A simmering three-year dispute between the Cal State Long Beach Women's Studies Program and a conservative group has erupted into a legal confrontation that could ultimately lead to the dismantling of the program.
At issue is whether women's studies at the university is a legitimate academic program or a front for what critics say is the training and recruitment of feminists and lesbians.
"The program is and will continue . . . to operate as a surrogate for the radical feminist wing of the women's liberation movement. It will continue to indoctrinate students and the public community . . . into the political ideology of feminism and lesbianism," claims a suit filed in Long Beach Superior Court by 16 plaintiffs including a former Republican state senator from Long Beach and the California president of Phyllis Schlafly's conservative Eagle Forum.
Because public policy prohibits a state-funded university from operating as a "platform for feminist and lesbian propaganda" rather than as a "forum for academic inquiry and the exposition of truth," the suit contends, the university should be ordered to eliminate the Women's Studies Program from its curriculum and stop spending public funds to "advance and endorse the political and sectarian doctrines of feminism and lesbianism."
Sharon Sievers, director of the Women's Studies Program, denies that it acts as a recruiting ground for feminists and lesbians. "There probably isn't a single program at the university on more solid grounds of intellectual inquiry," she said. "Women's studies (in general) is distinguished by the fact that in 15 to 20 very short years we have turned out an incredible amount of research."
Although there is a "strong connection between women's studies in the university and the women's movement" that gave rise to it, she said, the relationship is not symbiotic. "To the extent that our instructors are excited about their subject," she said, "I suppose they could be accused of recruiting. But then my colleagues who teach European studies could be accused of recruiting for European scholarship."
Sievers characterized the suit as a challenge to "the whole idea of intellectual pluralism in a university . . . the basic assumptions about intellectual freedom that universities are all about."
The action is the latest salvo in a heated controversy that began in 1982 when Jessica Shaver, a free-lance writer and then part-time Cal State Long Beach student, became incensed over books on the recommended reading list of a Women's Studies course. She claimed the books advocated lesbianism.
In the well-publicized furor that followed, several people--including three teachers and the director of the program--lost their jobs. As a result, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a sex discrimination suit against the university on behalf of the fired director and 19 other students and instructors.
And in an unusual move, a group of conservatives attempted to intervene in the legal proceeding in order to abolish state-funded women's studies programs altogether.
A judge denied their petition to intervene on the grounds that the ACLU suit--which is still pending--is a narrow personnel matter.
So in May the conservative group filed a suit of its own. Plaintiffs include California Eagle Forum president Jo Ellen Allen, former Long Beach Republican state Sen. Oliver W. Speraw, five former Cal State Long Beach students and nine "taxpayers and residents" who are identified as opposed to the university's "exclusion and denigration of women's traditional roles as a partner in the biological family and the bearer and nurturer of the future of the race." A slightly amended version of the action was filed this week.
"The classroom is not the place where political advocacy should be the dominant activity," said Allen, a political science instructor at West Los Angeles College. "I personally don't even believe that there is an academic field called women's studies."
500 Students Enrolled
Sievers said she welcomes the opportunity to prove otherwise. After a long struggle "for survival" in the aftermath of the publicity generated by the 1982 events, she said, the Cal State Long Beach Women's Studies Program is now offering courses attended by about 500 students each year--more than enrolled in women's studies courses before the controversy began.
A university bulletin lists 17 courses--ranging from "Women and Their Bodies" and "Feminist Theory" to "History of Women in the U.S." and "Women in Economy"--to be offered by the program this fall.
Sievers said she believes a court test could ultimately prove valuable to all concerned in clarifying what women's studies is all about.
"We are not here to make people feel good," she said. "What women's studies does is look at the unpleasant realities and contradictions of society.