THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“It took a while for everybody to find a place. An organization that’s inclusive is inclusive of everybody.”
Interviewed by Judy Waxman, January 2022
SK: My name is Sally Kitch. I was born in Baltimore, Maryland.
JW: So the first question really is to tell us a little bit about your childhood, the influences on you that really led you to be who you are. And we’re interested, certainly, in women’s issues. That’s what this is about.
SK: I would say that my mother considered herself a feminist in a kind of negative way. She was certainly for women’s rights. She paid her dues to the National Organization of Women, as things developed over the years; she supported Planned Parenthood. In fact, her obstetrician had been Alan Guttmacher, a co-founder of Planned Parenthood. So I knew from an early age that she was supportive.
She was a college graduate, with a journalism major. She wanted to work in journalism; but she got out of college during the Depression, and there were no such jobs, especially for women. (She was bitter about that.) So, she ended up working for the government in Baltimore, where the Social Security Administration was being formed in the 1930s.
And that’s how she met my father. She was from Texas, so she came a long way on her own. She was independent in her own way. After my older sister was born, she worked for a year while a neighbor looked after the baby. But my parents decided she should stay home after that. I was born four years later and my brother (an accident) 18 months after that. She really hated being a housewife. She made that clear. I didn’t like that she hated being a housewife because it meant she didn’t like to be with me or devote her life to me. But, of course, when I grew up, I understood it.
She was mad that she couldn’t get a job in journalism. She was aware that women didn’t have as many opportunities as men did. I wouldn’t say it was like strident or anything. And she wasn’t active necessarily, didn’t go to meetings or volunteer. But I knew about her attitudes. I would also say that a big influence on me was my father, who was very supportive of me and my accomplishments. I was a very good student, and he liked that. He had been a very good student himself, and I skipped a grade like he did (he skipped 2, actually). So we had our love of learning and intellectual curiosity in common.
Both of my parents were politically liberal, so they supported the expansion of rights for everyone and believed in the power of the state to do good—to provide for the general welfare. My father was raised in poverty, so he knew first hand how the New Deal created opportunities for the poor. He was instrumental in designing Social Security.
As I was growing up and getting educated, I felt like a bright young man. I didn’t know that there was going to be a difference in the world I encountered because I was female. I mean, I had my mother over here complaining; but was my idea that I was never going to be her. I guess I blamed her a little for not having the career she envisioned. And then I had my father over there being supportive; and I thought, well, I’m going to be like him.
I dated boys and fell in love. I thought I would get married someday, but that wasn’t my ambition. And I didn’t come from a family that said, “Hey, who are you going to marry and when?” They were totally disinterested in any of that. My job was to go to college and do well and shape my life. So, I think that set me up to feel like an independent person or even to be an independent person, but I had no idea how to reconcile that with being loved and having a family.
JW: And was there a different treatment to your siblings?
SK: Well, not really. We were all expected to do household chores. My sister and I took over the cooking when I was 12 (and she 16), mostly because our mother wasn’t a very good cook. She also went back to work when I was 11 to help put my father through law school, so cooking had become a difficult chore for her. After my sister left home for college when I was 14, I was more dedicated to chores than my brother was. But no one said, Oh, he’s a boy so he shouldn’t have to do housework.
The biggest issue, which was a kind of reversal of the usual, was the fact that my brother wasn’t a great student, and my parents worried about him. In some ways that was a reflection of his resentment of me. Because we were so close in age, he followed me in school and was expected to live up to my reputation as an A student. That bothered him a lot. Maybe I resented him at some level because I didn’t get to be a baby. My mother got pregnant with him when I was nine months old, and she didn’t want a third child. She told me that she tried to get an abortion but couldn’t. I hope she never told that to my brother.
So I think in a way I didn’t notice differences from treatment in my family, except that he didn’t do the household chores he was supposed to and I ended up having to do them. And my father didn’t do much of anything around the house. But I didn’t really notice that.
JW: So then I interrupt your flow. So you are moving on to then you went to college. I think that’s where you were going.
SK: I went to college where I was an English major. I started out to major in art and architecture but quickly decided that wasn’t going to college. That was sitting in studios and making stuff. I wanted to take biology, political science, history, literature, and philosophy. I was deeply interested in those subjects (in part because I had had such a good high school education in those subjects), and the studio focus kept me from enrolling in those classes, beyond requirements. I quickly changed into liberal arts. I eventually became an English major, and was accepted into the honors program. I loved art, though, and so I took a lot of art history.
