Academia as the Personal and Political: An Interview with Members of the Women and Gender Studies Department

by awakelin on March 26, 2022


The College has had an extensive journey expanding academic opportunities for women. Photo courtesy of the Providence College Archives & Special Collections.

This past academic year has been representative of the major strides taken by women at Providence College, particularly in the commemoration of 50 years of undergraduate women at PC. Throughout the last several decades, women have fostered a transformative presence on PC’s campus through academics, athletics, student clubs, and other facets of student life. The recognition of the essential roles of both Women’s History Month and 50 years of women at PC is emblematic of the larger role of continuing to resist against the oppressive institutions that have suppressed the necessary role of women within society for centuries.

Throughout this year, there have been various on- and off-campus events to celebrate the presence of women on PC’s campus. One of the most notable, on Sept. 13, 2021, was the commemoration of the momentous occasion of the first female students who had officially entered campus and moved into Aquinas Hall. In an event titled: Then, Now, Next: Women Pioneers at Providence College, with a panel of several PC women, the group reflected on the ways that female students, faculty, and alumnae have fundamentally transformed the College’s campus and the community over the last five decades. These events provide the necessary community engagement to bolster the support for women’s rights and the recognition of that struggle for equitable treatment. 

Mar. 1 also marks the beginning of Women’s History Month, an annual celebration of the commemoration of the vital and pertinent role of women throughout history. The entirety of March celebrates the momentous achievements and overcoming of obstacles that women have faced for decades against oppressive patriarchal norms and values that have dictated society.

The momentous occasion of both Women’s History Month and 50 years of women at PC cannot be celebrated without the transformative presence of the women and gender studies program here at PC. Nestled in the lower level of PC’s Phillips Memorial Library, the women and gender studies department has played a paramount role in challenging the traditionally conservative attitudes and values that have driven PC since its inception.

Within educational institutions, there arises a triadic role that combines the necessary intersecting forces for fundamental change. These include the essence of feminism itself, providing the opportunities for women to succeed in academic settings, and the importance of intersectionality. Both faculty members and students a part of the WGS Department are a transitive presence in breaking down the institutional barriers propped up for decades through systematic patriarchal oppression, particularly in the pursuit of equitable treatment in academia and in the workplace.

What is feminism to you?

“Feminism is about a belief in a changing world order that moves beyond what bell hooks called the ‘imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy’ – we are seeing so many of the effects of placing profit before people, and “manhood” before humanity.” – Dr. Jennifer Illuzzi, associate professor of history and Director of the DWC program. 

“Feminism to me is more than just claiming to want gender equality. It means those who have privilege advocate and work with those that don’t have the same human rights.” – Christina Corbiserio ’22.

“Feminism to me means standing up for the human rights and equity of all human beings, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, race, socioeconomic status, cultural diaspora, age, and everything else that makes us all unique. Feminism must be for everyone, by everyone, and sensitive to our intersectional identities. Feminism to me means having the power to define feminism for oneself, the strength to face and fight the wrongs of our society, and the support to strive towards a life of success and happiness.” – Megan Labbe ’22.

“I like to think of feminism in the plural, since there are many different “feminisms”. Though feminisms and feminists take many forms, in my view, they share an underlying commitment to analyzing and fighting all forms of oppression, and to promoting gender equality and justice for all individuals.” – Dr. Licia Carlson, professor of philosophy.

 What is the importance of the celebration of 50 years of women at PC?

“Obviously, PC has been enriched and changed by the presence of women on campus in faculty, staff, student, and administrative capacities. It’s a clear example of how bringing different ways of thinking to the table and really listening to what those voices might be saying might improve a community and an institutional culture.” – Dr. Jennifer Illuzzi, associate professor of history and Director of the DWC program.  

“I think Providence College is what it is today because of the women that are on this campus. Despite the college being predominantly run by men, women students are in leadership positions in most of the clubs on campus, make up more than half the student body, and are athletes, scholarship holders, interns, student workers, and so much more to represent the college.” – Christina Corbiserio ’22.

“While 50 years of women is an exceptional milestone displaying how far we’ve come as an institution of higher education, it is also an indication of how far we still have to go to elevate all PC students to be successful in all aspects of life.” Megan Labbe ’22.

