Faculty You Should Know: Catherine MacGillivray

Catherine MacGillivray has lived an academic's dream life. She's traveled around the world, attended school in places like New York City, Paris and Berkeley, and studied with prominent scholars, including Jacques Derrida and Hélène Cixous of the French critical theory movement. But the path to academic success wasn't without obstacles.

Catherine MacGillivray
MacGillivray is the director of UNI's Women's and Gender Studies Program. New course offerings will be available in fall 2014 to keep the program current with national trends.

Growing up in Spokane, Wash., MacGillivray often witnessed gender-based violence at home, primarily against her mother. While being exposed to such a harsh situation was difficult, it helped MacGillivray develop a perspective she still holds today.

"It became clear that part of what was going on was gender inequality," she said. "So I really developed a critical analysis of gender relations, in part based on my parents' marriage."

She may not have known it then, but the analysis of gender would ultimately become her life's work. At 17, MacGillivray moved to New York City to attend Barnard College, the women's college of Columbia University, where she majored in women's studies with concentrations in literature and philosophy, and got involved with the feminist movement.

"I think some people are born with a justice gene," she said. "I definitely feel that way about myself. I was looking to study something that would nourish that part of me."

MacGillivray enjoyed her studies so much she went on to get her master's degree and doctorate in French literature with a focus on French feminism. Despite the fact that she comes from a family of teachers, MacGillivray said she had no particular plans to become a professor. "It wasn't so much that I set my sights on becoming a professor as it was that I got very involved in and interested in a body of work and a field in which I wanted to do scholarship," she said.

So, she came to the University of Northern Iowa in 1996 as an assistant professor in UNI's now Department of Languages and Literatures, and quickly became involved with UNI's Women's and Gender Studies Program (WGS). While settling down in Cedar Falls was a change of pace from the globe-trotting lifestyle she had grown accustomed to, being able to provide students with the guidance she received as a student made the transition easier.

"I've really enjoyed UNI," she said. "It makes me feel like I'm doing something useful to be able to mentor certain kinds of students and represent other ways of living."

Today, she serves as director of WGS and makes sure to keep the program current with national trends in women's and gender studies. Most recently, the WGS Program revamped their master's degree program, which now features three tracks, including two new applied tracks in gender and wellness, and gender and violence prevention.

"It's really exciting to have these applied tracks, which we hope will attract persons working in those fields here in the community," MacGillivray said.

Another goal MacGillivray has for the program is to add a sexualities studies component to the course offerings. In fall 2014, WGS will offer their first Intro to Women's and Gender Studies class with a focus on LGBT studies. "That's very important to me," said MacGillivray. "We have a fair number of LGBT-identified [WGS] minors, and I feel like we could be serving those students better."

Making these changes to the WGS Program reflects MacGillivray's passion for both women's and gender studies, and for students at UNI. One of her main goals is to inspire the next generation of activists and scholars. "I've been to a number of marches on Washington over the years," MacGillivray said. "At this point, my activism is mainly in the classroom. I see my goal as transmission of knowledge and inspiration, because it's the next generation's turn now."