I almost had a double major in English and art, but Cornell didn’t allow you to have double majors. I did well, very well, and worked hard (that was my job, as I saw it). I made Phi Beta Kappa. That’s what I was there for. I had lots of friends and enjoyed myself and participated in a lot of activities (I was elected president of my dorm in freshman year, e.g.). But I was a serious student and I knew I wanted to go to graduate school. I’m still in the clouds, though, meaning that I didn’t recognize myself as a woman in terms of my prospects for high achievement. I went to the University of Chicago because it offered my best chance for interdisciplinary graduate work (I was also accepted a Columbia). And though I wasn’t looking, the first week I was there, I met the man I ultimately married.
JW: But you weren’t yet aware of the women’s movement, women’s issues?
SK: I was beginning to become aware at that point because, when we graduated from college and I entered graduate school, that’s when feminist awareness was spreading to the formerly clueless like myself.
JW: So that was in very late 60s.
SK: Late 60s, right. Very late 60s. And I remember hesitating about – well, I didn’t want to get married. That’s another whole long story.
SK: But I was a very reluctant bride, and I’m not sure exactly how it all happened. I was hesitant about marriage from the point of view of commitment, I think, more than anything else. But my fiancé, my boyfriend at that time, was in the law school; and his roommate also had a girlfriend who was in law school. So, when we announced our engagement, she said, “Oh, you’re going to get married. You think you should do that now in light of women’s liberation?”
And I thought I should probably think about this. But it was small thinking. It wasn’t big thinking like, “Hmm, I’m not going to do this for that reason.” There are other reasons not to do it. I can think of a lot of other reasons not to do it. So, I didn’t need that reason. But anyway, I did it. And P.S., she got married the next year. They’re still married and we’re good friends.
The really transformative experience for me was being pregnant, which didn’t happen till four years after I was married. I was already teaching in college and knew very well the women’s movement was happening. But we did want to have a child, so I got pregnant, thinking I could just add a baby to the equation without changing much of my life or career. But being pregnant is what introduced me to the fact that I really wasn’t a bright young man and that no one saw me that way. I was appalled that people communicated with me with their eyes on my stomach, basically. And since I was having twins, it was a very big stomach; and I was a very little girl.
People also didn’t hesitate to put their hands on my belly, and I wondered why they didn’t see that gesture in terms of touching me. It was as if I had disappeared and the fetus(es) were separate from me. I thought, “What’s going on here? This is just too weird.” Because my belly was so large (I stuck out 18 inches from my hip bones by the time those babies were born), people followed me around on the streets and said, “Should you be out?” It was really amazing.
I also remember the day when the reality of childcare hit me. Tom’s just older brother lived near us, and they had two little girls. One day they asked me to take care of them for the day. Well, I was pregnant, and I had taken some time off. It’s a good thing because I couldn’t have continued teaching as I was accustomed to. After a couple of hours with the girls, I realized I was bored out of my skull. I thought, “Yeah, you play a few minutes. Okay, now what do we do?”
My father-in-law, who also lived near us, dropped by, knowing that I had his granddaughters there. He wanted to visit them. By this time I was in muumuus. I’m not kidding. I mean, there was just like almost nothing I could wear. I’m sitting on the couch in my muumuu, and they’re playing on the floor doing something. He said, “Oh, I’m so jealous. I wish I could spend my days taking care of these little children.” And I thought, “You’re full of crap. You don’t want to spend your days taking care of these kids.”
JW: Maybe one or two.
SK: Yeah, maybe a day a month or something. But as your full-time job? I knew he was just doing this romanticized motherhood thing. I got really angry. I didn’t say anything to him; but inside I thought, “Wow, this is what I’m facing. People are going to think that’s my new identity, my new personhood.” That was really astonishing to me. The other thing that happened while I was pregnant is the first issue of Ms. Magazine came out. I got a subscription to Ms. Magazine.
I remember reading Ms. Magazine in the bathtub one day. This was in January, before I had these babies in June. I was just blown away. I thought, “Oh, my God, I get it. I totally get it. My life is about to change. My identity is about to change.” All of this is something I never thought would happen. I thought I would just have a baby, put him on my back, and I would go about my business doing everything I always did. Well, of course, it wasn’t at all like that. But that awareness happened for me, luckily.
