On Nov. 20, Lehigh’s women, gender and sexuality studies (WGSS) program celebrated 40 years.
The university began admitting women in 1971, and WGSS was created in 1979 when Nancy Alpert-Sisson, ‘79, decided she wanted to minor in women’s studies, but the program did not exist.
Monica Najar, the director of the WGSS program, spoke about the program’s initial goals and how they have changed over time.
“It changed a lot over the years,” Najar said. “When it started, it had a hilariously minuscule budget, with not much institutional support and very few students. Today, we teach a large number of students, and we can offer the introductory course every semester and every semester it fills.”
The program has also expanded to include about 14 affiliated faculty members.
Najar also spoke about the impact that the initial courses have had on Lehigh’s campus.
“Some of the faculty today say that women studies classes were perceived as classes that were going to highlight inequities on the campus, community and world, and I think that they did,’ Najar said. “They recall that not everyone welcomed that. Some people thought these were classes that were designed to encourage discontent, and I’m glad to say that in some ways that is still true. In other ways it’s so much more than that… The piece I am glad to hold on to is being willing to look at and talk about inequality and social justice.”
Najar spoke about the history and the future of the program, and she wished Robin Dillon, a professor of philosophy and the director of the Lehigh University Center for Ethics, well on her retirement.
Suzanne Edwards is an associate professor in the English department, the director of the Humanities Center and a member of the steering committee for the WGSS program.
“This program has been an important part of my career here,” Edwards said. “It’s given me colleagues and students outside the English Department, which has pushed me to think about gender and sexuality.”
Jackie Krasas, an associate professor of sociology, also spoke at the event.
“The crucial importance of WGSS at an institution like Lehigh, which is mostly male and STEM heavy, is that we attract the kind of students that we are always saying we want more (of) at Lehigh,” Krasas said. “I think our classes are full of those students, I think we have a larger impact on the Lehigh community and I enjoy having students from all across the university.”
Ken Grenestedt ’19, is a computer science major and WGSS double major.
“I’m glad that these classes exist, and it’s more than just a club because it legitimizes it,” Grenestedt said. “In many ways people don’t talk about or think about gender or sexuality or social justice issues in STEM fields, so it’s a nice breath of fresh air to be thinking about more than 1s and 0s, and hopefully I’ll be able to benefit from this in my life.”
Krasas concluded the celebration with an uplifting nod to the program’s future.
“It’s my personal happy space,” she said. “Even a bad day is a good day. We have done amazing things, we have had fantastic students, and we have new colleagues coming every year. I can’t wait to see what happens in the next 40 years.”