Interview with Heather Fitz Gibbon

Dublin Core


Interview with Heather Fitz Gibbon


Sociology; Women's studies; Feminism; Second-wave feminism; Third-wave feminism; Human sexuality; Gender; Urban studies; Interdisciplinary approach in education


This is an interview with The College of Wooster professor Heather Fitz Gibbon. Heather talks about her expereince teaching in Sociology, Urban Studies and Women's, Gender & Sexuality Studies. Heather also talks about her involvement in the beginning of the Women's Studies discipline at Wooster. Heather also talks about the importance of the WGSS department being interdisciplinary and what she wants the department to look like in the future.


Harris-Ridker, Matthew
Fitz Gibbon, Heather






OHLA Undergraduate Fieldwork Fellow/Faculty Mentor Microgrant, College of Wooster Libraries


Presented with permission from Heather Fitz Gibbon

In Copyright








Fitz-Gibbon Interview.mp3


Chicago; New Jersey; Wooster

Oral History Item Type Metadata


Harris-Ridker, Matthew


Fitz Gibbon, Heather


Virtual Interview


Heather Fitz Gibbon Interview

Edited by Matthew Harris-Ridker and Heather Fitz Gibbon for clarity

[00:00:00] MHR: All right. I'm here with Heather Fitz Gibbon. It is June 14th [2018]. Hello Professor Fitz Gibbon! Thank you so much for being a part of this. So to start off I'm just going to ask you where are you from originally, and how did you end up as a professor at the College of Wooster?

[00:00:18] HFG: Before college, from Chicago. New Jersey before that, other places before that. We moved around a lot. And I went to Kenyon College as an undergrad and Northwestern for graduate school. And I wanted to be at a small liberal arts college and Wooster had a position. So, there we go!

[00:00:40] MHR: Very nice!

[00:00:42] HFG: That was almost 30 years ago.

[00:00:42] MHR: Oh, very nice! So what got you interested in the WGSS Discipline either at Wooster or as a student before coming to Wooster? Just talk about your experience with that.

[00:00:55] HFG: Yeah. In college there were no such courses. There was no Women's Studies. Sociology courses didn't talk about gender. It didn't exist as a topic really. And so I got to graduate school and was assigned as a T.A. to what was then called a Sex Roles course, which is a horrible name. We would never teach something called that these days. There we go. And I wasn't that interested in issues of gender at that time, but then I started really coming to see how gender and sexuality were not present in any of the curriculum and not present in the work. I mean, originally to be honest thirty five/forty, yikes, years ago I wasn't sure WGSS, or at that time Women's Studies, made sense because my thought was we shouldn't ghettoize it. We shouldn't just have a place where, "over here we'll talk about gender and we don't have to do that anywhere else." But, as I got further in my career I realized that it wasn't being done anywhere else and that we needed a place to start talking about gender. And then when it came to Wooster they were looking for someone to teach, again a badly named course, Women in Society. Which was kind of like, "look! There are women in our society!" So I quickly changed that name of that course and then taught that. I didn't teach in Women's Studies. My position is a third Urban Studies, and part Sociology and part, originally, Women's Studies and I didn't have any room to really teach directly in the Program. I was teaching the Sociology of Gender course, but I had a fabulous opportunity. In her effort to drag me into the Program more fully, Joanne Fry had me team-teach Intro to Women's Studies with her, which was an amazing experience. To team-teach that with someone from literature perspective, a humanist, ... she looks at the world very differently than I do as a social scientist. And so we team-taught Intro Women's Studies in the 90s, late 90s maybe? Early 2000? And then I started teaching more of the core courses and ended up being one of the chair of Women's Studies. I was one of the last chairs of Women's Studies before it became WGSS. So that's a long history of me and WGSS. I've taught Intro to WGSS a number of times. I was Dean of Faculty for seven years, so the last eight years I was not teaching a lot. So I haven't been doing that much recently.

[00:04:04] MHR: So you were talking about teaching Intro to WGSS with Joanne Frye, or talk Intro to Women's Studies a little bit more about that experience. You were saying you guys were coming from different academic perspectives.

