Gender Studies Writ Large

Lewis & Clark’s Gender Studies Symposium celebrates 25 years of inquiry, activism, and leadership.

Lewis & Clark’s Gender Studies Symposium celebrates 25 years of inquiry, activism, and leadership.

Not so long ago, on the wood-paneled walls of the Council Chamber in Templeton Student Center, hung the names of 24 great thinkers of the world in large bronze letters. Among the names were Cicero, Homer, Herodotus, Jesus of Nazareth, Rousseau, and the like. Good thinkers all. And all were men. 

In fall 1982, buoyed by an increase in numbers and influence, the women faculty of Lewis & Clark challenged this inequity at a faculty meeting. They lobbied to add the names of women who had contributed to society and who also were great thinkers. After all, more than 50 percent of Lewis & Clark’s student body were women. Where were the role models? The female faculty constructed a list of women who they felt would be good additions to the wall. But in meeting after meeting, baritone voices bellowed one excuse after another about why each woman’s name was unworthy. It seemed that no action would be taken.

In desperation, the women faculty took brush to paper and plastered their list of great female thinkers and doers over the bronze letters on the wood-paneled walls. In the end, Lewis & Clark’s president decreed that all the names should be removed. And it was done. All of this was a great impetus for raising the level of gender awareness on campus.

–Phyllis Yes, Professor Emerita of Art

Jean Ward, professor emerita of communication and one of the chief architects of gender studies at Lewis & Clark, smiles at the memory. “When we confronted a senior administrator about the names on the wall, he said it was just symbolic,” says Ward. “I replied, ‘That’s the problem.’”

This act of rebellion by Lewis & Clark’s women faculty occurred on the cusp of the College’s new initiatives in gender studies. In the early 1980s, long after Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, the summer of love, and ERA marches, the College launched both a symposium and an academic minor program in gender studies. The idea of addressing women’s issues within the curriculum wasn’t new; many colleges had established women’s studies programs in the 1970s. But broadening the focus to gender–as opposed to women only–was a first.

“There was lots of healthy discussion about it,” says Ward, a founder and first director of both the symposium and the program. “I got calls from all over the country as it became more publicized.”

From some quarters, the reactions were critical. Some scholars accused Lewis & Clark of abandoning feminism. “I don’t see gender studies as a retreat from a commitment to feminism,” says Ward. “If you want reform, if you want to right old wrongs, if you want to form a new future, women and men need to talk about changes together. You can’t just preach to the choir. It may be more difficult, but it’s important.”

Over the years, there has been much talk–and much action–about gender issues at Lewis & Clark. In the early 1990s, for example, Lewis & Clark was one of 10 schools–and the only gender studies program–selected to participate in a three-year national study titled “The Courage to Question: Women’s Studies and Student Learning.” The research was sponsored by the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education, part of the U.S. Department of Education.

This spring, Lewis & Clark’s Gender Studies Symposium celebrated its 25th anniversary. The symposium has become a signature event for the College, one that touches the lives of many students, whether they be organizers, presenters, or observers.

Since its founding as Albany Collegiate Institute in 1867, Lewis & Clark College has been committed to an equal education for women and men within a single curriculum. The symposium grows out of this egalitarian tradition. The event, like the Gender Studies Program that followed it, owes its existence to both women and men who had the courage to question, the skill to organize, the moxie to lead, and the sheer passion to succeed.


In the early 1970s, Lewis & Clark offered a handful of women’s studies courses. Robert Cruden, professor of history (now deceased), taught women’s history as well as African American history. Susan Kirschner, senior lecturer in humanities, taught women’s literature. Kirschner credits Jack Hart, then chair of the English department, with proposing the course. “Jack urged me to teach the course during my very first year,” says Kirschner. “I had read Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, but I’d never studied women’s literature. For me, it was uncharted waters.”

