After years of leading, teaching, listening and advising, Dean Gail Cohee is set to retire from her position of as director of the Sarah Doyle Center for Women and Gender come December.
“When my grandmother passed away a few years ago, Gail was the first person that I went to,” said Lydia DeFusto ’22, librarian at the Sarah Doyle Center. “Just knowing that she was there and rooting for me made everything easier. ... She’s been that person for so many other students in so many different hard times.”
“She’s one of those people who really makes you feel like she’s truly not just hearing your words but ... absorbing what you’re saying, and that’s ... kind of rare,” DeFusto added.
“It seemed like the right time,” said Cohee, who is also planning on leaving her dean and teaching positions. “COVID was hard. It was like a year and a half equal to five years, and it feels like it’s time for somebody else to direct the center.”
Reflecting on her start: Cohee’s path and beginnings at Sarah Doyle
Cohee first came to the University in September 2001.
Prior to Brown, she received a PhD in English and a PhD minor in Women’s Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington, and she taught British literature in Kansas and upstate New York.
“Then I was sort of between things,” Cohee said. “I was tenured at my job in Kansas but had moved to upstate New York for personal reasons. I was on leave from that job, and I started teaching at Siena College, outside Albany, New York.”
One day, “a friend of a friend sent me this job ad for Sarah Doyle, so I applied,” Cohee said.
At the time, Cohee was unsure if this was what she wanted her next career move to be, but she had been “doing feminist work for a long time ... and teaching for a while,” Cohee explained.
Apart from a love for teaching and a desire for role to have an academic component, Cohee had always been interested in women and gender studies.
“I’m the first daughter in a family. I have two older brothers, so I was always conscious of gender in all kinds of ways,” Cohee said. When she arrived at college in the ’70s, she was excited to see a resurgence in the visibility of women’s rights activism. “Women activists were becoming more visible again, coming out of the various movements of the 1950s and 1960s.”
When Cohee arrived as director of the Sarah Doyle Center, she found herself entering an office of boxes and packing tape, three weeks before a move to a new building.
“The old Sarah Doyle was already packed up by the time I got there, so I didn’t know what was in the boxes,” Cohee said.
According to Cohee, there was a lot of sadness around the move. Many alums took the move incredibly hard given the previous building’s history and location relative to Pembroke, the historical women’s campus. The old building was demolished and eventually replaced by Sidney Frank Hall for Life Sciences.
Over the next 20 years, Cohee remembers milestone moments — some of the changes that the center helped implement and the ways in which she herself changed during her tenure as director.
The founding of the LGBTQ Center stands out to Cohee as a “landmark moment.” So, too, does activism around sexual assault on campus.
“I mark time at Brown through student activism,” Cohee said. “Over the years, the different activism about sexual assault has stood out to me.”
Another moment that stands out to Cohee is the transformation of the Sarah Doyle Center library from “an organic library to one that actually has an arrangement to it,” she joked.
Cohee has also witnessed changes to the composition of the staff and its diversity. “The student staff is much more diverse than it was when I first got here, and ... I think we’ve rewritten our mission statement and our vision statement over the years” to really concentrate “on what intersectionality means.”
As for Cohee herself, “I think I change all the time,” she said. “I feel like I have to change in response to what students are doing and students are thinking and certainly what I know. So in that way, I think I’ve gotten much more sure of myself in terms of the work here.”
Cohee has particularly enjoyed working with both student and staff colleagues. “It’s been a really fun place to work, and a place that really couldn’t have had better conversations and intellectual discussions,”
Cohee’s impact at Sarah Doyle and beyond
While Cohee noted her enjoyment working with everyone in the center, those interviewed by The Herald emphasized that the feeling was mutual.
When she thinks of Cohee, “a certain warmth of energy” comes to mind, said Claritza Maldonado GS, graduate student coordinator at Sarah Doyle. That warmth is exuded “when you’re passing each other about to say hello or (during) the small talk that happens before the Zoom meeting gets started.”
She is also “a powerhouse,” Maldonado said. “It’s clear that, although this might be the end of a position here, the work that she does and is doing is ongoing.”
Cohee is “a blend of funny” with “a little edginess in there, but also very kind,” said Aida Manduley ’11, one of Cohee’s former students.
“I would describe her as an open hearted, laid-back, clear-eyed feminist,” said Sara Matthiesen MA’11 PhD’16, former grad student coordinator.
Many agreed that Cohee worked extensively to support students and make the center feel like a safe space.
Cohee “recognizes we all live complex lives,” said Felicia Salinas-Moniz, senior assistant director of the Sarah Doyle Center. “For me, as a staff person who has a child, ... she was really supportive.”
Cohee often shows her support through “talking and listening,” Maldonado said. “It seems so simple but it’s clear that she wants to take the input of students and the larger community, ... not only in terms of programming towards more just and equitable futures but for ... us as individuals that carry many identities and experiences beyond being students.”
During their time as a student, Manduley found that Cohee demonstrated “a good blend of encouraging people to dream big and push themselves further while also not being judgmental around that process.”
Many took solace in the safe space that Cohee fostered.
“She managed to make the Sarah Doyle a refuge for people who felt unwelcome or unsafe or just not valued (in) other places on campus,” Matthiesen said.
“She created such a comfortable space for us to kind of thrive — a home away from home,” said Brandy Monk-Payton PhD’16, former graduate student coordinator.
Cohee has a tendency to “just stop at the bottom of the stairs and sit on the stairs and have a conversation,” Salinas-Moniz said. “She’s very much a fixture of the building, of the center, and her presence is always going to be felt because this is the home she’s built for many of us.”
Beyond her work at the Sarah Doyle Center, Cohee cultivated a positive learning environment in the classroom.
During Manduley’s first week as a student in Cohee’s first-year seminar “Bodies out of Bounds,” there was a mistake with the syllabus and students were assigned a difficult Judith Butler piece. Manduley found Cohee’s response incredibly indicative of her character and the classroom environment she cultivated. “She was able to be humorous and human with these kinds of issues and let us get to a place where we were able to grapple with the material later on with depth and care,” Manduley said.
Cohee has also helped students “look at the world through the lens of gender,” which “has been one of the most profound things I’ve learned working under her because you can always have gendered analysis in anything,” Salinas-Moniz said. “She’s helped us grow as stronger, critical feminist thinkers, and I will always be indebted to her for that.”
Monk-Payton noted that Cohee is “very dedicated” to supporting graduate students. She champions “how women of color differentially are impacted in academia” and gives “time and resources and space for us to have these conversations about everything from microaggressions” to self care, Monk-Payton added.
Manduley noted that Cohee gave students “a model for what it means to be a queer person in academia and to know and be able to see people like us, even if we weren’t the same letter of the LGBTQIA acronym.”
Whether it’s supporting students, listening and talking, focusing on intersectionality or fostering a warm and safe environment, most agree Cohee left an impact on the Sarah Doyle Center.
“I wouldn’t be where I am right now if I didn’t have Sarah Doyle,” said Amy Chin MA’16 PhD’20, former graduate student coordinator, “and Sarah Doyle wouldn’t be what it is without Gail.”
While Cohee will no longer be teaching at Brown after her retirement, she may continue to teach at the Rhode Island School of Design and will come back to chat with Sara Doyle Center members, she said.
“I don’t know if I can ever truly thank her adequately for everything that she did over the course of my time at Brown and all of the ways that she supported me and my work,” Matthiesen said. “It is not a hyperbole to say I made it through a PhD program because of people like her, and her being at the top of the list.”