GSWS 50th anniversary artwork titled 'I am many' was created by Vancouver-based artist, Sara Khan.

Celebrating 50 years of ground-breaking programming in gender, sexuality and women’s studies

February 11, 2021

It's been 50 years since Simon Fraser University offered the course Geography 404: “The Geography of Gender” in 1971, a course that made way for the first Women’s Studies Program in Canada and what would become today’s vibrant, interdisciplinary department of Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies (GSWS) at SFU.

The course was the result of foundational work done by SFU’s Women’s Caucus in the late 1960s to develop and teach courses focusing on “women’s issues.” By the 1970s the courses garnered strong student support and faculty members Andrea Lebowitz and Maggie Benston lobbied for the establishment of an independent Women’s Studies program. 

Although the program gained approval from SFU Senate in 1975, the annals show that Lebowitz and Benston’s efforts were often met with resistance. One senator suggested that a women’s studies program was, “tantamount to allowing prisoners to create a prison education program.”  

An interview with Cyndia Cole, from the Archives of Lesbian Oral Testimony. Cole was Maggie Benston's first Teaching Assistant. 

This initial criticism did not slow down the momentum of the program over the next several decades. As the GSWS 50th Anniversary page outlines, the hard work of faculty members, students, and support from the community, nurtured its growth over the ensuing decades. They worked to establish the first endowed chair at SFU, the Ruth Wynn Woodward chair, supporting innovative social justice research in 1985. And the department gained full departmental status as Women’s Studies in 1991 with a transition to become the department of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies in 2010, reflecting an ever more diverse range of interdisciplinary research and teaching as well as broader societal needs for nuanced critical thinking in this area.

Today’s GSWS is an interdisciplinary department committed to nurturing and promoting critical research, scholarship, engaged teaching and meaningful community service. It is a department bringing feminist, queer, and intersectional understandings to the analysis of power not only to its undergraduates and graduate students, but to the community at large. 

To mark the 50 years, the department has organized several ongoing and special events throughout 2021. 

GSWS 50th Anniversary events: at a glance

GSWS Reads

This special book club series features books by authors whose ideas spark conversations in issues related to gender and sexuality. 

The first installment in October 2020 began with Leslie Kern's Feminist City: A Field Guide, inviting readers to think about the city through a feminist critical perspective. The group tackled questions of urban design, mobility, sexual harassment and gender-based violence. 

This January, 2021, the GSWS book club read and discussed What the Oceans Remember: Searching for Belonging and Home, a memoir by GSWS Alumni, Dr. Sonja Boon. Boon was the first PhD graduate of the GSWS program and is now a professor of Gender Studies at Memorial University.

The next installment of GSWS Reads, coming up on Friday, February 19, 2021, will look at Together We Stand: Queer Elders Speak Out by the Queer Imaging and Riting Kollective for Elder (Quirk-e) in Vancouver.  

President’s Dream Colloquium: From Conversations to Action: Creating from Social Justice Research

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the first course and development of the GSWS department, this dream colloquium is co-organized by SFU’s Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies (GPS). Four innovative and influential scholars who helped shape and grow the Ruth Wynn Woodward Endowed Chair will be giving free public lectures throughout Spring 2021:

February 25, 2021: Afua Cooper, poet, artist, and multidisciplinary scholar of Black Canadian History and Culture is speaking. Cooper held the Ruth Wynn Woodward Endowed Chair from 2008-9.


March 25, 2021Thea Cacchioni, sociologist on the medicalization of sex, gender, and sexuality, from University of Victoria. Cacchioni held the Ruth Wynn Woodward Endowed Chair from 2010-11.  

March 11, 2021Susan Stryker, renowned scholar and filmmaker whose  works have shaped contemporary cultural and academic perspectives on transgender topics since the early 1990s. Stryker held the Ruth Wynn Woodward Endowed Chair from 2007-08. 

April 8, 2021Dana Claxton, acclaimed Indigenous artist and Associate Professor in the Department of Art History, Visual Art and Theory with the University of British Columbia. Claxton held the Ruth Wynn Woodward Endowed Chair from 2009-10.

These public lectures also function as credited course opportunities for graduate students and undergrads. The dream colloquium invites attendees to combine their creative and analytical abilities and engage with these influential scholars, carrying forward the profound impact of their ideas. Don’t miss the first event with Afua Cooper and register now on Eventbrite! For full details on these esteemed guest speakers and how to earn course credits, visit the GPS event website! 

Save-the-dates and stay tuned!

  • April 16 and May 14, 2021: prOphecy Sun, 2020-21 Jack and Doris Shadbolt Fellow, will be giving an artist talk on her process and hosting a workshop on their artistic practices

  • Spring 2021: Annual Rosemary Brown Memorial Conference  

  • Summer 2021: Jack and Nancy Farley Distinguished Visiting Scholar in History   

  • Coming Soon: GSWS Acts Series -  an interview with Cyndia Cole, Maggie Benston’s first Teaching Assistant.