“This anniversary is important for many reasons. It celebrates a significant moment in PC’s history that reflects a commitment to co-education and to expanding the diversity of students, perspectives, and ideas. Through the wonderful programming this year, it has also been an occasion to learn about our history and to celebrate the distinctive contributions that so many women in the PC community have made.” – Dr. Licia Carlson, professor of philosophy.

What do you hope for the future of women at PC in academics and beyond?

“I have high hopes and expectations for women at PC in the future, because I believe that there is still so much more that needs to be done to allow female identifying students to truly succeed here. I hope that PC will take Title IX more seriously, including investigating instances of sexual assault across our campus in a more serious manner. Additionally, I hope that PC will continue to combat insitutionalized and systematically supported instances of racism and discrimination across our campus in all shapes and forms. Finally, as a Catholic institution, I hope that PC will continue to make progressive strides towards the recognition and equal treatment of all gender and sexual orientations.” – Megan Labbe ’22.

“I think that the issue of diversity, which is at the core of our mission at PC, is one that is relevant to all of these areas- academic spaces and departments, curriculum, personal expression, and justice. I think that we must continue to work as a community toward the affirmation of everyone’s valued place in our community. I am so grateful for the many initiatives, clubs, and hard work that so many are doing to make our campus more hospitable, and I look forward to continuing to do my part.” – Dr. Licia Carlson, professor of philosophy. 

What is the importance of intersectionality in your own understanding of feminism and women’s rights?

“I don’t think there can or should be feminism without understanding the concept and importance of intersectionality.  My identity as a woman is not the central facet of who I am, and I wouldn’t want anyone to assume that about me.  We’re all complicated, and the only way to understand one another is to resist the urge to lock someone up into one aspect of their humanity.  That being said, we have to be willing to listen to and care about aspects of identity that the folks in our lives cite as important to them.  A concept I really find helpful is Isabelle Gunning’s “world traveler feminism.’” – Dr. Illuzzi. 

“There is no feminism without it being intersectional. Feminism needs to include all people no matter their race, religion, gender, and sexuality. Yes, feminism has been used to uplift women in attempt to make them ‘equal to men,’ but it’s so much more than just the gender binary.” – Christina Corbiserio ’22.

“In understanding feminism and women’s rights, if we cannot view these topics through an intersectional lens we are doing a grave disservice to ourselves and our friends and loved ones. Viewing feminism and women’s rights through an intersectional lens is the only way that we can truly hope to achieve equality, equity, and understanding amongst all human beings, specifically by recognizing our differences and working towards a brighter future for all in light of these very differences. Without an intersectional lens, first and second wave feminism only focused on problems specifically faced by white, middle class, educated women, leaving behind the voices of BIPOC, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and so much more!” – Megan Labbe ’22.

“I think it is crucial to examine the ways that gender intersects with other factors and identities, including race, ethnicity, class, ability and disability, sexual orientation, and gender identity. My own research in the philosophy of disability (as a person who does not identify as having a disability) has been profoundly humbling and instructive. It has shown me how important it is to acknowledge the broad range of experiences that people have, to challenge assumptions and biases, and to listen and learn from others.” – Dr. Licia Carlson, professor of philosophy.

Since the admission of the 1975 inaugural class, PC has made some changes in the expansion of women’s rights on campus. The establishment of the Providentia Endowed Fund was a recently established initiative to celebrate 50 years of undergraduate women at Providence College, amassing gifts of more than $1.67 million in just six months. 

Although there have been major institutional developments to cultivate the role of women and their just place at PC, there are still campus-wide concerns regarding equity and diversity on-campus. In order to ensure absolute gender liberation for women beyond academic spaces, there must be a complete transformation of the political, social and economic institutions in society for representative gender justice and freedom. 

PC has long struggled to provide more inclusive spaces for those students, faculty, and staff who comprise a community of underrepresented groups on campus. These include BIPOC, the LGBTQ+ community, and other historically marginalized groups who feel alienated on PC’s campus. In advocating for the expansion of necessary safe spaces to encourage and to promote dialogue on issues faced by those most marginalized on campus, especially through academia, there can be equitable treatment and justice for all at PC.

Continuing to challenge the very institutions that have sought to oppress women for so many decades is a necessary means for the end that is gender liberation in traditionally male-dominated spaces. The necessary implementation of the intersectional forces that construct a woman’s identity are further reinforced particularly in collective, academic settings. Silence is the oppressor that inhibits the noise necessary to drive change. 

As Audre Lorde puts it: “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”

Happy Women’s History Month!