In 2012, Columbia University’s Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality (IRWGS) celebrated its 25th anniversary. As part of that celebration, the Institute decided to record its history by collaborating with the Columbia Center for Oral History Research (CCOHR) to collect interviews with 36 individuals—scholars, administrators, and students—who have been involved with the organization since its founding in 1987. Using oral history methodology, the project allows its narrators to reflect on their lives and experiences in their own voices—symbolically significant to the women who struggled to build careers in fields that habitually denied them that right, even within the walls of their own academic institutions. The Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality Oral History Collection is available for research at the Columbia Center for Oral History Archives, and a finding aid is now available to help researchers explore the interviews.
In this collection, you’ll come across the voice of Patricia Williams, who was one of only ten black women in her Harvard Law School graduating class. You’ll listen to Gayatri Spivak, who earned her bachelor’s degree at 17, was tenured at 28, and became the first woman of color to achieve the title of University Professor, the highest faculty rank at Columbia. You’ll find Robert Hanning, who allied himself with his female colleagues and boldly chose to publicize his salary to illustrate the gender inequity of faculty pay. You’ll find Lila Abu-Lughod, who strove to internationalize feminist conversations with her renowned post-9/11 essay, “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?” You’ll find Greg Pflugfelder, whose pioneering focus on sexuality studies and queer history helped broaden the intersectionality of IRWGS with the addition of an ‘S’ for ‘sexuality’ to its name. And you’ll find the incredible narratives of so many others, each uniquely distinguishable in tone, experience, and position, but which overlap in time, place, and circumstance; these individual narratives become intertwined in networks of intellectual collaboration, activism, and female mentorship to give form to the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality.
Because oral history relies on the enlightening nature of hindsight, it serves as an exceptional tool for remembering time past. Yet it can also provide opportunities for a renewed examination of the present, provoking valuable conversation between generations. Thus, while all narrators reflect on previous years—their childhoods, their early years in academia, the struggles of their careers, and those who hurt and helped them along the way—many also addressed the present through the lens of their past, and vice versa. Farah Griffin, who teaches in the Department of English and Comparative Literature and specializes in African American literature, speaks about the generation she currently teaches—my own. My generation, she points out, who came of age in a world where a black man could be elected president and then, as a given, re-elected. My generation, who grew up with Beyoncé and mainstream conversations about feminism. My generation, who could be shocked by the injustice of the Trayvon Martin murder and verdict in a way that Griffin was not. My generation, who can ponder not just questions about the necessity of women’s colleges in 2016, but can confidently continue the conversation, with more participants and a bigger audience than ever, about the definition of womanhood itself. Griffin reflects on this:
There has been a resurgence in the level of activism, not just around racial justice and criminal justice, but also the young people who are organizing around sexual violence. They’re upset and they’re hurt, deeply hurt and deeply angry, and rightly so, but to me it is so beautiful. You know? They bring tears to my eyes, because it’s a level of activism and a willingness to put their bodies on the line that I have not seen. It’s not about nostalgia for a moment that they didn’t live in. They are living in this moment, and that’s something…they decided to step up and organize. Those of us who are feminists feel sometimes like, oh God, what happened? All these young women who think feminism is a dirty word… And then, boom! Here they are, creating their own and standing on their own and insisting on their own. Their institutions are not going to tolerate sexual violence. They are not going to just take mass incarceration for granted. They can change their institution. The fact that they have to do it is disheartening. The fact that they are doing it, to me, is just extraordinary. I’m just so grateful that I got to witness them.
As Griffin acknowledges, there is still work to be done, but by listening to these voices, we can engage in our history and learn about yesterday while applying it to our conversations today. Perhaps the most significant contribution of oral histories is not its preservation of the past but the dialogue it creates for our future. This project records and gives power to often marginalized voices by allowing them to craft and take control over their own narratives. The power and wisdom in their words can inspire action—all we have to do is listen.
The full collection can be explored by visiting the Rare Book & Manuscript Library on the 6th floor of Columbia University’s Butler Library. Please contact the Columbia Center for Oral History Archives for more information. Certain interviews can also be seen on the website of the archives’ partner center, Columbia Center for Oral History Research at INCITE.
– Rebecca Breslaw and Kelsey Decker
About the authors: Rebecca Breslaw is a senior at Barnard College majoring in Anthropology and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Kelsey Decker is a junior at Barnard College majoring in Sociology. Both Kelsey and Becca are student employees at the Columbia Center for Oral History Archives and wrote interview summaries for the IRWGS finding aid.