Pioneer feminist

Ann Lane still encounters misconceptions about the women’s movement.

By Linda Kobert
Ann Lane

Ann Lane
Photo by Jack Mellott.

Back in the 1960s when Ann Lane returned to graduate school for her Ph.D. after a brief stint in journalism, there was no such thing as women’s studies. Lane, now a history professor and former director of U.Va.’s Studies in Women and Gender program, knew she wanted to be an activist when she was seeking doctoral programs. The closest she could get to advocacy for historically oppressed groups, however, was her specialization in Black History.

As the women’s movement dawned, Lane was among the first college professors to bring women’s issues into her classroom, at Douglass College in 1970. Women’s studies has been her life’s work ever since. This spring, Lane was honored for her contributions to the academy when she received a scholar award from the Virginia Social Science Association.

“I’m happy to get [this award], because I’m always trying to spread the word about what women’s studies is,” Lane said.

Despite more than 35 years of consciousness raising and advocacy for women’s equality in society, Lane encounters many misconceptions among students about the intent of the women’s movement, “more in these last 20 years than those preceding,” she says. When she asks her classes of mostly white, mostly female students what is a feminist, the typical response is, “lesbian man-hater.”  

“I’m very much distressed to have all these students say that we are angry, that we’re hostile to men, because we’re not,” Lane declared. “Feminists want changes. [We want] fairness and equity.”

Women do not have a long formal history at the University of Virginia, which officially opened its doors to female undergraduates in 1970. The Women’s Studies program offered its first classes in 1980 — “not terribly late, but not pioneering,” according to Lane. In 1990, when the program gave birth to the Women’s Center, whose focus was more community outreach and advocacy, a national search brought Lane to U.Va. to head the academic Women’s Studies Program.

“When I came in 1990 there was one major,” Lane said, and nine students in her first class. Today SWAG boasts 50 majors and 15 minors, and classes routinely reach capacity very quickly.

As the program expanded over the years, courses started exploring gender issues beyond the experience of women alone. About five or six years ago, faculty members realized that classes on queer theory and historical perspectives on the sexes in 18th- century Europe did not, strictly speaking, fit under the title of “women’s studies.” That’s when “gender” was added to the program’s title and it became Studies in Women and Gender.

Still, Lane wishes more men would venture into her classroom. She notes that when women’s studies programs started in the 1970s, about a third of students attending these classes nationwide were male, and many men identified themselves as feminists. In Lane’s classes today, fewer than one in 10 students are men, and female students report a disturbing antipathy from fathers and boyfriends about their participation in women’s studies classes.

“We’re moving backwards,” Lane declared. “We’re becoming more conservative. Feminism is the F-word.”

Lane wants to combat this contempt with knowledge. Women’s studies, she says, is critically important to the understanding of women in the world.

“Students learn about what women have been doing from the beginning of time,” Lane asserts. “They learn about women in literature, women in history, women in politics — things they would never imagine before. We have a whole long history of both being subjected to subordination and playing a central role in humanity’s story. Women come to college not knowing anything about either. In our classes they discover both aspects of their past and present.”

Lane has not been shy about raising her voice when advocating for women’s issues at the University. She credits her immigrant parents with fostering this independence. At a time when women were expected to stay home and have babies, Lane’s mother encouraged her daughter to seek out opportunities and do something with her life. Her father, who in the absence of his mother had been required to care for his three younger siblings and attend to the family’s housework, never objected to any of her pursuits.

At the age of 73, Lane continues to enjoy the academic life and is still teaching full time with no sign of slowing down.

“The women students here are like the women students everywhere I’ve taught,” she declared. “They really work hard. They really discover themselves in the world and are excited by it. This is one of the joys of teaching something like women’s studies.”