A university focused on science and engineering may not leap to mind when you think of women's studies. Yet MIT is celebrating the 10th anniversary of its Women's Studies Program, bringing its own unique touch to the field, including a focus on how cultural ideals of gender can affect science and technology.
Women's studies was developed at MIT a little over 10 years ago under the guidance of Professor Ruth Perry of the literature section and a small group of devoted faculty. It began as a collection of courses taught in other departments falling under a general category of "new scholarship on women." In 1984 the program opened an office and was listed in the catalog, according to Professor Perry.
"In the early days, students and faculty at MIT were almost unaware of the issues feminists have been dealing with for the last 25 years," said Evelyn Fox Keller, professor of history and philosophy of science and director of the Women's Studies Program. She attributes this lack of awareness to the school's focus on science and engineering and to the relative inattention to scholarship in the humanities and social sciences at the time. The idea that cultural ideals of gender could affect science and technology seems alien to them, she said. Professor Keller has found people at MIT willing to listen, though.
In the 10 years since the inception of the women's studies program, the population at MIT has changed and the Women's Studies Program has grown. The proportion of women in the freshman class has climbed to 40 percent from 29 percent. Women's studies now has 26 affiliated faculty members providing courses to almost 500 students per year. Currently seven students are minoring (taking six courses) in women's studies and 24 are pursuing concentrations (taking at least three courses). The program also offers an opportunity to petition to major in the field, and nine students have graduated from MIT with majors in women's studies.
Women's studies as a discipline is often not well understood. People on the MIT campus and elsewhere often think it provides services to women rather than scholarship about women, according to Professor Perry. Most programs focus on literature and history and seek to incorporate the experiences, perceptions and intellectual contribution of women into existing curricula. MIT's program uses that approach but also includes a focus on the effect of gender ideals on the construction of knowledge in science and technology.
"Women's studies has a unique function in this institution because of the science and technology environment," said Professor Keller, who has a PhD in theoretical physics and was a practicing scientist for many years. Dr. Keller is one of the country's foremost scholars on issues of science and gender. She is a 1992 winner of a MacArthur Fellowship.
"MIT has gathered together some of the nation's leading talent in the area of gender, science and technology, including Evelynn Hammonds and Sherry Turkle," Professor Keller said. "It has the opportunity to launch a major center for research in this field. Women's studies also has the very difficult task of training scientists and engineers, both students and faculty, to examine and analyze assumptions they never even knew they were making."
One of the high points of the program's 10-year history was a three-day conference on pornography held in 1985 in conjunction with Harvard University-right about the time that pornography issues were being brought to the forefront by groups like Women Against Pornography. It included members from the Feminists Against Censorship Task Force as well from the Women Against Pornography group.
"The conference was heated and powerful. It was a real dialogue among opposing feminist views on the subject," Professor Perry said. "People in the community still tell me that that was the beginning of their feminist consciousness."
The sponsorship of conferences is a very important part of the women's studies role, Professor Keller said. It is the balance in the relationship between MIT and community that makes the program what it is-drawing from the community to inform MIT and sharing MIT's scholarship with the community. MIT maintains the region's most extensive listing of meetings, lectures, films and events relating to women's studies, circulating to 2,500 people quarterly, she said. Women studies programming includes minority, religious, and gay and lesbian issues.
The program is also responsible for hosting a number of landmark conferences, including one on Asian women and last January's Black Women in the Academy conference, which brought together for the first time more than 2,000 people to discuss issues affecting black women faculty, students and staff. The program has also organized conferences on women in science, math and cyberspace.
Another highlight, Professor Perry noted, was the establishment of the first women's studies course in the School of Science. The course, reproductive biology, was designed for non-majors and was taught by Professor Nancy Hopkins. It subsequently became a model for the first version of the new Institute requirement in biology, Professor Perry said.
Women's studies scholars at MIT have published the theories of contemporary French feminists and the treatises of eighteenth-century Englishwomen. They have also analyzed how the use of computers does not sufficiently incorporate the expertise of nurses, how the sexual division of labor contributes to the present environmental crisis and how the popular media both perpetuate and undermine ideologies of gender.
"Maintaining a broad-ranging curriculum for our program without our own faculty has not been easy," Professor Perry said. "The commitment of our core group can only stretch so far." This commitment is part of the reason for the success of women's studies at MIT.
"This program has a particularly collegial group of women and men," Professor Keller said. And that, according to Professors Keller and Perry, is what distinguishes the program.
A version of this article appeared in the November 2, 1994 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 39, Number 10).