Renowned HBCU creates a ‘safe haven’ for Black feminist and queer studies

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Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Higher Education newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Thursday with trends and top stories about higher education. 

ATLANTA – As more and more attempts to restrict discussion of gender and race in K-12 schools across the country take hold, where do the ideas go?

Despite the general hostility, despite the recent legislative attacks on so much of what they stand for, the leaders of Spelman College’s comparative women’s studies department have fostered a sort of “safe haven” for Black feminist and queer studies, said M. Bahati Kuumba, the associate director of the department.

Women’s studies, at Spelman and elsewhere, is an interdisciplinary major that examines the way identity – including race, class, sexuality, gender, ability and age – affects the dynamics of power and privilege in society. The discipline looks critically at racism, sexism and other systems of inequality in society. In a college known for that field of study, it would be hypocritical not to create an environment that welcomes every student and celebrates them for who they are as a whole person, said Esther Ajayi-Lowo, an assistant professor in the department.

“I just feel really lucky, happy that those of us at Spelman are not as impacted by the negative trends,” Kuumba said.  She said this motivates her to “work even harder to make sure the theoretical perspectives that encapsulate our experiences, which are the areas of thought that they’re trying to make illegal, are actually valued at Spelman.”

“I just feel really lucky, happy that those of us at Spelman are not as impacted by the negative trends.”

M. Bahati Kuumba, associate director, department of comparative women’s studies, Spelman College

Among the 102 historically Black colleges and universities, Spelman is the only one that offers a bachelor’s degree in women’s or gender studies. Some other HBCUs offer interdisciplinary degrees in which students can select a concentration on similar topics, and others offer minors in gender or women’s studies. 

Kuumba said that Spelman is an intellectual oasis that has, so far, been spared any legislative attempts to cut funding for certain departments or control what topics can be studied. Other political changes to the education sphere, such as the expected Supreme Court ruling on the use of race in college admissions, Kuumba said, are unlikely to have a significant effect on historically Black colleges like Spelman.

Application figures suggest increased interest in Spelman over the past few years. The women’s college received 13,614 applications for the fall of 2022 – a 48 percent increase over the 9,179 who applied in fall of 2019, according to a spokesperson for the college. Enrollment over the same time period rose by about 12 percent, and the number of students who are majoring in women’s studies has remained steady.

At Spelman, students are sheltered from the negativity in some ways: the community is overwhelmingly made up of Black women, and the principal mission of the college is to educate Black women and prepare them to contribute to positive social change.

And while Atlanta is a liberal city, Georgia isn’t immune to the political struggles. Last year, the governor signed a law limiting what K-12 schools can teach children about racism, and prohibiting anything that might make a student feel guilt or shame about their race. A bill meant to restrict education about gender and sexuality in K-12 schools and other settings was introduced by Republican state lawmakers this spring, but has not progressed.  

Instead of despairing about these policies and others like them in other states, Ajayi-Lowo said the women’s studies department gives students the opportunity to make sense of “racial and gendered oppression,” use history to put it into context and begin building hope. She believes it’s personally empowering to students to learn how to advocate for themselves and their communities.

“It’s not just like, ‘there is a war, all of this is happening, the world’s falling apart,’” Ajayi-Lowo said. “They’re able to see themselves as critical stakeholders who have the agency to make changes.”

Fostering a “safe haven” at Spelman shows students that it’s possible to create communities that are free of oppression, Ajayi-Lowo said, and teaches them that if, later in life, they find themselves with no space like this, they will have the power to recreate it. Knowing they have this power is even more important in a moment marked by pervasive hostility and so many legislative efforts to control various aspects of education, Ajayi-Lowo said.

Discussion of race and gender is not being limited only in grade schools. Wyoming has seen several attempts to defund gender and women’s studies programs at public colleges. Florida has a new law that severely restricts gender and women’s studies instruction and defunds initiatives related to diversity, equity and inclusion in the state university system. A similar bill has passed the Texas legislature and is awaiting signature from the governor. 

To Shoniqua Roach, an assistant professor of women’s studies and African American studies at Brandeis University, it makes sense that Spelman’s comparative women’s studies program would feel protected and safe during such politically tumultuous times. 

“They’re able to see themselves as critical stakeholders who have the agency to make changes.”

Esther Ajayi-Lowo, assistant professor, comparative women’s studies, Spelman College

“Black feminism was born out of impossible conditions,” Roach said. “Our field has only gotten more resilient in the face of chaos and the face of crisis.”

Roach said that many of the concepts being targeted by conservative lawmakers originate from Black feminist scholars, including the idea that Black people and people from other historically marginalized groups have had a different experience in the United States from others, and that they deserve systemic changes to prevent further mistreatment and to repair damage done. These ideas are core tenets of women’s studies and intersectional feminism, and challenges to them are not new.

“It’s a pretty creative, rigorous, resilient and incredible time for Black feminist theory, which doesn’t surprise me because as a field, we’ve always already been under siege,” Roach said. “I’m already excited to see the creativity that is born out of this chaos.”

Black feminist theory in part argues for human empowerment, but specifically for empowering Black women, one of the most marginalized groups in the United States, Roach said. She is seeing more scholars take advantage of the opportunity to share Black feminist thought beyond academia, which “is an incredible creative, political and intellectual achievement.”

Ariella Rotramel, a professor at Connecticut College and the vice president of the National Women’s Studies Association, believes political pushback comes as a direct result of social justice progress being made. 

For example, Rotramel said, if more people start acknowledging racism and its material effects on health and wealth, then it’s more likely to be addressed. And they see attempts to restrict gender-affirming health care for transgender children as evidence that there are enough parents that love and support their trans children for people to feel threatened by it, Rotramel said.

Rotramel said that they, like most educators, teach theories, and students do not have to agree with every single thing they teach.

“It’s a competing imagining of what our world should be,” Rotramel said. “Of course, I think you always have to believe that the best things about people and humanity will win and people will realize there are ways to care and ways to respect differences.” 

This story about Spelman women’s studies was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

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