This past summer we asked our alumni about their most memorable Gender and Women’s Studies courses (Women’s Studies courses for some of you). We’re so grateful that many of you shared your most transformative courses, assignments, and conversations with us, and we’re excited to share them back to you. Maybe they will recall your own experiences in our classrooms when you listened to an inspirational lecture or huddled together with your classmates parsing a text.
Alumni identified many different GWS courses as their favorites. Alumni frequently pointed to classes that focused on women and gender in health, history, theory, and media, but courses across our curriculum also emerged as favorites. “The course that kick started my dive into GWS was Queerness in Rural America,” one alum wrote. “I loved this course and I still think about many of the things I learned … over 8 years later. I also really loved my Trans history course. I feel like it helped me better understand myself and set me up to better understand the world.” Another former student couldn’t choose just one favorite: “I would say it might be a tie between Soc/GWS 200: Intro to LGBTQ+ Studies taught by Cabell Gathman, and ENG 474: Queer Literature 1970-Present taught by Ramzi Fawaz. … Both of these classes were critical to my personal growth as a young queer adult living away from home for the first time. I learned the motto that ‘gay is good,’ and that queerness can be central to radical leftist politics.”
Alumni described how their favorite courses “opened their eyes” and introduced them to new perspectives. One person described how “I never had learned about the Black Panthers until coming to college and taking a GWS course. I’m from a small isolated rural town in Northern Wisconsin and had a lot of catching up to do.” Another student remembered a conversation they had with Cabell Gathman in 2015 as part of GWS 200 that challenged their way of thinking:
“We read through some statistics from a sweeping report on Bisexuality in the US. I learned that bisexual people were, surprisingly, one of the most culturally hated groups in the US, ranking just above drug addicts. When I stated my surprise to Prof. Cabell Gathman, she affirmed that the statistic is indeed surprising, but that I should be careful in how I phrase my responses to these stats, because I don’t want to accidentally demonize substance abuse victims in the process.
This conversation literally started a transformation in how I understood social categorization, and the social construction of knowledge. Because of moments like this… I am able to critically interrogate the construction of identity categories like race, gender, sexuality, class, and disability while simultaneously striving toward empathy and justice for those identity groups that are marginalized or disempowered. I absolutely would not be where I am today without the support of the UW-Madison GWS department.”
GWS 103, originally called Women and their Bodies in Health and Disease and now called Gender, Women, Bodies, and Health, has been a perennial favorite for nearly 50 years! GWS 103 is our largest course by far, reaching nearly 10 percent of the students at UW Madison. Many graduates referred to it as both incredible and pivotal. One alum summed up their experience: “I took 103 as a freshman, and there were so many topics that just kind of blew my mind.” Another alum noted that GWS 103 had been “a foundational class for my understanding of what I would now consider basic human knowledge. … I see why this is a required class for the GWS major, and I now believe an intro level feminism class should more or less be required for ALL students pursuing a college degree.”
Fans of history found their worldviews similarly challenged and shaped in GWS courses. “Women have created half the history of the world, and impacted historical movements & shifts,” wrote one alum. While they had always known this “intuitively,” a GWS history course was the first time they had seen it at the “front & center of a course.” One recent alum found ways to understand the present through the lens of the past. “I feel like my Queer Lit course helped to give me a new perspective on the AIDS epidemic and this perspective has helped me throughout the Covid pandemic,” they said. Another described how their GWS history courses provided “exposure to a part of history my [high school] education didn’t include,” and led them to ask “who is writing our HERstory?”
Other former students recalled demanding professors, creative assignments, and inspiring readings. One alum called out former Theater and GWS professor Jill Dolan: “Dolan REALLY worked us hard and taught critical thinking.” Another shared their vivid memories of a formative assignment: “In one of my classes, we examined the Carly Simon song, ‘That’s the Way I Always Heard it Should Be.’ This exercise taught me to critically examine songs, media, camera angles, etc. noting how … women are portrayed and presented.” Yet another recalled an influential book: “Tender Violence was one of the most eye opening books I read in college.”
Finally, alumni shared how their courses prepared them for the challenges and opportunities of life after graduation. “I feel like overall my GWS courses have helped me to bring a unique perspective to my job. I also feel like my GWS courses have helped me to approach the world in a more compassionate manner,” one person said. Many alumni echoed this comment, noting how GWS encouraged them to empower others. “My WS major helped me discover myself and the power I hold to … uplift all women,” commented one alum. Another remembered that their professor “explained one day (I believe our last class) that the gender code is harsh on all women, we all have to navigate it in our own way. Don’t judge other women for how they navigate it differently from you (shaving or not, makeup or not, feminine clothes or not), we must stand together. I think about that regularly, and have explained the same sentiment to my own daughter who is now in high school.”
Over the last fifty years, the world has changed in significant ways and so has our department. We are delighted that, after so long, so many of you are still considering and using insights you first encountered in GWS classrooms. Thank you for sharing your memories with us. Please keep sending us more of your reflections in upcoming newsletters!