NORMAN — Feminist playwright and activist Eve Ensler is urging the University of Oklahoma not to cut funding for one of its programs.
In a letter dated Wednesday, Ensler asks OU officials to restore funding for the Women's and Gender Studies program. The budget has been slashed by 52 percent over the past two years.
Ensler is founder and artistic director of the New York-based group V-Day, which seeks to end violence against women and girls. In 1996, Ensler wrote “The Vagina Monologues,” a collection of vignettes based on interviews with women about sexuality.
In the letter, Ensler notes the program is the only one of its kind in Oklahoma, and says funding cuts would be detrimental to students and to the state at large. She calls women's and gender studies “a first-line defense for women's rights.”
“We must do everything in our power to keep them not only open, but thriving,” she says.
In an interview, Ensler said OU had been involved with the V-Day movement for more than 10 years.
She became aware of cuts through discussions with the program's organizers, she said.
Oklahoma has the highest rate of female incarceration in the country.
Typically, Ensler said, that means a high percentage of women being denied education, coming from violent homes and lacking support.
The state also ranks poorly in terms of overall health. America's Health Rankings for 2011 places Oklahoma at No. 48, two spots lower than the previous year. Among other factors, the ranking cites a low use of prenatal care.
Cuts aren't unique to OU's program, she said.
During tough economic times, programs for women tend to be some of the first to see cuts.
She said the loss of those services places women in an increasingly difficult position, as they scramble to feed their families on diminishing resources.
“This would be the absolutely worst time to end this program,” she said.
OU awaits budget
OU spokeswoman Catherine Bishop said the university has no plans to eliminate the program or cut essential courses. OU won't be able to set funding levels for campus departments until it receives its budget from the state legislature.
“There will be no decisions about cuts in any programs, including Women's and Gender Studies, until we find out if the state leaders will cover our fixed cost increases this year,” Bishop said. “We are hopeful they will.”
The university has sustained $100 million in budget cuts and unfunded cost increases over the past three years, Bishop said, meaning no area has been spared.
Jill Irvine, director of OU's Women's and Gender Studies program, said the cuts have hurt the program because the department is relatively small and the funding cuts hamper its ability to offer courses.
Funding cuts also affect the department's ability to play an active role on campus and in the community, she said, including raising funds for the Women's Resource Center and inviting guest activists to campus to offer workshops and guest lectures outside of class.
“First and foremost, it's an educational concern,” Irvine said.