1 The History of San Diego State University’s Women’s Studies Program

By Temperance Russell & Lori Loftin, San Diego State University, and Julie Shayne, University of Washington Bothell

Illustration of co-authors Lori Loftin (L) and Temperance Russell (R) in a selfie pose.
Lori Loftin (L) and Temperance Russell (R) by Nicole Carter
Illustration of Julie Shayne with yellow sash in right hand and left fist in the air. Sash has transfeminism symbol in purple.
Julie Shayne by Nicole Carter










This essay is about the development of the first US Women’s Studies program: San Diego State University (SDSU).[1] Every program’s history is no doubt unique, including SDSU’s, but after reading many histories of different programs and testimonies from different founders it has become strikingly clear that there were many parallels. (See annotated bibliography by Shayne and Guzman.) We start this essay with some national trends in the development and early years of the programs and then move onto the specific case of SDSU.[2] In Women’s Studies: A Retrospective, Beverly Guy-Sheftall describes the field as going through four phases, marking the beginning with the 1960s Civil Rights movement and development of Black Studies. Guy-Sheftall goes on to identify the four phases as 1: the development of Women’s Studies as a new interdisciplinary program; 2: movement of Women’s Studies into the mainstream; 3: challenges to Women’s Studies by women of color and particular efforts to move women of color to the center from the margins; and 4: the internationalization of Women’s Studies in the US and emergence of Women’s Studies and global feminism throughout the world (1995, xiii-xiv).[3] Keeping this backdrop in mind, we share a few trends that appear to run through most programs.

Simply put: “This history of women’s studies in the 1970s is … a complex story, interweaving the hard daily work of institution building, the magic of individual growth and transformation, the subtlety of intellectual discovery, and the defiance of a grass-roots movement for change” (Lapovsky Kennedy 2000, 244). The labor was non-stop, often unremunerated, including the teaching, and always done collaboratively, though not harmoniously, with students. There was also an inordinate amount of professional precarity on the part of the faculty involved, in part because they were feminist activists, and most higherups on their campuses were not (at least initially) happy to hear from them. Additionally, administrators frequently put untenured, even part time and/or doctoral candidates, in positions of power, which meant they sat at the same tables as people (read: white men) with significantly more clout, power, and experience than themselves.

The founders of Women’s Studies—students, staff, faculty, and community activists—mostly saw themselves as members of social movements of which Women’s Studies was a natural outgrowth. Most white feminists talked about Women’s Studies coming from and remaining a part of the women’s movement (Boxer 1998; Howe 2000), whereas, as noted, Guy-Sheftall identifies the Civil Rights movement being the catalyst. Women of color feminists took white feminists to task, by asking: Which women’s movement? Who was being represented? And from a curricular perspective, how did white women’s hegemony translate to conspicuous absences in the curriculum and field writ large (Moallem 2002, 372; Sandoval 1990). Related to this, Barbara Smith explains, “I do not remember anyone else I knew using the term Black women’s studies during the early 1970s, but I had a clear sense that was, in fact what we were creating” [italics in original] (2000, 198).

Other commonalities that cross all the programs are their tiny budgets, yet the overwhelming popularity of their courses, as well as the snail’s pace at which it takes to get from idea-to-course-to-BA-degree-housed-in-a-department. For example, the University of Colorado Boulder had a Women’s Studies program approved in the fall of 1974, but it was not until April 1998 that they won final approval for their BA degree (Westkott 2002, 293-94). These timelines and uphill battles, both internal and external which accompanied the process, were in no way unique to Boulder. Indeed, San Diego State experienced its own version of most of these trends, to which we now turn.

Founded in 1970, the San Diego State University Department of Women’s Studies was the first program in the nation. The department celebrated its 50th Anniversary in 2020.[4] Temperance and Lori both received our MAs in Women’s Studies from San Diego State University in 2020. During our tenure in the Women’s Studies department we were actively involved in the planning of the 50th anniversary celebration in many capacities, including: co-producing a short commemorative film on women’s studies; creating an online-timeline of the program; and overseeing an oral-history project for which we interviewed twenty three important figures from the department’s past and present. Our involvement with these projects serves as the data for the remainder of this essay. However, our efforts were more than data gathering or logistical support—rather, our involvement demonstrates a core value of SDSU’s Women’s Studies: a commitment to provide concrete opportunities to empower students as leaders. This is particularly important given the role of students in creating the program from the outset.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, faculty and students at San Diego State College were actively involved in many social movements. From this activism, new academic departments were formed—Africana Studies, Chicana and Chicano Studies, and American Indian Studies. Additionally, the Women’s Liberation movement began to take shape nationally and on San Diego State’s campus (Orr 1998, 50). Gatherings of women in consciousness raising or “rap groups” became a place for women to talk about their shared experiences of sexism in their lives and in academia. One of these consciousness raising groups at San Diego State, composed of about twenty students and faculty, launched the Center for Women’s Studies and Services (CWSS) to provide a more formal space from which to address sexism on campus.

