Officially, the Women’s Studies Program (now Gender Studies) at Mississippi State University began in 1981, but in reality the story began years earlier.
Against the backdrop of the civil rights, second wave feminist, and anti-war movements, a small group of dedicated faculty developed a handful of courses addressing women’s perspectives scattered over the University in the early 1970s. In the early 1970s, two students organized a feminist group, the Campus Organization for Women (COW). Dr. Kittye Delle Robbins-Herring (foreign languages) served as faculty advisor. The group published their own newsletter, Sting like a Butterfly. Ally and sociology professor Dr. D. Wood Harper offered an informal course addressing women’s liberation issues, opening his home each week to interested faculty and students. It would take another decade, however, before these efforts evolved into a formal academic program.
In the interim, the struggle for gender equality continued on campus and beyond. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 included provisions banning sex discrimination and in 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed Executive Order 11375 enforcing the Act and prohibiting sex discrimination in hiring and employment. In 1973, Dr. Ellen Bryant (sociology), who would later become the founding Director of Women’s Studies at MSU, was appointed to the Affirmative Action Committee by Dr. T.K. Martin, Vice President for Academic Affairs. As one of the few people on campus experienced in analyzing population data, Dr. Bryant was critical to MSU’s efforts to address gender inequality among women employees. Her efforts on the Committee led to substantial pay raises and promotions to many women faculty members, and moved many temporary instructors into full-time positions.
International Women’s Year was declared by the United Nations in 1975, and later extended to include an entire decade. Like the other 49 states, Mississippi was charged with selecting delegates to attend a national meeting addressing women’s rights and a meeting to select these delegates was organized in Jackson in 1977. Several influential women from MSU and Starkville, including Drs. Kathy Gilbert (economics) and Ellen Bryant, arrived in Jackson to discover the meeting had been hijacked by conservative groups hostile to women’s liberation. Enough protestors attended the meeting to swing the delegate election in their favor, and members of these right-wing groups attended the national meeting. Dr. Bryant vowed then and there to make a Women’s Studies Program her top academic priority.
The College of Arts & Sciences, established in 1956, was the fastest growing college at Mississippi State in the 1970s, drawing in many women and Black students. These groups were entirely responsible for enrollment growth at this time and the University was motivated to meet the needs of these new students. Colleges and universities across the country were establishing academic courses in Women’s Studies. Government supported institutions were under pressure to comply with anti-discrimination laws or risk losing public funding. Simultaneously, Mississippi State was developing a broader focus and increasing research activity, competing with leading universities in curriculum development and research rank.
MSU President Dr. James D. McComas established the University’s first Women’s Commission in 1977 and appointed Dr. Elizabeth Nybakken (history) as chairperson. The Commission (now the President’s Commission on the Status of Women, or PCSW) was charged with improving the status of women on campus. This included supporting Affirmative Action efforts, women’s organizations on campus, equalization of athletic opportunities, and establishing a Women’s Studies Program. Later that year, a committee was established to create a proposal for the Women’s Studies Program, chaired by Dr. Margaret Murray (English).
The committee investigated similar programs around the nation, tailoring their proposal to meet the needs of MSU. The idea of a program focused on women’s contributions and struggles represented a distinct departure from the traditional mission of a land-grant university primarily focused on agriculture and engineering, where women were relegated to support roles. There was some resistance from men faculty, but the committee soldiered on and presented the proposal to the Vice President for Academic Affairs in 1978.
The first two Women’s Studies courses were offered in 1977, while the committee was writing its proposal. These included Women in American History and Women in Society. The third class, Psychology of Gender Differences was added four years later. There were no established curricula to draw upon, nor were faculty trained specifically in Women’s Studies. Rather, faculty devoted to incorporating women’s perspectives and experiences into their courses undertook these efforts in addition to their standard duties. Building on this momentum, in 1981 the Women’s Studies Concentration was officially approved and housed in the College of Arts & Sciences, where it remains to this day. Dr. Ellen Bryant was named the first Director and led Women’s Studies until her retirement in 1988.
Soon thereafter, Women’s Studies faculty developed an innovative team-taught introductory course covering multiple topics, each taught by a faculty expert. This unique course resulted in more faculty joining the program and more students taking Women’s Studies courses. The 1983-1984 Catalogue listed a 15 hour Women’s Studies concentration, featuring eight Women’s Studies courses across four Colleges to choose from. Shortly before Dr. Bryant’s retirement, the first Certificate in Women’s Studies was awarded to Pat Woolington, a graduate student in Sociology.
Following Dr. Bryant’s retirement, there have been ten successive Directors, each with her or his own contributions to the Program. These include the following:
Ellen Bryant 1981-1988
Susan Snell 1988-1992
Catheryn Goree 1993-1994
Linda Southward 1994-1996
Karen Mack 1997 (interim)
Rose Kadende-Kaiser 1997-2001
Meg Murray 2001-2003
Jeralynn Cossman 2003-2009
John Bartkowski 2004-2006 (co-director)
Nicole Rader 2009-2012
Kimberly Kelly 2012-Present
Upon Dr. Bryant’s retirement, Dr. Susan Snell accepted the position as Director, and hired the first graduate student program assistant, Barbara Westmoreland. In 1994, plans began to offer a graduate certificate. In spring 1996, The Ellen Bryant Women’s Resource Center opened in Rice Hall, with a Grand Opening held during the annual Super Bulldog Weekend. Rose Kadende-Kaiser, Director from 1997 until 2001, raised the profile of the Program by establishing a speaker series, now the Gender Studies Lecture Series, featuring nationally prominent speakers, workshops and conferences.
Between 2004 and 2008, the undergraduate certificate was upgraded to a minor and a graduate certificate was established. In 2004, the Women’s Studies Program was renamed the Gender Studies Program to better reflect the state of the field and the growing emphasis on a critical gender lens in MSU’s curriculum and programming.
Today, the Program has nearly 40 faculty affiliates across four colleges and three Emeritus faculty, in addition to the Director and Graduate Program Assistant positions. In 2013, Gender Studies hired its first cross-appointed faculty member, Dr. Emily Ryalls (gender studies and communication). The profile of the Gender Studies Lecture Series has risen steadily, featuring speakers such as Gloria Steinem, Anita Hill, Alicia Garza, Patricia Hill Collins, Constance McMillen, and Laverne Cox. The lecture series has expanded the variety of its offerings and now includes an annual Feminist Film Fest, National Coming Out Day Celebration, faculty pedagogy panels, and its signature event, the Women’s History Month celebration in March of each year. Since the early 2010’s the Program has also significantly increased its LGBTQ+-focused programming, recognizing this as a critical need area.
This account is drawn from a more complete history covering the 1970’s through 2003, written by founding Director Dr. Ellen Bryant, available here. The Gender Studies Program wishes to thank Drs. Kimberly Kelly, Lynne Cossman, and Nicole Rader for their assistance in tracing the post-2003 history of the Program.