Women's Studies: Returning to our Activist Roots and Achieving Tenure Along the Way

by Sandra Krajewski

I call myself an activist not an academic, yet in the past twelve years, pursuit of my activist work has helped me become a published, tenured full professor chairing a Women's Studies Department in a conservative Midwestern town of 50,000. So I am an academic of sorts, too. From this double perspective I see that many Women's Studies Programs have an opportunity to come full circle, back to their connections to the community and their activist roots. This opportunity lies, I believe, in choosing to adopt Department status rather than Program status.

Department status has had many advantages for me, for the education of our students, and for the strength of Women's Studies at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Because we have a Department, not a Program, my tenure home is in Women's Studies. Because my appointment is not a joint appointment, my scholarship has been judged using Women's Studies values rather than those of anthropology or sociology and Women's Studies. Most Women's Studies faculty still straddle two or more disciplines and multiple sets of values, some of which are incompatible with community activist research. Because I was judged solely by Women's Studies values, I was able to find my research questions by listening to the needs of the community.

My working side by side with community activists and professionals opened up a wealth of service learning projects for our students, too. These projects often led to interesting intern-ships and/or permanent employment through which students have had the opportunity to change our community. Students have been able to see the connection between what they learn in the classroom and what they might want to do after graduation. This has helped attract and retain students in our program, making Women's Studies a vibrant, active force on campus and in the community.

In the beginning, activists taught Women's Studies.

The focus of Women's Studies has changed in its thirty-plus years of existence. Marilyn Boxer, in her 1982 classic essay, "For and About Women: The Theory and Practice of Women's Studies in the United States,"1 quotes Roberta Salper, who describes the philosophy of the pioneers as an attempt "to understand the world and to change it" (p.72). In the beginning, the collaboration between activists and academics produced courses "led by feminist students, staff, or community women, that sought to understand and to confront the sexism they had experienced in movements for the liberations of other oppressed groups" (p.71). In other words, activists taught Women's Studies at a time when connecting theory and practice meant connecting academic theories and community activism. Theory was informed by the realities of specific struggles in a given community, and was tested by the clarity of the analysis and insight it offered.

As Women's Studies settled into the university, academic credentials became essential to establishing institutional credibility. The field needed to become a respected, credentialed, academic discipline in its own right. Because academic credentials equaled institutional credibility, those credentials became more important to hiring committees than activist accomplishments. In fact, community activism was not just devalued, the women's movement was often shunned. "There was a conscious decision by the Program's original members [at the University of Minnesota] to distance themselves from the women's movement," according to Catherine Orr, who has studied the Minnesota program's history.2 Here in La Crosse our institutionalization also separated us from the community. As the shelter for battered women opened in 1978, when La Crosse's Women's Studies program was just three years old, our first Women's Studies Director, Judith Kent Green, was told by a university administrator "to stay away from battering - we shouldn't be talking about those sorts of things" (personal communication).

Times have changed. Twenty years later the Women's Studies Department at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse is thriving. Why? For eleven of those years we have had department status, which has allowed us to return to our activist roots, academically. That doesn't mean the abandonment of scholarship; it means the option of doing research that is meaningful to the community. For many years, the "Wisconsin Idea" has promoted mutually beneficial relationships between the university and the community; the community generates problems for the university to solve through its research and expertise, and the university makes education available to all citizens. Here at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, the "Wisconsin Idea" further encourages connection to the community through research and service learning. In this context, I have earned both tenure and promotion through academic activism.

For example, in the late 1980s, after initiating an intervention and advocacy program for battered women and sexual assault survivors, I saw that self-sufficiency for some battered women leaving relationships necessitated a college degree. Around the same time, I was looking for a dissertation topic. My colleague, Bets Reedy, and I created a program that prepared women for college and helped them succeed. The program was unique, and to evaluate its effectiveness, we needed to understand the educational barriers these low-income women faced. Doing the research to provide that understanding became the topic of my award-winning dissertation. In subsequent years, I produced a number of publications aimed at describing how the university might made be a more comfortable place for low-income women. Those publications were part of the record that led to my tenure.

Shortly thereafter I learned about another community need. Several La Crosse area middle school teachers wanted to teach about dating violence. While various violence prevention curricula had been in use since the early 1980s, none had been tested with a valid and reliable instrument to see whether the curriculum actually changed knowledge and attitudes about violence. A student in the Masters in Public Health Program decided to use a particular "valid and reliable instrument" as the basis for a thesis. This project opened the door for inclusion in the public schools of a violence prevention curriculum. Several publications, coauthored by me with members of the Health Education department, emerged from the project, and I was made Associate Professor.

