First Feminists

First Feminists: When Joan Straumanis, Ann Fitzgerald, and Peggy Gifford '75 arrived at Denison back in the '70s, they knew something was missing. So the three women launched the Woman's Studies Program, and it all began with…
issue 01 | spring 2011
Continuum - Spring 2011

Ann Fitzgerald (far left) and Joan Straumanis (right) began Denison’s Women’s Studies Program back in 1972 with the help of Peggy Gifford ‘75 (below). They all came back to campus last October for a reunion and conference, “About a Decade: 1972-1984.” For three days, former and current faculty joined former and current students to remember the early days of women’s studies and to discuss the current climate for women at Denison.

Let’s go back a bit. if you weren’t there or, as they say, you were but can’t remember it, here’s a refresher–the year 1971 was complicated. Walter Cronkite’s newscasts sounded like this: Helter Skelter, Weather Underground, Fillmore East, Vietnam, Pentagon Papers, Bangladesh, Northern Ireland, D.B. Cooper, Gloria Steinem, Richard Nixon, riots, protests, consciousness-raising.

It was a lot to think about–some of it thrilling, a lot of it terrifying. And against that chaotic backdrop, a few people at Denison were also paying close attention to what was not happening. We take it for granted now, but 40 years ago, the academic discipline of women’s studies pretty much didn’t exist. Two colleges–one in San Diego and one in Buffalo–had started programs the year before. But just about everywhere else, the landscape was bleak for the study of society, politics, art, history, and literature through a woman’s perspective.

Someone had to step up, think it through, take the heat, and get it done.

It’s oversimplifying it to say that three women were responsible for what became a dramatic curricular and social change at Denison that also impacted the entire country, but it’s also true. Two professors–Joan Straumanis, philosophy, and Ann Fitzgerald, English– and one student, Peggy Gifford, lit the fire, fanned it, and made sure it spread.

Straumanis was hired in 1971. She was introduced at her first faculty meeting as “a real feminist hell-raiser,” which she saw as something to live up to. But it wouldn’t be easy for her. “Denison was like a desert,” she says. “There was no activity that you could call ‘feminist.’ I was the only female faculty member with children at that time. And it was hardly habitable for me. There were so many things I needed that I didn’t have. Support. Daycare. Understanding. It wasn’t women’s studies that first year. It was telling the faculty this new word– ‘feminism.’” But Straumanis, who recently retired as the director of a neuroscience and learning program at the National Science Foundation, has a saying: “A critical mass is two. If you have two people with an important idea … that’s enough.”

That necessary partnership was created when Fitzgerald arrived in 1972. She had been active in what she calls “the radical wing of the feminist movement” during grad school at the University of Wisconsin. While there, she helped create one of the nation’s first-ever women’s studies courses. So she arrived at Denison with an interest and growing level of expertise, but no agenda. “It wasn’t that I came in gung ho–’I’m going to create a Women’s Studies Department.’ No such hubris.”

As it turned out, it was a student who ultimately set the change in motion. When Fitzgerald walked into her new office, she found a little yellow note that had been slid under the door. It was from Peggy Gifford, then a sophomore, and read, “Thank goodness they hired a feminist. Would you be willing to do a directed study this term with me and my friends?”

Fitzgerald’s response was pretty much, Hell, yes.

“I wish I still had that note,” Fitzgerald says. “Peggy is so modest that she won’t say this, but she ignited the whole scene.”

Gifford, now a writer and author of children’s books, remembers that she just wanted to learn everything she could. “The first semester, we sat on the floor in Ann’s apartment. We read everything. We met twice a week. It was a truly academic, even rigorous, course that taught us how to think ‘outside the academy,’ to examine its assumptions, the origins of those assumptions, and how they are perpetuated. It was life-changing.”

“There was no separatism, no man-hating,” Straumanis says. “It was a positive environment.” The next semester, enrollment for the first listed course in women’s studies (co-taught by Staumanis and Fitzgerald) soared from nine in the directed study to 127 in the course, so they moved from Fitzgerald’s living room to Slayter Auditorium and adopted a teaching-assistant model, with students from the first semester serving as the TAs. They each ran groups, dividing up the class, helping lead discussions. As more semesters went by, Fitzgerald and Straumanis created a model in which professors from all academic disciplines taught women’s studies courses. And all along, they enjoyed a very strong alliance with Denison’s Black Studies Program, which had been created in 1968.

Over the next several years, Straumanis and Fitzgerald (today a visiting lecturer at Trinity College) were invited to teach faculty development programs at conferences, and in 1978, Denison became the first co-ed college in the country to institute a graduation requirement for either a black studies or women’s studies course. In 1981, Denison established a women’s studies minor. And in 1983, a women’s studies major.

But if it all sounds rosy, it wasn’t. “It was hard fought. We were mocked,” Straumanis says. At first, some students made bra-burning jokes, and some faculty and administrators weren’t on board. Overall, though, they say they’re proud of the college, and they found important support at Denison, from students and administrators, like Provost Lou Brakeman and President Robert Good, from departments and individual faculty members, like John Jackson and David Woodyard.

“Denison was really one of the pioneers,” Straumanis says, “not the very first, but very close to the first place that had this political ferment that you can hardly imagine, in a place that was so, in a way, conventional and privileged. But there’s a history here that people can really latch on to, that there was a time, and maybe a long time, when people were making change here in an unlikely setting. So that’s a good lesson, too, isn’t it?”

Published April 2011
Back to top