At Carlow University, an Oakland college with mostly female students, taking a course in women's studies is a requirement for graduation.
"It fits in with the legacy of the school," said Katie Hogan, director of the women's studies program at the school, which was founded in 1929 by the Catholic Sisters of Mercy. The school's founders, she said, were interested in creating change and being in the world.
This week, Carlow University is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the program. On Thursday, the Carlow department sponsored a program that included a documentary, followed by a panel discussion, about the media's representation of women.
It was under-representation of women that prompted Ellie Wymard, now director of Carlow's Master of Fine Arts program, to found the department.
In the late 1960s, Ms. Wymard was a pursuing a doctorate in American literature at the University of Pittsburgh, when a thought occurred to her: the works she was studying had all, with just a few exceptions, been written by men.
"It wasn't that women weren't writing," Ms. Wymard said in a phone interview. "It wasn't that women weren't painting. I was just that their work wasn't in the traditional cannon. It wasn't part of the traditional curriculum."
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, that thought -- that women were not being represented in academic scholarship even as they were growing in representation in the workplace, in government and in media -- occurred not just to Ms. Wymard.
On college campuses across the country, a new field of study started to show up on lists of academic programs -- women's studies. In 1972, the same year Ms. Wymard founded Carlow's department, a similar program was started at the University of Pittsburgh.
For Carlow, where 93 percent of undergraduates are women, the decision to add a women's studies department seemed particularly appropriate, said Ms. Wymard, who was director of women's studies for about a decade. The leaders of Carlow believed that "women should have a sense of their own history and background," she said.
Women's studies is offered as an 18-credit minor and has been a requirement for graduation since the late 1970s.
There are some students, both male and female, who feel "ambivalent" about the requirement, likely due to stereotypes about the field of women's studies, said Ms. Hogan, who has a doctorate in American literature and is in her 10th year as director of the women's studies program. But she said feedback from students after they complete the requirement has been overwhelmingly positive.
Some of the women's studies courses listed on Carlow's website cover topics ranging from women and work to women and religion and women in art. One of the newest courses, which Ms. Hogan helps teach, talks about girl cultures and looks at research about, for example, girls and prom.
Rather than narrowing the school's general curriculum to works only by women, the effect of adding female perspectives has created a more inclusive curriculum, one that does a good job of "preparing students to deal with the very complex and diverse world," Ms. Hogan said.
Although women have made substantial strides in the past 40 years, women's studies programs are still vital to raising topics of discussion about how women are portrayed or where they are under-represented, Ms. Hogan said.
As examples, she pointed to the wage gap between what men and women are paid, and also to the low percentage of women who have held elected office in the United States.
"I think that needs to always be talked about," she said.
Kaitlynn Riely: email@example.com or 412-263-1707. First Published September 15, 2012 4:00 AM