Mount Saint Mary’s University has always championed women — the study of women and gender, the promoting of women’s leadership and women in STEM fields. This fall, The Mount will begin offering an interdisciplinary Women and Gender Studies major that focuses on leadership, policy and undergraduate research in partnership with various centers of research and support.
Two political science faculty members spearheading the development of the major are associate professor Emerald Archer, PhD, and the History and Political Science department chair Lia Roberts, PhD. Archer came to the Mount in 2017 to build the Center for the Advancement of Women, of which she is director. “I have spent considerable time thinking about how we create this major and curriculum that’s innovative while also leveraging the Center for the Advancement of Women and our other established, award-winning programs like Mount Leads, the Women’s Leadership program and GWSTEM (Global Women in STEM and Policy).” Archer is also the executive director of the Women’s College Coalition, and she thinks that there could be opportunities for the 37 member organizations to explore in the future.
The Mount has had a women’s studies minor for decades, but Roberts says that students have requested a major, and now is the right time to add it. “We have to recognize the social and political changes that we’ve seen the last couple of years stemming from the #Me Too movement. We definitely need to expand our offerings to be relevant to this generation of students.”
The Basic Structure
Introductory classes include an Introduction to Women and Gender Studies, a first-year common read course that will operate in conjunction with a new “Voice and Action” living-learning community at Chalon, plus an Introduction to Leadership. Students will be offered several new classes ranging from Women and International Relations; Gender and Militarism; and Gender and Political Communication.
“Our hope is that over time we can rotate different faculty from different disciplines through the common read course,” says Roberts. “So it’ll change with whomever is teaching it, so this course could be something that a student takes multiple times. For example, a first-year student could take it from a faculty member in political science, then in her sophomore year she could take it from an instructor in the English department.”
One of the program goals is to support undergraduate research opportunities and leadership skill training. Finally, students will be required to choose “paths” for the major. These paths have been designed to allow students to create an interdisciplinary set of electives from outside of the department. “Paths” include The Body, Mind and Spirit; Culture and Society; and Music and the Arts.
“The beauty of how we worked it out is that a lot of existing coursework comprises each path,” says Archer. “We created some new coursework to augment and support what already exists but in terms of hiring faculty and things of that nature, in its nascent stages as we get up and running, we have what we need.”
The women’s long-term goals included adding more faculty and courses, an endowed fund for women’s studies and an endowed chair. But for now, they’re just excited to get the program off the ground.
To Minor or Major, That Is the Question
Both women feel that current students planning to minor in women’s studies can, in terms of requirements, easily convert to a women’s studies major or declare a double major with their current degree pursuit. “It would be easy to transition into,” says Roberts. “Current women’s studies minors, many of whom were drawn to the minor after taking Women Leadership courses, are majoring in a wide variety of programs.”
“You should always major in what reflects your passion, first and foremost,” says Roberts. “Second, the opportunities students will have graduating with this major will make the work worth it. We purposely focused this major not only around conversations about women and gender studies, but with an eye to the kind of skills one needs to succeed in grad school and the career force afterwards. The research methods program and component is really all about oral presentations and data analysis, both qualitative and quantitative. Graduates will be able to go anywhere and succeed with these skills.”
Archer added that she tells students that no matter their major, “what matters is that you can deconstruct and reconstruct an argument, that you can write persuasively and grab onto multiple and various theoretical frameworks to make an argument. And I think that this particular major will really hone those skills for students.”
She went on to say that gender dynamics rule our lives. ”As an undergraduate, I didn’t quite understand that,” she says. “Looking back, I felt invincible, and I felt that those rules didn’t apply to me, but believe me, the rules apply. There are invisible structures that are the architecture of our lives, and I think that it would be good (for students) to know that early.”
Beyond understanding how society affects an individual, however, is how such structures are intertwined in everybody’s lives, whether they’re aware of such influences. “The goal is to focus on how students are going to take this coursework and skills and transfer them into the kind of career that most Mount students are looking for,” says Roberts, “the kind of career that is in some way or another is service oriented, a career in which they’re affecting change in our communities.”
A Unique Approach
Although numerous other universities have women’s studies majors, MSMU’s will be different by the mere fact that it’s primarily a women’s institution. “We apply a gender lens to virtually everything that we do at the Mount,” says Archer, “and we’re using that analytic framework, so we’re offering a unique opportunity that you wouldn’t get elsewhere. Also, other programs lack the connection to centers that are really engaged and can link students to projects within their communities.
“This is a really great program if you want to engage in a more intensive way with students and faculty and work with entities on campus that you might not otherwise engage with, whether it’s Leadership or GWSTEM or any of the centers that do any work related to women and gender. Students will have access to working with faculty on research, which is an opportunity that might pay off in learning methods, but maybe you’ll also get a publication out of it or connections that you parlay into a graduate program or a job. If a student comes really excited and motivated to learn and tap into all of this infrastructure, then their experience will be that much richer.”
Beyond the Academics: Living and Learning Communities
Roberts says that a living and leaning community component is a natural fit for the major. As the academic director for the Center of Global Initiatives, she was already planning a Global Village living and learning community. It occurred to Roberts, Archer and Rosalyn Kempf in Women’s Leadership that we also had a need for a living learning community connected to empowerment and a women and gender studies program. A community called Voice in Action will entail a lot of interaction with Archer’s Center and Women’s Leadership. And those two living and learning communities are supposed to go online in the fall.
Archer says that the residential programming component will create a valuable experience for students who are interested in either global issues and/or gender and will bring a value add and fill a gap in our current residential community experience.
Roberts sees the residential community reaching out to faculty to have dinner with students, lectures in the evenings and conversation about new work in their field or new common read experiences. “It’s really a way to also introduce students to faculty earlier and outside the classroom experience,” she says. “The other point for us is to think about how we can contribute to deepening the intellectual environment on campus.”
Not all these experiences have to focus on intellectual pursuits. Some events may be are more social, such as a film screening. Roberts, whose expertise includes Latin American politics, has put together a list of co-curricula activities that includes Argentine tango classes. “Once we can safely get back out and around,” she says, “a place as cosmopolitan as Los Angeles offers all kinds of great opportunities.”