A tribute to the founding Director of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies

“A feminist, an activist and a writer.”

That’s how a colleague described Dr. Diane Fowlkes, a Georgia State professor and founding director of the Institute for Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies (WGSS). Fowlkes passed away this month, and her loss has been felt throughout the community.

Fowlkes began teaching at Georgia State as a political science professor and was interested in women’s role in politics. 

She worked on the same floor as anthropology professor Valerie Fennell, and they began discussing ways to help women advance within the university. The two reached out to women who worked at the university and invited them to a meeting. 

“It was an era when there were lots of consciousness-raising groups, and our idea was to help women at Georgia State,” Fennell said. “We were both feminists, and we both wanted to do what we could to help women at Georgia State and ourselves for that matter.”

The group consisted of about 25 committed faculty members who met for many years to discuss women’s empowerment and integration into the official curriculum. 

Fennell was one of the first to establish a course in women’s studies at Georgia State, a class called Women in Cross-Cultural Perspectives. The university developed interdisciplinary minors, leading to the creation of the WGSS, formerly known simply as the Women’s Studies Institute, and the women’s studies minor.

The process took 20 years, many long nights and unwavering dedication. Charlene Ball worked in the Women’s Institute for many years and began as Fowlkes’ assistant. She believes that Fowlkes deserves substantial credit for creating the institute.  

Ball describes Fowlkes as an intelligent person who was a dedicated feminist and professor. 

“I had a lot of respect for her and a lot of liking for her,” she said. “She was a very delightful conversationalist and knew a great deal about politics and women in politics, and I feel like I learned a great deal from being in conversation with her.”

Fennell agrees with Ball’s sentiment, adding that Fowlkes was “the source of energy for an awful lot that got done at Georgia State.”

“She was constantly working for [the institute] in a way that I think very few people, even among us who were feminists, had the energy,” Fennell said. “She just stayed with it, so my most admiring memory of her was her persistence.”

The department’s undergraduate courses fall under three categories: sexualities, race and globalization and social change. These areas of study represent Folkes’ mission to diversify the material taught within the institute.

“[Fowlkes] was very concerned that women’s studies not be all white,” Ball said. “[Many feminists discuss] how the white middle class doesn’t have enough concern for marriage equality, civil rights and immigration issues. [She] wanted Women’s Studies to be interdisciplinary and diverse.”

Many Georgia State students and faculty benefit from Fowlkes’ dedication to educating women and helping the institute grow from a single idea into an undergraduate major and minor.

Fennell and Ball both praise Fowlkes’ work as a professional and activist, recognizing the lasting impact she’s had on the university.

“I would say that she did more for women at Georgia State than any other one person,” Fennell said.