But the waters soon proved navigable, and the course drew a steady following over the years. “Through women’s literature,” Kirschner says, “students discovered ways to imagine their own lives–lives outside regular boundaries of what society expected them to be.” However, Lewis & Clark did not take the next step–as many schools did–to establish a women’s studies program in the 1970s. Perhaps the College lacked a critical mass of women faculty. Perhaps it was a matter of institutional lethargy. Or perhaps it was a combination of the two. 

The spark that ignited the fire of gender studies at Lewis & Clark belonged to a woman but was fanned by a man.

In 1980, Gerda Lerner, a pioneer in the field of women’s history, delivered the Throckmorton lecture in history at Lewis & Clark. She based her remarks on the opening chapter of her 1979 landmark book, The Majority Finds Its Past: Placing Women in History. By all accounts, she gave an electrifying talk that left the campus abuzz for days. The effect was particularly profound on an associate dean of faculty, historian David Savage, who was directing a large, three-year grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to develop a new general studies program. The NEH grant was to be used, among other things, for a series of summer seminars for faculty members to develop teaching knowledge in an area of human culture new to them. 

Based on the community’s response to Lerner’s visit, Savage decided to make women’s studies the focus of the following summer’s NEH workshop.

Why was a man interested in promoting women’s studies? “I felt it was a function of doing a good academic administrator’s job,” says Savage, now professor emeritus of history. “I was interested in helping faculty do things they were excited about.”

In the summer of 1981, Lewis & Clark held the faculty development seminar on women’s studies. Visiting scholars from four disciplines (history, psychology, anthropology, and literature), one for each week, conducted the monthlong seminar. Participants included 11 women and 6 men from more than 10 disciplines.

“As a participant, I will simply say it was a marathon experience,” says Jane Atkinson, vice president and provost of the College. “It gave us the opportunity to engage with serious scholars who were themselves inspired by the women’s movement to reexamine their own academic fields in light of questions raised by feminism.”

Out of the NEH seminar, the Women’s Issues Group, colorfully known as WIG, formed. Like the seminar itself, its membership included both men and women. Members of WIG worked formally and informally to promote understanding, spread ideas, and shape institutional policies and procedures related to gender issues. Largely as a result of WIG’s efforts, integrating women’s studies into the curriculum (also known as “gender balancing”) emerged as a top priority for Lewis & Clark.


Following the NEH seminar, as ideas swirled around how to bring greater attention to women’s studies at Lewis & Clark, one quickly took root: an annual symposium. In April 1982, the College launched a women’s symposium, which later became known as the Gender Studies Symposium.

On the program for the inaugural year were two faculty members, Dorothy Berkson, now professor emerita of English, and Jean Ward; a student, Shelly Ossana ’84; a visiting scholar from Stanford University; and members of the Northwest Women’s History Project. “Although that first symposium was small, it had many elements that continue to this day,” says Ward, “faculty-student participation and leadership, lively panels, a visiting scholar, and community involvement.”

From its humble beginnings, the symposium grew in scope and reputation. In its 10th year, for example, the symposium featured 53 events spread over four days. Attendance at the three keynote addresses (including one by Gerda Lerner) ranged from 500 to 700 people per event. And those attending the panels and workshops often found standing room only.

An enduring hallmark of the symposium has been student leadership and participation. “I know of few conferences that share this commitment to giving undergraduate students an opportunity to share their ideas as part of the same panels as graduate students, faculty, and professionals,” says Kim Brodkin, visiting assistant professor of humanities and current director of the symposium. “Outsiders are amazed by the range of sessions and by the passionate engagement with ideas that the sessions generate.”

Each spring, right after the symposium ends, planning for the next year’s symposium begins. Student cochairs, working alongside the faculty director, lead the symposium. Students are responsible for selecting the symposium’s theme; inviting artists, performers, and activists to participate; arranging event logistics; and getting the word out.

In addition, students vet proposals from scholars nationwide, local community group members, and their peers. “The entire planning committee sits down together for dinner with a huge stack of proposals,” says Becca Norman ’07, one of this year’s cochairs. “We painstakingly go through each proposal to determine which folks we want to invite to the symposium. We also brainstorm ways we might combine different speakers to make interesting panels. It’s probably the most fun part of planning, because that night we start to imagine how the symposium is going to shape up.”

