News & Updates: NWSA History

NWSA, A History: 1979 – First National Conference

Monday, April 20, 2020  
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The cover of the 1979 conference program book

First National Conference | May 30–June 3, 1979 | University of Kansas at Lawrence
The cover of the 1979 conference program book

Program Highlights

The National Women's Studies Association was founded in 1977 and held its first meeting that same year. Two years later, NWSA hosted its first national conference at the University of Kansas at Lawrence. The conference hosted 246 sessions with 590 participants. The first NWSA caucuses were the Community College, Lesbian, Pre K-12, Staff, Student, and Third World Caucuses. The Community College and Lesbian Caucuses are the only two caucuses represented at every NWSA conference. The same can almost be said of the Student Caucus, but it branched off into the Graduate and Undergraduate Student Caucuses in 2004 and 2005. Only the Lesbian, Community College, PreK-12, and Student Caucuses were represented on the program committee by designated liaisons.

The first national conference had a significant emphasis on community-building and expressed that through an extensive special events program. This included an art exhibition showcasing women's photography, sculpture, printmaking, jewelry and silver-smithing, textile design and weaving, pottery, painting, and drawing, as well as an exhibition of documentarian Frances Benjamin Joshnston's "Potraits of Women 1890-1910." The conference held additional displays and exhibits of feminist publications and wares, a showing of 110 films, poetry readings and open mikes, a reading by Alice Walker and Esther Broner, a reception and reading from Meridel Le Sueur, a lecture-performance by Ora Williams on the music of American Black women, a fundraising concert featuring Bernice Reagon and Meg Christian, and theatrical performances of SIRENS by the Woman's Collage Theatre and DAUGHTERS: A Testimony to the Uniqueness and Stature of the Female Experience by the Women's Experimental Theatre.

And lastly, I've awarded the funniest session title to:

  • "How to Sue Your University and Love Every Minute of It"

Honorable mentions:

  • "Is It Really Penis Envy? Fun and Fantasy from Freud to Friedan to Friday"
  • "What to Do When the Baby Comes: Preparing for Your Grant"

Racial Justice at the Conference

Many of the sessions at the conference were focused on breaking barriers within institutions and local cultures to pave the path for Women's Studies. While there was a significant emphasis on regional differences within the U.S., only the following panels addressed race and racism directly in their titles either within or outside of the field:

  • "Racism and Feminism: A Critique of Feminist Theory"
  • "Third World Women in Capitalist Systems: Educational Needs of Non-White Immigrant Women"
  • "The Liabilities of Success: The Case of the Black Professional Woman"
  • "Native American Women: A State-of-the-Art Workshop
  • "Black Man/Black Woman Relationships: A Group Counseling Approach Exploring the Perspective of Black College Women"
  • "Chicana Feminism: Conflict of Interest?"
  • "Black Women: Our Perspective on Women's Studies"
  • "International Women's Studies: The Academy and the Activist"
  • "Changing Ourselves: Consciousness-Raising on Race, Class, Sexual Preference, and Age"
  • "U.S. and Third World Women: What are the Connections?"

This number greatly increases in the next two conferences, so much so that the third conference was themed, "Women Responding to Racism." Happening in the wake of the Combahee River Collective's ground-breaking 1977 statement that introduced many to the idea of identity politics, these session titles reflect some of the most pressing questions of the time for women of color and Third World women. What was the role of women and feminism in the racial and ethnic justice movements of the time? What was the role of women of color and Third World women in the feminist movements and the academy? How were men and white women dominating these movements respectively? How are U.S. feminists accountable to women outside of U.S. borders? These same questions persist today.

See the full program here

From the NWSA Coordinator

Sisterly Greetings!

On behalf of the National Women's Studies Association, I am pleased and proud to welcome you to our First Convention.

A dedicated, energetic, and imaginative Conference Committee, assisted by many persons in the Association and at the University of Kansas, have created an exciting occasion, a very special opportunity for feminist educators to gather, share, and learn, and this to advance our work.

Large conventions frequently include an Orientation Session. There, "first-timers" are provided suggestiongs and advice on how best to take advantage of the meeting they are attending.

We are all first-timers at this convention, wondering how to choose among the many events scheduled and how to profit from – and survive – these all-too-few days together. I offer three guidelines for your consideration as you look over this Program:

  • Explore. Seek out and attend conference program sessions at which you can hear and meet those whose work is different than your own. Feminist education has become a complex phenomenon, and it is critical that we all be as informed as we can be about its multi-faceted diversity.
  • Connect. Link with those who share your experience and concerns, and with the NWSA. Attend and get involved at NWSA convention meetings; they provide the framework for our building on-going organizational activity.
  • Enjoy. Take time to play, to talk, to be quiet, to eat, to sleep. Make time to see the exhibits, hear the music and poetry, attend the plays and films. Our lives are part of our work; health and joy should be part of our lives.

The First Convention embodies the vision articulated at NWSA's Founding Convention in 1977. I look forward with you to our time together here, and to all the conventions to come, as we building a women's studies movement and the National Women's Studies Association.

Elaine Reuben, Coordinator

From the Conference Coordinators

The Program Committee for the National Women's Studies Association's First National Conference welcomes you to Kansas. In designing this conference, we have tried to implement the basic goal of NWSA: to further the social, political, and professional development of women's studies throughout the country at every educational level and in every educational setting.

To ensure the widest possible representation on the program and to be consistent with the principles of feminist process, we decided to decentralize decision-making about program content. Accordingly, we asked each region and each caucus, as well as a coordinator for community-based programs, to take responsibility for organizing and selecting four session; these sessions are so designated in the program schedule. When regional associations and caucuses were unable to take on this task, we made a special effort to solicit sessions reflecting their concerns. We selected the remaining sessions from a total of about 300 proposals — proposals demonstrating the vitality, breadth, and diversity of women's studies throughout the country. We hope that the conference as a whole will foster a creative exchange of ideas for developing and nurturing women's studies in a variety of educational and social contexts. [Some parts omitted]

In sisterhood,

Emily Abel
Peg Strobel
Shirley Harkess
Deborah Rosenfelt

NWSA Coordinating Council

Before there was a Governing Council, NWSA was led by the Coordinating Council. Below are the first council members, as well as the NWSA staff team. You can see the current Governing Council members, conference co-chairs, and staff members here.

1977-1979 Coordinating Council Members

Have any pictures, stories, or fun facts from past conferences? Let us know! Email us

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NWSA Program Archives

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About the Writer

Victoria Agunod is the office assistant at the National Women's Studies Association, as well as an adjunct faculty member in the Peace, Justice, and Conflict Studies Program at DePaul University. Victoria received their BA and MA in Women's and Gender Studies at DePaul. They first attended NWSA in 2018 and presented their research on university students organizing for racial justice against the new alt-right galvanized by the 2016 U.S. presidential election. They joined the NWSA team the following year. Their teaching emphases are on women of color feminisms, racial justice movements and organizing, and neoliberal rhetorical and cultural influences.

Please note: The information compiled in this project comes from the archived conference programs at the University of Maryland, College Park.