New Multidisciplinary Gender and Sexuality Program Celebrates a Year of Broad Community Support

Faculty and students involved with the college's new interdisciplinary Gender and Sexuality Studies major (GSS) gathered recently to celebrate the first year of this broadest-ever academic collaboration between single-subject disciplines at Davidson.

"Davidson already had a very deep bench in GSS, with 35 professors teaching 50 GSS-related courses," said Babcock Professor of History Sally McMillen, who led the faculty initiative to create the major.

She continued, "So we didn't need new hires, or many new courses. We just needed to put the major together administratively. We were able to use Davidson's existing curricular strength in a multidisciplinary approach to learning."

For about 20 years the college has offered an academic concentration in Gender Studies. But several faculty members in recent years began to develop a broader vision. In spring 2011 McMillen contacted colleagues who taught gender and sexuality studies courses, and invited them to join her in promoting it as a major. Her faculty colleagues Gayle Kaufman, Melissa Gonzalez, Patricia Tilburg and Jessica Taft signed on to a working group. They conducted a year-long process of evaluating Davidson's courses and researching gender studies programs at other colleges. After several proposals and revisions, the faculty approved the major in May 2012 along with two other interdisciplinary majors-Latin American Studies and Environmental Studies.

McMillen said, "We're moving into an era of multidisciplinary approaches to learning, and gender studies supports that beautifully. It employs a theme into which you can incorporate all kinds of fields."

The GSS major is designed to help students recognize the importance of gender and sexuality in the human arena. They study historical and contemporary representations of women and men in religion, science, arts and literature, and social and political theory. They also consider how gender and sexuality intersect with race, class, ethnicity, disability, and age to produce complex social identities. The goal is to help Davidson men and women function freely and fairly in the world.

The recent one-year celebration also included the inaugural presentation of the major's new student award, The Sally G. McMillen Prize. Sally and her spouse Bruce McMillen created the prize as part of a fund they have established to help the GSS program with "extras" such as bringing speakers to campus and financing student research.

In addition to recognizing an outstanding student in the field of gender and sexuality studies, the prize commemorates the fact that McMillen was the first gender and women's historian at Davidson when she joined the faculty in 1988.

Almost all of McMillen's research and writing has concerned American women and Southern women. Her latest book is the 2008 Oxford University Press volume Seneca Falls and the Origins of the Women's Rights Movement. She is now working on a book about the 19th-century American abolitionist and suffragist, Lucy Stone.

The recipient of the first McMillen Prize was announced as Caitlin Klein '13, who created her own major in "Gender Studies and Human Rights" through the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies.

Klein was praised for her ambition and intellectual rigor in writing a thesis on "Mothering Practices Amongst Contemporary Sex Workers in Johannesburg, South Africa."

During two extended trips to Johannesburg, Klein got to know locals who helped her gain access to brothels and other sex trade sites. Through patience and compassion, she gained the confidence of sex workers and interviewed dozens of them. As practitioners of an illegal profession, they were denied rights and were subject to abuse from customers and police. Almost all the female workers had children, and Klein's thesis argued that the government and society should legitimize them as "good" mothers, sacrificing for their children, rather than denying their rights and stigmatizing them solely as sex workers.

Klein was honored for "contributions to the feminist literature on sex workers' rights and on motherhood by showing how the idea of what makes a 'good mother' is socially constructed, locally specific, and can be used to further sex workers' struggles for human rights."

Associate Professor of History Patricia Tilburg has chaired the GSS major in its first year. Tilburg studied history and gender studies as an undergraduate, and did graduate work at UCLA in French gender history. She completed her Ph.D. there in 2002, and joined the Davidson faculty in 2003. She teaches European cultural history and gender history, and French history and culture.

Tilburg declares the first year of GSS at Davidson as a ringing success. The first offering of the first of two GSS required courses, "Introduction to Gender and Sexuality Studies," enrolled its maximum of 28 students.

MacArthur Associate Professor of English Maria Fackler will teach that intro course in the fall, and Assistant Professor of Hispanic Studies Melissa Gonzalez will teach the required theory course -- "Feminist and Queer Theories" in spring 2014. The major also requires eight other courses from across the curriculum. The balance and distribution of those courses differ depending on which of three GSS "tracks" students decide to follow. The tracks are "Society and Politics," "Literary and Cultural Representations," and "Histories and Genealogies." Seniors will also take a required capstone course that emphasizes original research in the field.

Tilburg also notes that students' activity this year in extracurricular activities indicates strength for the program. For instance, GSS-affiliated students were the prime movers in organizing the 40th anniversary of coeducation celebration earlier in the semester, a Davidson chapter of the Half the Sky movement, as well as the campus production of The Vagina Monologues.

The program also sponsored a presentation by a transgendered scholar in Communication Studies, a "Who Needs Feminism?" event, a psychology lecture on sexist humor, a film and director Q&A on midwives, and a one-man show detailing the lives of black gay men in the South. The program established a web site and Facebook page, and organized a coffee and dessert session to introduce students to the curriculum.

Tilburg said, "I've been impressed by students and their activity in the field. The creation of the major now gives them an academic, intellectual home for their interests."


  • May 7, 2013