Dean Jacquelyn Litt on Douglass’ Mission for Equity
As Women’s History Month draws to a close, empowerment for women in the community and around the world remains one of Rutgers’ top priorities. Across all five campuses, university departments move the needle forward for women all year round. Perhaps most notably, this work continues at the historic Douglass College, a hallmark institution of Rutgers–New Brunswick that has transformed women’s education for over a century.
Dr. Jacquelyn Litt, dean of Douglass since 2010, has stewarded the College into a modern era defined by a mission of educational equity for all women.
"At Douglass, we know that true equity for women can only exist when it embodies broad justice for all,” said Litt. “The College’s academic opportunities expose the workings of inequality, so that our students are well prepared to lead in and advocate for a just world.”
As one of few such institutions in the country, Douglass employs a pioneering model of women’s education—nurturing the academic, professional, and personal aspects of a student’s experience in equal measure. Douglass students access co-curricular programming such as living-learning communities, research opportunities, and specialized career assistance that broadens pathways for women in all disciplines. At the same time, their individual pursuits of success are complemented by a socially relevant curriculum that encourages students to hone their voices, assess their own relationship to the larger community, and ultimately, become disruptors of the systems of injustice women face.
“Our students are immersed in critical social theorizing about how our world works,” said Litt. “Intersectionality, which is so central to our programs, provides a lens to unpack how systems of inequity work, and how by interrupting them, we can be better allies and advocates.”
For Litt, this work—the work of intentionally dismantling barriers designed to oppress— is what it means to take meaningful action for women’s empowerment. In many ways, today’s Douglass is a manifestation of her and her staff’s vision of what women’s education for a new generation can embody, and the social missions it should embrace. One of which is elevating the voices of women of color, both historically and currently, in movements for justice through structuring intentional educational initiatives that empower their voices and success.
“Generally, white women have historically been defined as, at the very least, the default,” said Litt. “That logic perpetuates the divisive and racist myth that other women, by virtue of their race or ethnicity, are of secondary status. Feminisms have long noted the inequalities embedded within its work, yet we all have so much more work to do recentering what women’s empowerment means by marking inequalities among women, making the College a site of inclusion for our diverse population, and putting forth tangible deliverables that create real change and animate the educational mission of Douglass.
Knowledge and Power: Issues in Women’s Leadership, the Douglass foundation course, is one of the many spaces at Douglass that support these goals. Required for all first-year and transfer students, the course introduces key concepts such as gender studies, social justice, and leadership development. Through coursework, speaker series, and experiential opportunities, the class empowers students to “claim their education,” a phrase from Adrienne Rich that Litt uses to motivate students not to simply “receive” what is handed to them. At Douglass, these themes extend outside the classroom and across the College’s co-curricular programs. Students can become Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Ambassadors or join the Dean’s Student Diversity Board—both of which center student voices in conversations on inclusion and equity. The environment of Douglass, which emulates that of a small liberal arts college, also places equal emphasis on community and students’ individual worth. For Litt, both these values reflect an important tenant of equity in education.
Spanning decades, Litt’s own work on behalf of women has covered a range of topics. What she always returns to is the thread of advancing equity, or exposing inequity, in the lives of women. Litt’s award winning book, Medicalized Motherhood: Perspectives from the Lives of African-American and Jewish Women, examines the intersection between motherhood and an often inadequate, racialized healthcare system—an issue that can be seen clearly this year through the COVID-19 pandemic. Litt also published Global Dimensions of Carework and Gender, examining global care chains in which women serve as care-workers that buttress and reflect gender, race, and national inequalities. Her current book project, Taking Care, Crossing Borders, and Weaving Networks: The Women of Hurricane Katrina, draws on ethnographic study of two Black kin networks in the wake of the disaster. In 2017, Litt brought together Big Ten Academic Alliance schools to form the Big Ten Academic Alliance Working Group on Advancing Women in STEM, a collaborative multi-year initiative designed to generate solutions for combating the persistent underrepresentation of women in those fields. Among her many awards, in 2020, Litt was recognized by the American Association of University Women as a “Woman as an Agent of Change” for her work on advancing women in STEM fields. Over the course of 20 years, Litt can see the connections between all of her projects.
“Lately I’ve been thinking about a common thread that ties up a lot of my work—how inequalities for and among women limit access—to liveable wage jobs, to good medical care, to full opportunity—and deprive all of us from our full humanity,” she said. “Much of the work we do at Douglass focuses on just this—providing students with access and opportunities they would not otherwise have had—including providing stepping stones to fulfill their career dreams. If I had to sum it up I’d say my career has been dedicated to an equity agenda. We have been fortunate at Douglass to have a dedicated staff, student, alumnae and donor base who believe in the same goals.”
Douglass itself has been a crucial partner in the University’s equity agenda, and a particularly vocal stakeholder in reckoning with Rutgers’ role in racist systems through history. At Litt’s request, Douglass directed funding to Scarlet and Black II, Rutgers’ project documenting the history of race at the College. For Douglass’ 100th anniversary in 2018, the College undertook a journey through Douglass’ past, refusing to shy away from its discriminatory treatment of Black, Jewish, and Puerto Rican students throughout the 20th century. Today, this dedication to reckoning with history continues in the form of the Dean’s Series: Critical Conversations on Black History.
“If we learn from our past, we can make a better future,” said Litt. “I want our students to have insight on the historical underpinnings of our current moment and to see hope. Engaging in history can provide those insights.”
Thus far, the series has hosted scholars such as President Jonathan Holloway, Dr. Keisha Blain, and Dr. Barbara Ransby. In the coming month, Douglass will welcome Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson. Next year, the series will focus on global, gender and race justice.
When asked of the role she sees Douglass playing in the next century, Litt offers a balanced perspective.
“The ideal would be that the need for Douglass to educate students in a safe space becomes less compelling because the world will be safe for them; that the need for us to educate about inequality becomes less compelling because there’s less inequality,” she said. “Unfortunately, I'm not completely optimistic. Even though we are now in a moment ripe for structural change, we also see the visible workings of systems designed to maintain inequalities, and worse. My hunch is that we are still going to be doing the really, really hard work of educating students on how to maneuver around these challenges for some time.”
Ultimately, Douglass will continue to function as an ally to all women at Rutgers, finding strategic solutions to address their needs both now and in the future.
“To be an ally you have to be humble and listen, but at the same time, you have to develop your own voice and do your own research,” said Litt. “Allyship is about proactive solidarity, and that’s what we strive to do for women at Douglass.”