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Celebrating 40 Years of Women's Studies

December 12, 2010

Madelyn Gutwirth, emerita professor of foreign languages, recalls that, during the first few years of the “Women in Contemporary Society” course that was the foundation course for the University’s Women’s Studies program, “there was always tension. But I enjoyed dealing with those tensions and addressing them.” One example, however, hit her hard.

In the early 1970s, “a very good, serious student” approached Gutwirth and said she had to drop the course. The student was learning, changing, growing – and getting into terrible fights with her “old-fashioned” boyfriend as a result. Something had to give.

Thanks to the evolution of the feminist revolution, fewer students are likely to face that situation. This year, the Women’s Studies program is marking its 40th anniversary. A celebration was held on campus Nov. 5, bringing three former program coordinators – Gutwirth, Anne Dzamba, emerita professor of History and Women’s Studies, and Stacey Schlau, professor of professor of foreign languages and women’s studies – together with students, alumni, faculty and friends.

When Gutwirth first conceived of the program in 1968, she modeled it on the single course on the arts that was the only interdisciplinary offering at West Chester. Today, students can earn a bachelor of arts in women’s studies or pursue it as a minor concentration. Faculty and courses from 12 departments comprise the interdisciplinary program, which attracts men as well as women. Graduates gain skills in gender studies and diversity issues that open doors to a variety of career paths including business management, law, health care, social work, teaching and the arts.

In 1968, at a time when other colleges were just beginning to consider women’s studies courses, Gutwirth had already begun laying the foundation for such a program at West Chester. “I felt strongly about joining this initiative that was being pursued all over the country.”

A self-professed “feminist since childhood,” she developed the University’s first Women’s Studies course – finally ready to be offered in 1971 – and 100 students registered. She remained coordinator of the program until 1978 and remained engaged with it until her retirement in 1991.

There was initial difficulty in convincing some administrators to assign faculty to teach women’s studies courses, Gutwirth recalls. While outright hostility was nearly absent, some administrators simply turned a blind eye to the scholarly feminist movement, perhaps hoping it would go away and not disrupt “serious scholarship.”

“We needed a foothold within the institution. We needed to institutionalize feminist research and study so that they would not die when opinion changed direction. The first steps were the hardest, but it was a joy to take them because they were so meaningful in a larger sense.”

Gutwirth’s initiative broke the ice. Virtually simultaneous to the establishment of the women’s studies program, emerged the Women’s Center, the Institute for Women, and a federally funded two-year collaborative project with the Philadelphia School District that taught elementary and secondary teachers how to teach in a non-sexist manner.

To acknowledge her groundbreaking role with the program, women’s studies established the Madelyn Gutwirth Endowment. Contributions to the endowment make it permanently possible to underwrite scholarships for students, provide additional programming, enable the presence of guest scholars, and support faculty research.

A feminist scholar of 18th-century society and culture, specifically women’s place at the time of the French revolution, Gutwirth remains involved with her field, presenting papers and writing book reviews. Recently, the Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies devoted a plenary session to the impact of her work on feminist studies.

The half-day anniversary program included not only the historical perspective on West Chester’s program, but also a panel whose participants examined emerging issues in women’s studies. The event concluded with an evening reception that highlighted the art of two women’s studies alumnae: filmmaker Victoria Kereszi ’99 and artist  Erica Volpe ’08 (see artwork).

Of the program, Gutwirth concludes, “It’s grown enormously in quality and quantity and has realized more than I could ever have imagined.”