I had been teaching English at this university, and my friends and colleagues were interested in starting a women’s studies program. They asked me to teach in it. None of us knew anything. I mean, I was not any less informed than my colleagues who were thinking of doing this. After my epiphany and having my babies, I was going to go back to work the next academic year. (I conveniently had them in June, and then I went back to work in August.) I can’t remember if I was going to help design and teach a course in the following fall or spring, but I was eager to do it. I said, “Yeah, I’ll do it, I’ll do it.”
I started reading and finding books and figuring out the syllabus. My colleagues and I talked a little bit; but, actually, each of us was pretty much on our own. The process just opened up a world of intellectual inquiry and purpose. Not that I didn’t already have purpose. I was very committed to writing and the concept of writing. In fact, I was in the midst of creating a writing textbook with a colleague.
But women’s studies opened up a whole new area of inquiry, and I felt like a pioneer. When I met with the first students, I realized how hungry we all were for information about and analysis of women’s lives and the significance of gender to every aspect of social and cultural organization. (I’ve written about this early experience in a recently published article: “Forged in Fire: Constructing Women’s Studies Knowledge for Social Engagement,” Signs “Feminist Frictions” Series (May 2022). http://signsjournal.org/kitch/).
JW: What year was that?
SK: That was 1973, I think. I was just totally captivated by this. Our students were so interesting and interested. We were inventing this as we went along, and our classrooms were just bulging with students. I do remember that in the first days we discovered our classrooms were way too small, and we would have students sitting on the floor all around the edges. Finally, they were getting to talk about stuff that really mattered to their lives. I was all in it and just trying to figure out how to make the whole thing work.
Fortunately, for various reasons, the dean of the college of liberal arts and sciences, which housed the English department, was extremely supportive of developing a women’s studies program. After we taught women’s studies courses for a few years, the English department was happy because our enrollments were so great. It wasn’t completely comfortable remaining in the English department for various reasons, though, so our dean decided that we should become a department.
Now, even today, there are not very many departments, tenure granting units, for women’s studies in the United States. Even now, 40 years later, faculty in these programs in many places basically volunteer to do the teaching. The director might have a salary for it, but the faculty is borrowed from other places. Women’s studies programs remain unstable.
Making women’s studies programs into departments became a kind of mission for me, after I saw what a difference it made to be a tenure-granting unit rather than one borrowing or jointly appointing faculty across units. Later when I went to Ohio State, I helped transform the Women’s Studies Center into a tenure granting department. You couldn’t be a tenure unit unless you were a department according to Ohio state law.
JW: Let me interrupt you a second before we leave your first experience. What was the first women’s studies class you taught? You’re in the English department you said. Do you remember what the class was?
SK: I think we just called that first class Women in Society. Later, when I got tenure and began chairing the department, we decided that title was too generic. We divided it into a humanities version and a social science version. We called the humanities version Women in Society: Cultural Images and Women in Society: Social Issues. Not that they didn’t overlap; they certainly did overlap. In Cultural Images, we looked at literary and cultural representations, films, advertising, etc.—the way that the concept of womanhood is constructed in culture, which impinges, of course, on the way these issues play themselves out.
JW: Right. But then you didn’t do other things like economics?
SK: Social Issues did include economics—the wage gap, employment discrimination, the fact that GDP did not include unpaid domestic labor. We all had specializations, but we were devoted to interdisciplinary inquiry. That’s one of the things that being a separate department allowed us to do. So our department consisted of – it was small – our three English people, art history. I think we did get a political scientist. We got somebody in social work at one point. Those are their degrees, but they had full-time jobs in women’s studies.
I’ve been part of the movement in academia to say that women’s studies is an interdiscipline and that you can’t really address the things that matter to women or capture the concept of gender unless you defy disciplinary barriers around what you’re doing. A lot of programs do a hybrid version, like they’ll have cross-listed faculty that will do history and economics and politics and other discipline-based pursuits plus an interdisciplinary faculty that teaches introductory conceptual and theoretical courses (e.g., Introduction to Feminist Thought), capstone courses, and courses that can’t be adequately covered within disciplines, such as Motherhood, or Sexual Violence.
