Negotiating Class Interests and Academy-Community Divides: The Case of Women's Studies' Emergence at the University of Minnesota

by Catherine M. Orr

In February of 1972, a group of students from University Women's Liberation (UWL) on the University of Minnesota campus drew up a proposal for a women's studies department. The proposal claimed that the "systematic oppression of women in society at large is present in all its details at the University." As their vision of women's studies unfolded throughout the proposal, the analysis revealed the inseparability of the university and larger social problems stemming from sexism, racism, and classism. Thus, they asserted, the future department has an "obligation to the entire [Twin Cities] community." UWL's intent, like most other agitators for early women's studies programs, was twofold: to bring the women's movement's radical critiques to yet another bedrock institution in U.S. culture and to transform that institution into one welcoming of all kinds of women. Although explicit connections to larger communities of women beyond the university would serve both intentions, UWL women soon learned that those same connections served to discredit the seriousness and legitimacy of women's studies at Minnesota. In what follows, I use the emergence of women's studies at the University of Minnesota in the early 1970s as a case study to reflect on our institutions' and even our own reluctance to close the academy-community gap in the 1990s.

One crucial element in historicizing the academy-community gap is an understanding of class interests at stake in the mission of higher education. With its emphasis on field specialization, original research, and far-flung disciplines, the university as we know it is a relatively recent invention, coming of age along with the vast industrial expansion and the subsequent rise of the middle class in the mid- to late-nineteenth century.1 At this point, according to Jerry Herron2 the university became the institution that conferred "Culture" (with all its connotations of refinement and good breeding) to this new class. The university, then, became a tool of class distinction and offered cultural power, not by aligning itself with previously powerful aristocratic tastes and values, but through the invention of a particular form of expertise. We call those who possess this modern form of expertise "professionals" and lavish on them a vast array of cultural and material rewards. To obtain these rewards, professionals must be trained and socialized - or, in Michel Foucault's words, "disciplined"3 - to perpetuate this system of exclusion within the context of higher education.

When the women's movement swept through institutions of higher education during the culture wars of the 1960s and 1970s, the academic practices that adhered to these standards of distinction were among feminists' primary targets. They questioned medical professionals' expertise by demanding birth control without moralizing lectures, disputed prevailing legal opinion and theological dictates on abortion rights, and joined with other organizations to counter government and military experts' promotion of the war in Vietnam. Likewise, with courses such as "Auto Mechanics for Women" (a constant reference point for the women I interviewed), UWL's Proposal cum manifesto illustrated a deliberate departure from the university as promoter, not only of sex discrimination, but of professionalized knowledge. Through their public protests and consciousness-raising groups, these young feminists forged new sites and forms of knowledge production that insisted on the break-down of the academy-community divides that perpetuated gender, class, and, to some extent, race distinctions in U.S. society.

These confrontational methods, although galvanizing to UWL members, were not winning many concessions from the administration. Even those professors and administrators sympathetic to women's studies could not endorse the 1972 UWL proposal. Anne Truax, the Director of the Women's Center in the early 1970s, recalled, "I do remember when [the UWL leaders] came to my office . . . wanting not to have to let them down as much as I felt we had to let them down. First of all, I was sure that no male faculty member was going to get past the first page. Secondly, . . . we had to confine it to academic things."4 More radical UWL members viewed such "establishment-feminist" responses as Truax's with suspicion. To confine their vision to "academic things" compromised what UWL perceived to be women's studies mission to transform higher education and make it available to various communities of women.

This ideological purity was short-lived. Because of severe retrenchment in the 1972-73 academic year, demands for women's studies in any form could easily be dismissed by way of budget shortfalls. Realizing this, UWL changed course and invited a number of sympathetic faculty to a meeting in December 1972. They admitted that because of its strident tone, the "earlier proposal to seek a women's studies department had been validly criticized and subsequently shelved." Within minutes, an all-faculty steering committee was formed to begin anew the discussion about "the nature and the need for women's studies." A shift in strategy followed: the newly-formed group sought to establish the legitimacy of this emerging field and its presence at Minnesota, not by contesting the university values and practices, but rather by demonstrating women's studies' convergence with them (although many students still disagreed). The new proposal would have to emphasize the similarity between women's studies and other disciplines and "not include derogatory remarks relative to any other college unit or structure."6

