The Institute for Research on Women and Gender was founded in 1987. Its first director, Carolyn Heilbrun, who served between 1987 and 1989, laid the ground work for faculty development and curricular expansion that have culminated in the current Institute’s broad program of graduate and undergraduate offerings. After Professor Heilbrun’s departure, IRWaG was chaired by Martha Howell, of the History Department. Professor Howell’s five-year tenure was followed by a two year directorship by Professor Victoria de Grazia, of History. She was succeeded by Professor Jean Howard, of English; Rosalind Morris, of Anthropology; Lila Abu-Lughod, of Anthropology; and Saidiya Hartman, of English. The current director is Alondra Nelson, of Sociology.
Since its formation, the Institute has grown steadily. It now counts more than fifty faculty among its associated community. Rotating committees oversee the curriculum and executive activities of the Institute, and help ensure that it is representative of a broad array of issues and perspectives. The Institute recently added "Sexuality Studies" to its undergraduate degree program and officially became the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality in order to reflect the changing fields of scholarship in which its own faculty and students were already engaged.
At present, Institute faculty provide feminist instruction and critical pedagogy leading to an undergraduate major, concentrations of several varieties, and a graduate certification program. It also anchors a vibrant interdisciplinary community of scholars, researchers and students, and facilitates collegial exchange through public lecture series.
In 1998, the Institute undertook a new initiative to hire four senior faculty members on a cross-appointment basis with the Departments. Under this initiative, Professors Alice-Kessler Harris (History), Lila Abu-Lughod (Anthropology), Marianne Hirsch (English and Comparative Literature), and Elizabeth Povinelli (Anthropology) joined the faculty.
Providing an intellectually rigorous and socially sympathetic environment has made the Institute a center for student activity. Undergraduate thesis-writing seminars, dissertation workshops, and seminars devoted to directed readings are among a few of the activities that have involved students over the years. In 2012, the "Feminist to the Core" lecture series was begun in order to put feminists in conversation with the Columbia Core, spurring on alternate approaches and inspiring new ways of seeing and thinking about the texts that are at the heart of the Columbia experience. A Feminist Pedagogy class, directed at graduate students who intend to teach in the academy, featuring guest speakers providing public lectures, is also offered once a year.