I have been an advocate for interdisciplinarity as a research strategy as well as a pedagogical strategy. My own background, even including my art and English focus at Cornell, is interdisciplinary. I have two interdisciplinary degrees, basically. My BA counts as well, because I wanted to put together art history and literature in a particular way. So, I had the instinct of interdisciplinary.
JW: What would some of the courses be? Well, let’s stay with Ohio State, I guess. What would some of the courses be that were in your department?
SK: Well, in those days, all programs had introductory courses, something like Women in Society. Those introduced the field and helped students see that gender is central to all aspects of the world they live in. Our courses asked how is womanhood constructed? How can women live their lives within these constructions? How can those constraints be changed? And what are the implications for living as a woman in our society and all around? What issues (war, politics, economics, class and racial status) are implicitly gendered? How might those be addressed?
At Ohio State, we had a hybrid model both before and after we became a department. We had full-time faculty, of which I was one. When we became a department, we were able to hire five additional faculty with tenure homes in women’s studies. And then we had faculty who were jointly appointed in other units. Among them were people in film, history, art history, rural sociology, and nursing. Among the full-time faculty we had expertise in feminist theory (including me), women’s history, cultural studies, political science and economics, sociology, black studies and black feminism, and literature.
We didn’t call our courses by the names of the disciplines but rather by the issues or questions they addressed, including feminism, sexuality, and the intersection of racial, gender, and sexual identities. In addition, we had affiliated faculty who worked with graduate students. When I arrived at OSU in 1992, we already had a master’s program. While I was chair of the department, we developed a PhD program as well, a process that required a lot of scrutiny from deans, committees, and the provost. I’m happy to say that Ohio State’s PhD program is still one of the best ones in the country.
I have been especially interested in graduate education in the field throughout my career. My colleagues at OSU agreed that a field isn’t really a field unless it trains doctoral students. So we knew from that start that we wanted to develop a PhD program right after becoming a department. That process also required many steps and approvals. At OSU we had such stellar scholars affiliated with our department that that wasn’t very hard to demonstrate the importance and the integrity of what we were doing and why it mattered academically.
I’ve actually participated in developing two PhD programs in women’s studies – at Ohio State and then at Arizona State, although the degree design was already underway when I got to Arizona State.
JW: Right. I wonder if you have a memorable experience of either resistance or when you thought there might be and there wasn’t.
SK: Well, the Ohio State experience was interesting. The first resistance came from the acting provost, who happened to be a woman. Her idea of teaching women’s studies was through standard disciplines; in her case, sociology. She couldn’t imagine why there needed to be a department of women’s studies instead of just studying about women in different existing disciplines without any assessment or critique of those disciplines or departures from them.
We believed that the critique of disciplines and their boundaries was a necessary process in developing new knowledge about women, gender, and sexuality. Indeed, disciplinary boundaries were a real obstacle to understanding gender dynamics, hierarchies, constraints, and ideologies. It was obvious that gendered experiences like motherhood, for example, could not be studied through psychology or physiology alone. Motherhood is so clearly shaped by religious values, family dynamics, individual emotions and values, and a host of other factors that no single discipline can capture. We had to wait until she stopped being [provost] because it would not have done to create a head-on collision between the women’s studies project and the woman provost.
JW: I guess not.
SK: The fallout from that would have been very destructive. So, we bided our time and got our ducks in a row. Oh, by the way, the president of Ohio State at the time, Gordon Gee, was very supportive of our doing this, in part, because his wife when he first came to Ohio State, before I got there, had been affiliated with women’s studies and did work on women and gender in her field. I forgot — psychology, I think. Unfortunately, she died of breast cancer the year before I came to OSU.
Gee donated money to a fund named for his wife, Elizabeth Gee, intended to support women’s studies research. As head of Women’s Studies, I administered that fund, which funded grants available to faculty around the university. That was very cool. Gee’s support for departmental status was very important, but there were other levels to go through as well. I’ve already mentioned the Provost level, which was challenging. Luckily, the division of Humanities in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences also housed a very well established and respected African/African American studies department that had formed in the late 60s – which is when most of those programs were formed – before most women’s studies programs were established. So, at the college level the administration could not really protest a parallel department for women’s studies.
