Section: Features

Women’s and gender studies at Kenyon: a contentious past

The Department of Women’s Studies (now the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies) at Kenyon had a rocky relationship with the greater community and many of the students when it was first introduced. The idea of establishing the department was first introduced under Philip Jordan’s College presidency in 1975, but it wasn’t until the early ’80s that students could take a women’s studies class. Throughout the process, there was very little student support, and the majority of voices speaking out about it opposed the “radical” feminism they feared would change the values of the College. The biggest adversarial voice was that of The Gambier Journal, an opinion publication. 

The Gambier Journal, a student paper at the time, relentlessly attacked the Kenyon administratration and the associated faculty for pushing for more progressive ideologies. What sparked the debates was a grant request made by the College to the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) for the creation of the women’s studies program in 1982. Even though Kenyon never received the money, many of the faculty who opposed the department were furious. “They questioned whether the reforms recommended in the NEH proposal constituted radical intellectual criticism or, more than that, indoctrination,” wrote Elizabeth Lilla in a Commentary article.  

In 1985, The Gambier Journal split, as a result of the controversy, into the Gambier Journal, Inc. and The Kenyon Journal. One Collegian article that reported on the split did not mention that this was due to the debates about Women’s Studies, but it did highlight the Gambier Journal Inc.’s conservatism. “In answer to past criticisms about the conservative bias many felt the Gambier Journal exhibited, the new editors of the Gambier Journal, Inc. stated that they are not discounting liberal views,” wrote Jennifer Russell ’86, Editor-In-Chief of the Collegian at the time.

A particularly controversial lecture series for the time was held from 1984 to 1985. According to Lilla, “[t]hese included three showings of the film Not a Love Story — a feminist critique of pornography — along with a lecture by the film’s star, a former stripper. It also featured a lecture by the foremost feminist theologian and critic of America’s ‘patriarchal power structure,’ Rosemary Radford Ruether.”

Though the community criticized the program for fear it was too radical, in reality, it was far from it. Students felt as if they could not contradict the feminist critiqes their professors were teaching, and one student even received a harassing phone call from the dean’s secretary for a Collegian op-ed in which she explained how the women’s studies class implied that women were less capable than men in an academic setting.  

The Collegian, during the first year the lecture series was held, reported little to nothing about the new women’s studies course. Students were generally very apathetic about the program, with only about 30  in the first class and increasingly fewer students signing up to take it in the following semesters. In 1985, enrollment was down to seven students, so it disappeared from the course list for the academic year. 

Finally, in 1986, the course was reinstated. This was not all, though. The women’s center moved and expanded, and the College established the Women’s Faculty Caucus to integrate feminist philosophies into already-established courses and offer support to the department.

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