Center offers women's studies scholars 'a room of one's own'

22 Oct 2010 11:29 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Emma Ramsay, The Smith College Sophian

Issue date: 10/21/10 Section: Features

The Pioneer Valley has long been considered a locus for women's activism and scholarship. At present, 350 faculty in women's and gender studies reside in the area, constituting what is widely believed to be one of the largest concentrations of academics in the world.

Elizabeth Lehman, the assistant director of the Five College Women's Studies Research Center, explained that it was not until the early 1990s that faculty addressed the need for a collective venue.

"They recognized there needed to be a focal point for research on women and gender in the [Pioneer Valley]," she said.

FCWSRC has played host to over 300 scholars from nearly every state and 44 countries since it opened its doors in 1991. Around this time, the very concept of "women's studies" was still a relatively novel one.

"[The Center] named at a moment when women's studies was new," said current faculty director Laura Lovett. She said that the "informal network of programs" among each of the colleges was finally legitimized, gaining solid footing as a formal department, though she qualified, "It's still a term that's very much under discussion."

The FCWSRC offers its research associates and visiting scholars an impressive list of amenities, including a private office - or a "room of one's own," as Lehman put it - faculty-level library and archive access at each of the academic institutions in the area and formal affiliation with the Five Colleges.

While the only criteria for admittance into the program is any sort of women's or gender studies research, the application process is extremely competitive. Lehman noted that there are always more applicants than there are spaces, a trend unlikely to change given the center's growing prestige. Research associates' terms are limited to an academic year, and they cannot apply for a second once their term is up.

Facilities are situated in two stately Victorian houses on the Mount Holyoke College campus, where, in exchange for the services provided by the center, research associates give free public lectures explaining their work. Topics this semester run the gamut from "queer women's migration" to "historical materialism."

Aside from providing the necessary resources, the FCWSRC offers opportunities to delve into subjects they would not have time for otherwise given their hectic schedules. "[My work concerns] how writing and reading cookbooks offered women a way to participate in the construction of national and regional cultures," said Megan Elias of Queensborough Community College.

"I have also for a long time been interested in the gendered division of culture and society, which has never seemed to make sense to me," she explained. "It has always seemed like a ridiculous waste of resources."

When asked what she will miss the most when her time at the FCWSRC comes to end, Elias named the "feeling that all my time here is mine, not parceled out among different responsibilities - it has been a vacation from real life."

Elias emphasized the strong sense of community the FCWSRC fosters among its research associates. Fellow associate Karin Ekstram, a doctorate student from the University of Gothenburg studying gender and cultural changes in contemporary urban Spain, agreed.

"The leadership of the center [does] a great job at providing formalized opportunities for exchange...but also encouraging and helping [set up] writing groups and the like," Ekstram said in an e-mail.

The FCWSRC prides itself on expanding its global outreach, pooling an increasingly multicultural and multigenerational group each year. Some research associates come from institutions where women's and gender studies are firmly entrenched while others are anomalies among their colleagues at home. Regardless, research associates and faculty alike find the FCWSRC to be an empowering and intellectually stimulating work environment.

"Already, after five weeks, I am more confident in myself and my research," Ekstram said.

In an era when people still question the legitimacy of women and gender studies, Lehman suggested that the FCWSRC reaffirms that the fields are still relevant.

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