In this new strategy, the call for community involvement in the women's studies program was repositioned as a liability. Instead, the campus Women's Center was to be the body that handled community needs and, therefore, required no mention in the new proposal. According to Truax, "everybody agreed that if we didn't keep women's studies purely academic, it would not succeed in the climate in [the College of Liberal Arts] at that time. . . . So we were trying to make sure that women's studies was so damned pure that nobody could doubt for a minute that it wasn't scholarly and worth pursuing."7 The divide between the academic functions of the discipline and the outreach functions of the Women's Center had to be maintained. Truax argued that "we didn't try to bridge that gap. The practical stuff was there and being done and the theoretical stuff was there and being done. And individuals could try to work across [that gap], but the same agency didn't have to try to work across. And I still think it's a very good model."8

One reason that Truax could be so confident in a model of women's studies that severed formal ties to communities beyond the university was the vibrance and strength of women's movement activity in the Twin Cities at the time women's studies was launched at Minnesota. Feminists in this metropolitan area organized around all kinds of issues including health care, abortion referral and counseling, artistic expression, job segregation, elementary school curriculum, welfare rights, childcare, rape, and women's right to credit. The Lesbian Resource Center had its own vibrant program of services. Twin Cities feminists established the nation's first feminist bookstore and the first battered women's shelter. In the midst of all this feminist activism, a stance demanding that women's studies have a community orientation - especially since it would probably guarantee lack of approval by the necessary university committees - would have been foolish. In addition, the Women's Center was well-funded in the early 1970s and its work in the larger Twin Cities community was well known. Neither Truax nor anyone else anticipated the viciousness of the cutbacks faced by the Center as a result of a more conservative administration at the university in the mid 1970s, cutbacks from which it never fully recovered.

Twenty-five years later, we find ourselves in a very different context, one without a visible and vibrant women's movement and one that seems to promote women's studies advocates' isolation from larger communities of women from whom we and our work might benefit. Rarely do we reap significant institutional rewards (or even acknowledgment!) for such activities as part of our professional identity. In other words, now that women's studies is, for the most part, a "legitimate" discipline, that legitimacy demands that we join the rest of the professional world by policing the divide between our activities as professional knowledge producers and "others" without such credentialing, especially at research-oriented colleges and universities.

Given this paradoxical history, we should not be surprised that so many of us express a desire to reach out to communities beyond the campus at the same time such outreach seems uncomfortable and strangely burdensome. It is because women's studies was born of a radical critique of the university and simultaneously sought to make higher education its home that our disciplinary identity is fraught with contradictions, making questioning such distinctions difficult and even dangerous. If, however, we do not ask questions - about the history of our own professionalism, about our own class interests, and about how the cultures and practices to which we become accustomed militate against the mandates of our feminism - we lose the admittedly complex foundation upon which the discipline was built. As the UWL women made clear over twenty-five years ago, women's studies demands that we act on our analyses.


1. Burton Bledstein, The Culture of Professionalism: The Middle Class and the Development of Higher Education in America (New York: Norton, 1976).

2. Jerry Herron, Universities and the Myth of Cultural Decline (Detroit: Wayne State University, 1988).

3. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Alan Sheridan, trans. 2nd ed. (New York: Vintage, 1995).

4. Anne Truax. Personal interview, 1997.

5. WS Committee Minutes 6 Dec. 1972, p.1. Women's Studies Papers (WS). University of Minnesota Archives, Minneapolis, MN.

6. WS Committee Minutes 11 April, 1973, p.1. Women's Studies Papers (WS). University of Minnesota Archives, Minneapolis, MN.

7. Truax.

8. Truax.

For further detail on the women's movement and the establishment of women's studies at the University of Minnesota, see: Becky Swanson Kroll, Rhetoric and Organizing: The Twin Cities Women's Movement, 1969 to 1976 ( Diss., University of Minnesota, 1981); Catherine M. Orr,

Representing Women/Disciplining Feminism: Activism, Professionalism, and Women's Studies (Diss., University of Minnesota, 1998); and Barbara Scott Winkler, A Comparative History of Four Women's Studies Programs, 1970 to 1985 (Diss., University of Michigan, 1993).

[Catherine M. Orr is assistant professor of women's studies at Beloit College in Beloit, Wisconsin. She is a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota and its Center for Advanced Feminist Studies. Her research and teaching focus on feminist theory, popular culture, and international perspectives on feminist knowledge production.]

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