Patricia Stokes, associate professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies, or WGSS, at Ohio University, is rarely ever recognized by the name Patricia. Instead, her students and colleagues alike all know her as Patty: devoted professor and lover of cats.
Stokes was born and grew up in North Dakota, where, she said, the initial awareness of feminist ideologies was sparked in her early childhood through experiencing the various inequalities presented to women, and the gradual responses to them.
“I was born the same year that Betty Friedan’s famous book, The Feminine Mystique came out, which a lot of people associate with the rekindling of American feminism,” Stokes said. “And of course, I was born completely oblivious to all that. But, in ‘69, (girls) couldn’t wear pants to school, you had to wear a skirt. So the deal was that we would wear snow pants under our skirts and then take them off when we got to school, then put the pants back on for recess. Two years later, in 1971, that's the first year that I remember wearing pants. So it was definitely a time of expanding freedoms. But it was a time where it was really clear that the women were demanding change. There definitely was a sense of feminism being on the move, and also the beginnings of backlash to it.”
In middle school, Stokes said the beginnings of her personal feminist journey arose, as she lobbied for equal opportunities for her and her peers.
“By that point, I was already a raging little feminist,” Stokes said. “My friend Becky and I were making calls to random people in town and doing polls -- we would poll them about, ‘Do you think a woman can ever be president?’ ‘Do you think that women are equal to men?’ Back then, all the girls took home economics and all the boys took shop. We were like, ‘It'd be fun to go take shop, why can’t girls do that?’ And some of the boys said they wouldn't mind taking home ec. And so we went to the principal, and we presented it to him and he said ‘Yeah, go ahead and do it.’ And so we kids integrated shop and home ec on our own steam.”
These personal successes lead to Stokes pursuing gender-related studies in her upper education. She attended Stanford University as an undergraduate and Cornell University for graduate school, where she was able to minor in Women’s Studies. Her education then eventually brought her to OU, where she was able to integrate her historical studies with WGSS topics.
“My research became focused on the history of childbearing in early 20th century Germany, which allowed me to bring together a lot of interests,” Stokes said. “Something that I was asked about in 2008 when I was being interviewed for a permanent position, ‘How does your being a historian relate to what you're doing here?’ And that was an easy question for me to answer because I'd read so broadly. I'd read a lot of feminist theory in grad school, I'd read really broad literature on childbirth that was very interdisciplinary and read a lot of anthropology. So I really did feel like I was well-positioned. Women's studies have always been interdisciplinary.”
While there are many students who do choose to major or minor in WGSS subjects, it is often viewed as an unmarketable field. Despite this perception, Stokes said the societal revelations the courses offer make them a relevant and important field of study.
“Taking these courses will enhance other degrees, particularly in a world where being able to work with difference and diversity in positive and constructive ways is more and more something that employers look for,” Stokes said. “Even med schools now look for people to have some exposure to the humanities. But I think that understanding differences and the power differentials in our society can help people in their professional life. What I think people get from WGSS is this understanding of how to think about how power operates in our society; who's being left behind and why they're being left behind; and what might be some solutions.”
Since the coronavirus pandemic began, Stokes and other faculty have conducted their courses entirely online. Stokes said the lack of a proper classroom community was detrimental to the overall energy that is usually present in her teaching environment.
“For me, what I'm hoping for is the return of that electricity that happens in the classroom,” Stokes said. “I did most of my teaching synchronously this year and tried to get people to keep cameras on as much as possible. And I think that that did create a class community. But it sure took a lot more energy from all of us, not just for me. In the classroom, it just happened more organically. There's something about being a community of learners together, that is much bigger than the sum of the parts – being bodies together in a room that because we're not just brains in a petri dish, we are embodied people. And there's something about that – coming back again to what it is to being human – that we are social creatures, above all. And so learning communally is a fundamentally different experience than learning in isolation.”
With OU gradually opening campus for the fall, Stokes noted she is thrilled for the energy to return to the classroom, where she hopes her students can regain a sense of normalcy.
“I want all my students to be able to go out in the world with curiosity and wonder, and intellectual excitement about ideas about how the world works, and take that ability to continue learning with that,” Stokes said. “I'm hoping for students also that didn't have a normal experience last year, or maybe weren't even on campus at all as freshmen, that they will come and just have the time of their f-----g life.”
Clarification: A previous version of this article stated that Stokes said teaching synchronously didn’t create a class community, when she meant to say it did. This article has been updated to reflect the most accurate information.