In the Simpkins seminar room on the campus of Western Illinois University, Dr. Karen Mann introduced us to Women’s Studies, though she didn’t call it that- she called it “General Honors Seminar,” but she taught mostly novels by women, like P.D. James’s An Unsuitable Job for a Woman and Ursula K. Le Guin’s gender-bending Left Hand of Darkness.
That was Fall of 1987. I was 18, impressed and impressionistic. I later signed up for Dr. Mann’s Women and Literature (a class I’d teach) and Dr. Wong’s Third World Literature (which featured fiction by women.)
Now, Fall of 2017, I have returned to the seminar room to admire the molding on the ceiling–squirrels, acorns, ivy and birds. Beauty for beauty’s sake– no wonder ghosts love this building.
Next, I approach Memorial Hall, where Dr. Simmons taught his Women and Religion class. When God was a woman, societies were more peaceful.
Today, as the sun warms my hair, I trek down to Morgan, where I took Feminist Theory and Women and Crime with Dr. Polly Radosh. Guess what I learned in Polly’s class? The criminal justice system guarantees no justice for women.
In 2007, Morgan Hall 109 would be the site of the first Women Studies class I would teach. I learned that 21st-Century Western students were even more conservative than my cohort.
I make a U-turn and head for the University Union where Eleanor Smeal, president of the National Organization for Women and a fierce advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment, drew a full crowd in the Grand Ball Room in 1987 or 88.
After living in New York City a decade, with PhD in hand, I crossed paths with Dr. Polly Radosh at the 2005 WIU New Faculty Orientation. I had a Master’s in Women’s Studies, I said. She was the chair of the Women’s Studies department, she said. A WS Major??? At WIU??? Too good to be true! When Dr. Lori Baker-Sperry, associate professor of Women’s Studies, addressed the new faculty, I longed to teach Women’s Studies as well.
12 years later, I am tenured in WS, but laid off, so I have all day for my memorial walk. I climb the hill to Seal Hall, where I taught my first successful WS class: Introduction to Feminist Theory. That was exactly 10 years ago, when I didn’t have to compete with cell phones, when students read books and attended class. Teaching was wonderful.
I take the outdoor stairway to Western Ave. and Currens Hall, where I kept a WS office from 2007 to 2015. An Asian beetle bites my arm.
The Women’s Studies department truly worked as a team during those years, and I met and mentored many great feminist students, like Margaret Hasselroth.
I circle around Currens and head the half mile back to Simpkins. In 2015, the dean moved Women’s Studies up there. My office whistled, and sometimes when I’d open my door in the mornings, a biting cold wind would greet me.
A few months after the department move, the dean told me I was being laid off. Next, the Board of Trustees eliminated the major in Women’s Studies.
Last May, when my contract neared termination, I’d arrive at my office in the mornings and find my door unlocked.
And that’s how the ghost of Women’s Studies came to haunt Simpkins Hall.