SK: It was a little bit hard for them to say, “Oh, well, it wouldn’t belong here or it isn’t quite right.” So that level wasn’t too bad. But the provost level was “foreign territory,” in a way, as it included a committee composed of faculty throughout the university that vetted all requests for department status or new majors or anything like that. I would say that when we began the process maybe four or five of the eight or nine committee members were supportive, but the rest of them needed persuading.
One of them, a professor of physics, absolutely started out thinking, “This is a non-starter. There is no way this is going to happen.” So, my job was to figure out how to persuade this physicist. We didn’t do science then (apart from health science). We later hired a historian of science, philosopher of science.
SK: It was my job to figure out how to persuade this guy. In consultation with my colleagues, of course, we decided that the best thing to do was persuade him of the quality of the scholarship that we were producing. He took his job seriously. After we presented him with the lists of publications, he read every single thing we gave him; plus, he went to the library and found previous books we might have written and previous articles we’d written. He did his homework.
When it was over, he became our biggest supporter. It was fabulous to have him as an ally because he was a good spokesperson. And having been through the whole process himself of going from no to yes, he was able to speak to other people’s stated or unstated objections. There was more vetting yet to be done because then it had to go to the university senate, which was composed of student and faculty representatives, for some reason.
I can’t quite remember how it all worked. But I remember sitting at this big meeting. There must have been 150 people in the room. I’m at a table with my college’s dean. Maybe the provost, was there, too, and the president. The president is presenting our proposal for departmental status, which had been approved at every level, and saying, “This is great. It’s about time. It’s happened all over the country. This is a fabulous program. Blah, blah, blah, blah.” Then my physicist colleague stands up and says similar stuff. The dean supports it. And, of course, I spoke. Then the only objection came from a student. The student was obviously some deeply conservative, a women’s place was in the home sort of person.
JW: Male or female person?
SK: Male. Maybe there was a religious tinge too. God says this is what should happen. So he spoke for a few minutes. The room was kind of silent. And after he finished making his objections, Gordon Gee said, “That was the stupidest thing I ever heard.” Now, university presidents are not supposed to talk like that. But after he said it, he offered no apologies. They took the vote and our proposal passed.
JW: Apparently, I could see that no other student raised their hand. I get that. But then there were no, I mean, it was a time of protest, but there were no protests about it or anything?
SK: You have to realize this is already in the ‘90s.
JW: Oh that was already in the ‘90s? Okay.
SK: Women’s Studies as a Center at OSU had been established back in the ‘80s or late ‘70s. It was already flourishing and well respected. The issue was becoming a tenure-granting unit called a department. That meant recognizing that women’s studies was a legitimate field, like psychology or chemistry.
JW: Oh, I see. Okay.
SK: It had been a Center for all those years. Then when I was hired, the idea was everybody was ready to go for department status, realizing it was going to be a little bit of a struggle. So that was part of my brief, to get that done.
JW: So again, I wonder what kind of courses. I mean, you mentioned economics and literature; but could you be a little more specific? What did you teach?
SK: Well, I only taught graduate courses by then. I was chair of the department, which I was for eight years, which is a long stretch. I only taught one graduate course per year. It was a course I invented called Introduction to Graduate Studies in Women’s Studies. My colleagues and I agreed that some socialization into the field as we defined it was essential, since our M.A. students (and later PhD students) were coming to us from all kinds of backgrounds.
People could have undergraduate degrees in women’s studies with wildly different preparation. Unlike some fields, there was no rule in women’s studies about what you had to read, what you had to know. So, I organized my course around the things that I’d seen as kind of fault lines in graduate studies. I recognized that many of the questions students came in with were epistemological questions. I wanted to help them think about, for example – and this is something I’m still writing about, really – the relationship between experience and knowledge, or identity and knowledge.
Just because you’ve experienced something, does that mean you really know something about it? If you’re a Black woman, is there some expertise or special knowledge that comes along with that? If so, what would it be? How could you identify it? Can people from outside of a particular identity contribute to knowledge-making about that identity? Those kinds of questions. And then I organized a course around trying to answer those questions, including readings and activities.
Also, when I stopped being chair, I had a few years, blissful years, as just a full professor of women’s studies, doing my thing. I taught maybe three courses a year, because pretty soon I was roped into another administrative role, which came with a course release. Did I teach that course still? I don’t think so, because I encouraged the new chair to do it, like, “You should do this so you establish a relationship with these students.”
