In 1972, former Dean of Women Alice Low Yee was hired through Continuing Education to establish the Women's Center and facilitate returning women, those attending college at a non-traditional age.
In July of 1977, the campus witnessed the battle between the modern feminist movement and its detractors on a grand scale, when The Washington State Conference on the Status of Women hosted a meeting to elect 24 delegates to the national convention in Houston in November for the observance of International Women's Year. Two thousand church women, including a significant population of Mormon women, surprised local organizers in Ellensburg by showing up without pre-registering. As a result, the 4280 attendees were embattled in 80 workshops. Feminists and Fundamentalists were unable to reach consensus about the controversial women's issues of the day, including the Equal Rights Amendment, affirmative action, and gay and lesbian rights. This cleavage occurred in most of the state conferences, all enacting the nationwide debate about the necessity of reforms called for by the women's liberation movement. Despite the inability of the delegates to reach agreement on key issues, 23 of the 24 delegates elected by the Conference were strong proponents of the rights of women. They represented Washington State at the national conference in Houston and together with delegates from across the nation, effectively agreed upon a final plan of action, which was presented to President Jimmy Carter.
The state conference held on the Central campus was an historical event, both from a standpoint of history and for the women who participated. For many delegates, involvement was a life-changing experience. Many of them, attending with their mothers and daughters, saw impact on three generations of family members, carrying away pride in shaping the social platform for the nation.
A campus and community outcry over the phase-out of Yee's job resulted, in 1978, of Education Professor Dr. Madge Young's assignment to supervise two separate sets of feminist goals: in the classroom, or the women's studies program, and extra-curricular women's programs, or the women's resource center. In 1982, a dire era of budget cuts, the 67 women professors also united to deal with cutbacks, salary inequities, promotion problems, and lack of access to important committee assignments. Education professor Dr. Dorothy Sheldon took on the same dual responsibilities; from 1982-87, Sheldon regularly offered a women's studies class and also advised student feminist activities such as workshops in self-defense, self-esteem, math anxiety, eating disorders, and awareness of violence against women. Not until the late 1980s was the extracurricular component for women structurally separated from the academic realm, with the hiring of the Women's Resource Center director, Linda Ruffer.
During the 1970s, the campus responded to the feminist call for curricular changes, in recognition of women's call for attention to their contributions to the disciplines. Women's curricular invisibility began to be rectified with courses addressing women's issues. Among the faculty who were proponents of women's studies courses were Dr. Anne Denman in Anthropology, Dr. Jack Dugan and Dr. Laura Appleton in Sociology, Lois Owen in Economics, and Dr. Usha Mahajani in Political Science, who developed courses addressing women's issues in the 1970s. In 1974, an interdisciplinary "Male-Female Perspectives" course included professors with expertise on women in the fields of biology, psychology, anthropology, sociology, history, literature, civil rights and the world of work. Campus-wide budget cuts in the late 1970s prevented financial growth for women's programs, but by 1980, there was a sufficient variety of courses regularly taught that the women's studies minor was put on the books.
With Dorothy Sheldon's retirement from CWU in 1987, the women's studies advisory board of faculty, staff, undergraduate and graduate women undertook a fresh examination of the interdisciplinary program. Anne Denman, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and Joan Mosebar, Dean of the School of Business and Economics, provided a transition until a new faculty director assumed leadership of the program. From the English department came Dr. Christine Sutphin to direct the Women's Studies program in 1991, and from Political Science, Dr. Bang-Soon Yoon, who directed it from 1994-2007 (with Sociology professor Dr. Hong Xiao assuming leadership during Yoon's 2001 sabbatical). Cynthia Coe, in the Philosophy and Religious Studies department, became director in 2007. Judith Hennessy, in the Department of Sociology, became the interim director beginning in Spring of 2014.
Over its twenty-year history, the program has helped to sponsor significant events on campus, including
- Colonel Marguerite Cammermeyer, who was court-martialed in 1992 for coming out as a lesbian
- Yoon-Soo Lee, a survivor of Japanese sexual slavery ("comfort women") during WWII
- The annual Margaret Mead Traveling Film Festival - an event with particular resonance for CWU, since Margaret Mead visited the campus in 1966.
- Women's History Month in March has hosted guest speakers including Dr. Susan Starbuck of Antioch University, Dr. Mary Murphy of Montana State University, Dr. Susan Armitage of Washington State University, Dr. Sandra Schackel of Idaho State University, Dr. Patricia Schechter of Portland State University, Dr. Kathleen Kennedy of Western Washington University, Dr. Ellen DuBois of UCLA, Dr. Judith Raftery of California State University/Chico, Dr. Shirley Yee of University of Washington, and MacArthur Award winners Dr. Mari Jo Buhle of Brown University and Dr. Suzanne Lebsock of the University of Washington.
- "Women's Votes, Women's Voices, 1910-2010": the Suffrage Centennial Celebration of 2009-2010 honors the 100th anniversary of women having the right to vote in Washington state with a yearlong series of events centered on the achievements and experiences of women.
In 2012, we officially became the Women's and Gender Studies program, as a reflection of our broad study of gender, including queer studies and masculinity studies.
Compiled by Karen Blair, updated by Cindy Coe