“Ever Forward: Forty Years of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies” is on display through winter term at Portland State’s Branford Price Millar Library. Presented by the Library Special Collections and University Archives and curated by library staff member and WGSS alumna Rhiannon Cates, the exhibit documents the evolution and historical intelligence of one of the first women’s studies programs in the country.
In 2010, the department’s title changed from women’s studies to women, gender and sexuality studies in order to better reflect its philosophy.
“The interdisciplinary field of women’s studies has grown and expanded over the past 40 years,” said Sally McWilliams, current chair of PSU’s WGSS department.
“Looking back, we want to acknowledge the dramatic and innovative insights about women and systems of power that the diverse feminists of the late ’70s and early ’80s made visible,” McWilliams said.
McWilliams said she was impressed by Cates and her ability to illustrate the dynamic history of the program. The display includes photos, articles, ephemera and documents that all attribute to rich elements of feminist history.
This is Cates’ fifth year working at the library. While in professor Vicki Reitenauer’s practicum class, she decided to turn her curiosity about the history of the department into this project. She finished just in time to mark the department’s 40th anniversary.
Cates spent a lot of time going through the archives and collecting items she found interesting and relevant.
“As I went through it, things that caught my eye helped me to build a narrative,” Cates said. She said she chose to display items that stood out and helped tell the story of the department.
In her research, Cates was surprised to learn that although the women’s studies—now WGSS—program at PSU is one of the oldest in the country, it was one of the last to be accredited and have a major.
“So we had students and faculty volunteering to teach classes in the early ’70s, but you couldn’t get a major until 1998, which is a huge gap,” Cates said. “That’s generations of students and faculty doing all this work and then leaving and not getting that degree.”
The department started with a certificate program in 1976 and added a minor in 1987. But in the early 1980s, the entire program was threatened by budget cuts and was only saved through a community effort of demonstrations and letter writing. They held bake sales and other fundraisers to keep the program afloat until the university financially supported its growth in the 1990s.
“The university is proud of departments like this but has a long history of not supporting it,” Cates said. “It’s important to think of the ways that it was really student- and faculty-driven and sustained—and still is. It’s not something we should take for granted.”
The department continues to evolve and is looking toward changes in the future.
“We’re thinking about the possibilities of feminist and queer scholarship in super dynamic and exciting ways,” Cates said. “There’s a lot of momentum.”
The program is now trying to create a new major in sexuality, gender and queer studies. Representatives of the department have invited input and ideas from the community, as they have in the past.
“In all our work, we committed to using a critical lens of intersectionality to examine how gender, race, class and sexuality, to name a few, are shaping our lives,” McWilliams said. “WGSS continues to bring theory and practice together toward making social justice a daily reality.”