by Barbara Stambaugh
When Joan Straumanis, Ann Fitzgerald, and Peggy Gifford '75 arrived at Denison back in the '70s, they knew something was missing. So the three women launched the Women's Studies Program, and it all began with a small slip of yellow paper.
Ann Fitzgerald (far left) and Joan Straumanis (right) began Denison’s Women’s Studies Program back in 1972 with the help of Peggy Gifford ’75 (below). They all came back to campus last October for a reunion and conference, “About a Decade: 1972-1984.” For three days, former and current faculty joined former and cur- rent students to remember the early days of women’s studies and to discuss the current cli- mate for women at Denison.
Let’s go back a bit. if you weren’t there or, as they say, you were but can’t remember it, here’s a refresher–the year 1971 was complicated. Walter Cronkite’s newscasts sounded like this: Helter Skelter, Weather Underground, Fillmore East, Vietnam, Pentagon Papers, Bangladesh, Northern Ireland, D.B. Cooper, Gloria Steinem, Richard Nixon, riots, protests, consciousness-raising.
It was a lot to think about–some of it thrilling, a lot of it terrifying. And against that chaotic backdrop, a few people at Denison were also paying close attention to what was not happening. We take it for granted now, but 40 years ago, the academic discipline of women’s studies pretty much didn’t exist. Two colleges–one in San Diego and one in Buffalo–had started programs the year before. But just about everywhere else, the landscape was bleak for the study of society, politics, art, history, and literature through a woman’s perspective.
Someone had to step up, think it through, take the heat, and get it done.
It’s oversimplifying it to say that three women were responsible for what became a dramatic curricular and social change at Denison that also impacted the entire country, but it’s also true. Two professors–Joan Straumanis, philosophy, and Ann Fitzgerald, English– and one student, Peggy Gifford, lit the fire, fanned it, and made sure it spread.
Straumanis was hired in 1971. She was introduced at her first faculty meeting as “a real feminist hell-raiser,” which she saw as something to live up to. But it wouldn’t be easy for her. “Denison was like a desert,” she says. “There was no activity that you could call ‘feminist.’ I was the only female faculty member with children at that time. And it was hardly habitable for me. There were so many things I needed that I didn’t have. Support. Daycare. Understanding. It wasn’t women’s studies that first year. It was telling the faculty this new word– ‘feminism.’” But Straumanis, who recently retired as the director of a neuroscience and learning program at the National Science Foundation, has a saying: “A critical mass is two. If you have two people with an important idea … that’s enough.”
That necessary partnership was created when Fitzgerald arrived in 1972. She had been active in what she calls “the radical wing of the feminist movement” during grad school at the University of Wisconsin. While there, she helped create one of the nation’s first-ever women’s studies courses. So she arrived at Denison with an interest and growing level of expertise, but no agenda. “It wasn’t that I came in gung ho–’I'm going to create a Women’s Studies Department.’ No such hubris.”
As it turned out, it was a student who ultimately set the change in motion. When Fitzgerald walked into her new office, she found a little yellow note that had been slid under the door. It was from Peggy Gifford, then a sophomore, and read, “Thank goodness they hired a feminist. Would you be willing to do a directed study this term with me and my friends?”
Fitzgerald’s response was pretty much, Hell, yes.
“I wish I still had that note,” Fitzgerald says. “Peggy is so modest that she won’t say this, but she ignited the whole scene.”