The first project of CWSS was the creation of a Women’s Studies program. In the fall of 1969, CWSS offered free classes, taught entirely via the voluntary labor of students and faculty in other departments. The leadership and involvement of students and the multi-disciplinarity of faculty proved integral to the long term survival of the program. CWSS found their eventual success by following the model used by student and faculty activists who created the Mexican American Studies (now called Chicana and Chicano Studies) at SDSU the year prior. CWSS pushed the university administration to offer courses for credit, bringing a petition signed by over 600 students, to the University Senate (Orr 1998, 59).

By the spring of 1970, the activists were successful. San Diego State College established a Women’s Studies Program which offered classes for credit, becoming the first university in the nation to do so. In its first year, there were two full-time professors hired and five courses offered (Salper 2011, 662). Professors took on their work in Women’s Studies above and beyond their contractually required teaching, research, and administrative responsibilities, doing so without pay. The first years were turbulent. Debates over ideology and funding led to a split between the Women’s Studies Program and the Center for Women’s Studies and Services (CWSS). CWSS eventually moved off campus and evolved into The Center for Community Solutions, which continues to do feminist advocacy and anti-violence work in San Diego County. In the 1973-74 school year another conflict erupted, changing the makeup of the program. A dispute with the Dean of the College of Arts and Letters led to the mass resignation of all staff, faculty, and members of the Women’s Studies Board (Foulkes 2007, 134). The Dean mandated that Women’s Studies stray from its liberatory teaching and decision making style, stripping community members, non-tenured faculty, and students of their decision making power in the department. A sizable amount of the Women’s Studies stakeholders vehemently disagreed with that mandate and resigned in protest (Foulkes 2007, 133). In fall of 1974, the Women’s Studies program received new direction under the leadership of Chair Marilyn Boxer, with two new full-time and four part-time faculty offering twelve classes. At the time, Boxer was still a doctoral candidate herself, originally hired as a part time faculty member, who was more or less told she would be the chair (Boxer 2000, 234). The faculty developed an eighteen-credit minor, which was approved by the University Senate in May of 1975. That same year, the university officially established Women’s Studies as a department in the College of Arts and Letters. Classes taught included “Women in History”, “Contemporary Issues in the Liberation of Women”, “Women in Comparative Cultures”, and “Human Sexuality” (Self Study 1979).

Since its inception, the department of Women’s Studies has had to prove itself against outside conceptions that it was not sufficiently rigorous as a discipline or that research on and about women was a passing fad. To legitimize their work, the Women’s Studies faculty took great care to ensure academic rigor in their courses, collaborating with other departments and guest lecturing across campus to build faith in the department. Their efforts ultimately led to the university including Women’s Studies courses in the General Education curriculum, an important step in the institutionalization of the program. The “New Views of Women” lecture series was launched in 1977, further expanding the impact of the Women’s Studies department by bringing students, faculty, staff, and community members together to hear lectures from feminist faculty in disciplines across the university. By 1989, faculty from twenty-eight departments at SDSU (representing every college except the College of Engineering) had presented lectures in the “New Views of Women” lecture series (Self Study 1989). In addition, the department hosted talks by well-known figures of the women’s movement, including Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, and Bella Abzug (Self Study 2014).

In 1982, the SDSU Senate approved a major in Women’s Studies, making SDSU one of fifty-five universities in the US at that point with such a major. The major fueled the growth of the department and by 1989 there were eight full-time faculty. In 1995, the department achieved a long-standing goal, launching a 30-credit, two-year MA program (Self Study 2000). Today, the MA program remains an extremely important part of the department.

