By Shelley Hill Young
Kris De Welde, the director of women’s and gender studies at College of Charleston, discovered her power as a woman after taking a self-defense course. She took the course just before she started working toward her doctorate in sociology at the University of Colorado in Boulder. And it had a transformative effect on her.
As part of a more than three-year research project, Kris followed up with women six months to a year after they had taken the self-defense class to find out how it had affected their lives. She found that the women felt more powerful in their own bodies. They felt strong. And that power? It spread to other parts of their lives. They felt empowered to fend off a physical attack, but they also felt more powerful at work, with their families and as members of society.
“It wasn’t just about self-defense in the traditional definition of it,” she says. “There was this broader understanding of defending the self … that came from their sense of having a strong body.”
Ten years after she earned her doctorate in sociology, Kris co-authored a book, “Disrupting the Culture of Silence: Confronting Gender Inequality and Making Change in Higher Education.” The book explores the ways higher education and academic careers are unequitable for women, especially women of different races, family situations, statuses and sexual orientations. She spent the past 10 years at Florida Gulf Coast University, at first as a faculty member and most recently as an administrator.
“Everything that I have done research on has always included some component of gender inequality, always with an eye on gender, race, sexual orientation, economic status and how they intersect with gender.”
Kris is the daughter of immigrants from Cuba and grew up in Miami. She was the first woman in her family to earn a four-year degree and a doctorate.
“As I’ve gotten older and more confident in my own scholarship and in my relationships and in my ability and skills as an educator, I stand in my power,” Kris says. “I recognize just how powerful that is and how transformative that can be for younger women to see that.”
When Kris came to College of Charleston in August, she thought it might be a perfect fit, and so far, she says, it’s been true.
“This job allows me to continue teaching in the area of gender, but it also really allows me to put the administrative skills and experiences that I have gathered over the years into play by directing the program. It’s really a beautiful mix.”
One of the things that attracted her to College of Charleston is that students in the women’s and gender studies program are encouraged to be active on the campus and in the Charleston community.
“There’s a very strong element of activism and praxis and applied knowledge, so students are also learning what to do with this information and to create more justice for more people,” she says.
Kris takes on her role as director of the women’s and gender studies program at a time when news events have prompted much public discussion about women’s equality and sexual harassment.
“Talking about these things is making a difference. The title of my book with Andi Stepnick is ‘Disrupting the Culture of Silence,’ and that’s what’s happening. Women are breaking the silence,” she says. “That has a very strong potential for change. But that’s not change in and of itself. There’s a lot of heavy lifting left to do, a lot of change needs to happen.”