[00:04:19] HFG: Joanne had been central to the field. And really the difference is that, for example in looking at a novel, I as a sociologist would look at it as data. What does this tell us about society? I’m not very good at symbolism and meaning--I learned a lot from Joanne from that. And I think she learned a lot from me about the social science of understanding the experiences of gender and sexuality. We teach differently. It was a great experience from that perspective. At that time as a Program we were in the process of thinking about shifting to WGSS. So what was different? We were doing a lot more on issues of sexuality, which hadn't been central to the Women's Studies course. We added some core sections on masculinities that in Women’s Studies weren't as core to the Discipline. So we were exploring together how to embed those in the Intro course and start to build the curriculum. It was 2001 or 2002 because it was right after 9/11 and we were wrestling with how to make it a far more global course and deal with issues of global feminisms in the 9/11 era, which was a challenge.

[00:05:53] MHR: Of course. You were... sort of started talking about my next question for you which is, when you were chair what was, sort of, the state of the Department? Because you said you were the last chair of Women's Studies before it became Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies.

[00:06:10] HFG: You probably have some of this history. You've talked to Joanne, I think, so you know some of the history but I'll give you my perspective. By design when the Program was created it had a half time coordinator of the Program who came from another Discipline, took a three year reassignment of their duties for half time duties to administer the Program, and then you would solicit other people to teach in it. And so there was really only a half time position and it rotated among various faculty at the college. That was by design and the really great thing about that, and I miss that in many respects, is that meant that there was a committed group of faculty who were this core group who were contributing to the Program. And it was very valuable. The Program wasn't defined by one person. It didn't solely reside with one person who was the face of Women's Studies. There were many of us. But, it given some enrollment pressures it became harder and harder to find folks to teach the courses and chair the Program. Partly, the college lowered the teaching load meaning faculty were teaching a little bit less. It wasn't much but it was enough that Departments weren't letting people reassign their time to teach Women's Studies, so it was getting really difficult to staff the Program. We also recognized at that time that we didn't have an expertise in global feminisms and we didn't have enough focus on sexuality. And that's where the Discipline was going. I think what I'm proudest of as chair is writing and getting the position that brought Professor Craven to us. For that position we recognized we need another half time, so that we retained the half time rotating position and then we added a permanent half time with Professor Craven. So she's half time WGSS/half time Anthropology. And then we have tried to retain the same kind of rotating chair but it's still really really hard to do. So we're in a better place, but still a challenge. Although, better with the new position. We're moving away from the rotating chair a bit, and I miss that in a sense because it puts too much on the people in the positions in WGSS and doesn't share the load and provide different perspectives on the Discipline. But, it's probably the only way you can do it.

[00:08:59] MHR: Yeah I'm looking forward to seeing how the tenure track professor is going to help maybe, like, stabilize the Program in a way. So we'll see where that goes. So you were talking about how WGSS was sort of going into global feminism and part of that was because of 9/11. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

[00:09:24] HFG: The first time I taught Intro to WGSS the question of how to address global feminism in an era of 9/11 was key. But that's not the central reason that we were looking at global feminisms. This is just where the field was going and, as we saw the Discipline evolving, where we were weakest. Part of this is the transition from second to third maybe fourth wave feminism. I'm being careful on this, I think second wave feminism gets a really bad rap as being non-diverse and only about white women. It wasn't entirely that, though it was too much about white women and white middle class women and was not very global. [00:10:07] And certainly third wave feminism really pushed the Discipline to say, "hey wait a second. How do we think about other expressions of gender and sexuality in different contexts?" And we weren't doing a good job of negotiating that. And personally I kind of fall in between the waves, right? I'm a little on the end of second wave feminism but older than third wave feminism. So trying to bridge some of that has been fun.

[00:10:36] MHR: Very nice! So my next question has to do with... as a professor of Sociology as well, how do you incorporate WGSS into your Sociology classes, as well? And also, how do you see Wooster's WGSS Program being so interdisciplinary as being an important aspect of the Program?

[00:10:58] HFG: Those are two big questions!

