Campus, News, Special Projects, The Women's Issue

CSULB women’s studies professor, activist remembered as ‘role model’ for her impact on the department

Wendy Griffin was a long-time advocate of women’s rights and a professor of women’s studies at Long Beach State who brought “style, flair and effective activism” to the campus.

Griffin, who was described as “short in stature but mighty in energy,” died in her sleep on Feb. 12 after battling with a stroke, according to former student Danielle Sawyer. She was 79.

Wendy Griffin in her youth. Photo courtesy of her virtual memorial page.
Wendy Griffin in high school. Photo courtesy of her virtual memorial page.

Appointed in 1991 as the first full-time faculty member in the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, Griffin “played a significant role in the history of WGSS at CSULB,” according to Interim Chair Lori Baralt. Griffin was also department chair.

Sawyer met Griffin in 2002 after she enrolled in a women’s studies course in her late 20s in an effort to pursue a second degree. She now considers Griffin her “spiritual mother” and mentor.

“I’ve never said this out loud, but my last 20 years have been the best years of my entire life, and so much of that is due to Wendy,” Sawyer said. “When she passed, I really felt that the world was different for me because she’s no longer here on Earth.”

Griffin wrote several books on spirituality. According to Sawyer, she’s the “guru for women in religion in the goddess movement.”

On her first day in her women and religion class, Sawyer said she was immediately intrigued as she could tell Griffin was a “powerful woman in her word, her knowledge and her life experiences.”

Norma Chinchilla, professor emerita of WGSS and sociology, said Griffin was the most influential in transforming women’s studies from a program to an official department at CSULB. She met Griffin decades ago as a student when she was teaching at University of California, Irvine.

According to Chinchilla, Griffin first became interested in feminism working as a single mother as a cocktail waitress, facing discrimination and inequality in the workforce. As a graduate student at UCI, Griffin was involved in the fight to create women’s studies, Chinchilla said.

“For Wendy, it wasn’t a job,” Chinchilla said. “It was a passion and a social movement and an academic enterprise. I don’t know anybody who spent as much time empowering students as she did. It was her life’s goal to create this strong, stable women’s studies program with activist students at its core.”

Wendy Griffin's retirement announcement from August 1995. Photo courtesy of Danielle Sawyer
Wendy Griffin’s retirement announcement from August 1995. Photo courtesy of Danielle Sawyer

Griffin’s husband, Doug Cox, created a virtual memorial page in her honor that includes information she wrote herself to be shared after her death.

“I want it to be known that I had a wonderful life,” she had written prior to her death.

During the 1960s, Griffin moved to New York to do off-Broadway theater and performed with Dustin Hoffman, according to her memorial page. She worked as a cocktail waitress, bartender, puppeteer, diamond courier, singer, drummer, researcher and academic and received her doctorate in the interdisciplinary social sciences. She also wrote romance novels and traveled the world.

A resident of Long Beach and Orange County, Griffin was an activist in her communities.

In 2004, she married Cox, who worked as the university’s webmaster from 1999 to 2009, and had a pagan ritual-filled, shoeless wedding at the Long Beach Museum of Art, at which Sawyer and others played a drum.

“The joy Doug has brought into my life has been so intense that sometimes I feel my heart welling up and spilling over,” Griffin wrote. “I’ve lived and loved passionately, and have been blessed with loving family and friends. My life has been incredibly rich.”

Griffin was given an award for Excellence in Teaching in 1988 from the Friends of Women’s Studies, and again in 1993 from the College of Liberal Arts.

Wendy Griffin, center back, celebrating the winder solstice with friends in 2008. Photo courtesy of Danielle Sawyer.
Wendy Griffin, center back, celebrating the winter solstice with friends in 2008. Photo courtesy of Danielle Sawyer.

“[She] will be missed dearly by many who knew her over the years,” Baralt wrote in an email to liberal arts faculty.

Griffin retired from CSULB in 2011 and returned to her “first love” — writing novels.

“There’s so many things that I learned from that women’s studies department, and it’s all thanks to Wendy,” Sawyer said. “She just created an addiction within me that I just wanted to learn more. I couldn’t wait to get to class.”

When Sawyer was part of the department, there were only about 15 individuals majoring in women’s studies and about five full-time faculty members, she said. Today, the department has 59 majors, 67 minors and 14 faculty members, six of whom are full time.

Decades ago, much of the campus community believed that women’s studies was a “passing fad” that would “go away,” according to Chinchilla. She said members of the program were told they “don’t need any special department,” something they always wanted.

“It was really a task to convince people that we were legitimate, academically legitimate,” Chinchilla said.

Wendy Griffin. Photo courtesy of the virtual memorial page.
Wendy Griffin in 2005 on a study of late 20th century Iceland and its contemporary pagan practices. Photo courtesy of the virtual memorial page.

While it was common for male faculty members to attack the women’s studies program, Chinchilla maintained that Griffin knew how to challenge them with her “very snarky, sarcastic sense of humor.”

“She had a really wonderful way of silencing them in the middle of a meeting, not silencing them but undercutting their argument or making them rethink what they were saying,” Chinchilla said. “She was the one that told me how you could make good trouble at the university and offer a good cause.”

Sawyer echoed Chinchilla’s sentiments, stating how she looked up to Griffin in her ability to prove disapproving men wrong.

“They knew that she was right and they were wrong,” Sawyer said. “She did it every time, every single time with her little sassiness. I don’t know how she did it.”

Griffin is survived by her husband and sister, Gay Riseborough.

A virtual ceremony in Griffin’s honor is in the planning stages. To avoid large gatherings during this time, friends and loved ones are encouraged to individually visit her “beloved places like the ocean or the CSULB campus or their backyard or a park.”

On the day after Griffin’s death, Sawyer attended a sound bath meditation at which she felt Griffin’s presence, giving her chills. There were high winds that day, she said, which prompted her to say to herself, “Gosh, it’s so windy,” emphasizing how it sounded like “Wendy.”

“I started to cry,” Sawyer said. “I instantly thought of her. I knew she was there, I knew she was doing what she always does for me, in cradling me with her spirit and her magic.”

This story was updated on March 8 at 12:18 p.m to clarify dates and again at 4:27 p.m. to correct details of her life.

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