From its founding, Women’s Studies faculty have been active in university governance, serving in leadership roles in the College of Arts and Letters, the University Senate, the California Faculty Association, and numerous university committees. Additionally, throughout the history of the department, faculty members have moved into administrative positions at SDSU and other campuses in the California State University system (Self Study 2000). The Women’s Studies Department has also been actively supportive of student organizations throughout its history, including the Women’s Resource Center (WRC), the Women’s Studies Student Association (WSSA), Graduate Women Scholars of Southern California (SCALLOPS), the Andrea O’Donnell Womxn’s Outreach Association (WOA), and many others (Self Study 2014).

Women’s Studies also has a rich history of involvement in the local and global community. In 1996, the Hoover High School Young Women’s Studies club was founded, providing an opportunity for SDSU students to mentor local high school students through service learning. The 2002 founding of the Bread and Roses Center for Feminist Research and Activism extended the involvement of SDSU students, faculty, and staff in community organizations and projects. Bread and Roses projects include an annual themed colloquium series, community partnerships, and annual student activist research fellowships. As Women’s Studies in the US continues to be ever more committed to transnational feminist theory and scholarship, faculty have begun teaching numerous travel study courses, conducting research in and about communities around the world, and presenting their research at international conferences.

Another major accomplishment and source of pride for the department is the creation of a major and minor in LGBTQ Studies. Women’s Studies has been a leader in transforming SDSU into a campus that actively supports the success of LGBTQ students, faculty, and staff (Self Study 2008).

The curriculum of Women’s Studies has continued to grow in response to student interest, historical changes, and developments in the discipline of Women’s Studies. One thing, however, which remains the same is the name. Even as many programs around the country move to change their names from “Women’s Studies” to some version of “Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies,” SDSU has not followed that trajectory. (See Bhatt essay, this collection.) As a department the debate happens periodically, often prompted by new hires, and not surprisingly, feelings are strong on all sides of the debate. Retiring faculty Susan Cayleff explains her commitment to keeping “Women’s Studies”:

I am adamant on this point that we must remain women’s studies. Adamant. I feel most strongly about this than almost anything. Here’s the reason why we have to honor history. We were first in the nation. We are not post-feminist. Someone said, I forget who… “we’ll be post-feminist when we’re post patriarchy and I’m not holding my breath.” I am not convinced that gender…studies programs are feminist. I am not convinced that they centered the experiences of female identified people. I think that there are unique experiences and circumstances and oppressions that come with being female identified. I am 1000% trans and queer inclusive. And yet I think that trans, nonbinary, queer politics must have feminism at the center. And I am not convinced that that is the case … in many places. And I think that whether one is born female or identifies as female, uh, that there are bodily issues that impact female identified people that need examination and remediation, and I’m talking about reproductive justice and that includes trans and nonbinary people. I’m talking about sexual violence that includes trans non-binary people. … 1,000 ways that female identified people experienced the world uniquely because they are female bodied and or identified and that cannot be erased. It took an entire women’s movement… and the birth of women’s studies to get this acknowledgment put into human consciousness that, that femaleness matters (personal interview with Russell, 2019).

Younger scholars, especially students, tend to see all sides and it seems likely that SDSU will remain “Women’s Studies” for the foreseeable future.

In 2020, the SDSU Women’s Studies Department has eleven full-time and eight part-time faculty and offers close to fifty courses. Graduates of the MA and BA programs serve as professionals in a range of fields and continue to fight for social justice and women’s and queer folks’ empowerment through their activism, community, and academic service. The collaborative and coalitional nature which launched the program is still central to its mission which means battles happen. That said, SDSU made it for a half a century using that model and we are excited to see what SDSU’s faculty, students, and staff will bring to the academic and community feminist movements during these next fifty years.

Works cited:

Boxer, Marilyn Jacoby. 1998. When Women Ask the Questions: Creating Women’s Studies in America. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

—–.  2000. “Modern Woman Not Lost.” In The Politics of Women’s Studies: Testimony from 30 Founding Mothers, ed. Florence Howe, 229-242. New York, NY: The Feminist Press.

Cayleff, Susan.  2019. Personal interview with Temperance Russell. Conducted in San Diego, CA. Audio recorded. 19 October.

Foulkes, Sarah B. 2007. Coalitions, collaborations, and conflicts: the history of women’s studies at San Diego State University from 1969-1974. [Master’s Thesis, San Diego State University.] ProQuest Dissertations and Theses; ProQuest.