[00:10:58] MHR: Yeah, those are huge questions, I'm sorry. You can't take it apart as you please! [00:11:02] HFG: Let me take the first one. I don't know if you know Peggy McIntosh's Stages of Curricular Design. You should read, it's very good. And she talks in terms of women, but you could extend that to gender and sexualities. It's not present at all in Disciplines. That was my college experience. And then as the Discipline progresses, it's what she calls add women and stir, which is, "okay we'll have a chapter on women in the sociology textbooks. And we'll talk about it there and that's the only place we'll talk about." And so certainly early in my career, early in the fields, that's what we were doing. And I think most of us in Sociology have worked really hard over the past few years not to just have, "this is the week we will talk about women!" So for example, my other main area is Urban Studies, and I teach an Urban Sociology class. [00:12:03] It was actually kind of funny because I was... that used to be usually male, and I would teach the Urban Soc class and it would be twenty five men and five women. And then I would teach the Sociology of Gender course and it would be twenty nine women and one man. It's gotten a lot better on both sides. And so I would do a week on women in the city because, "look! There are women in the city!" And that's just not productive. So now in my courses as I'm talking about any kind of social forces, such as poverty, globalization, or inequality, gender and sexuality are key to understanding those forces. Certainly looking from an intersectional perspective, looking at the intersections of gender, race, class, sexualities in any of the social forces we look at. [00:13:02] Interdisciplinarity, yes! It's very important but I don't know... I don't know that we always do it well. I don't know that we always define what interdisciplinarity means. Does it just mean we have a sociologist and an English professor teaching a course together? That's not necessarily interdisciplinarity if we just alternate classes and present it differently. It's really hard work to do truly interdisciplinary work. But it's important because I think bringing together the skill sets of humanities, social sciences, we need more of the natural sciences and really bringing that to, you know, a perspective that is more than just the sum of the parts I think is really important. Again we don't always do such a great job because it's hard. Early on the Program is really dominated by humanities. Now I think it's far more social science dominated. So we've gone through different trends.

[00:14:00] MHR: Do you have a favorite class you have taught at Wooster that's been a part of the WGSS Program?

[00:14:06] HFG: One of my favorite courses was an upper level seminar called Gendered Spaces as it brought together urban and issues of gender. We looked at how it was kind of a spatial feminism. We looked at how spaces are gendered. How sexuality overlays spaces. I was thinking about it recently because the class went out and they identified Timpkin Science Library as one of the most males spaces on campus. And we just, this spring, had the unveiling of really trying to change some of that by adding some forgotten names, hidden figures so to speak. Yeah, I think that was my favorite class to teach. It was a lot of fun looking at how the experiences of... how urban design has been very masculinized. Looking at the, kind of, heteronormativity in urban planning and urban design particularly if you look at the suburbs and the structures of those. I also... I liked, I think, teaching WGSS Seminar. But it's the hardest course I've ever taught. It's a tough course to teach. But if it goes well it's really rewarding. It can go badly but if it goes well it's very rewarding.

[00:15:25] MHR: Yeah that Gendered Spaces class sounds really interesting.

[00:15:27] HFG: I want to be able to teach that again, yeah!

[00:15:30] MHR: Yeah! I will take it if you are teaching it!

[00:15:34] HFG: Lovely!

[00:15:35] MHR: So another question I have is what are the most valuable things students in the WGSS classes learn, or why is the WGSS discipline such an important area of study in your opinion?

[00:15:48] HFG: Yeah. I think the central issues, and this is, you know, from my perspective as a Sociologist obviously, is looking at power and privilege across various domains in our lives and how that affects experiences. Power, privilege seeing intersectionality through various aspects of our lives and how that plays out in understanding how we define ourselves in terms of categories such as gender, sex, sexuality are imbued with that power and privilege. I think that perspective is essential. You know, and I think it's essential for various groups. It's important for social justice issues, for making change in the world. Not to sound too cheesy and naive, but to try and make some change in the world. I think it's important for that. I think it's important for students who are trying to find their place in terms of categories that they've been placed in or that they're trying to identify themselves. And it's a really important place for students who haven't thought about that before, to understand the roles of power and privilege. Who maybe... who have not understood their white privilege or their privilege based on heterosexuality and haven't understood where that comes from and how that develops. I think that's really important.

[00:17:26] MHR: Yeah, no it was really interesting to me when I took the intro class, and the started to take the upper level classes before I became a major, just how... because coming into Wooster I was sort of thinking, "oh this discipline, like, it's, like, I already know about these issues." But then when I started taking it I was like, "these are still applicable to, like, everything." It's really like one of the basic things of how our world is run and we really need to understand these better. So I definitely like your answer because I really have seen that. Are there specific things you want your students to get out of the classes you teach in WGSS?

[00:18:07] HFG: Yeah...

[00:18:07] MHR: Like are there certain goals you have for them?

