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New Major in Women and Gender Studies

Written by Dwight Bachman and Chris Herman


Women Gender Studies Image.jpg Willimantic, Conn. - Ninety-two years ago this month in 1920, the U.S. Congress ratified the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote. Today, women are mayors of cities, governors of states, CEOs at major corporations and leaders of universities. 

They run for president and vice president of the United States, vote in more presidential elections than men and graduate from college in higher numbers than men, including at Eastern Connecticut State University.

earh-ame[1].jpgYet, even with President Obama signing into law the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Play Act in 2009, and signing an executive order establishing the White House Council on Women and Girls, women still earn only 77 cents to every dollar that men earn in the workplace. This wage gap increases for women of color in Connecticut, with African-American women earning 64 cents for every dollar and Latinas earning 52 cents.

To help students better understand the historical factors that play a key role in the status of gender in America, and the means by which women and other social groups have tried to achieve equality, Eastern is offering a new major in Women and Gender Studies. This past spring, the Connecticut Board Connecticut Board of Regents for Higher Education approved the new major.  It is available to all students beginning this fall semester. Eastern is the only public Connecticut college offering a degree in Women's and Gender Studies.


tina fu 4 (3).jpg "We've been working on this major for three years, an effort that begun under the former director, Marcia McGowan.  To be the first in the state to have this major? 

It's exciting," said English Professor Maureen McDonnell, who began serving as director of Women's and Gender Studies in fall 2011. "We will be able to offer students a quality academic program in gender studies," said McDonnell, who earned her doctorate in English and Women's Studies at the University of Michigan before she began working at Eastern. "Given Eastern's commitment to the liberal arts and to undergraduate education, it is fitting that Eastern is the only public Connecticut college offering a degree in Women's and Gender Studies. In this academic field, our students learn about the achievements and activism of women and other historically underrepresented groups as they consider the ways in which gender and other identities shape social experiences in a liberal arts context."


"Empowering our students to lead socially responsible lives in an increasingly diverse society is a fundamental element of Eastern's liberal arts mission," said Eastern President Elsa Núñez.  "How gender impacts our personal and social experiences is an important part of the dialog on our campus, and the new Women and Gender Studies program will enhance our culture of respect and inclusion.  Promoting leadership roles for women in our society is especially important on a campus where 54 percent of the students are women. 

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The fact the program is being offered by faculty across several academic disciplines is also appropriate for our liberal arts campus. I look forward to the discussions of social justice and equity that will take place as a result of this new program."

bart-cl3[1].jpgGrounded in the liberal arts, the Women and Gender Studies major provides an interdisciplinary approach to stimulate the examination and analysis of  how factors such as race, class, culture and sexuality work together to impact the complexity and challenges of women and other groups in the United States.  The new major is rigorous, requiring students to take 36 credits from a wide range of academic departments, and weaves in a research and experiential learning component. Fourteen full-time faculty teach Women Gender and Studies courses.

The demanding gateway course and prerequisite to the major is Introduction to Women Studies, which gives students a sound theoretical overview and orientation to women and gender studies. The capstone course is a senior project, an intensive writing 400 level independent study course. The program provides structure for the assessment of student learning outcomes.

Anna Maria Cardinalli-Padilla (2).jpgCritical for McDonnell is how the new major links the classroom to the real world of work in a wide range of workplace settings:  "The character and demands of Connecticut's workplace are changing as the role of women grows in importance and in the extent of their contributions. Many companies, corporations, government and private agencies are in need of employees capable of understanding women and gender issues in areas such as personnel, employee training, social, health and other support services."

"With this new major, students will be able to apply their acquired knowledge, analytical skills and competencies in these everyday situations," McDonnell continued. "Students also will be prepared to pursue further academic study in fields such as law, social work, the media, public policy, health care, education and education administration, politics, business, psychology, and communication and in non-profit organizations." 
The program will provide internships in agencies across the state, including those in women's health such as Planned Parenthood, the news media -- including the Norwich Bulletin -- a and transgender advocacy groups, just to name a few.

McDonnell said the new major embraces a global perspective as well: "It is generally not known that women own only one percent of the world's wealth, or that of the 100 million homeless people in the world, most are women and dependent children, or that every day, 50,000 people, mostly women and children, die as a result of poor shelter, polluted water and inadequate sanitation."

Starsheemar Byrum, an Eastern alumna who minored in Women Studies at Eastern and earned her master's degree in Women Studies at Southern Connecticut State University, is coordinator of Eastern's Women's Center.  Byrum believes the new major will enable students to critically engage problems on many levels, including trends in the women's movement, social injustice in the workplace and in family life.

"The Women and Gender Studies Program makes accessible an intersectional lens, where students can examine how gender, race, class and multiple identities interact to shape human experience," said Byrum. "Through comprehension of how different systems contribute to social inequality, women and men alike will have another mode of entry to learning how to confront and challenge root causes of social issues like gender-based violence. We yearn for a socially just world; this program will help to foster social responsibility and positive social change."

For more information about Eastern's new major in Women and Gender Studies, contact Maureen McDonnell at or call (860) 465-4570

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