Sewanee has honored a trailblazing icon, Professor Julie Berebitsky, with a portrait and an ongoing women’s portrait fund.
Julie Berebitsky’s arrival to Sewanee in 1997 was followed with her founding of the Women’s and Gender Studies program at Sewanee. Sewanee historically was all male, but in 1969 became coeducational, creating a need to diversify the campus. Women’s and Gender Studies examines how women’s experiences are formed by power, privilege, and positionality and delves further into all forms of subjugation such as race, class, and gender.
In honor of Berebitsky a group called Women of Sewanee, consisting of female alumni and friends, formed to sponsor the oil portrait of Berebitsky. After the celebration of fifty years of Women in Sewanee in 2019 a portrait of Berebitsky was commissioned and it was revealed on November 3rd, 2022.
Dean of Academics and professor of classical languages, Terry Papillon, says, “Women of Sewanee created the fund to cover the Berebitsky portrait and provide support for other portraits of female faculty. ”
This group of women did not just stop with Berebitsky, recently they continued to fundraise, in her honor, to do more portraits of female professors. They worked in tandem with Dr. Tam Parker, professor of religious studies, as she was the faculty lead and coordinator, and a number of faculty members helped to spread the word. Papillon says that the money raised will be used in the future “to provide support for other portraits of female faculty.” Alumni involved in the project say it has raised over $40,000, with more donations coming regularly. Papillon says a system is still being developed for how to make decisions on the fund’s use. Meanwhile, other female faculty have been honored with separate fundraising efforts. Assistant Professor of Politics with a joint appointment in Women’s and Gender studies Paige Schneider says the next woman to be honored will be Dr. Yasmeen Mohiuddin, professor of economics, whose portrait will be unveiled in November.
Clara Rominger (C’25), a Women’s and Gender Studies minor, says that this area of study is important because “It provides an intersectional lens and women’s studies provides a good framework for understanding human rights issues and can be applied to any diversional issues.”
Schneider says, “Many students have never before questioned the rigid gender norms of southern culture– and campus culture– and how these norms and expectations might have influenced their lives and experiences as women.” When the subject was originally introduced to Sewanee, Schneider adds, a student even shaved her head for a project on gender expression.
Berebitsky introduced many classes to Sewanee’s curriculum that changed the dynamic of the school. One was the Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies which is one of the most popular classes on campus. More of Berebitsky’s classes that impacted the school introduced the voices of African American women scholars, the importance of intersectionality, before there were DEI initiatives on campus.
Berebitsky was so much more than just her classes, Schneider says. She also was “a fierce advocate and an amazing teacher;” advocating for women students to help make the campus safer and more welcoming. She challenged the University on many issues that needed to be taken seriously such as “gender inequalities in resource allocation, the lack of diversity among the student body, and among senior level administrators, and prioritizing the needs of women survivors of sexual assault while also holding perpetrators accountable,” says Schneider. Schneider also mentions a memory from when things didn’t work out for Berebitsky. “I remember being in a room with her after a particularly frustrating defeat, when she stood up and said, ‘That’s it. I’m done!’ but then she would always come back to work, even more committed to affecting positive change on campus.”
In 2019, Berebitsky was diagnosed with a degenerative disease in 2019 and had to retire; her retirement hit the Sewanee community pretty hard. “She was an activist at heart. A role model for students and colleagues alike,” Schneider says. “Those of us who worked with her, still miss her very much.”
The Women’s and Gender Studies program has had a significant impact on the Sewanee community. Dr. Andrea Mansker, professor of history and Women’s and Gender Studies chair, says that there is a scholarship, the Julie Berebitsky Prize for Best Thesis in Women’s and Gender Studies, which is awarded to a talented Women’s and Gender Studies major every year. A former student of Berebitsky named Jessica Osaki established the scholarship and the Women’s and Gender Studies program wants to keep it going for as long as possible.
“As to the future of WGS, I hope that it is a bright one,” says Schneider, “because the program plays an essential role in exposing students to diverse voices and scholarship taught by faculty who are experts in topics at the intersection of race, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality.”