Power to the Pink! A Conversation with Dr. Myrna Santiago, director of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program
“We’re small, but we’re pretty mighty.” Anyone familiar with the Women’s and Gender Studies (WaGS) program knows this to be true. I sat down with Dr. Myrna Santiago, head of WaGS, to talk about the history and future of WaGS in honor of Women’s History Month.
Santiago shared that the program plays an integral role in student life. “The key to understanding Women’s and Gender studies on campus is that it is an academic program that is just smack in the heart of the liberal arts,” she shared. “This means we look at society from a critical standpoint and every single possible way.” Regardless of whether students are majoring or minoring in the field or just taking one or two classes, “they will acquire a vocabulary that allows them to interpret the word.” Santiago continues, “what Women’s and Gender studies does is that it provides certain tools and certain language and vocabulary to analyze their experiences critically and in larger contexts.”
For many students, this is a lifeline. “In their daily lives, [students] can decide, and they have decided at different points, that there are things that are wrong with the world,” Santiago states. “And, since their immediate world is Saint Mary's, [they realize] there are things that are wrong with Saint Mary’s and that they can analyze what's wrong and do something about it because they have seen in their Women’s and Gender studies classes how other groups of women at other points in time have discovered the same thing and have done something about it.”
However, the impact of WaGS goes way beyond the classroom. “Our role on the campus [is to be] a resource for the entire campus on any issue that has to do with women, gender, or sexuality because that's what we know,” Santiago shared. “That's what the different faculty know, that's what we study, that's what we do in the classroom every day. So in that sense, like we're the experts. That's our role: to be the experts on these questions. And we're always very happy to work with other colleagues and with the administration on whatever they need to know.”
WaGS, which has been a unique program for many years, gives students the opportunity to take classes that are relevant to their identities and experiences. “We've been on campus for 25 years developing a curriculum that does a couple of things, and this is one of the trademarks of Women’s and Gender studies as an academic program, one is that we do like to listen to our students and what our students want to know and want to learn,” Santiago shared. Women’s and Gender studies is thus expanding their curriculum with the permanent institution of three new courses: Masculinities, Queer Theories, and The History of Women, Gender, and Sexuality (which Santiago teaches).
Along with being in meaningful conversation with the needs of students, the program also works to support faculty members in the field. “We find out who the new faculty that are getting hired are,” Santiago shared. “Do they have any interesting interests that have to do with women and gender? How can we welcome them? How can we make room for them to teach classes of women and gender studies? Something that we're totally in tune with is who's out there. Who's interested. How can we support new faculty, particularly faculty of color in terms of their teaching their academic interests?”
Further, the program is notorious for recruiting some of the biggest names to speak on campus. A few include Angela Davis, Winona LaDuke, Alice Walker, Ruth Rosen, Adrienne Rich, Sister Joan Chittister, bell hooks, Eve Ensler, Gloria Steinem, and Anita Hill.
At the heart of WaGS, then, is their dedication to serving the SMC community. Santiago elaborated that “we play all these different roles at the school always, always, always with the idea that we can't rest on our laurels and that we're not afraid to point out basic injustices that have to do with women, gender, or sexuality, and that's our role both in the classroom and then outside of the classroom.”
The importance of his dedication became most apparent in 1998 when sexual assault was running rampant on the Saint Mary’s campus. “One of the unfortunate, for lack of a better word, facts of living in a patriarchal society is that rape is one of the manifestations of the domination of women. So Saint Mary's was not exempt from that. No college ever has been,” Santiago said.
“So, in the late nineties, we had a series of particularly egregious cases of sexual assault on campus, and the students, not just women and gender studies, but a group of students became really upset about the way in which the college was handling the matter,” she continued. “The women decided ‘we're going to do something about it.’ So when they decide to do something about it, there were a number of those students in Women's studies [the WaGS’s previous program name] at the time. And they come to the faculty of Women's studies and say, this is what we're doing.”
“The program had to decide what their role was, and the position of the faculty at the time was like: Well, it's a no-brainer, right? It's solidarity with our students. Whatever they're going to do, we're going to be supportive of them,” she shared. Through the efforts of the students and support from the department, the initiative was successful. Several protests and hunger strikes later, Saint Mary’s would see the “Blue Lights” on campus, changes in language in the student handbook, and, most notable, the Center for Women and Gender Equity (CWGE), formally known as the Women’s Resource Center (WRC).
Now, why the pink gloves, do you ask? It’s all a part of the same story. The gloves came after the students “decided they wanted something to mark them, their pride in their activism, and their pride in actually having accomplished something really important, which was to have the college be more responsive to survivors of sexual assault,” said Santiago. However, the gloves stuck. “Once they picked the pink gloves that they were going to wear at graduation, then hot pink became like the color of Women’s and Gender Studies,” Santiago shared. Students in the WaGS program continue to don the iconic gloves during graduation as a sign of community with the activists in the department.
In the future, WaGS has a lot going on with an archive project done in conjunction with the Library to to document event posters, course listings, and other artifacts from the program. WaGS is also looking ahead to potentially have SMC host “New Leadership,” which is a “summer institute to prepare college aged women to become active in the political arena,” according to Santiago.
Melanie Moyer '22,