Achieving social justice and overcoming sexism and racism in the USA and globally are the main underlining principles of the women’s studies program at Niagara University. Specifically, the program offers courses that address
- The impact of social distinctions based on gender, race, ethnicity, social class, culture, religion, and sexuality on equality among men and women
- The use of feminist theories as points of intellectual departure and critical inquiry
- The indispensability of gender awareness in their own lives, including an appreciation of diverse ways of understanding the world;
- The possibilities for activism and change at local, national, and global level
The program draws its strength from using an interdisciplinary framework to analyze the historical, economic, political, social, and cultural experiences of women, and from providing critical tools for analytical inquiry into the lives of women through the use of “gender lens,” and active integration of students’ own experiences and lives.
The minor requires the completion of five courses, including the introductory course (WMS 200), which discusses issues ranging from the history and politics of women’s movement in the USA, women’s roles and contributions in political, social, and economic life; combining career and family; the role of media in shaping images of the body and sexuality; women in developing countries, and the role of the United Nations in establishing a global gender framework, including remaining challenges for achieving gender equality in today’s globalized world, and areas of activism and agency for social justice.
Short History of the Women's Studies Program
By Sharon Green, Ed.M., Hope Russell, Ph.D. and Shannon Risk, Ph.D.
The women’s studies minor took shape in the 1990s, with Dr. Meredith Reid Sarkees, in the department of political science providing leadership. She was succeeded by Dr. Carolyn Morrell from the department of social work. From 2007 to 2009, leaders of the minor included Dr. Abigail Levin from the department of philosophy, Dr. Jamie Carr, from the English department, Dr. Jamie Pimlott, from the department of political science, and Dr. Amelia Gallagher, from the department of religious studies. In 2012, Dr. Shannon Risk became the new director of the minor and continues to serve in this capacity. These directors have been aided in their work by an active women’s studies committee each year.
Before 2002, Niagara University’s women’s studies minor included courses in a variety of disciplines that touched on women’s issues. However, the minor lacked a lower-level course to introduce students to the discipline of women’s studies.
In 2001, Dr. Nancy McGlen, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, asked Sharon Green of the Office of Academic Support to write a course proposal for an introductory women’s studies course because Green had taught a similar course at the University at Buffalo for 22 semesters. Green’s proposal for WMS 200, “Introduction to Women’s Studies,” was approved in 2001.
The course was offered for the first time in spring 2002, taught by Green, with eight students enrolled. In the spirit of collaborative learning and women’s empowerment that was central to early women’s studies courses across the country, WMS 200 students were required to lead class discussions of the readings. The class also included a service learning requirement and a trip to Seneca Falls, N.Y., to visit the Women’s Rights National Historical Park.
Enrollment in WMS 200 grew steadily, especially after the Faculty Senate gave the course a “Cultural Diversity” designation. In 2004, Hope L. Russell began teaching WMS 200. To date, she has taught the course almost every fall/spring semester while working on and eventually earning her Ph.D. in Global Gender Studies from the University at Buffalo.
Originally, Russell taught two sections of WMS 200 each semester but students demanded more women’s studies courses. In response, Russell revived the WMS 350: Special Topics course in 2008—adding courses in literature, film, music, and social media alongside the introductory course. Additionally, she started offering several WMS courses online in the summer and a number of independent studies during the academic year. In these ways, the women’s studies program continues to both function and grow.
The women’s studies program also became a haven for celebration of the birthday of Susan B. Anthony in February every year and the National Women’s History Month on the Niagara University campus.
In 1995, Dr. June Justice Crawford introduced the Susan B. Anthony Luncheon. Niagara University employees were invited to attend and bring at least one student guest. Each year, a guest speaker focused on Susan B. Anthony or, more broadly, on women’s rights and achievements. Money raised from the luncheon was used to place flowers from Niagara University on Susan B. Anthony’s grave in Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, N.Y.
After the annual luncheon ended in 2004, the National Women’s History Month committee continued programming events to commemorate National Women’s History Month. An annual writing award was introduced in 2002. Initially called the Women’s Studies Writing Award, it was renamed the Susan B. Anthony Writing Award to continue Niagara University’s tradition of honoring Susan B. Anthony. From 2002-2012, the winners were recognized at the College of Arts and Sciences Day of Recognition. In 2013, a separate event, the Susan B. Anthony birthday celebration, was re-introduced to recognize the winners. Green has chaired the writing awards committee since 2002.