Protesting welfare reform as initiated by the Governor of Wisconsin in the form of "Wisconsin Works," or W-2, was consistent with my sense of social justice and respect for humankind. Without education and training included in reform, many people - mostly women - will be unable to support a family. "We don't know what benefits are derived," our legislators complained, "from postsecondary education for women and their families"3 Four researchers (economist, historian, anthropologist, and the Director of our Single Parent Self-Sufficiency Program) united and were funded for an interdisciplinary study on "The Effects of Education on Low-Income Women," drawn from a survey and interviews of folks who had gone through postsecondary education on public assistance - this is a project that is academic, interdisciplinary, and activist.

Working with the battered women's shelter is another example of collaboration between my scholarly expertise and the community. After chairing the shelter Board for three years, I wanted to be involved in a less visible though still significant way. I also wanted to understand how Wisconsin's new welfare reform was affecting battered women. Collaboration among the shelter, the Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and me resulted in a federally funded project that provides for advocacy while collecting research data from battered women receiving public assistance. The ultimate goal of the seventeen-month project is to inform social policy.

As welfare reform (W-2) was becoming a reality, it became clear that many people would be falling through the cracks. The University of Wisconsin-La Crosse joined with other university and community members across the state to form the Women in Poverty Public Education Initiative (WPPEI). This group's intent is to raise public awareness about the harmful stereotypes attributed to the poor and to monitor and ameliorate the impact of W-2 through research and advocacy. I have assisted this project in several ways, including research. In addition, one of our students, through an internship at the Salvation Army, saw that families needed a mentor/advocate to help them succeed. The La Crosse County Department of Health and Human Services now funds this mentoring project, which I supervise. Along those lines, a W-2 Task Force Meeting here in La Crosse noted a need for clean, professional clothing for interviews and employment, and The Clothes Closet was created in a space donated by a church and staffed by volunteers complete with a part-time manager. The Department of Women's Studies sponsors these outreach programs and as Department chair, I supervise them - and along the way, I have become full professor.

The point of all this is that it was my tenure home in Women's Studies that gave me the freedom to seek and gain credit for this work. I am an anthropologist by degree, but what anthropology department would tenure me with research and publications on issues of poverty, domestic violence, and welfare reform? Did I do anthropology? My research designs reveal my training, but otherwise it was sociology, social work, criminology, social policy, and women's studies that I cited. My projects were interdisciplinary, scholarly, and guided by feminist theory.

Working in and with the community is not a rejection of theory and theorizing by any means. In fact, it could be argued that "most fundamental feminist assumptions have arisen from the women's movement in the field and that the field, especially at its margins, holds the most promise as a site for autonomous feminist theorizing and for ridding social knowledge of its patricentric assumptions."4

Although I needed to produce an impressive academic track record, I did not have to do "double-duty" - I did not have to satisfy the tenure and promotion criteria of two different departments. I was able to use my academic activism to satisfy the criteria of the activist-oriented academic discipline of Women's Studies. Choosing department status can help programs come full circle - back to our activist roots.


1. Marilyn Boxer, "For and About Women: The Theory and Practice of Women's Studies in the United States," Reconstructing the Academy: Women's Education and Women's Studies ed. by Elizabeth Minnich et al., (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), pp.661-695.

2. Catherine Orr, "Women's Studies 25 Years Later," On Campus With Women v.27, no.3 (1998), p.5.

3. State Senate Minority Leader Brian Rude and State Representative Mike Huebsch, at Annual Meeting of New Horizons, February, 1996.

4. Linda Christiansen-Ruffman, "Inherited Biases Within Feminism: The 'Patricentric Syndrome' and the 'Either/Or Syndrome' in Sociology," Feminism: From Pressure to Politics (Montreal: Black Rose Press, 1989); cited in Christiansen-Ruffman, Linda, "Community Base and Feminist Vision: The Essential Grounding of Science in Women's Community," Canadian Woman Studies/le cahiers de la femme, v.13, no.2 (Winter 1993), pps.16-20; cited in Christiansen-Ruffman, Linda, "Feminist Field-based Learning: Theory and Praxis in the Course of Knowledge Creation," Atlantis v.22, no.1 (1997), pp.114-118.

[Sandra Krajewski, Professor and Chair of the Department of Women's Studies at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, is a founding mother of UW-La Crosse's Single Parent Self-Sufficiency Program and Houston County Women's Resources, an education, intervention, and advocacy group for battered women and sexual assault survivors in Minnesota. Currently she is on the Board of Directors of New Horizons Shelter and Women's Center.]

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