Skip to main content
Scenes from The University of Rhode Island

URI Women’s Studies Program to celebrate 25 years

Media Contact:

Still popular, still relevant after all this time

KINGSTON, R.I. -- March 3, 2005 -- In the spring of 1972, a course called “Women and Society” was offered for the first time at the University of Rhode Island. Although enrollment was limited to 50, more than 200 students showed up and were welcomed into the course.

Today, 25 years after women’s studies became an official major in 1980, the program that focuses on the lives, experiences, and culture of women continues to engage students.

Each semester, nearly 300 students are enrolled in 65 women’s studies interdisciplinary courses jointly offered by 16 different departments and in five colleges.

“Women’s studies envisions a world in which all persons can develop to their fullest potential. It is the place where women’s voices are heard,” says Karen Stein, director of URI’s program and professor of English. “We look back with pride on how much we have achieved in our 25 year history, and we look forward to offering new courses and helping our students grow into new generations of active, aware citizens.”

To celebrate its silver anniversary, the program plans two special events, which are open to the public:

• Judy Norsigian, executive director of Our Bodies Ourselves and co-author of a best-selling book by the same name, which helped launch the women’s health movement, will give a lecture called “The Media and Women’s Health: Sorting Fact from Fiction” on Wednesday, March 23 at 7:30 in the auditorium of White Hall, Kingston Campus.

• An anniversary celebration will be held on Saturday, April 16 featuring the founding members of the program, which include Judith Anderson, Bernice Lott, Mary Ellen Reilly, Sharon Strom, Winnie Brownell, Lois Cuddy, Lynne Derbyshire, Wil Dvorak, Steve Grubman-Black, Mathilda Hills, Tally Kampen, and Karen Stein. The event begins with hors d’oeuvres at the URI Women’s Center at 4:30 p.m., followed by dinner at 6 p.m. at the University Club, Upper College Road, Kingston Campus. Tickets are $40 a person.

“Women’s Studies taught me never to limit myself,” says 1999 alumna Megan Fleury who double majored in sociology and women’s studies. “Since I was little, I always wanted to join the FBI, but I thought it would be impossible. But here I am in my dream job,” says the investigation analyst speaking on the phone from her FBI office in Boston.

“I tend to think of life in two ways—before and after women’s studies,” says 1998 alumna Jessica Simmons, East Bay program director, Teach for America, Oakland, Calif. “It’s a whole new way of looking at the world.”

Simmons double majored in women’s studies and English at URI and earned a master’s degree in women’s studies at San Diego State University. After graduating, she became a corps member of the national Teach for America organization, which is dedicated to closing the achievement gap for rural or urban students at under-resourced schools. When her students at Nimitz Middle School, located in southeast Los Angeles, jumped two grade levels on average in their reading levels, Teach America not only honored Simmons with the Sue Lehmann Award for Excellence in Teaching, but the organization also hired her.

“I was a lackadaisical student,” says Dawn Paul, the first graduate of the program. “But when I started taking women’s studies courses, I caught on fire. It was new, fascinating, and the material woke me up intellectually.” Since then, Paul has earned two master’s degrees, has been the business manager for Mass-Save, a statewide energy conservation organization, and opened her own energy management company. Currently, she is attempting a career in writing and publishing.

Before becoming a lecturer in URI’s Women Studies Program in 2000, Donna Bickford was a legal secretary, administrative assistant, and corporate credit manager. And she played in a band. While earning her doctorate degree in English from URI, she had a graduate assistantship in women’s studies. She spent the fall of 2003 in Finland on a Fulbright fellowship.

Bickford encourages her students to see themselves as activists. “I want students to understand that if they have a vision of a world of equality and social justice, then they have an obligation to work to achieve that vision in their daily practice.”

To learn more about the lecture or to make reservations for the dinner, contact 401-874-5547 or 401-874-5150.

Fast Facts about URI’s Women Studies Program

O Pioneers!
URI’s program was one of the first in the country. In 1970, courses on women’s history began to appear at colleges around the country. URI’s first course on women was “The Female Experience.” Offered in 1971, the course taught by URI psychologist Bernice Lott. (San Diego State College is believed to be the first full women’s studies program with 10 courses in 1969.)

• Since its inception, there have been 89 graduates of the program. Most graduates were double majors, a practice encouraged by women’s studies. Disciplines at URI that offer courses on women include history, English, communication studies, management, nursing, philosophy, psychology, political science, sociology, African and African-American Studies, anthropology, and art history.

Over the years, URI’s Women’s Studies Program has been the beneficiary of a number of gifts, which has not only strengthened the program and benefited its students, but have informed the campus and the community beyond.

• In 1980, an annual lecture, called The Fredrika Wild Schweers Memorial Lecture in Women’s Health, was established by a colleague and benefactor. Each April, an eminent speaker is invited to campus to speak on some aspect of women’s health.

• In 1988, Eleanor M. Carlson pledged $1-million to the program. In her letter of conveyance she wrote: “I have a deep interest in, and a great passion for matters which affect the status of women in our society…” The gift established four endowments in her and her late husband Oscar’s names in 1994: 1) an endowed chair in women’s studies (the second chair to be established in URI’s history, 2) an endowed scholarship fund, 3) an endowed lecture series, and 4) a library endowment.

Famous speakers
The Women Studies Program has brought a number of high-profile speakers to campus, including Gloria Steinem, Dr. Susan Love, Chief Wilma Mankiller, Angela Davis, Pulitzer Peace Prize winner Mairead Maguire, and (co-sponsored) Maya Angelou.

New this year
The program has begun to offer on-line distance education courses. A sex trafficking course, taught on-line by Donna Hughes, holder of the Carlson chair, is fully subscribed and continues to draw notice and interest globally.

In the planning stages
• Course on “men and masculinity” will become a continuing course with its own designation.
• Course aimed to prepare students to take leadership roles in the workplace.
• One-credit course designed to explore one topic of current interest.
• Practicum designed as a sequel to the topics course, in which students will apply what they have explored by creating activist projects.
• Two-course sequence on sexual trafficking
• Course on human rights and foreign policy