Professor Column

Six years ago, a chapter closed in my life. Shortly after March 21, the South African national holiday that remembers the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960, when apartheid police shot and killed more than 69 unarmed protesters in the back, I submitted my PhD dissertation to the University of Cape Town, South Africa. At that time I was coordinating and teaching the undergraduate program in Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of the Western Cape, situated on the bleak, sand-swept periphery of Cape Town. This University had been built under apartheid as a college for human beings classified ‘Coloured.’

This was the ‘catch-all’ category created for those who were not arbitrarily classified ‘White,’ ‘Bantu,’ or ‘Asiatic’ by petty bureaucrats who used tests like the ‘pencil-in-the-hair’ test or the ‘spitting’ test to place people into racial categories. This would then determine where you could live and work, what kind of education and health care you could look forward to, whether you might expect to be imprisoned or executed as a child, whether you might be sterilized without your knowledge, or paid to have children – in short, the quality (and length) of your entire life.

Many members of the first democratic government of post-apartheid South Africa had studied at this under-resourced “bush college.” UWC has a proud history of struggle against discrimination, and I was privileged to work there, meeting in the evenings with working students who spoke English as a third or fourth language. Many were single parents, many lived in homes without electricity and would study by the light of a paraffin lamp. Today some students have access to Internet cafes, where high prices are paid for the privileges we take for granted in this country.

So there I was, teaching in the Women’s and Gender Studies Department at UWC, in a one-year-leave-replacement position. I was not looking forward to the end of the year. Despite my newly minted PhD, I had few prospects as a university professor. In South Africa there are few universities. There are even fewer job openings. Quite rightly, many universities focus on educating the post-apartheid generations to take their places in faculty positions – positions denied their parents and grandparents under apartheid.

While I was working at UWC, Professor Suzanna Rose, from Florida International University, held a professional development workshop for women workers (we did not distinguish between faculty and staff – we were all workers). On the last day of the workshop, she asked us to decide (not hope or dream, but decide) where we would be in five years. Despite all signs to the contrary, I claimed a place for myself in a Women’s and Gender Studies Program. That was where I would be in five years. At the time, I had a dog named Sizwe, a rented room in a house in the shadow of Table Mountain, Cape Town, a community of friends and no job prospects.

After my year at UWC, I hoped to cobble together enough work to get by – like other academics I knew — thinking I might find work leading American tourists on “historical” tours. And yet here I was claiming a home in a Women’s and Gender Studies program – within five years. We all laughed at the absurdity of that idea – except Professor Rose, who nodded.

Five years later, I was the convener of the Women’s Studies Program at Castleton State College, in a town I’d never heard of, in a country I’d never dreamed of visiting (too materialistic, too many guns!). And now, the Women’s Studies program is an integral part of the exciting new transformations at our college. If you’ve ever wondered where Women’s Studies is located, you’re not alone. The program has traveled with the convener. But soon, Women’s Studies will have a physical home. In Fall 2009 we’ll move into an office and develop a resource center, where all who are working for gender equity and against gender-based violence on our campus and in the broader community can meet, research, and discuss issues of importance to all of us, and strategize for change. Join us!

Women’s Studies is for everyone who is concerned about inequalities in our society, everyone who cares about social, political and economic justice. We offer a minor in Women’s Studies – six courses in an interdisciplinary field that helps us to understand gender power; how gender relates to race, class and other forces that divide us; what it means to be a woman or a man in the world – why gender matters. Whatever your major and field of interest, not only will you educate yourself about your own society, but employers are also impressed with a degree that includes women’s studies.

Credit gained in a WMS course can also count towards your major, and many Women’s Studies courses fulfill general education requirements. For this year, we’re located in my office in Leavenworth Hall 250. Drop by, and check out our Web page: – and look out for a Women’s Studies library display our students are developing.

What can we take from that workshop one wintry day in a windswept corner of Cape Town, six years ago? Perhaps The Rocky Horror Picture Show said it best: Don’t dream it, be it!

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