The planning process intensifies until the three-day symposium, which is held in March. The event typically includes more than 30 sessions, 3 keynote speakers, and an art exhibition. “Even with a full roster, we never have enough room for all the programs we would like to offer,” says Brodkin. “Fortunately, we always have another year.”

In the throes of the symposium, the pace is frenetic. “It’s more work than any class,” says Katrina Light ’06, another of this year’s cochairs. “We work from 6 in the morning until 10 at night. It’s an adrenalin rush the whole time.”

Fortunately, students say all that effort is worth it. “It was definitely one of the most important experiences I had at the College–and one of the happiest,” says Light. “It was great to see all our efforts materialize, get compliments, see people sitting on the floor for sessions.”

Brodkin says the personal growth she witnesses–among organizers and nonorganizers alike–is remarkable. “For many students, this is the first opportunity to share creative or academic work in a public setting, so it’s a valuable learning experience in preparing a conference presentation, handling audience questions, and being part of an intellectual community. For other students, the growth comes from coming up with an idea and then creating a session around it by locating panelists and coordinating the details. For still others, the growth comes from simply attending sessions that challenge them to think about new subjects or to consider perspectives they had never contemplated.”

Male students tend to cast their personal growth in terms of heightened awareness, while female students often cite an increased sense of empowerment and agency. In all cases, students learn to put their ideas into practice, to build on their classroom education, and to develop confidence in their abilities.


Throughout its history, the Gender Studies Symposium has not only touched countless students but also served as a catalyst for gender issues involving the entire institution.

Most notably, enthusiasm for the symposium helped build the case for the Gender Studies Program, which was approved as the College’s first interdisciplinary minor in February 1985. At Lewis & Clark, gender studies is a multifaceted field that examines the biological, social, and cultural constructions of femininity and masculinity, as well as the ways women and men locate themselves within gender systems. The College elected to offer a minor in gender studies to emphasize the relationships between gender and other liberal arts disciplines. The minor consists of four required courses and two electives, drawn from a list of more than 50 courses. 

The symposium and program have also helped to attract more women faculty to the College. Consider, for example, Jane Hunter, professor of history and associate dean, an expert in U.S. and women’s history. “I came to Lewis & Clark in 1990 from Colby College, where I’d been teaching for 10 years and had tenure,” remembers Jane Hunter. “Already at that time, I’d begun to conclude that we couldn’t think about women’s experiences in isolation from men’s experiences. Gender studies was a new frontier in 1990, and Lewis & Clark had a pioneering program.”

The College’s emphasis on gender studies has led to a variety of institutional policy initiatives, such as those related to affirmative action and sexual harassment. “Often the push for what the institution needed to do was coming from gender studies,” says Ward. “It was like a jolt of energy.”

The symposium has also spawned a dizzying array of spin-offs that have enriched the institutional culture: Synergia, the student journal of “gender thought and expression”; the Womyn’s Center, a place for “action and discussion” in Templeton Student Center; Take Back the Night, an annual event designed to increase awareness of sexual assault and domestic abuse; and the Race Monologues, public presentations in which individual students share their cultural experiences (now part of the Ray Warren Multicultural Symposium). All of these efforts function independently of the Gender Studies Symposium and Program but have been influenced by them.

Harder to measure but equally important is the role the symposium and program have played in institutional climate. “The climate at an institution that supports a gender program and symposium benefits both men and women,” says Ward. “With these pillars in place, it’s hard to ignore salient issues of gender, race, and class.”


If Lewis & Clark were to construct a new wood-paneled wall with bronze letters, this time honoring those who helped start the Gender Studies Symposium and Program at the College, it would, by necessity, include the names of both women and men. The origins of gender studies at Lewis & Clark encapsulate the program’s vision: to create a space in which women and men can work side by side to formulate more effective strategies for promoting social equality, justice, tolerance, and diversity in today’s ever-changing world.

Shelly Meyer is editor of the Lewis & Clark College Chronicle.