MOVE-IN 2015: New era for Center for Women’s Studies

Head of the Department of Ethnic Studies Irene Vernon, left, and Caridad Souza, director of the Center for Women's Studies and Gender Research.
Head of the Department of Ethnic Studies Irene Vernon, left, and Caridad Souza, director of the Center for Women’s Studies and Gender Research.

Women’s studies has taken another step forward in its long, often challenging journey at CSU: It now has a full-time director to lead the Center for Women’s Studies and Gender Research.

The program, which began in the early 1970s, was operated out of the Women and Gender Advocacy Center (formerly Women’s Programs and Studies) for decades before a move to separate the center’s academic function from its student services in 2009-10. It searched unsuccessfully for a new home before turning to the Department of Ethnic Studies.

“They were homeless for almost two years,” said Irene Vernon, head of Ethnic Studies and chair of the Standing Committee on the Status of Women Faculty, an arm of the President’s Commission on Women and Gender Equity.

Vernon recalls that initially there wasn’t enough support among Ethnic Studies faculty to take in Women’s Studies because the two fields seemed disparate. Besides, Ethnic Studies had just overcome its own 16-year struggle to gain department status, and some faculty thought adding oversight of Women’s Studies to Vernon’s duties would be too much.

So the department asked Women’s Studies to revamp its proposal, and the second time around, Ethnic Studies faculty approved the move.

“It was important to give them shelter, because at times someone had to give us shelter,” said Vernon, noting that her department has had several different homes over the years and was a concentration in the College of Liberal Arts before becoming a department in 2009. “I think it was one of our finest moments, supporting this.”

Full-time director

The Women’s Studies program was renamed the Center for Women’s Studies and Gender Research, and Caridad Souza was hired as part-time director in 2012 after serving as a lecturer in Africana/Latina studies and women/gender studies at the State University of New York at Oneonta.

Her CSU director position became full-time on July 2.

“The growth of ethnic and women studies has been an academic priority for the university, thanks in large part to Irene Vernon’s tireless leadership over many years,” said Provost and Executive Vice President Rick Miranda. “In Caridad, we found an outstanding scholar and leader who can really take this program to a new level, so the timing was right to make this a full-time role. We’re very excited about what this means for our students and the program overall.”

Souza and Vernon credit CSU President Tony Frank with providing the funding and taking another important step in his commitment to improving conditions for women on campus.

“I think it’s spectacular,” said Vernon. “It’s one of the best moves to support women’s issues on this campus in 30 or 40 years. This is an exceptional moment.”

For Frank and Miranda, it was a move that made sense for the university. “We had an opportunity to really elevate an important academic program in a short amount of time through a key hire, and we didn’t want to miss that opportunity,” Frank said. “In our strategic planning and budget discussions – and through the work of the President’s Commission on Women and Gender Equity – this has emerged as a university priority, and it was important to take this next step and get moving forward. We’re extremely pleased to have Caridad on board in this role.”

In addition to elevating the director position to full-time, Vernon and Souza say Frank also provided funding to hire an individual whose duties including teaching women’s studies coursework. Cori Wong is an instructor in the program, and serves as director of the president’s women and gender initiative and special assistant to the president for affordable housing initiatives.

“The president was really clear that there was a need to do this,” Souza said.

“He’s made a strong effort to make this a better place for women,” Vernon added.

Undergraduate major next year

In the Center for Women’s Studies and Gender Research, housed in the newly remodeled Eddy Hall, students can minor in women’s studies, earn a graduate certificate in women’s studies or major in ethnic studies with a concentration in women’s studies. About 60 students are minoring in the subject and about 20 are in the graduate certificate program. Starting next year, Women’s Studies will be available as a stand-alone undergraduate major, meaning a B.A. degree will bear the name of the discipline for the first time at CSU.

Souza and Vernon, who was the first Ethnic Studies faculty member hired by CSU in 1994, agree that it’s been a hard road for both fields of study, which makes the latest advances that much sweeter.

“It’s a tough battle to create these kinds of programs on campus,” Vernon said.

“These programs are important and strategic, but they often get overlooked,” explained Souza, who earned her Ph.D. in ethnic studies with a concentration in feminist theory from the University of California, Berkeley. “We shouldn’t have to validate the work we’re doing. The support from the Ethnic Studies faculty has been phenomenal.”

In addition to building enrollment and course offerings in the program, Souza’s goals include infusing more gender and women’s issues into the curriculum campus-wide, expanding feminist research and focusing on Colorado-specific problems.

“For instance, our state has a very high suicide rate among young women, and no one has been able to tell me why,” Souza said.

Combining Ethnic Studies and Women’s Studies could serve as an example to other institutions, according to Vernon.

“What I like about Women’s Studies being here is that I think we could be a model nationwide,” she said.

More information on the Center for Women’s Studies and Gender Research.