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Women's Studies in the World

What do you think of when you think of women’s studies? Linda Perkins, director of Claremont Graduate University’s Applied Women’s Studies (AWS) program, hopes you think about social justice and human rights, but she knows that’s not always the case.

As director of AWS, Perkins puts a special emphasis on “changing the world.” This is because all AWS students must complete at least one 100- hour internship to receive a degree (though many students do several).

“The internship component was the central vision of establishing AWS at CGU,” said Jean Schroedel, who is currently dean of the School of Politics and Economics and helped found AWS 10 years ago. “We wanted this program to be distinct and relevant. That’s why we insist our students go out in the world and put what they are learning here to good use.”

Over the 10 years since AWS was launched, that’s exactly what students have done: internships have taken students through Southern California and across the world. The following are just some of the most recent examples.


AWS masters student Keeonna Harris has long been inspired by her upbringing in South Central Los Angeles. While she managed to go on to college and graduate school, too many girls from her neighborhood were turning to drugs and ending up in jail.

That is why she volunteers with A New Way of Life Reentry Project, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that provides housing and reentry support for formerly incarcerated women. With A New Way of Life, Harris accompanies the organization’s founder to pick up women from jail, aids in their transition back into society, and often actively participates in the reunification process between mothers and their children.

“A lot of people know that there are a large number of black men who are incarcerated. But I didn’t see that same level of awareness in regard to black women,” Harris said. “And over the last couple of decades there has been an alarming number of black women prosecuted.”

To better understand those alarming numbers, Harris decided to intern with the San Bernardino District Attorney’s Office’s female gang unit.

“I wanted to see things from the other side of the law,” she said. “But I also did it for my own personal growth. I don’t want to be one-sided. I wanted to get first-hand experience of how the system works.”

From May–August 2011, Harris put in three or four full workdays a week assisting San Bernardino prosecutors as they prepared for trial. She sat in on interviewing and jury selection and listened to wiretaps to ensure the transcripts were correct. Harris was not there to advocate for the defendants, but to better understand the law and how it is carried out.

The good news is that she found all the lawyers, judges, and staff members that she worked with well-meaning and professional. However, she was concerned with how the laws they were carrying out are written and practiced.

“A lot of laws are very rigid, especially in regards to sentencing. Prosecutors don’t have flexibility. They can’t consider a defendant’s background or circumstances, even on relatively minor drug charges,” she said.

One example of this rigidity that particularly bothers Harris is in the disparity between sentencing guidelines for possession of cocaine and crack cocaine, a freebase form of cocaine. “Crack possession carries much harsher sentences. If you look at it through a socio-economic lens, cocaine is expensive. Crack is cheap, and crack users are much more likely to be black or Latino,” she said.

While her time in the District Attorney’s Office has not inspired her to pursue a career in law enforcement, it has redoubled her resolve to prevent inner-city, at-risk girls from ever showing up in the defendant’s box. A few months after her internship she began the process of setting up her own nonprofit, which will provide mentors to girls anywhere from ages 7–17. She hopes to have it up and running by the time she receives her degree.

“It’s important for young girls to have mentors who are successful women,” said Harris. “Successful women these girls can look up to. Women who can tell these girls that they can make it. Sometimes just being told you can do it is all you need.”


John Erickson, AWS alum and current CGU doctoral student in the Women’s Studies in Religion program, feels torn between two career paths: scholarship and activism. But while his two internships have given him experience in both realms, a decision now seems only more difficult to make.

Over the past summer, Erickson spent three months interning with the Margaret Sanger Papers Project at New York University. Sanger was a notable feminist in the first half of the twentieth century who  advocated for birth control and established Planned Parenthood. This advocacy has made her both a revered and controversial figure, and one whose legacy is still far from settled.

This is partially what intrigued Erickson, who spent up to eight hours a day, three days a week, reading through Sanger’s journals and correspondence, both original copies and on microfilm. Before the internship he had heard several incendiary comments about Sanger’s beliefs, and he wanted to learn more about these for himself.

