For 27 years the Cal State Northridge Women’s Studies Department has been making an impact on the lives of women at CSUN.
March was declared Women’s History Month by President Ronald Reagan and Congress in 1987, according to the National Women’s History Project press release, but CSUN was one step ahead of them. Eight years before the president had designated a month in remeberance of women’s history, the CSUN campus had begun furthering the knowledge of women’s issues in the classroom and beyond.
With Women’s History Month just beginning, CSUN employees and students are reflecting on how the Women’s Studies Department has evolved and furthered the knowledge of women’s issues in classes and advanced its mission outside of the classroom.
Elizabeth Berry, communications professor, was one of the founders of the CSUN Women’s Studies program. Berry received approval in 1979 and became the first coordinator of the Women’s Studies program, which offered a minor. The Women’s Studies Department was established in the mid-1990s and the major was installed in 1999.Berry graduated from Northwestern University, where she received her degree in communication studies. She began teaching communication studies at Northridge in 1973.
The 1970s was the time when the women’s movement was getting the most national recognition, Berry said.
“There was a lot of social action and feminists were starting to make demands, calling attention to discrimination in jobs, politics and so forth,” she said.
She said as a result of the women’s liberation movement, a number of academic women analyzed the curriculum and realized CSUN didn’t have any courses that dealt with women issues.
Berry said she knew a Women’s Studies program was necessary in order for men and women to understand the accomplishments of women throughout history.
“As our consciousness became raised, we realized that we were studying history only from a white-male perspective,” Berry said. “There was a discussion of where are the women, so we were interested in developing academic programs that would look at women’s perspectives.”
Berry believes activism outside the classroom for students is key to understanding the women’s movement. During her CSUN career, she said one of the most interesting women’s movement events she had been involved with happened in front of the Matador Bookstore.
“They were selling Playboy and Hustler in the bookstore, then they had it prominently displayed in front and we had a big protest over that,” Berry said.
In Berry’s first duties as coordinator of women’s studies on campus, she was able to put together an inter-disciplinary program for students who wanted to earn a minor in women’s studies. Although, there was no major or department for women’s studies yet, Berry laid the groundwork for the future.
Berry also became the first female administrator in CSUN history.
“You have to realize that there were no women administrators,” Berry said. “I became Associate Dean. I was the first woman in the administration in 1980.”
Since 1973, Berry has made an impact on the lives of many women in her 33 years at CSUN.
One woman that has decided to follow in Berry’s footsteps is the current department chair of women’s studies. Marta Lopez-Garza, the fourth-year chair of the department received her doctorate at UCLA in sociology. She has taught at Southern Methodist University in Texas, University of Colorado, Mexico and Cal State Los Angeles.
“The two things I love most about my research are the gender aspect and the race aspect,” Lopez-Garza said. “Here, (at CSUN) I had the option to be immersed in both.”
In her eighth year at CSUN, Lopez-Garza said she has seen tremendous growth in the department. Some of the goals outlined by Lopez-Garza for the Women’s Studies Department include increasing course offerings, attracting more students to take the courses, especially male students, making connections with other departments and earning national visibility.
“We learn the world here and if you look at our emphasis, it’s international and also diverse,” Lopez-Garza said, referring to the curriculum in women’s studies. “The key is that we put women at the center.”
Lopez-Garza said since most classes focus on men it is difficult for students to understand the female perspective. She said issues facing the world today serve as a backdrop to the female experience.
Lopez-Garza said that much of CSUN cirriculum is male-centered.
“What we do in women’s studies is we talk about the economy and what it means for women.”
Lopez-Garza said she has been active in movements since a very young age starting with the Vietnam War. When Lopez-Garza was a student, she would go to demonstrations because she said it was a part of her student life.
“The women’s studies, chicana studies, all those things are of interest to me because I was active at that time,” Lopez-Garza said.
Through her experiences of activism, she fought for women’s civil rights. From her education and activism, she leads a department that will guide students to a better understanding of women issues.
“It’s amazing, our classes fill up like crazy,” Lopez-Garza said. “We want to show people the relevance of women studies in their lives because I think a lot of people don’t understand women’s studies.”
Lopez-Garza said although women’s studies courses are taken by many people, female students make up most of the enrollment.She encourages more male students to take the courses.
Introductory courses of about 40 students, on the average, only have five to seven males Lopez-Garza said. “Our upper-division courses (of) 25-30 students, will have maybe one guy.”
Although male students are the minority in the Women’s Studies department, one guy has stepped up and has been active on the Women’s Studies Student Association (WSSA). Kellvon Smith, senior sociology and human sexuality major is proud to be a part of the WSSA.
“We don’t have many (male students) that support the history of women so I thought it would be a good idea,” Smith said.
Smith is the general manager of WSSA and a self-proclaimed feminist who also played an important role in Black Herstory Week, which celebrated black women throughout history last month. He is also the only male student on the executive board in WSSA.
“It was a team effort,” Smith said of the planning for Black Herstory Week. “There was no job that went with out everybody participating.”
Smith shares his thoughts of the issues facing women today. Issues women face today include sexism and civil rights being jeopardized, Smith said.
“Sexism is just as bad as racism or any other isms,” he said. “There’s like no way to solve these issues but we have to strive harder to get everyone on an equal playing field.”
Smith also said women should have the right to choose an abortion. “If that’s what she wants to do, it’s her body,” Smith said.
Events sponsored by WSSA include the Take Back the Night Rally, the Clothesline Project, and a student play, the “Vagina Monologues.”
“They won’t let me participate in the Vagina Monologues because I’m a guy,” Smith said laughingly. “But I’ll be sitting behind the stage supporting.”
As Smith’s graduation approaches, he said he hopes he can stay active in the women’s movement when he begins his career.
“As I go on in the workforce, I’ll take a leadership position and will be fair. I will be an equal-opportunity provider.”
Berry, Lopez-Garza, and Smith represent the past, present and future of women’s studies on the campus of Cal State Northridge.
Arthur Vong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org