- Women’s Studies in the Thicket of Academe in the 1970s: Liz Kennedy in Buffalo
In her memoir about the founding of women’s studies at SUNY/Buffalo, “Dreams of Social Justice” (2000), Liz Kennedy speaks about Lillian Robinson and me as the mentors that doctoral work at Cambridge University never provided her. The mentorship was reciprocal. From Liz, I learned about institutional citizenship and academic democracy; and although I no longer work at the heart of women’s studies, I want to take this opportunity to pay testimony to that special mix of pragmatism and democratic vision that I, and others, learned from her. In those early years, you could say that we represented the two opposing forces from which women’s studies was initially formed and that it continues to struggle to combine. Liz led from women’s studies’ social-movement side, while I did my best to represent its creative intellectual dimension. This struggle underlies our long and evolving and tough-as-nails friendship. It is now close to forty years from the day that I first wrote to Liz about a position in the American Studies Department. There I would join her in developing a women’s studies program at the University of Buffalo (UB).
I never would have gotten that or any other good tenure-track job at a decent university without the feminist movement, which was developing at places like UB—politically aware public universities with well-developed student movements. As a graduate student, I had worked on a proposal for women’s studies at a Midwestern private university, a proposal that went nowhere for a decade. I wonder whether such efforts were generally more successful at public universities because they were answerable to elected legislatures, more broadly based in their class and ethnic profiles, less elitist, and more democratic than private universities. At these public universities, it was politically active students who brought about the earliest women’s studies programs, as university leadership would never have initiated such projects unless to pacify restive young women. [End Page 79]
At first, women’s studies at UB was located in a special division, which had been designed, as was the case elsewhere, to house student clamor for educational relevance in such a way that it would be possible to shut down the experiment once the popular clamor died down. Women’s studies at UB began in just such a location; at our university it was called “The Colleges.” But our women’s studies had a unique advantage: an actual department to which we could be connected that appreciated our educational vision. The university had an interdisciplinary and capacious American studies department unlike any other in the country. It was run by an eclectic, visionary, and somewhat patriarchal historian named Larry Chisholm who wanted to do things that would not become common for another three decades: namely, to organize the study of American society and culture based on the experiences of those who were marginalized by mainstream culture; to draw on anthropology and cultural studies rather than canonical literature; and to explore America from the outside in, from the perspectives of those throughout the world that were impacted by our culture and power, though largely ignored by us. Liz, the anthropologist, woman, and scholar of Amazonian indigenous peoples fit quite nicely with all of these intentions. Here, she cultivated a place for women’s studies starting in 1971.
American studies allowed us to develop women’s studies, initially by hiring and housing tenure-track faculty. Our approach to this young field was somewhat along the lines that the socialist feminist approach provided to women’s liberation in general: to be independent enough to set feminist priorities, but always in solidarity with similar intellectual and political projects that sought to refigure understandings of and priorities for America from the margin rather than the center. With one foot in the experimental student-oriented division and the other in an interdisciplinary department, women’s studies at UB was launched. The university—responding to pressure for greater gender equity—made faculty positions available for departments, which could then compete to hire highly qualified female candidates. And American...