Earlier this fall, Wallace D. Best, a professor of religion and African American studies, was appointed the director of the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies (GSS). He is the first man to head the program, which began as women’s studies.
“I want to maintain the momentum that we’ve gained in the last several years under the phenomenal leadership of Jill Dolan and Regina Kunzel,” Best said in an interview with the Office of Communications. “Nothing will please me more in the next three years than to see gender and sexuality studies become even more a part of conversations in other departments and programs at Princeton and beyond.” Best declined an interview request from PAW.
The appointment symbolizes the evolution of gender and sexuality studies at Princeton since the program was established in 1982. At that time, the idea of creating a women’s studies program at the University was a point of tension — there were student protests and a committee was created to consider the matter.
Edie Canter ’80, who served on the committee as an undergraduate, reflected on the experience in a PAW oral-history interview in 2015. Canter said students were talking about issues of women and gender and wanted classroom experiences that allowed them to “reflect on these issues and look at, particularly, social science, history, and politics, through a nonmale lens.”
In the first few years of women’s studies, the goal of the program was to offer students a place to explore these questions through a multidisciplinary lens, said Nancy Weiss Malkiel, who led the committee and later served as dean of the college. Back then courses covered topics such as the status of women in Islam and female French novelists, while today they include gender and sexuality in relation to culture, politics, and theater. As the years went on, the program grew with the times, resulting in two name changes: in 1999 to the Program in the Study of Women and Gender and in 2011 to its current name.
The field “belongs centrally to what academics do in scholarship and teaching, which was not the case when we started — it was finding its way in — but now it’s essential,” Malkiel said in an October interview with PAW. “You can’t take courses in the various departments without having women, gender, [and] sexuality be part of the intellectual inquiry.”
Gender and sexuality have an “inextricable connection to race, class, location, and ethnicity,” noted Best, who is also the first Black person to direct the program. Among similar programs at the other Ivies, three are headed by men, and two by men of color. Where Princeton differs from many of its peers is the status of gender and sexuality studies as a certificate program instead of a major. Twenty-one graduates received the certificate in gender and sexuality studies in 2020.
The program is as relevant as ever, said former GSS director Regina Kunzel, the Doris Stevens Professor in Women’s Studies, and she is hopeful it will continue to see growth. “I think scholars in gender and sexuality studies have really done a lot to show us — in the biggest sense — how power works, how inequalities and hierarchies are formed, how they persist, and how they might be challenged,” Kunzel said.
[Originally published in the December 2020 issue of Princeton Alumni Weekly]