Grahl, Christine, Elizabeth Kennedy, Lillian S. Robinson and Bonnie Zimmerman. 1972. “Women’s Studies: A Case in Point,” in Feminist Studies. 1(2): 109-120.

Guy-Sheftall, Beverly. 1995. Women’s studies: A Retrospective (A report to the Ford Foundation). New York, NY: Ford Foundation.

Howe, Florence, ed. 2000. The Politics of Women’s Studies: Testimony from 30 Founding Mothers. New York, NY: The Feminist Press.

Hull, Akasja (Gloria T.), Patricia Bell-Scott & Barbara Smith, eds. 2015 [1982]. All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies, 2nd Edition. New York, NY: The Feminist Press.

James, Stanle M., Frances Smith Foster & Beverly Guy-Sheftall, eds. 2009. Still Brave: The Evolution of Black Women’s Studies. New York, NY: The Feminist Press.

Lapovsky Kennedy, Elizabeth. 2000. “Dreams of Social Justice: Building Women’s Studies at the State University of New York , Buffalo.” In The Politics of Women’s Studies: Testimony from 30 Founding Mothers, ed. Florence Howe, 243-263. New York, NY: The Feminist Press.

Moallem, Minoo. 2002. “‘Women of Color in the U.S.’: Pedagogical Reflections on the Politics of ‘the Name’.” In Women’s Studies on its Own: A Next Wave Reader in Institutional Change, ed. Robyn Wiegman, 368-382. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Orr, Catherine M. 1998. Representing women/disciplining feminism: Activism, professionalism, and women’s studies. [Doctoral Dissertation, University of Minnesota]. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses; ProQuest.

Salper, Roberta. 2011. “San Diego State 1970: The Initial Year of the Nation’s First Women’s Studies Program,” in Feminist Studies. 37(3): 656-682.

San Diego State University Women’s Studies Department (1979, 1989, 2000, 2008, 2014). Self- Studies for Academic Review. (Unpublished departmental documents).

Sandoval, Chela. 1990. “Feminism and Racism: A Report on the 1981 National Women’s Studies Association Conference.” In Making Face, Making Soul: HACIENDO CARAS Creative and Critical Perspectives by Women of Color, ed. Gloria Anzaldúa, 55-71. San Francisco, CA: Aunt Lute Books.

Smith, Barbara. 2000. “Building Black Women’s Studies.” In The Politics of Women’s Studies: Testimony from 30 Founding Mothers, ed. Florence Howe, 194-203. New York, NY: The Feminist Press.

Westkott, Marcia. 2002. “Institutional Success and Political Vulnerability: A Lesson in the Importance of Allies.” In Women’s Studies on its Own: A Next Wave Reader in Institutional Change, ed. Robyn Wiegman, 293-311. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Zimmerman, Bonnie. 2002. “The Past in Our Present: Theorizing the Activist Project of Women’s Studies.” In Women’s Studies on its Own: A Next Wave Reader in Institutional Change, ed. Robyn Wiegman, 183-190. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

—–. 2005. “Beyond Dualisms: Some Thoughts about the Future of Women’s Studies.” In Women’s Studies for the Future: Foundations, Interrogations, Politics, eds. Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Agatha Beins, 31-39. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.


  1. Julie would like to thank Doreen Mattingly, Susan Cayleff, Emily Saap, and Amanda Lanthorne at SDSU who all gave her their time through interviews and/or email exchanges to help her understand the development of SDSU’s Women’s Studies program.
  2. In this introductory section we do not cite every single source that speaks to these individual trends because there are literally too many to cite; if we mention a pattern here, it was something we came upon in many different readings.
  3. Of all the histories I (Julie) read for this project I found this one to be the most helpful. Needless to say, it only gets the reader to 1995, but it tells a much more complete story than what one gets in most of the other collections.
  4. Sadly, the grand celebration that had been in the making for nearly two years had to be postponed due to COVID-19, so the public and collective celebration is still to come. The department planned a Gender and Social Justice Festival for April 25th, 2020, a time for Women’s Studies students, faculty, alumni, friends, and community members to come together and celebrate the accomplishments of the past 50 years with panels, lectures, exhibits, and activities. The Festival has been postponed until the 2020-21 academic year. 

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