Gender is the focus of a new Washington State University-based research group comprising 66 faculty members from all WSU campuses, departments, and disciplines.

“Gender research has been a marginalized field,” says Amy Mazur, associate professor of political science and cofounder of the interdisciplinary group, GRACe (Gendering Research Across the Campuses). “Part of gender research is doing the research and then getting people to listen to it.”

That’s what led to GRACe holding its first annual symposium in February. Founded in 2002 by Mazur and Noel Sturgeon, associate professor and director of Women’s Studies, the group designed the symposium to showcase gender research being conducted by faculty and graduate students at WSU and in the region and to promote future research collaborations across disciplines.

The following are highlights of the research shared at the first annual GRACe symposium:

Allyson Wolf, graduate student in American Studies, focuses on female-reform leaders in the 1800s and how they adopted certain styles of dress and clothes to convey their message of reform. For instance, Frances Wright (1795-1852), a proponent of equal rights and birth control for women, was called “unsexed” and “man-ish” (sic) by the press for her style of dress. Mary Walker (1832-1919), a physician who was at once the only woman and the sole civilian to receive the Medal of Honor during the Civil War, adopted male attire to fit into a predominantly male-oriented field, but kept her long, black ringlets of hair.

Wolf explains that 19th-century women were careful to strike a balance between femininity and masculinity in order to further their causes. “Women could not be too masculine in order to remain engaging and make progress as a public speaker,” she says.

Pam Bettis, assistant professor, Teaching and Learning, presented on “The Nebulous Space of Niceness.”

Bettis’s preliminary research focuses on what it means to be “nice” as women and girls. She surveyed adolescent girls in junior high to learn how they define nice and characterize their peers. Bettis found girls categorized other girls as either “sluts” (appearing to be promiscuous, showing an excess of femininity, typically associated with lower-class socioeconomic status); “snobs” (displaying exclusivity, appearing not to want to socialize with anyone, associated with white, middle- or upper-class socioeconomic status); or “nice” (the ideal). Her research reveals a girlhood ideal of “niceness” held in high esteem in American culture. Nice girls are inclusive and strike the right balance of being attractive, but not flaunting it. Bettis’s research touches on the concept of “new girlhood,” in which girls are increasingly expected to be strong, assertive, athletic, smart, but still nice.

Kelly Ward, assistant professor, Educational Leadership and Counseling Psychology, focuses on the issues that arise for women contemplating starting a family at a time when they are working to achieve tenure at institutions of higher learning.

“The tenure clock and biological clock tick simultaneously,” Ward says. This leads to women at universities, public and private institutions, and community colleges being preoccupied with thoughts of when is the appropriate time to have babies.

The prestige of the university, or its pursuit of prestige related to its focus on research, played direct roles in female faculty’s decisions to start a family. Women faculty members found a greater tension between work and mothering at institutions with high expectations of research and/or direct involvement in faculty and student life (small, liberal-arts colleges). Ward says female faculty at community colleges, where the focus is more on teaching, were most content and thought they were good places to combine work and family.

GRACe is funded by the Office of Research, the College of Liberal Arts, the Graduate School, the Thomas S. Foley Institute of Public Policy and Public Service, and the departments of Women’s Studies and Political Science. For more information on GRACe, click here.