Center for the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality celebrates its 20th anniversary

The School of Humanities’ Center for the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality is marking a major milestone this weekend: CSWGS’ 20th anniversary. The Nov. 9-10 celebration will bring together current undergraduates, graduate students, staff, faculty and alumni to recognize the strides the center has made and to honor the current and former directors of the women’s studies program at Rice.

The public is welcome to attend the CSWGS graduate student panel from 4 to 6 p.m. Friday in Fondren Library’s Kyle Morrow Room and the 20th Anniversary Symposium of Former Directors from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday in Lovett Hall’s Founder’s Room.

Despite its relative youth, the center has grown into a major campus hub. CSWGS encompasses interdisciplinary academic and research programs, including research partnerships with institutions and community organizations. Its goal is aspirational: to make a better world by promoting critical knowledge and relationships with communities that extend the understanding of the lives of women, the history and politics of sexuality, and gender as a key influence on the quality of life.

Rosemary Hennessy

One of the earliest milestones in the history of women’s studies at Rice came in 1983 when Allen Matusow, the dean of humanities at that time, attended a conference in Wisconsin and came back with a sense that Rice was behind the times in women’s studies. “He realized we needed to catch up with the rest of the world if we wanted to consider ourselves a major U.S. research university,” said Rosemary Hennessy, the center’s first and current director. In 1985 Rice hired its first faculty member with dedicated research in women’s studies, Jane Gallop, now a Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In 1990 Helen Longino, now chair of Stanford University’s Philosophy Department, joined the faculty and went on to guide the establishment of the undergraduate major in the Study of Women and Gender in 1992.

The past decade was marked by rapid growth and featured the establishment of the Graduate Certificate Program in 2004, the center’s inauguration in 2006 and the launch of the minor in poverty, justice and human capabilities. “It was a big deal that the center was established because it brought together some important pieces of work on feminist studies that were here but were now much stronger because we had consolidated them,” Hennessy said. One of those critical pieces is the peer-reviewed journal Feminist Economics, overseen by founding editor Diana Strassmann, who is also the director of the Program on Poverty, Justice and Human Capabilities. Now in its 18th year, the journal became part of the center in 2006.

Lora Wildenthal

Lora Wildenthal, associate professor of history and chair of the History Department, served as the center’s interim director in 2005. She said that Rice’s recruitment of Hennessy as the center’s first director was galvanizing. “We wanted to get somebody who was a really interesting feminist scholar in her own right and she (Hennessey) is,” Wildenthal said. “It was also important to secure a director whose main commitment could be CSWGS. And it was also important to build new things that go beyond sustaining the undergraduate curriculum.”

Research at the center has focused on four main areas: sex, race and nation; women and global poverty; gender and urban life; and gender, health and human well-being.

Currently, 12 students major in women, gender and sexuality, and more than 90 students take the minor. Hennessey said the curriculum pursues an educational philosophy centered on “engaged research.” Majors can write a thesis or conduct a research project in partnership with a Houston nonprofit organization. “It doesn’t just mean going out into the community,” Hennessy said. “For us, it means a research project that is developed in a collaborative and reciprocal relationship with the clients who are served by this nonprofit.”

Since the engaged research project began in 2008, more than 40 students have been matched with 27 Houston-area nonprofit organizations. Research projects have ranged from evaluating anti-bullying policies in high schools to educating low-pay workers about the labor laws in Texas. To recognize students like these who show exceptional commitment to social justice or engaged research on an issue pertaining to women, gender or sexuality, the center established the Sherry Matusoff Merfish Award in 2012.

Through public lecture series like the Gray/Wawro Lectures in Gender, Health and Well-being and the Marian Fox Martel Lectures in Gender and Science, CSWGS also brings a wide range of acclaimed authors and scholars to campus to share their insight on issues related to women, gender and sexuality.

For more information about the celebration and related events, visit

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.