A Department of One’s Own: Women’s Studies at the University of Montana

Logo, reading "Women's Studies Emphasis Liberal Arts Program."

Although the University of Montana began offering Women’s Studies classes in 1974, it did not become a formally recognized program until 1991. This logo was taken from its fall 1992 brochure. Photo courtesy of the Department of Women’s Studies Records (RG 87), Archives and Special Collections, Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library, The University of Montana–Missoula.

In the 1970s, women activists across the nation experienced growing dissatisfaction. As participants in the civil rights and antiwar movements, they had learned to question the status quo. Nevertheless, many of these women felt as if their own concerns—from unequal pay to sexual harassment to the lack of recognition for women’s contributions to social movements—went unnoticed. Eager to challenge gender discrimination, these women formed groups that would become the bedrock of Second Wave Feminism. In Missoula, Montana, one such group blended activism and scholarship to create the University of Montana’s Women’s Studies Program.

It began after a 1974 symposium on women, featuring speakers from various university departments, when English professor Carolyn Wheeler circulated a handwritten memo to other women faculty members, asking if they would teach a class focused on women. History professor Maxine Van de Wetering initially resisted the idea, saying she “couldn’t even imagine what that would be.” However, according to Wheeler, Van de Wetering quickly changed her mind when “she just started thinking what it could mean to . . . history.”

The response from other faculty members was electric. Joan Watson, a liberal studies professor and later director of the Women’s Studies Program, observed: “The contributions of women have been hidden from history . . . women, like people of color, have been largely absent from the texts we study.” For many students, correcting that omission seemed to be both a revelation and a revolution. Continue reading

Bonnie HeavyRunner: A Warrior for Diversity

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Bonnie HeavyRunner, pictured here a year before her untimely death, was the founding director of the University of Montana’s Native American Studies department. Photo courtesy Aislinn HeavyRunner-Rioux

“We in the Native American community know that the warrior of old no longer exists. So we ask ourselves, ‘What do we have left?’ We have individuals who are culturally aware, who realize the value of getting a ‘white man’s education’ and utilizing that to the benefit . . . of the community. They have the ability to turn this whole negative picture of cultural genocide around.” Bonnie HeavyRunner spoke these words in praise of her sister, Iris HeavyRunner, but she could have been describing herself.

One of thirteen children, Bonnie HeavyRunner grew up in Browning on the Blackfeet Reservation, where she experienced the daily reality of poverty, relatives struggling with alcohol addiction, and the sudden loss of family members. At a young age she vowed to stay sober and remain true to her cultural values. Her personal integrity became the foundation of her determination to improve the lives of American Indian people by being an advocate for Native and women’s issues while building cross-cultural bridges. As the director of the University of Montana’s Native American Studies program, she worked tirelessly to bring about greater cultural awareness of American Indians while making the academic world more hospitable to Indian students.

HeavyRunner earned a bachelor’s degree in social work from the University of Montana in 1983 and then a law degree in 1988. One of only a few women in the School of Law in the 1980s, HeavyRunner was also the only American Indian law student in her class. She went on to become a clerk, and then a judge, on the Blackfeet Tribal Court, but she did not forget the cultural isolation she had felt at the university. Many Native students dropped out of school because they experienced such a wide gap between themselves and the non-Indian culture of the university community at large. HeavyRunner wanted to change that. Continue reading