Learning Historical Activism

By Emily Parker and Rachel Williams

Sarah Lawrence College’s history of innovative feminist scholarship and activism requires no expansive introduction. Being the first university to offer a Master of Arts degree in Women’s History has given given SLC the unshakeable reputation of being a hub for young scholars of women, gender, and history to learn the nuances of their fields in the uniquely creative yet challenging environment that characterizes a Sarah Lawrence education. And like the first women to earn their Women’s History MA on the Sarah Lawrence campus, this year’s small cohort of graduate students participating in the Accelerated Program for Women’s History are the first to experience SLC’s most recent innovation on its prestigious Master’s program.

Designed to emphasize the practical application of historical knowledge, the Accelerated Program aims to equip students with the ability not only to undertake crucial questions pertaining to the history of women and gender, but to incorporate those questions into policy-oriented discussions. Forgoing the traditional Master’s thesis in favor of a Capstone Project (a “white paper” on a contemporary issue of women and gender), the program will prepare us to re-frame our studies of women, gender, and history as potential solutions to the world’s problems – all in less than two years.  

The 15 months of continuous study began in June with a two-week summer intensive led by Women’s History Director Priscilla Murolo entitled “The Usable Past: Introduction to Practical Applications of Historical Knowledge of Women and Gender.” True to its intention, summer curriculum focused on the ways in which Women’s History could be incorporated into careers spanning politics, the nonprofit sector, writing, and the law, emphasizing as well the vital relationship between historical study and activism.  In addition to the reading and coursework, we had the opportunity to engage with scholars and activist guest speakers, including several alumnae of the program who spoke with us about their careers, experiences, and lives after Sarah Lawrence. The face-to-face, interpersonal environment offered an intimate educational experience for our small class of seven, bringing to light both the prestige of our circumstance and the abundant opportunities for the application of historical knowledge in our own futures.

While the Accelerated Program may not appeal to all women’s history scholars, some of its most unique characteristics give it a particular allure for students who may have unconventional ambitions or professional goals outside of the academy. One of the most advantageous effects of our participation in the two-week summer intensive has, so far, been the ease of our transition into graduate school life.  The long days reading, learning to skim, fighting a high tolerance for caffeine and participating in provocative in-class discussions feel, if not comfortable, entirely familiar. While our coursework parallels that of our two-year counterparts during the fall and spring semesters, entering our second semester while the rest of our cohort enters their first has effectively absorbed some of the shock which comes from entering a new and overwhelming environment (and its attendant lifestyle changes).  Most obviously, the program’s shortened tenure (and abbreviated final project) offer a range of benefits to its participants – particularly ones who may have an interest in pursuing a legal degree or get a jump-start on their work at a nonprofit. But aside from the obvious practical advantages, its most seductive promise is that of a prestigious and hands-on training in the benevolent art of social change. Every graduate student hopes to make the world a better place in some way, and the Accelerated Program’s claim to prepare us to apply our studies in a meaningful way through political, legal, or other forms of activism truly gets at the heart of our desires to transform the world that women live in and the way that they live in it.


Em Parker began the Accelerated Master’s Program in Women’s History in June and will graduate in August of 2016.  Her academic interests currently focus on sex workers’ unions and grassroots activist organizations internationally. After graduating from California State University, Chico in 2013, she spent two years working as a policy debate coach for the Arizona State University collegiate Policy Debate team. She’s excited to be at Sarah Lawrence and working for The Revisionist!

Rachel Williams is a native New Yorker who earned her bachelor’s degree in Women’s Studies at Goucher College in Baltimore. While at Goucher, Rachel led the annual Take Back the Night event and served as Student Government Association President. Since graduating, Rachel has worked in Washington D.C. for non-profit organizations that aim to advance women in the realms of politics and business. 

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