Voice in Higher Education: The Struggle is Far From Over

Miss Chicago and the California Girls poster produced by the Feminist Art Program at Fresno State College, 1970-71
For centuries, women have overcome great adversity to enter institutions of higher learning. They have also broadened the scope of discussions held within, and changed the landscape of the university system.

I have been reading with delight an account of Judy Chicago’s groundbreaking Feminist Art Program founded at Fresno State College in 1970. “In 1970 [Chicago] accepted a teaching position at Fresno State College (now California State University, Fresno) with the proviso that she be allowed to develop a women’s program in the art department…Chicago chose Fresno State College because of its isolation from the art world. It served as an experimental ground where she could try to answer the question of what women students needed in order to become artists.”

Themes for artistic assignments were borne out of "consciousness-raising sessions" (group discussions centered on a particular topic that would reveal commonalities and shared experiences), and Chicago insisted the Feminist Art Program meet off campus, “so that a radical break could be made with the curriculum and structures of the patriarchal institution.” The women in the Feminist Art Program made it a point to work collectively rather than individually. They blurred the lines between "high" and "low" art by utilizing media such as tampons, glitter, and fabric, and used their work to address issues that affected them as women, such as street harassment and body image. They changed the art school status quo, and made history.

At its best, a university is a venue for exploration and discovery. It should expand the world view of those who attend, so that they might go out into the world to share what they know and also create change. During my undergraduate studies at San Francisco State University, I was often reminded of the struggle and the sacrifices made to make universities a more equal place where one could learn about the history and experiences of many different people and cultures, rather than just a privileged few. San Francisco State was the first college in the United States to have an Ethnic Studies program, encompassing Black, Native American, Asian American, and Raza Studies. These programs were hard won during the campus strikes of 1968, where students walked out of class and demanded more senior faculty of color and a new curriculum that reflected the history and culture of all people.

UC Berkeley students protest fee hikes. Photo by Jennifer Wu
What's important to remember is that we can't take the progress and change that has been created over the years for granted, especially during the current economic downturn. Education budgets are being slashed while students' tuition fees rise and financial aid opportunities dwindle. One example of the climate we are now faced with in higher education are the changes going into effect for the University of California, Berkeley. According to UC Berkeley's Multicultural Community Center, "It has been released that the Ethnic Studies, African American Studies, and Gender and Womyn's Studies will have their budgets clustered into one budget bracket with regards to budgets for staff members of the departments. As a result of this clustering, staff members have been cut across three departments."

Angela Aguilar, a UC Berkeley alum and incoming Ethnic Studies graduate student had this to say about the cuts and her own experience as an Ethnic Studies major:
I think its important to mention how what is happening in the academy to the 3 departments (Ethnic Studies, Gender and Womens Studies and African American studies) is being passed off by the administration as a move to strengthen the Ethnic Studies department, but they are actually disrespecting and making each struggle invisible by consolidating the departments... I found Ethnic Studies filled the gaping holes left behind by traditional disciplines. Ethnic Studies is a framework that challenges and transforms the humanities and social science approach to studying and understanding the human experience . I learned that in order to understand ourselves as People we need to understand our past before colonization and the process of racialization...I understood the importance of an interdisciplinary approach to studying social problems along with the complicity of certain disciplines such as Area Studies and Anthropology to the perpetuation of oppression and racialization of people and places. Overall, my experience as a scholar of Ethnic Studies has moved to me read and write critically from my particular place in history: my identity. It helped form my political commitment and ethical orientation to support the self-liberation of others through scholarship and praxis."
A University of Puerto Rico student protests fee hikes during a Dec. 15th, 2010 student strike in San Juan. Photo by Ricardo Arduengo
The fight to keep American education a true reflection of our country's diversity is far from over. Many doors were opened in the 1960s and 70s, and its important that we remain vigilant and make sure those doors stay open for our children and grandchildren.