[00:18:12] HFG: I don't know that I have goals that are that different with my WGSS courses than in any of my other courses. I want them to think critically and in all my courses I want them to look at structures of power and inequalities and to question their assumptions and to look at their experiences from a new perspective. Now if I can get there at the end of course I'm very happy. You know, students who think they know everything about gender and sexuality already so... trying to, "OK let's look at this from a new perspective and challenge your assumptions that you have whether you've never thought about gender before or whether you've thought a lot about it."

[00:18:59] MHR: So one of my final questions that's coming to my head right now is, how do you see Wooster's Program in comparison to maybe other small liberal arts Programs in Ohio or even to, like, a big university? Is there anything Wooster's WGSS Program is unique compared to others?

[00:19:21] HFG: Yeah, I mean, we're small. A little smaller than some other liberal arts colleges. And so that limits us. I think we're one of the older Programs in at least The Ohio Five and the GLCA in our cohort. That's a longer standing Program and there's some history that I think is really exciting for Wooster's program. And now, not surprisingly, the I.S. makes a difference. The fact that we've got students out there doing research, doing social justice based projects... and there are some, still some, Programs that are far more rooted in a more traditional Women's Studies kind of perspective. [00:20:13] So I think we've grown and evolved in that way better than some. I mean the difference is we don't have twenty faculty all working together on issues of gender and sexuality solely, you know. And we're always having to beg, borrow, and steal faculty members from other Departments to get courses taught. And that's hard.

[00:20:38] MHR: Yeah we'll see how maybe this tenure track will change things in that aspect.

[00:20:45] HFG: The danger is that other faculty simply then, "oh, we have these two positions now we don't have to worry about it, right? You don't have to.. you don't need me as much because we've got these other positions.".

[00:20:57] MHR: Yeah.

[00:20:57] HFG: And I hope that doesn't happen.

[00:21:00] MHR: Yeah.

[00:21:01] HFG: It kind of happened a little bit when we got the position of Professor Craven. But the college is really focused on issues of interdisciplinarity and putting some resources behind it. So, that'll be good!

[00:21:14] MHR: Yeah! How do you envision the WGSS Program at Wooster for the next... well it's the fortieth anniversary this year, so what do you envision the Program looking like in another 40 years?

[00:21:28] HFG: We're already on the way of it being a far more diverse Program, being far more, again, intersectional, being far more global. And I think just... we'll continue that way as we go forward.

[00:21:45] MHR: So those are all the questions I have. But did you want to say anything else or ask me anything before we end this interview?

[00:21:55] HFG: So what becomes of this project?

[00:21:59] MHR: Originally it was because it's the fortieth anniversary. So me and Dr. Craven and also Catie Newton who works in the library got this grant to do an oral history project to, sort of, create an archive of the history of WGSS at Wooster. [00:22:16] So we could just have a history of the WGSS Program because it is such a new Program. To sort of have historical documentation of it for future generations. And then the hope is to have students look at the work that we started here with WGSS at Wooster and then, sort of, take it into a more broad context. As of now my goal is to, sort of, archive stories of people who have been a part of the WGSS Program since the beginning to now and just have their oral histories and their stories here for people to look at and listen to in future generations.

[00:22:53] HFG: Which is exciting and it reminds me of a direction that we are already going a little bit in and I hope to do more of. Last week I was with Catie Newton at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute in D.C. This is my third year I'v gone looking at digital humanities, which oral histories are a part of that. Professor Craven, Hayward and Holtz have been...Helis Sikk went this year, so there's a bunch of faculty getting into that. And I think it's really interesting using various media to get students looking at interpretive work and interpretive data. And that's really exciting. There's some fun areas we can go with that. And again I.S. is a great place to do that. I keep trying to push my students to say, "you should do a film along with this, or you should have an interactive website mapping some of these issues." Which would be great.

[00:24:03] MHR: Yeah! It's the cool experience for me because being a millennial and the digital world is becoming so much more a part of education. [00:24:12] I think this is a really cool way to sort of archive this history but also have this be a platform for other students to take inspiration to do more digital or online stuff with WGSS. So I'm excited to see where it goes.

Original Format






Harris-Ridker, Matthew and Fitz Gibbon, Heather, “Interview with Heather Fitz Gibbon,” WGSS at Wooster: Past, Present, and Future , accessed May 24, 2024,