Over the past decade, some historically black institutions have developed women’s and gender studies programs and integrated the courses into the general education curriculum.
When Dr. Adele Newson-Horst drafted the grant, citing a 2015 article published in Miscellaneous: Issues in Higher Education that HBCUs have been slow to implement gender-related programs.
“At the time, I was quite unhappy that in 2015 we had so few HBCUs investing in this very important topic,” says Newson-Horst, professor of English at Morgan State University and director of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGS) . program. “No one but us will tell our story and keep it from being erased.
Clark Atlanta University and Spelman College are the only HBCUs that offer a major or degree program. Morgan State introduced its program as a minor in 2009 at the behest of Dr. Burney J. Hollis, then Dean of the College of Liberal Arts. Newson-Horst is frustrated by the slow progress toward more and more institutions with minors, but says she is pleased with Howard University’s new Center for Women, Gender, and Global Leadership, which shows the importance of the field.
“At Morgan, our two required courses for the minor have been approved as general education credits, and that’s definitely a good step because it says whether you’re in it or not, you’re invited to take those courses,” says Newson-Horst. “We have a proposal for a graduate certificate program in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, which the provost supports. … We are in the next phase of pushing forward.”
View through the lens of gender
Delaware State University’s Women’s and Gender Studies program seeks to motivate female students to pursue their interests in matters of identity and power relations as they relate to the intersections of race, class, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality.
“The world continues to be patriarchal, relegating black and brown women to the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder,” says Dr. A. Myrna Nurse, Delaware State Professor of English, Women’s and Gender Studies. “Our students must fully understand the historical basis and current ideologies that continue to maintain this imbalance.
“They need to know how bell hooks, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, June Jordan, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, and the makers of the Combahee River Collective Statement (which details an interconnected system of oppression), to name a few, shaped and developed the Black Women’s Studies Curriculum in higher education to achieve positive change,” he adds. “Black and brown women’s consciousness, including scholars such as Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherrie Moraga, is central to our richer understanding of American pluralism and the common good.”
Guy-Sheftall is the Anna Julia Cooper Professor of Women’s Studies and founding director of the Women’s Research and Outreach Center at Spelman College. She is active in the National Women’s Studies Association and has been a vocal advocate for HBCUs developing women’s and gender studies programming. Newson-Horst is a Spelman graduate who was influenced by Guy-Sheftall and other Spelman faculty, who inspired her to pursue similar challenges.
The Women’s and Gender Studies major at North Carolina Central University was launched in the fall of 2016. Dr. Shauntae Brown White, professor of mass communication and coordinator of women’s and gender studies as well as interim associate dean of the College of Arts, Social Science and Humanities, was part of the minor’s design and development process. The courses were developed by various faculty members as early as 2012, but the process stalled for several years until White stepped up and took the reins.
“We’re still kind of unknown,” says White, who notes that North Carolina Central doesn’t require undergraduates to have minors. “[In the fall] semester, I brought together several mass communication students who had taken a women’s and gender studies class or two with me — I teach “Women in Communication” and “Media Images of Black Women” — to help me create a marketing plan to reach students.
“I still think people don’t know what to do with it,” he adds. “Even in class, students talk about how their thinking changed during the class. … Students are finding value in the classes they’ve taken, but for whatever reason, we haven’t gotten a critical mass of minors.”
In 2010, Nurse wondered why the state of Delaware did not have a women’s degree program. One English major responded by creating a Power Point presentation titled “Hear Me Roar!” and presented it to the department chair, who in turn presented it to Dean Dr. Marshall Stevenson. The dean followed this up and an announcement was made at the meeting of the faculty senate. Twelve faculty members across disciplines developed syllabi, which were included in the planning and implementation proposals. Stevenson insisted that it be a women’s and gender studies program, and so it continued.
“Women’s studies has been so dominated by Euro-American women that black women’s voices and experiences have been erased, much like the erasure of Henrietta Lacks and HeLa cells,” says Newson-Horst.
Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Morgan State is an interdisciplinary program that draws faculty from various departments. She is dedicated to researching and improving the lives and living conditions of women in the US and around the world. Through both coursework and research, the faculty explores cultural, social, economic, and psychological issues important to the lived experiences of women, especially women of color. Students think critically about how cultures construct and monitor gender and sexuality and the implications of this. Course selections include the African American novel, human sexuality and behavior, power and gender, and science, technology, and gender.
Newson-Horst praises Dr. Ida E. Jones, an archivist at Morgan State who has organized the archives of several notable figures, including those examining racism in the early women’s movement. “Now is the time to look at archivists,” says Newson-Horst, who expects archival materials to inform the new courses.
Women’s and gender studies at North Carolina Central is an interdisciplinary program that examines the intersections of gender, race, class, religion, sexuality, and other identities with social structures of inequality in women’s lives. It deals with the global experiences of all women, with an emphasis on women from the African diaspora. Courses include “The Black Female Body in American Culture,” “Black Women and Activism,” and “Diversity and the Media.”
“Even if you’re not officially doing anything with a minor, it changes your perspective,” says White. “It helps you become aware of issues you might not have thought about before.”
Creating a dialogue
“HBCUs have a unique calling,” says White, who did her undergraduate work at Howard University. “Part of the HBCU mission is social justice, raising awareness, being responsible global leaders. You can’t really develop that unless you consider all the issues. In women’s and gender studies, you’re not just talking about gender, but with that comes class, sexual orientation, and ableism.
“If black women don’t research black women, no one else will,” she continues. “Black women are missing from feminist scholarship, and we’re also missing from African-American scholarship because they tend to focus on white women and black men.” We want to create a specific mission.”
“Hear Me Roar!” from Delaware State The campaign included aspects outside the classroom, such as an after-school forum that would address issues coming directly from the mouths of female students. Some of the momentum died after the program’s student body president died in a car accident, but the minor continues.
“The women’s and gender studies courses have attracted male students who continue to register, especially in ‘Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies,'” says Nurse, former director of the program. Most students who pursue a WGS minor at Morgan State do not major in the College of Liberal Arts, which is home to the program. Most are in STEM fields, notes Newson-Horst.
“As long as black women are making 62 cents on the dollar that white men are making … you really need a women’s, gender and sexuality studies program,” says Newson-Horst. “As long as people think they can police someone’s sexuality…you need these programs.” Education is not easy. … What we do is find out other points of view.”
Newson-Horst also says collaboration between institutions is essential to advancing this interdisciplinary course of inquiry and creating more majors and minors at HBCUs. “We have to reach out to our counterparts,” he says. “We’ll have to model. [our programs] and put the information out there so we can do what we need to do.”