“People sometimes say that Sanger was a eugenicist and that she hated black people. And that’s definitely a picture of her you might get if you learn about her via a Google search. But I wanted to discover who she was for myself before I made those kind of conclusions,” Erickson said.

While putting together research reports on what will become part of The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger, Volume 4, Erickson read, among much else, Sanger’s correspondence with General Douglas MacArthur, who denied her a visa to travel to Japan during the Allied occupation following World War II, and her journal detailing a trip to India, which included a visit with Mahatma Gandhi.

After a summer studying Sanger, a picture of her emerged that was neither as saintly as her supporters would believe nor as ill-intentioned as her detractors claim. She was a complicated human being, but one whom Erickson greatly respects.

“I discovered that so many of the quotes people use to portray her as a eugenicist or racist are taken out of context. You can’t read what’s in the news or what’s on a blog; you really have to read her own writing to get the whole picture. And that’s not easy, because her handwriting is atrocious,” Erickson joked.

While his work on the Margaret Sanger Papers Project certainly bolstered his experience as a scholar, Erickson has always also considered himself an activist. That is why he jumped at the chance to intern with the City Council of West Hollywood during the fall semester. It also didn’t hurt that the internship— which had hundreds of applicants for only three positions—also offered a generous salary.

In his latest internship, Erickson spent three days a week helping organize events, writing public comments and e-mails, and researching policies. Though West Hollywood is only a two-square-mile city in Los Angeles County, Erickson sees it as a place “so progressive and cutting-edge that it’s often used as a model for ordinances state-wide and nationally.”

Helping effect that kind of change is so satisfying that it has caused Erickson great confliction over what sort of career to pursue after receiving his PhD. “I know I need to focus, but I see so much injustice in the world and so much that can be done. And these internships have shown me how much change I can make through activism and research. Maybe you can do both.”


Recent AWS graduate Allie Fernandez conducted four internships before earning her master’s degree. While her first three placements involved human trafficking, international human rights, and worldwide community building, the fourth introduced her to a culture utterly foreign to her: the corporate culture.

In summer 2011, during her last semester at CGU, Fernandez traveled to New York to work as a research and programs intern for The National Council for Research on Women (NCRW). NCRW is a network of 120 member centers (research, policy, and advocacy groups) that have united to conduct and promote research on women. This research is then used to affect policies in business, academic, nonprofit, and philanthropic organizations.

In her internship, Fernandez strategized with member centers across the nation to select which issues to focus on and which academic centers would be responsible for the work. While research is largely conducted by college- and university-based members, the findings are often utilized by NCRW’s corporate partners.

For example, PAX World Funds is a socially responsible mutual fund based in New Hampshire that invests in businesses with a certain percentage of women on their boards and in upper management. To help support this policy, they worked with NCRW, which researched the issue and found that long-term profits are higher in companies that have women well-represented among their leadership.

“I found those results heartening,” said Fernandez. “But this also helped me realize that investment firms can have good missions and make a profit. That’s something I might not have previously accepted.”

After graduating last August, Fernandez ended up moving to New York permanently to work full-time as NCRW’s development manager. In this position one of her most important tasks is working within the corporate sector to promote more women in power and leadership, such as increasing the numbers of female CEOs, CIOs, CFOs, and board members.

“It’s really interesting marrying the feminist theory that I’ve learned in class with this kind of philanthropy and activism that is corporate,” she said. “I’ve found that people in corporations respond to statistics and numbers, not necessarily people’s stories. But the desire for gender equality is still there. It’s just a different mind-set.”

This different mind-set is what makes the NCRW’s research reports so vital to affecting change. And this is why Linda Perkins, who is also an NCRW board member, enjoys the strong relationship between AWS and the council. “At CGU we’re not trying to just create academic feminists who talk about theory. We’re interested in research that matters, that makes an impact,” she said about her program. “We’ve got to grow and change as the world changes. That’s how you stay relevant. And that’s why I’m so proud to see my students out there making a difference.”

A recent grant from the Pacific Life Foundation was instrumental in funding AWS interns, including Allie Fernandez and Keeonna Harris.

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