It’s Complicated

New Interdisciplinary Seminar Explores the Complexities of Womanhood

It’s a psychology course.

And an art history course. And a Jewish studies course. But wait, it also deals with economics, American history, Jewish history, sociology, and French and English literature.

Nora Nachumi designed the Women’s Studies Interdisciplinary Seminar at Stern College.
Nora Nachumi designed the Women’s Studies Interdisciplinary Seminar at Stern College.

Each of these subjects is fundamental to Women’s Studies Interdisciplinary Seminar, a new course offered at Stern College for Women designed by Associate Professor Nora Nachumi to analyze women’s experience through many lenses. In the classroom Nachumi, whose own specialty is English, acts as a guide, introducing students to guest speakers in a slew of fields as they present unique research on women’s roles within their discipline and in relation to it. Later, in online discussions and follow-up classes, Nachumi facilitates student discussion of lectures that range from Rabbi Saul Berman’s The Status of Women in Halakhic Judaism to Professor Marnin Young’s presentation on the dearth of well-known female artists. By the end of the semester, Nachumi hopes students will possess a richer understanding of how each discipline has colored women’s experiences of themselves and the worlds they inhabit, as well as how these perceptions impact current work in those fields.

This understanding is one many fields have only recently come by, according to Nachumi. “For instance, 50 years ago it was all wars and presidents and events women weren’t involved with in history books,” she said. While academia has grown more inclusive of women’s perspectives over the years, the seminar in part explores this inattention and its consequences, shedding light on the remarkable and often overlooked contributions of women in specific fields. The seminar will also focus on current research and debate relevant to women today. “Ultimately, we’d like to get students thinking about how their interest in women’s issues can complement work within their major and later careers,” said Nachumi. “The study of issues involving women is relevant in all disciplines.”

The class’s composition is a testament to that. The 18 students enrolled major in everything from prelaw to biology and literature, including one student, Sarah Lazaros, who is pursuing the first shaped major at Stern focusing on women’s studies. Lazaros plans to become an obstetrician. “I’m very passionate about the topics women’s studies addresses,” she said. “I think this background will be helpful to anyone in any field. It examines issues like fair and equal rights for women that come up in law, in social work, in psychology, everywhere.”

Her enthusiasm is shared by fellow students like Tirtza Spiegel, a biology major who serves as co-president of the Women’s Studies Society with Rebekah Friedman and Nicole Grubner. The students, all women’s studies minors, were deeply affected by an introductory women’s studies course taught by Nachumi two years ago. “We created the club to raise awareness of women’s issues on a personal, communal and global level, with the recognition of the unique challenges pertaining to Jewish and Orthodox women,” Spiegel explained.

However, despite the success of events that covered issues such as female sexuality and fair compensation, the women wanted a deeper inquiry into women’s studies. Last year they approached Nachumi with the request for an advanced course. “We felt it would be beneficial to create a formal arena for professor-student dialogue,” said Spiegel. That request led to the creation of the interdisciplinary seminar, a course whose roster includes recent graduates who have returned to audit it. “Students have been asking for this course for years,” said Nachumi.

Dr. Robin Freyberg, the David and Ruth Gottesman Chair in Psychology and a guest speaker whose lecture dealt with the study of gender differences, thought the course’s popularity and impact on students in a women’s college were intuitive. “On a fundamental level, these are women that we’re teaching,” Freyberg said. “Women have made important contributions to a lot of different subjects being covered in this course, and their contributions and perspectives are often neglected in more general courses. We want students to have the opportunity to see women’s roles in these areas and encourage them to make discoveries in their own fields.”

For Spiegel, the most important discovery has already been made. “Women’s studies is not solely an academic inquiry,” she said. “It’s about improving the status and quality of life for women, both inside and outside Stern College.”

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