Honoring a Powerful Legacy

A portfolio that includes feminism, scholarship and activism, social justice, and gender studies

By Lois Elfman ’80

Photograph by Will Mebane

Janet Jakobsen, Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, estimates that there were approximately 350 occasions when she introduced herself to an audience by saying, “I am Janet Jakobsen and I am the director of the Barnard Center for Research on Women.” She did so for the final time on May 1 of this year at the close of the symposium, Why Sex? Why Gender? Activist Research for Social Justice, a daylong campus event to celebrate Jakobsen’s 15 years as director of BCRW.

Founded in 1971, BCRW has brought together activism and academia in innovative ways. As director, Jakobsen has resoundingly brought the center into the 21st century. In 2003, BCRW launched The Scholar & Feminist Online, the first web-only women’s studies journal. Also, under her leadership, New Feminist Solutions came to life. NFS is a series of reports, geared toward activists and policy-makers, which examine issues not typically regarded as feminist through the lens of gender and sexuality. Jakobsen has also made BCRW a focal point for social-justice organizations. “Pushing the envelope is part of what the job of the center has always been, and I wanted to continue that,” she says. “Community building is part of feminism. It’s part of any social movement. It’s also something that I desire.”

The symposium featured several panels in which academics and activists who have worked with BCRW addressed topics central to the center’s mission and reflected on Jakobsen’s impact. 

“I think [BCRW] has been reinforced and magnified under her leadership,” says Katherine Acey, who took part in the first panel, Reproductive Justice/Gender Justice. “She’s a wonderful thinker and doer, and she’s brought a diverse group of academics and activists together.” Jakobsen says the collaborations are part of what has made the past 15 years so fulfilling. Acey, who is a Senior Activist Fellow with BCRW, says Jakobsen’s work on reproductive justice and domestic-worker issues has had great impact. A recent focus on transgender issues has also been significant. 

Acey is one of several people to comment on the multigenerational makeup of the symposium attendees—from academics to high school students—and how that was a great representation of the energy and environment Jakobsen has built at BCRW. 

“The celebration of Janet’s tenure as director of BCRW was such a perfect representation of the kinds of vibrant ‘in-between spaces’ she has made for activists and academics to talk to each other, rather than past each other, for the past 15 years,” says Ann Pellegrini, director of the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality at NYU and coauthor with Jakobsen of Love the Sin: Sexual Regulation and the Limits of Religious Tolerance (Beacon Press, 2004). 

Some of the day’s panels took more of an academic focus while others were more of a conversation. The lunchtime panel, Performing Justice, was a highly interactive event that engaged audience creativity. “The fact that it was a very interdisciplinary day is very reflective of the kind of person Janet is,” says one of the presenters, Ali Rosa-Salas, the BCRW Alumna Fellow for the 2014–15 academic year. “It was important for us as alumnae and as people who work in the creative field to be able to connect the kind of work we do as activists.” She adds, “BCRW has always provided the opportunity for us to really explore that work and provided resources for us to actually put into practice the theories that the center spends so much time and energy constructing and discussing.”

The first panel after lunch, Transforming Justice: Race, Sex, and Economics, delved into research and organizational frameworks that bring visibility to the relationship between sex, gender, race, and other social identities in the pursuit of economic justice. The final panel, Sexual Freedom/Religious Freedom, was an exploration of the tensions and intersections of religious freedom and sexual freedom as they manifest themselves in the scholarly, pedagogical, and activist contexts in which BCRW works.

“I thought the symposium brought together brilliant minds in diverse fields,” says Tami Navarro, the center’s associate director. “During Dr. Jakobsen’s 15 years as director, she has solidified the center’s reputation as one of rigorous academic research as well as a place in which activism is taken very, very seriously. Her commitment to feminist social justice is woven into the events, programming, research projects, partnerships, and publications produced by BCRW.

“Her legacy is an unshakable commitment to equity, academic rigor, and inclusion,” adds Navarro. “Beyond her own scholarship—recognized by her peers as excellent—Dr. Jakobsen has dedicated herself to being a mentor to students, staff, and those who seek her counsel.” 

Jakobsen says that throughout her years at BCRW, she has relished the role of mentor and the opportunity to work with such motivated and passionate colleagues. She describes the symposium as wonderful and profound, praising the moderators for propelling interesting conversations, and thanking family and longtime friends for attending. 

“The greatest thing about the job was I just had to say yes to a whole bunch of smart people—my colleagues, our students, to the activists we’ve worked with. I felt the day really showed how brilliant they all are,” says Jakobsen. 

In taking the job 15 years ago, Jakobsen felt the responsibility to continue the legacy of BCRW’s founders and previous directors. They had always been ahead of the curve, and she sought to do the same.

The impact of the online journal has grown over time, expanding to include videos and other multi-media content. “Any issue of our web journal reaches over 100 countries,” Jakobsen says. In addition, three young Alumnae Fellows have been artists, and they brought an element to BCRW that Jakobsen found exciting. BCRW’s incoming director, Tina Campt, pursues research focusing extensively on visual culture and photography; Jakobsen looks forward to seeing how Campt expands that line of work.

Jakobsen is pleased that New Feminist Solutions worked with organizations at the start of projects and gave those organizations a crucial push that led to great things. She gives as an example the advising BCRW offered to the National Domestic Workers Alliance as it was forming into a national organization. “People can have great ideas, but if they don’t get a boost at the beginning, they might not be able to sustain it,” she notes. “That’s one of the things I’ve been very proud of in the work that we’ve done.”

Throughout her years as director of BCRW, Jakobsen kept everyone motivated with good humor. “You have to have the long arc. That means you have to have a way to sustain yourself and those you’re working with over decades. As the center has been sustained, I do think humor helps and life is better,” Jakobsen says. “I actually enjoy the work,” she adds. “One of the centerpieces of our work is with Barnard students. How can we not be happy? I feel very fortunate. Not everybody gets to find the job that is right for their talents and interests. This job was absolutely right for mine.”

Jakobsen will be on sabbatical for the next year and will finish writing a book. When she returns to Barnard, she will be teaching more, and is already developing new course ideas. She will also continue her research and will be a Research Fellow at BCRW.