A Future for Feminism

20-year battle for feminist studies at UCSC

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Illustration by Celia Fong.
Illustration by Celia Fong.

The UC Santa Cruz women’s studies program garnered student and faculty support in the mid-1970s, but it wasn’t until 20 years later when 2,000 students and 60 faculty marched to the chancellor’s office that feminist studies became an official major.

When asked why it took so long, distinguished professor and head of the feminist studies major Bettina Aptheker answered simply, “sexism.”

Aptheker came to Santa Cruz in 1977 with her close friend and colleague Angela Davis, who is a renowned scholar, author and activist. At that point, feminist studies wasn’t even a major, let alone a program at UCSC. It was a class within the history of consciousness department. Three years later, Aptheker was hired as the first, and only, lecturer in the feminist studies program that was created by students.

Despite the demand from many students and faculty, Aptheker says the atmosphere surrounding feminist studies generally wasn’t welcoming, as UCSC’s faculty was entirely white and almost entirely male. She said women’s studies wasn’t taken seriously as a scholarly pursuit.

“We were on the outskirts,” Aptheker said. “We had our foot in the door.”

The struggle for recognition of women’s studies was a piece of a larger national movement for gender equality, as women across America were demanding equal pay, rights and a voice. The visualization of marches and bra-burning are prominent in the minds of many, but the women’s liberation movement was strong in community dialogues and civic engagement.

In Santa Cruz, the feminist movement was closely connected to the establishment of the academic division and the actions of motivated students and faculty.

Aptheker described the development for women’s spaces as a “symbiotic relationship between the students and the organizing in town.”

Students helped to found spaces and start movements geared toward gender equality like the Women’s Health Collective, an on-campus facility founded in 1974, which today serves as the Santa Cruz Women’s Health Center and the East Cliff Family Health Center. Students were also a significant part of Women Against Rape, which was a community response to the heightened sexual violence and assault in the county.

Students also wanted a space on campus for women. In 1985, that became the UCSC Women’s Center, one of the oldest women’s centers in the UC system.

“When the Women’s Center was created, it was the same time as the women and gender studies program was being seen as an academic program,” said Sonia-Melitta Montoya, the current director of the Women’s Center. “Faculty, grad students and staff were developing the academic side but saw a need for student support.”

Montoya said the center is where women and allies “can form [a] community to talk about their experiences, to share resources and tools, [and connect] with alumni.” The Women’s Center provides a physical space to gather and connects students with tools for managing a variety of concerns like sexual assault, mental health and body image issues.

The feminist movement is still active on this campus. In April, students organized Take Back the Night, an annual march that is part of the Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM). SAAM intends to inform the community of the prevalence of sexual assault and provide survivors with a supportive environment to share their experiences.

“Feminism is changing so much in your generation,” Montoya said. “So much can come out of that movement.”