Gender and Women's Studies is a dynamic and thriving campus presence at Western Michigan University with a distinctive commitment to student-centered learning. We offer an undergraduate major and minor, with approximately one hundred fifty students enrolled in our degree programs and nearly two thousand students taking our courses each year. Five faculty call GWS their home and nearly fifty faculty have a joint appointment with our program. In addition to the numerous faculty-taught courses offered annually, over a dozen part-time and graduate student employees teach for us.
Women’s Studies developed as a result of changes in society during the 1960s and 1970s regarding the roles of women and the consequent changes in the needs and interests of students. The first Women’s Studies program in the United States debuted in 1970 at San Diego State University. Other programs began developing around the country during the 1970s, and Western Michigan University joined the growing academic trend in 1975 with its creation of a Women’s Studies minor. The stated purpose of the minor was to inform students of a broader view of their cultural heritage through the study of women, their writings and accomplishments, and of how the world has viewed women throughout history. It also sought to teach students to approach their fellow humans with more concern for social justice, and without stereotypical assumptions about gender roles.
Sustained through the 1970s and 1980s with the dedication of numerous WMU faculty and staff, the program gained greater stability when Dr. Gwen Raaberg, a professor of English, became director of the newly named Center for Women’s Studies in 1992. She developed a new coordinate major in Women’s Studies, reorganized the minor, and redesigned the curriculum. Dr. Raaberg continued to helm the Women’s Studies program until 2008, and during those years she laid the groundwork that made all future growth possible. Under her leadership, the program became a model for other interdisciplinary programs.
Women’s Studies became Gender and Women’s Studies toward the end of Dr. Raaberg’s tenure as director, reflecting the field’s broadening focus on all gender issues. In 2008, the first director with a tenure home in Gender and Women’s Studies was hired, Dr. Cathryn Bailey. In fall 2009, the GWS major became an independent major rather than a “coordinate” one. Under the leadership of Dr. Bailey, with the support of the deans in the College of Arts and Sciences, the GWS program established full-time faculty lines for the first time since its inception thirty-five years earlier. While maintaining our commitment to interdisciplinarity, the program is moving in the direction of becoming an academic department. In 2012, the position of faculty director was replaced by an administrative chair. Dr. Susan Freeman was appointed as the first Chair of Gender and Women's Studies.
Today the GWS program is a vibrant, fast-growing unit with a deep commitment to the university's mission to be learner centered, discovery driven, and globally engaged. We have adopted the slogan “Don’t Believe Everything You Think,” with permission from the Northern Sun company, as it reminds us of the importance of questioning not only social norms and power relationships but also the very ideas that inform our efforts to expand social justice.