Rutgers women's history program ranks No. 1 in nation
The Department of History’s women’s and gender history graduate program was recently ranked No.1 in the nation by the U.S. News and World Report.
Rutgers was one of the first universities not only in the nation, but most likely the world, to recognize and advance the study of women’s history, according to the School of Arts and Sciences.
There were both difficulties and advantages associated with advancing women’s programs within multiple college faculties that created multiple programs in women’s studies, said Mary Hartman, the director of the Institute for Women’s Leadership (IWL) and a professor in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies.
Johanna Schoen, a professor in the Department of History, said half of the faculty members in the program are women, and that has been the case since the merging of the history departments at Douglass College, the Downtown campus and Livingston campus in the mid-70s and early 80s.
“The merger brought a number of very strong and smart feminists who had been on the Douglass faculty into the then mostly male department,” she said. “It considerably strengthened the department and helped it rise to the top. It has shaped the tenor of the department into a place in which male faculty members, too, are sensitive to issues of gender and sexuality.”
When the faculties were reorganized in the early 80s, consolidating the disciplines into single New Brunswick departments, the University committee responsible for locating housing for the different disciplines assigned all the faculty from the five women’s studies programs into two small offices in the basement of one of the Douglass buildings.
“As the new dean of the college then, I was informed of this situation by the new chair for women’s studies, and made it my business to ensure that women’s studies would not only get more space but also get space above ground,” Hartman said. “This visible focus on the field helped to encourage top scholars in women’s studies and history to come to Rutgers, and students to take classes in these fields.”
Bonnie Smith, a Board of Governors professor, said that the scholars who have joined the program within the last few years will help keep the department at the top of the rankings for decades to come, according to the School of Arts and Sciences.
“I was attracted to Rutgers because of the excellence of the program and because the faculty (has) a reputation of being very congenial,” Schoen said. “Everybody works really hard and they get along really well. Those two things are important.”
The program consists of a large faculty from which students can receive advice from a broad range of members that complement each other in their area of specialty, she said.
“We teach our students with a global perspective in mind,” Schoen said. “This means that the readings students do cover the history of women and gender from all across the globe. This encourages students to think comparatively.”
The topics of the program range from the treatment of sexual differences in medieval times, the role of women in the Civil Rights movement and France’s marriage and family laws in reaction to the growing Muslim community, according to the School of Arts and Sciences.
Schoen teaches the history of sexuality and the history of medicine. She advises graduate students as they write research papers, take qualifying exams and research and write their dissertations as well, she said.
“I … do my own research and write books – about the history of abortion, the history of decision-making in medical care … This work – visiting archives, doing research, writing and publishing – shapes my work with my graduate (and undergraduate) students,” she said. “It keeps me fresh and engaged in the field and in the work that my students are doing.”
Schoen said her colleagues are her best friends and they inspire and encourage her, as well as gives her feedback when she needs it.
“It is very inspiring working in this department,” she said. “And it is a very supportive place. I feel like we do good work. We can rely on each other and help each other out. I am very fortunate to be able to teach here.”
Rutgers is in its fifth decade of doing women’s history, and the cutting edge is still very much present, Smith said.
“In short, acceptance of the field has become much greater at Rutgers sand across the country, where now hundreds of these programs exist and are transforming our understanding of the traditional history and other fields as well,” Hartman said. “Having a women’s college in a state university helped Rutgers to take the lead in this vital area.”
Alexandra DeMatos is a School of Arts and Sciences junior double-majoring in journalism and media studies and women's and gender studies. She is the editor-in-chief of The Daily Targum