There have been occasional “brown bag lunches” dedicated to women’s studies and women’s history, including one on May 3, 2005, where Dr. Hope Russell spoke on “Perspectives, Practices, and Pedagogy.” Also, Niagara University Health Services has hosted women-centered programs in tandem with National Women’s History Month and throughout the academic year.
National Women’s History Month celebrations at Niagara University have included speakers, including Dr. Liz Lapovsky Kennedy, one of the founding mothers of women’s studies (in 2004) and renowned artist Faith Ringgold (in 2005); films; performances; and panel discussions.
In 2013, to celebrate National Women’s History Month, Dr. Russell led discussion on the film, Miss Representation, Niagara University Health Services staff led a presentation on women’s health care, and a panel on “Women and American Politics” was held, featuring Dr. McGlen, Dr. Pimlott, and Dr. Risk, presenting in their areas of research.
The 2014 celebration of National Women’s History Month included an event, “Scrapbooking Women’s Lives at Niagara University,” led by adjunct English professor Kerry Hogan, and a brown bag lunch discussion on women’s heath, led once again by NU Health Services. A later event in April, the “Women in Transition Conference,” focused on bringing women from diverse backgrounds together to discuss transitioning in their lives in a multitude of ways. The student group “Women Rock!” worked hard to make this conference happen.
In 2015, National Women’s History Month was celebrated in a number of ways. The Castellani Art Museum featured a talk by art historian Coni Minnechi, titled, “A to Z: An Historical Survey of Women Artists.” Green organized a book discussion for faculty, staff and students about Half the Sky, and Dr. Jeanne Laurel from the department of English moderated the discussion. Another program, “Gamergate: Gender and Video Games,” featured a speaker’s panel of Dr. Doug Tewksbury and Dr. Carrie Teresa (communication studies), Dr. Yonghong Tong (computer science), and student gamers. The keynote speaker for the month was Imam Daayiee Abdullah who spoke on “Gender and Islam in America.” The Imam is trained in the law and theology and is the executive director of the MECCA Institute. Imam Abdullah also spoke to several classes during his visit. Dr. Laurel helped to facilitate the Imam’s visit. Finally, Niagara University Theatre, under the leadership of Doug Zschiegner, associate professor in the department of theatre and fine arts, adapted the play, Cyrano, into a female-centered production entitled, Cyrana.
In the fall of 2015, Dr. Risk assisted the department of theatre and fine arts, and professor Adriano Gatto in an adaptation of the play, The Taming of the Shrew, by providing historical background on Colorado history and culture in the late 1800s and the lives of women in those times. Throughout the years, Dr. Russell has also established a strong partnership with the department of theatre and fine arts by requiring her students to attend and write about Niagara University Theatre productions as part of the course grade.
In March 2016, the National Women’s History Month celebrations included another diverse program. Dr. Joseph Sirianni brought the program, “To Write Love on Her Arms,” a body positivity group, to the campus, and also coordinated the media campaign for the month’s activities. Storyteller Laura Packer presented “Conversations with Sojourner Truth,” as our keynote speaker. Packer also spoke in two classrooms on storytelling and Sojourner Truth. Susan Clements from the Castellani Art Museum helped to facilitate Packer’s visit to our campus. The last event featured a panel on “Women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics),” organized by Dr. Yonghong Tong, department of computer science.
In the fall of 2016, the women’s studies minor committee will produce two gender-related programs. In September, there will be a “Women and U.S. Politics” panel consisting of Dr. Pimlott (political science), Dr. Teresa (communication studies), and Dr. Risk (history), to examine this year’s election and also look back to past treatment of women running for political office in the United States. Alongside this, the Niagara University student club, Feminism Today, will show the film, Miss Representation, which focuses on depictions of women in the media. In November, Niagara University student Robynn Murray will discuss her award-winning documentary, Poster Girl, about her experiences with the U.S. Army and post-traumatic stress disorder upon her return to the States. There will be a film screening of this important work.
The women’s studies program leadership continues to build bridges from multiple communities on and off campus. We support a number of student groups, including NU's SASS (Students Aligned Against Sexism), SAGE, MSA, BSU, and others; we continue to advocate for a wider conversation and acceptance on issues that not only affect women and girls, but also other marginalized groups and whole communities. Women’s issues are community issues.