50 years of Pitt women’s and gender studies celebrated


For those who weren’t present at the dawn of the U.S. feminist movement, it’s tempting to view the notion of plucky, idealistic young professors launching a Women’s Studies program at Pitt through rose-colored glasses.

Irene Frieze, program co-founder and emeritus psychology professor, has no such illusions of what she and two fellow academics took on back in 1972.

“There were three of us hired to set up a program, and I was one of the three,” she recalls. “And at that point, there really weren’t any other programs around we could use as models. So we had to really start from scratch.”

And whatever air of campus revolution remained in the post-1960s air of ‘72, not everyone in academia thought creating a Women’s Studies program was such a groovy way to go.

“There was a lot of overt hostility about the program at that time around the University, especially in the administration,” Frieze says. “They felt they were forced to do it by the faculty and the students. So we were fighting this hostility. … At that time, we had one half-time clerical assistant and that was it. There were the three of us. That was the program.”

The name of the game was survival. “Because it was very questionable whether we would survive,” Frieze says. “And all the information we were getting from the administration was: prove to us that we need to keep you. So our focus was so different than it is today.”

Now, the pipedream Frieze and her colleagues went out on a limb to realize, has turned 50. Along the way, the struggle to merely stay afloat morphed from gradual acceptance to success and even expansion. Today the program operates proudly under the broader banner of Pitt’s Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Program (GSWS).

An interdisciplinary academic program focused on “excellence in teaching and research relating to gender, sexuality, and women,” today’s GSWS program is, as its mission statement clarifies, committed to “promoting feminist and LGBTQIA+ activism, pedagogy and scholarship that engage with the larger local, national and global communities.”

Laura Lovett, history professor and GSWS director, is heading up a 50th anniversary celebration that started quietly last spring and continues through the 2022-23 academic year.

Comprising about a dozen faculty members and around three times as many undergraduate students, the program’s 50th anniversary committee has engaged in research, story gathering and planning to bring a series of speakers and events to campus.

Click here for a calendar of 50th anniversary-oriented events, which will be updated throughout the year.

“Working with undergraduates over the summer, we began to create a database to document this and talk about the history of women at Pitt,” Lovett says. “We are adding to that. We’re attempting to collect experiences from the student perspective and connecting with alums, many of whom pushed for the creation of gender studies. They weren’t able to even major in it (but) pushed for change.”

One watershed change regarding women’s rights was the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion. This past June, the court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization overturned the decision, effectively leaving individual states to determine their own abortion laws and regulations.

The timing and impact of the decision proved almost surreally serendipitous, given the status of anniversary planning.

“It shifted the focus a little bit,” Lovett says. “I mean, it didn't change us, but it meant that our original plan, which was to think about student activism and student contributions, made a lot of sense, right? We’re talking about the first generation since 1972 to not have the constitutional guarantee of bodily autonomy, and what lessons they could learn from the prior generation. … So it puts our students more in line than we expected them to be with our alums and their experience.”

Highlights of the ongoing celebration include a conference on March 24 during Women’s History Month covering the history of the women’s and gender-studies program and a graduation event celebrating the late Iris Marion Young. The heralded feminist, political theorist and activist taught political theory at Pitt for nine years in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.

“We’re very excited about the intergenerational meeting in March, when we hope that our alums come and some of our students can collect their stories and collect their history,” Lovett says. “We’re hoping it’s a very interactive historical documentation of people who have created the program.”

Financial contributions, including from Pitt alum and philanthropist Thomas J. Peterson, are providing funding to help train students in collecting oral history.

Lovett, who joined the Pitt faculty about four years ago, started as as GSWS director on Sept. 1. She was preceded in the role by Nancy Glazener, who directed the program for the past three years, following Rachel Kranson and Todd Reiser.

"All three of them have worked very hard for the program," Lovett noted. 

Her previous experience includes directing the Five College Women’s Studies Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst from 2008-2011, as well as extensive writings on women’s activism concerning children and gender roles, environmentalism, nutrition and reproduction.

Despite the illustrious lineup of speakers and alums taking part in the ongoing anniversary soiree, Lovett stresses the anniversary is “not going to celebrate a particular person. We’re going to celebrate the project,” she says, “the work that everyone did to make that project together.”

Recalling celebrations of program milestones including its 10th and 20th anniversaries, Frieze says Lovett has “taken a nice approach in terms of bringing back the students, because that’s something we haven’t really done much of before, particularly the undergraduate students.”

Admitting her mixed feelings about what she considers the program’s de-emphasis of women’s-focused studies, Frieze nonetheless says “it’s great what they’re doing, and I’m completely in support of what they’re doing. It’s wonderful.”

Shannon O. Wells is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at shannonw@pitt.edu.


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