BANGOR, Maine — Women have made great personal and professional strides in the past 30 years, but still encounter many barriers to success. That’s one reason women’s studies classes and programs at Maine’s colleges and universities must continue, according to Kay Retzlaff, an assistant professor of English at the University College of Bangor, a satellite campus of the University of Maine at Augusta.
Retzlaff helped coordinate “Women Count,” the statewide 2010 women’s studies conference at UCB that drew about 100 participants from around the state to the small commuter campus on Saturday. The event was a celebration of women’s progress and a sobering reminder that gender-based discrimination still affects the day-to-day lives of many women.
“When I went to college [in the 1970s], if you enrolled in a literature course, you might encounter one novel written by a woman — probably ‘Pride and Prejudice’ by Jane Austin,” Retzlaff said. “You might read some Emily Dickinson. But most of the authors we read were male, and the faculty was mostly male, and the textbooks were written by men.”
Much changed with the advent of the civil rights and women’s movements, Retzlaff said, noting that both the campus dean at UCB and the president of the University of Maine at Augusta are now women. The curriculum in even mainstream classes has changed to reflect the influence of women, she said.
For example, introductory science classes now routinely review the contributions of the “mothers of science,” she said.
“And how can you teach the American Revolution without talking about the role of Abigail Adams?” Retzlaff asked.
But in academics and many other professions, Retzlaff said, women’s wages trail men’s and encountering the “glass ceiling” of gender discrimination when seeking professional advancement remains too common.
Ann Schonberger, director of women’s studies at the University of Maine, said undergraduate students no longer would be able to major in women’s studies after the end of this year, because of budget cuts in the University of Maine System. Since the program was established in 1998, more than 90 students have graduated in women’s studies with many others minoring in the discipline, according to Schonberger. A graduate concentration has been available at the Orono campus since 2000.
Schonberger said a solid grounding in women’s issues is an invaluable asset to those seeking careers in journalism, education, international relations and helping professions such as social work and psychology.
Conference attendee Karen Foley of Bangor graduated in 2009 from UCB with a two-year degree in women’s studies and now is enrolled in a bachelor’s degree program in university studies at the University of Maine.
Her women’s studies degree incorporated feminist perspectives on history, mythology, religion and other disciplines.
“I learned a lot about women you don’t hear much about traditionally in school,” she said during the lunch break at the conference. “I knew this would be a great day of opportunities to talk politics with a bunch of interesting women.”
Keynote speaker at the event was Joyce Hedlund, former president of Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor and now the president of Washington County Community College in Machias. Short sessions included more than 25 presentations and group discussions such as an “election post-mortem” that examined the likely effects on women of recent local and national voting, a discussion of environmentalist Rachel Carson’s vision of “essential unity” in the natural world, and a report on the largely female work force of personal care providers in Maine.
The Women’s Studies Conference takes place approximately every two years with participation from the University of Maine System, some of the state’s community colleges, Colby College in Waterville, Bates College in Lewiston, Bowdoin College in Brunswick and the University of New England in Biddeford.