” recalls Associate Professor of Anthropology and Women’s Studies Gayle Rubin (A.B. 1972, M.A. ’74, Ph.D. ’94), “and their numbers became infinitesimal at the tenured level.” Some fields, such as psychology, had areas where women were the focus. But there was not yet a discipline called women’s studies.
In 1970, students and faculty were planning a giant environmental teach-in, protesting the Vietnam War and the draft, marching to improve diversity, and advocating for women’s rights. 1970 was also the year a group of women filed a sex discrimination complaint against the University that led to government sanctions.
And it was the year that marked the centennial of women at U-M.
Organize, Evolve, Grow
In response to the lawsuit, U-M created a Commission on Women and opened the Office of Affirmative Action in 1971. It drafted a plan to increase women’s representation on campus—a plan the government accepted in 1973, two years after women’s studies had been introduced at U-M.
Kathryn Kish Sklar (M.A. 1967, Ph.D. ’69) taught the first women’s studies course in the Residential College in the spring of 1971. Sklar had earned her Ph.D. in the history of American women—a subject tacitly understood by Sklar and her advisor as a kind of professional suicide. “I did the Ph.D. because I wanted to be a historian,” she says, “but since the academic history profession was not open to women, I just researched my own interests.”
In the summer of 1972, graduate student Lydia Kleiner (M.A. 1972) recruited Sklar to help create a women’s studies program. Together, they assembled a coalition of students, junior faculty, and senior faculty members, including Department of Psychology Professor Libby Douvan, Anthropology Professor Norma Diamond, and Geography Professor Ann Larimore. “Without their participation,” says Rubin, “I doubt our motley group of adjuncts and students would have gotten far.”
The group brought a proposal to LSA Dean Frank Rhodes. In spring 1973, the LSA Executive Committee formally approved the Women’s Studies Program. It was staffed with a quarter-time director and a half-time secretary.
The program continued to grow, but in 1980 its future was in jeopardy. Its first review raised serious concerns that not enough faculty taught upper-level courses. Students had campaigned to create the program. Now they had to campaign again—to save it.
“We wanted to save the major and to make sure these TAs continued to be able to teach,” recalls Laura Sanders (A.B. 1983). “We marched down State Street and into the Dean’s Office. We sat down and there were so many of us it filled up the entire hallway. People tried to step off the elevator and couldn’t. I think that very strong show of support was surprising.” The program got more faculty. The major was saved.
The program reorganized, evolved, and grew. In 2007, it became the Department of Women’s Studies. Though the program eventually flourished, its early founders did not necessarily reap the rewards of its success. “There are a lot of professional casualties from the 1970s era,” says Rubin, “people whose careers were derailed or delayed or diverted as a result of the work they did to blaze trails for others.”
The activism took a toll on students, too. André Wilson (B.F.A. 1986) remembers activists who got their degrees and those who didn’t make it to graduation. “These students are not acknowledged as alumni, but without every student who fought for change, U-M would not be what it is today. The students made it happen.
“Very often, these students were intersectional in their efforts,” says Wilson. “We organized around several issues simultaneously because we understood they were intertwined. Making these stories visible is important because they are inspiring and instructive.”