In 1996, students, faculty, and staff gathered in one room of the Student Services Building for something new. With presentations that included “Pink Grease Monkeys: Women in Non-Traditional Occupations” and “The Intersection of Bisexuality and a Feminist Identity,” the Women’s Studies Program at Illinois State University launched a symposium focused on student research.
Twenty-five symposiums later (with a one-year gap for COVID), thousands of students have presented, discussed, challenged, and learned with what is now known as the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) Symposium.
Learn more about WGSS symposium history through an exhibit at Milner Library.
“To see us reach 25 years is a landmark,” said WGSS Director Alison Bailey, who joined Illinois State the year before the symposium began. “Even from its earliest days, the symposium has always been a place to highlight the incredible work of students.”
Early days and global views
The early days began with instructor of history Dr. Sandra Harmon, who served as the part-time, acting director of Women’s Studies in 1995. She drew up the plans for the symposium with graduate students Jenny Howell and Tesa Brager.
“Through the work of a number of tenure-track and non-tenure track faculty, the Women’s Studies minor was approved in the early 1970s despite the fact that many departments did not see it as a legitimate academic study,” said Harmon, who noted early directors Dr. Patrica Chesboro, Dr. Beverly Smith, and Dr. Cynthia Huff brought legitimacy to the program. “That same grassroots effort drove plans for the symposium. Faculty members encouraged students to take part.”
Under the theme “See History and Society in a New Way,” nearly 30 presenters gathered with fellow students, faculty and staff mentors, and moderators on March 23, 1996. “Our students in Women’s Studies came from all across campus,” said Harmon. “I wanted to get all of the students together to talk about what they do and share ideas.”
The emphasis on student presentations offered students an untapped avenue to develop skills. “Students did not have a lot of opportunities then to present their research,” said Harmon. “This was a way for them to not only practice that needed skill, but also to hear the work and ideas of their fellow students.”
Expanding the symposium was a goal for the first full-time director, Dr. Valentine M. Moghadam, who joined Illinois State in 1997. “I arrived to find a vibrant community of faculty, administrators, and students interested in the issues that I felt were critical to building knowledge and enacting meaningful social change,” said Moghadam, whose work with the symposium promoted collaborations across campus and focused on global and national examinations of women’s rights and debates on sex and gender.
“The symposium shows the cross-disciplinary breadth of subject matter,” said Moghadam. “Presenters came from history, biology, sociology, literary studies, and politics. Our choice of keynote speaker, the well-known feminist biologist Dr. Ruth Hubbard, similarly indicated our commitment to cross- and interdisciplinary work.”
Speakers challenging the norm
When Hubbard spoke in 1998, her ideas on biology and gender were considered revolutionary. Challenging societal norms and introducing new ideas are staples of the WGSS Symposium speakers, said Bailey. “The WGSS Symposium keynote speakers can bring such energy to our community,” she said. “They share ideas that are vibrant and changing the terrain of conversations.”
This year’s theme is Queering Gender with four invited keynote speakers, including Arlene Stein, Veronica Ivy, Karma Chávez, and Maia Kobabe. Topics to be discussed include gender fluidity and the culture wars, transpeople in sports and quarantine, and writing and drawing gender.
Over the years the WGSS Symposium committee has brought an array of scholars, artists, and activists to the community. Past speakers include reproductive justice historian Rickie Solinger and philosopher and contemporary culture critic Susan Bordo (2010); postcolonial and transnational feminist Chandra Tapade Mohanty (2011); founder and director of the Roundtable on Latina Feminism Mariana Ortega (2017); Black Lives Matter activist Janaya Khan, and Qwo-Li Driskill, author of Asegi Stories: Cherokee Queer and Two-Spirit Memory (2018).
Those who know the history of the symposium all mention one keynote speaker, Dolores Huerta, who visited Illinois State in 2007. A national labor activist and a leader of the Chicano civil rights movement, Huerta is now recognized for her work as well as coining the phrase Sí Se Puede (yes, we can) for the farm workers movement.
“It was incredible to speak with her,” said Professor of History Kyle Ciani of Huerta. “She was very down to earth when she came to speak to one of my classes. Not only has she spent years fighting for a cause, but also fighting a second front for recognition of the work of women that has been co-opted by men.”
Exploring creative expression
Ciani has been affiliated with WGSS since her arrival on campus in 2001. She stepped in to take the helm of WGSS for the 2018-2019 year as Bailey went on sabbatical to write her latest book, The Weight of Whiteness: A Feminist Engagement with Privilege, Race, and Ignorance.
While maintaining the focus on student research, Ciani worked to incorporate more visual elements to the symposium, including the introduction of spoken word and theatrical performances as well as art exhibit talks. “Students learn differently than they did in 1996, and so the symposium has evolved,” said Ciani. She pointed to the exhibits from students in Associate Professor of Art in Graphic Design Archana Shekara’s classes and Renaissance poster presentations from Assistant Professor of Art History Saskia Beranek’s students. “Students today are open to more,” said Ciani. “The expansion of the symposium beyond the reading of research papers explores different ways research can look.”
For WGSS Office Administrator Jamie Anderson, the inclusion of the visual is reaching new audiences. “We’ve seen dance, spoken word, graphic design, and crochet as expression,” said Anderson, who handles the logistics of the symposium. “These new experiences bolster the interest in our symposium and allow students to engage with audiences in new ways.”
The expanded format is a departure for Dr. Jenna Goldsmith ’08 ’10, who returned to Illinois State as the assistant director of WGSS years after presenting herself as a student. “I have fond memories of the symposium when it was in University Galleries, but even as the symposium grows, it still provides what it offered me—my first opportunity to present research in a supportive and collaborative environment.”
Alumni of the WGSS program often return for the symposium, both to present and to attend. “Students are able to see successful alumni who are continuing in different fields,” said Bailey. “It is an inspiration to the students, and a way that alumni stay connected to the University.”
“Presenting at the symposium was a great opportunity to be around other scholars who were very different from me. It opened my eyes to the intricacies of this field of research,” said Venise Keys ’16, who presented several times at the symposium as a student, including taking part in a panel on Black motherhood. “The faculty and members of the WGS minor really saved me in the face of the struggles of being a graduate student.”
Keys said that support stayed with her, as did the experience from the symposium. “The lessons I learned help me today in my career as an educator and a writer. Anytime you can present your passions on a scholarly level is a great opportunity.”
Building community is another outcome of the symposium. “Students who are presenting will often meet with one another, have group chats, and talk about presenting at the symposium,” said Dr. Cassie Herbert, who teaches classes in the WGSS program and in the Department of Philosophy. “I love working with students who might be presenting for the first time and seeing them cheer one another on as they have the chance to present to an interdisciplinary audience.”
Dr. Stacia Koch, who now teaches at the University of Dayton, called the symposium a transformative experience for students. “Not only do students share ideas with a broader audience, they gain insights into academic analysis,” said Koch, who served as assistant director of the WGSS from 2014-2017. “It was a delight to see the affirming impact the symposium had on developing professional skills.”
Highlighting student research will remain the focus of the symposium, which Bailey hopes will continue for years to come. “Students are empowered when they share their research in a public forum and can engage with an audience,” she said. “Giving students a voice and the confidence to share their work will always be a priority.”
A university also gains from hosting events such as the symposium, noted Moghadam. “How can the advancement of women—all women, not just the fortunate few—proceed? My hope is that academic disciplines such as Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies will continue to shine a light on such global injustices and inequalities. The struggle continues.”
Find information on the 25th Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Student Research Symposium.