Women’s Suffrage is History, But Feminism Remains Relevant at RIC
Janice Okoomian, assistant professor of gender and women’s studies
Janice Okoomian has been appointed the first full-time faculty member in the gender and women’s studies program in its 35-year history at Rhode Island College, signalling the ongoing development of the program, according to the head of the program.
“Because gender and women’s studies is not a college department but an interdisciplinary program, faculty from other departments – history, communications, education and political science – whose work extends into gender and women’s studies, teach our courses,” said Leslie Schuster, director of the Gender and Women's Studies Program and interim dean of Graduate Studies
Okoomian is the first faculty member hired to teach solely gender and women’s studies. Her prime responsibility is to teach several of the key required courses in the major, including Feminist Theory and Feminist Inquiry.
These courses explore various approaches to thinking about gender – how different people experience gender; how gender intersects with other categories of identity (race, class, sexuality, for instance); and how social and political power is expressed through gender.
Okoomian said gender and women’s studies maintain close ties with the tradition of activism, which she defined as actively working toward social change.
Traditional forms of activism include protests, boycotts, writing letters and organizing rallies around a particular issue or set of issues. Educating is another form of activism, said Okoomian. “Educating is what I do best. It’s not marching on the street, but it’s a powerful form of advocacy.”
She said women’s studies, as a field of study, was created in the 1960s by college students, faculty and administrators who fought for courses about women’s bodies, women’s health, women writers and women in history. Activists also created African American studies, Native American studies and Latino studies.
“All of these programs have maintained the idea that academic study and being actively involved in social change can and should be in alliance with each other,” she said. “We need theory and we need action. Most of the students who go through our program go on to work in organizations that deal with women’s issues.”
Okoomian recalled her own feminist awakening in the 1960s, at age 12, when she found herself arguing with other 12-year-olds about a woman’s right to have an abortion.
In high school she took her first course in women’s studies and decided then that women’s studies would be her career.
She earned her PhD at Brown Univeristy in American Civilization, with focus on gender and ethnicity. She taught at RIC as an adjunct professor and is now working full-time as assistant professor.
Off campus, Okoomian is a member of a female a cappella group called WomenRising who blend their voices in songs about justice, social consciousness, political oppression, freedom, love, friendship, acceptance and truth. She is also writing a short autobiographical piece for a collection by feminist scholars called Motherlines and Feminism.
Okoomian said she believes today’s college students, in particular, would benefit from courses in gender studies “because they are so deeply engaged in popular culture, which has incredible power to shape beliefs, yet they’re not deeply schooled in critical thinking.”
“They need the critical apparatus with which to understand and contextualize pop culture and decide how much of it they want to buy into,” she said.
“Certainly many disciplines can do this," she said. "Critical thinking is not unique to gender studies; however, it’s particularly poignant that gender is so fundamental to our identities, and yet it’s one of those things that we least examine.”