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Programs foster feminist atmosphere

Emily Lavelle and Lauren Lavelle | Thursday, November 17, 2005

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a three-part series examining the perception of feminism within the Saint Mary’s community.

Despite some disagreement about its role at Saint Mary’s, feminism arises in classrooms, dorm rooms and faculty offices at the College on a daily basis.

Saint Mary’s is making progress in its attempts to create feminism-oriented dialogue, several members of the College community said.

The inclusion of a Women’s Studies program is one of the ways the College has succeeded in educating students about the feminist movement. The program, founded in 1984, was re-energized with the 2001 hiring of Astrid Henry, who now serves as its director.

“Having a full-time coordinator for [women’s studies] has worked miracles, especially since that full-time coordinator is Astrid Henry,” said assistant English professor Linnea Vacca, who has been involved in the program since its start. “She has spearheaded real initiatives toward growth. [Henry] has added more courses, created a more coherent structure balancing theory and content courses, and encouraged persons from all disciplines to incorporate Women’s Studies materials into their courses.”

The number of students in the program has more than quadrupled since Henry’s arrival four years ago. She attributed the growth to students’ eagerness to finally discuss feministic ideals and issues in a classroom setting.

“The school was ready for a person in women’s studies to come in,” Henry said. “The energy is really great, the student interest in the subject is really growing, and it feels like something is really happening.”

Senior Women’s Studies minor Maryann Senesac said her life has been altered because of exposure to classes associated with the minor.

“My intro class made me realize that I always held feminist beliefs, but was afraid to say it,” she said. “It was a decision to identify with feminism, and now I’m proud of that decision.”

The courses in the Women’s Studies program planted the seed of feminism, Senesac said, and she hopes to plant that seed in others.

“I want to touch the future and inspire them to question beliefs, society and people in power,” she said.

The Women’s Studies program is not the only entity on campus that fosters feminism. Feminist United has also been a distinct voice in women’s rights and feminist issues since its formation three years ago. The objectives of the student group include improving awareness of feminist issues, providing a link between the Women’s Studies program and the campus at large and drawing attention to specific women’s issues, according to the group’s Web site. Amanda Caddy, president of Feminist United, said the group has an even more specific goal for this year.

“We are trying to show people that feminism isn’t scary,” Caddy said. “We want women to embrace the values of feminism, instead of the stigma that’s associated with it.”

Henry, who serves as the faculty advisor, said the group accomplishes this in a variety of ways.

“They’ve done a lot of activities around film screenings, they’ve had activities for Love Your Body Day, and they’ve done things in the past for women’s history day in March,” Henry said. “They also have weekly meetings to talk about whatever issues concerning women’s rights are circulating at the moment.”

Henry said the membership of the group includes a broad range of students.

“The leadership are mainly not Women’s Studies students, which is kind of interesting,” Henry said. “This maybe suggests a good thing, that feminism and women’s issues aren’t isolated to the classroom.”

In the spring of 2005, Feminist United gave birth to the Straight and Gay Alliance (SAGA), which also incorporates the themes of feminism in its mission. SAGA president Sarah Medina said although the group may not deal with feminism directly, it communicates the values of feminism on deeper levels.

“SAGA is a group that promotes equality, understanding and a safe community for all. To me, that is the core of feminism,” she said.

Medina said members of the Saint Mary’s community can benefit from the presence of groups like SAGA and Feminist United on campus.

“I think feminism will continue to be such a core part of our education at Saint Mary’s,” Medina said. “As we move along, I think that Saint Mary’s is becoming more feminist. We learn and live feminism in our everyday lives.”

Groups like SAGA and Feminist United are able to remain active on campus due in part to the Women’s Resource Center. The center, which began as a student-propelled idea in 1992, is now housed in the new Student Center, and is the place many women-oriented campus groups call home. Senior Katie Kelly serves as the director of the center and acknowledges the importance of its presence.

“The Women’s Resource Center’s mission is focused on fostering feminist activism and feminist culture on campus,” she said.

The center is staffed by 20 community women and students who work to pursue its mission. Kelly said the work of these women will help create an ongoing dialogue about feminist issues among members of the campus.

“I believe that SMC is a strong supporter of feminism and can only grow in further support of feminist attitudes, beliefs and actions with the assistance of the Women’s Resource Center and the many motivated leaders on campus,” Kelly said.

Feministic ideals are also propelled by the work of The Center for Women Intercultural Leadership (CWIL). The organization is dedicated to providing opportunities for Saint Mary’s students to experience other cultures. It assists in the College’s study abroad programs, as well as independent research projects. Women who do take advantage of the opportunities provided by CWIL often focus their research on women of different backgrounds, race, religion and nationality, according to the organization’s Web site. CWIL director Elaine Meyer-Lee said feministic goals are attained when women are allowed to broaden their horizons.

“Our very special role is to make it clear that part of women being equals includes all people being equal,” Meyer-Lee said. “You can’t have feminism without also working against racism and encouraging cultural skills and competence.”

Students do not have to rely on the formal clubs and organizations on campus in order to find feminism at the College, however. Many members of the Saint Mary’s community said the single-sex aspect of the College lends itself to a natural focus on feminism in the classroom.

Krista Hoefle, Gallery Director and an assistant professor of art, said that feminism is an inherent part of the education at Saint Mary’s.

“Themes of feminism are woven into the courses,” Hoefle said. “You have to address those issues because it’s on the mind of many students.”

Henry said she believes the inclusion of feminism in the academics is an understood aspect of the curriculum.

“Even professors who don’t teach Women’s Studies classes, because they are at a women’s college, tend to do projects focused on women,” Henry said. “That is one of the byproducts of being at an all-women’s college. It’s really part of that organic feminism that’s in the air.”