We also had a kind of division between what we called representation, the ways that gender was represented in culture, and a materialist approach, focusing on what we once called issues. The word issues had gone out of fashion, but the idea was that material conditions are what create gender and racial hierarchies and distinctions. I taught the representation graduate course because of my humanities background, representation having to do with the models and concepts of womanhood that have cultural and social power and shape people’s behavior and material conditions. I also taught the capstone course that we had for senior majors. It was a way of reviewing everything that they learned in being a major and putting it together in various ways.
I liked to lead students into applying their knowledge to real world situations, challenging them to think about how to make social and cultural change. I remember one student did a great job (I had wonderful students, always) on the breast cancer campaigns, particularly the marches with all the pink ribbons. She did a wonderful job of unpacking the messages that were implicit in those campaigns, including the message that your breasts were the most important part of you. That message was, ironically, juxtaposed to a situation where women were going to lose their breasts. She did a wonderful job of showing how this contradiction worked in culture and then how men’s presence made the importance of breasts to a woman’s identity become the core of the campaign.
JW: To raise money and research. Which is kind of interesting, isn’t it?
JW: Publicists came up with the thought that that was what was going to get attention. Interesting.
SK: I think that’s why it gets attention.
SK: Even though heart disease kills more women than breast cancer.
SK: But we don’t do anything about women’s heart disease.
JW: I would like to go back to the beginning of your women’s studies because some other programs, as you said, were starting around the country. And I wondered if the leaders of different groups talk to each other. Did you have any kind of association or meetings or anything?
SK: Oh, yes. In 1977, the National Women’s Studies Association was formed. I went to the first meeting in San Francisco with a colleague and mostly watched, just to see what was going to happen, to see what sorts of things were going to emerge. And I’ve been a member of that organization ever since. I’m writing about it right now, based on a big research project about what was actually presented at these meetings over 40 years (see previous reference). It’s been an enormous undertaking.
That organization had all kinds of growing pains. A lot of them were over differences in sexuality and race. At one point in the ‘80s, the organization almost collapsed because of racial tensions and issues surrounding racial inclusion. Finally, the organization started having women of color leadership, which helped a lot in framing the questions and topics that needed to be addressed. Because I was a department or center head for 12 years, I also attended a sub-conference of such leaders over that time. I especially enjoyed those meetings because we could grapple with common concerns, both in terms of academic administration and of program contents.
Every year NWSA had conferences, except after the blow up over race and in 2020, because of Covid. But otherwise, we’ve gotten together in various cities over all these years.
I was a big advocate for having our meetings in hotels in big cities rather than at universities. The organizations started out meeting at universities. Well, there were two bad things about that. One was the accommodations were atrocious. I mean, who wants to be in a dorm when you don’t have to? And secondly, because I thought being in such familiar environments gave people permission not to behave very well. I thought that being in a city, in a hotel, that they would act better.
JW: What do you mean? How did they not act well?
SK: Well, there was a lot of what we eventually started calling trashing going on in the early days. This has been a problem in the women’s movement and in women’s studies, I would say. I think the cause is that people who are earnestly trying to make things better are easier targets than the real obstacles—the people who don’t think what you’re doing is valuable. So, instead of going after the real problem you turn all your attention to differences between advocates for whatever cause you’re fighting for. That way you don’t have to do the harder work of going outside and actually fighting for equality and inclusion and social justice.
My experience in women’s studies makes me think there’s a temptation in human groups to just do that, turn on each other. That’s not to say that there weren’t real conflicts. For example, lesbians felt that some people in the field had doubts about whether lesbians were helping or hurting feminism. I think it was Betty Friedan who called them the Lavender Menace. Somebody in the early days. But those words emerged. The truth is that it was hard for field founders to be inclusive, when their whole experience had been skewed towards people like themselves. It takes some training to think beyond yourself and your own background.
Another internal conflict surrounded the wholehearted inclusion of women of color, countering the idea that feminism was a white woman’s thing. People questioned if there was a difference between womanism and feminism? Was there such a thing as a Black feminist? And what about a Latina feminism? In my research, I discovered a paper presented at NWSA in the late ‘70s that asked, “Can the Latina be a feminist”? “And what is a feminist anyway?” “And if you wear pantyhose, are you a feminist?”
