Gender and Sexuality Studies Celebrates 30 Years

Deborah Dudley

St. Lawrence University celebrated the 30th anniversary of the gender and sexuality studies minor by welcoming back program alumni during Reunion Weekend 2016. The events included a seminar and a reception that recognized Professor and Coordinator of Gender and Sexuality Studies Danielle Egan and University Chaplain Kathleen Buckley for receiving the New York State Commissioners Award on World AIDS Day for their work on the SAFE (Saints Activists for Equity) Project over the past two years. 

The program got its start in the early 1980s, when a diverse cross section of faculty began conversations about a possible new area of study addressing gender-based question of social justice. That campus dialog and debate coalesced into a committee organized by then Associate Dean for Faculty Brenda Murphy. Eve Stoddard, Charles A. Dana professor of global studies, was among the original committee members charged with developing the gender studies minor.

“We wanted to do it because it was redressing a lack in the curriculum,” Stoddard says. She worked with an array of faculty on the original proposal for the minor along with input from many including recently retired Piskor Professor of English Peter Bailey, Professor Emeriti Don Makosky, and Professor of Government Val Lehr, who was also the first official hire and coordinator of the gender studies program in 1988.

Naming the program “gender studies” when other universities had been developing women’s studies programs, some believe, may have been the result of a somewhat contentious and cautious campus climate at the time. However, the program name, with the addition of “sexuality” under the leadership of Egan, proved to be ahead of the curve. 

“It was this odd dynamic of having some campus opposition to it, which meant that we ended up creating an interesting program that was ahead of its time. It has an odd origin that has proved to be very interesting,” Lehr says.

The program aims to help students recognize how gender is interrelated with other social hierarchies such as race, ethnicity, class and sexuality and gain a critical understanding of the impact of gender and sexualities in society as well as in their own lives.

Judith DeGroat, associate professor of history, arrived at St. Lawrence a few years after the program was founded, served as program coordinator from 1999 to 2004 and then participated on the advisory board until 2012.  She remembers the immediate supportive and collaborative way of working together that has lasted throughout the program’s 30-year history. 

“I think it’s relevant in so many ways,” DeGroat says. “Gender studies gives students a vocabulary and a way of thinking about the issues that they are confronting. People can say, ‘yes I support marriage equality for everyone, I support people’s desire for sexual expression’ but how to talk about it and think about it—at a time that these issues have re-emerged as contentious issues that get used as wedge issues—is important.”

Lehr also frames the impact by saying, “All fields of study are influenced by things that are not purely objective. And I think one of the things that programs like women’s studies and gender studies have done is challenged some of those epistemological assumptions. Gender studies encourages people to ask more, ‘how does who you are influence how you see the world, the kinds of questions you ask, the kinds of approaches you bring to what you ask.’”