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Women’s studies has new director

by Sherry Fisher - September 24, 2007

As a child growing up in India, Manisha Desai was destined to pursue a career in medicine.

There were two paths, she says: “If you were a good student and a girl, you became a doctor. If you were a boy and did well, you became an engineer. It was a very gendered view of careers.”

But her interest in the medical field waned as she became involved in the women’s movement.

“I decided that people were more interesting than microbes,” says Desai, who joined the UConn faculty this semester as director of women’s studies.

Desai moved into the field of social work.

During the late 70s and early 80s, schools of social work “were the hotbed of radicalism in India,” she says.

“That’s where all interesting work in community organizing and social movements was happening. It was my coming of age in politics.”

She earned a master’s degree in social work in 1982 at Bombay University and won a fellowship to pursue a doctorate at Washington University in St. Louis.

But finding the social work program there “not as radical as the ones in India,” she switched to sociology.

Her dissertation focused on the women’s movement in India, and her passion has remained the areas of gender and social movements and social change.

“I worked on my dissertation when the women’s movement was becoming more transnational,” she says.

“Women’s movements all around the world were becoming more connected. I’m interested in these connections, as well as the similarities and differences.”

For the past 10 years, her work has focused on transnational feminism and how globalization has shaped and affected women’s movements around the world.

Desai was an associate professor of sociology at Hobart and William Smith Colleges from 1990 to 2002.

In spring 2004, she was a program specialist at UNESCO, where she worked on gender strategy for the social and human science sector.

Sociology professor Manisha Desai, the new head of women’s studies, at her office in Beach Hall.
Sociology professor Manisha Desai, the new head of women’s studies, at her office in Beach Hall.
Photo by Frank Dahlmeyer

She was also an associate professor of sociology and associate director of the program in South Asia and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Desai’s appointment at UConn is the first time the director of women’s studies has been a full-time position.

“I’m very excited to be here,” she says. “The Women’s Studies Program here is strong.”

The program has some 50 majors and 50 minors, and about 40 courses are taught each semester. A graduate certificate is also offered.

“Women’s studies in the U.S. have become much more intersectional,” she says.

“They are linked with racial inequality, sexual inequality, and so on. The fact that the University has a variety of institutes and cultural centers makes it intellectually and politically a very exciting place.”

Desai would like the University to offer a master’s and Ph.D. in women’s studies.

“They could be multidisciplinary degrees in social justice offered with other institutes and centers on campus,” she says.

She plans to build on the program, and “bridge the connection between the academic world and the real world.

“Women’s studies emerged out of the women’s movement,” she says. “I plan to keep the program strong, and maintain that vibrant connection to the community and towards gender justice.”

Desai co-edited a book, Women’s Activism and Globalization: Linking Local Struggles and Transnational Politics,with UConn sociology professor Nancy Naples.

Another book, Rethinking Globalization: Gender and the Politics of Possibilities, is due out this spring.

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