Petty little things like that question emerged along with more substantive concerns as growing pains for this organization. It took a while for everybody to find a place and create an organization inclusive of everybody—married mothers, lesbians, trans women, and people of all races, ethnicities, and religions under a very big tent. So there have been these tensions in women’s studies.
And I think you could say there are those tensions in the women’s movement. There were certainly those tensions in the suffrage movement, as we know. I mean, the whole history of feminism is just rife with controversies between the women themselves, never mind what was going on.
Now my faculty position is in women’s studies, but I do other things at the same time. I mean, my research and my teaching is primarily focused on women and gender. (I haven’t done much teaching lately because of my current position). I’ve pretty much specialized in graduate education in the field.
But I came to ASU to found and direct an institute for humanities research. I did that for ten years and decided I wanted to start something I called the Humanities Lab, where we bring interdisciplinary teaching with humanities focus on social issues. Students develop what we call action outcomes where they actually do something instead of write papers or take exams.
JW: I love that.
SK: And if you’re interested in that, I can give you the website you could go look at. (https://humanities.lab.asu.edu/about)
JW: I would be. Well, let me just ask this kind of conclusory question. How would you say those early years, I’ll call it click because I know in the original Ms. Magazine I read about the click and got it myself. So I can see professionally how it had you focus in a whole way you probably didn’t think of when you were a child. What would you add to the professional effects of that Ms. Magazine on you personally and professionally?
SK: Well, as I said, I read it while I was pregnant and already feeling like my life was over, my independent life was over, and that my identity was going to be taken from me just by the virtue of this role. By the way, I love having my children and I love my children desperately and dearly. So it didn’t undermine that. But I guess it did make me wary and less sure about how to blend all these parts of myself.
I was still very young, and so I wouldn’t say I was formed. I may not be formed even yet, but I have a lot of experiences under my belt at this point. But it gave me a voice, is what I think that Ms. Magazine did. It gave me a vocabulary, and it gave me a way of talking about my feelings, of recognizing my feelings, identifying them and talking about them, and then the opportunity to turn that into a professional life. The timing was just so perfect. The timing was so perfect because I had these things on my mind and I was struggling with them.
Having twins is not a picnic in terms of child rearing. Then when you go back to work when they’re three months old and you’re still nursing them, it’s a struggle. I guess it was the next year that I did the teaching, because they were born in ’72, so [it was] ’73 when I started doing the women’s studies. So, I was kind of in the same kind of turmoil that a lot of women were.
But we were giving a name to what we were feeling, and we were beginning to inquire about that and trying to come up with answers. We hoped to understand where the problems were and why they were there and to separate our emotional states from the state of the world, because they were very intertwined. There were a lot of guilt feelings and feelings of inadequacy along with inflated expectations about what we could accomplish. I embraced it all wholly. And I do think that magazine issue was very inspiring, upsetting and reassuring at the same time. I had a sisterhood and I never had thought about that before.
JW: Are there any other things you’d like to add before we close?
SK: I’m going to say one thing that follows from the struggle to figure out who you’re supposed to be in this feminist era. When my babies were a year, maybe 13 to 14 months old, my colleagues, who either didn’t have children or whose children were much older, and I were supposed to go to a conference. We were going to drive to this conference.
They wanted to leave at 7:00 in the morning. Well, 7:00 came and went and I just couldn’t leave. I mean, I was dealing with the babies, the babysitter, and trying to get everything organized. I was going to be gone overnight, which was maybe the first time since they’d been born that I was going to be gone overnight. I had my husband’s blessing and all that, but it was just difficult.
I remember that one of them, the one without children, called me and said, “Are you ready?” And I said, “You know, I am not ready. This has happened. That’s happened. I’m not going to be ready for another hour.” She said, “Oh no, we can’t wait that long. We’ll be late for this thing or that thing.” And I said, “Wait – give me a break.”
She said, “Look, either you want to go and take care of your professional life or you don’t.” I felt like killing her. I wondered how uncaring could you be about me as a person? We’re friends. But I saw how her experience of total control over all parts of her life and my experience of like one percent control over my life – she just couldn’t fathom it.
JW: She couldn’t get it. “What are you doing there?”
SK: Yeah. “What could you possibly be doing? Just say goodbye. It’s time to go.” And she couldn’t understand the complexity and turmoil of my life with these two babies!