The Academic Feminist: We Heart Women’s Centers

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Today we’ll be kicking off the first of a three-part series on women’s centers on college and university campuses. The first two posts will tackle the history of women’s centers and the role that they play on campuses, as well as their relationship with women’s and gender studies programs. The final post will discuss women’s centers role in providing a safe space for survivors of sexual violence, as well as their efforts to make sure that college/university campuses are Title IX compliant.

The first post in the series is by Anitra Cottledge, Amber Vlasnik, and Brenda Bethman  (photos in order left to right), who draw from their extensive experience to provide us with an historical overview of women’s centers.

The first campus-based women’s center was founded at the University of Minnesota Women’s Center in 1960. At the time of its creation, it was called the Minnesota Plan for the Continuing Education of Women, and was focused on providing opportunities to married women who were interested in returning to higher education. Many more centers were founded in the late 1960s and early 1970s at the height of social movements for women’s, African American, and LGBT civil rights; these early centers moved to institutionalize support for women on campus and hold their colleges and universities accountable for creating learning, living, and work environments in which all people could succeed. 

For the past fifty years, women’s center staff, volunteers, and supporters have worked to address complex and shifting campus and community needs in relation to women and gender issues and to address discrimination and dismantle sexist, racist, homophobic, and transphobic organizational structures. In doing so, centers have adapted and evolved their programming and areas of focus to respond to national women’s and gender equity issues: Title IX, salary equity, reproductive rights, violence against women, and issues of equity, diversity and intersectionality. In doing so, centers have demonstrated extraordinary adaptability and flexibility to meet the changing needs of college students, faculty, and staff.

Often, women’s center priorities and initiatives are also influenced by the region and type of institution in which the center is located. For instance, some centers (at, for example, the University of Minnesota, Harvard University, Vanderbilt University, and others) do not provide direct service to survivors of stalking, relationship violence or sexual assault. Rather, they have standalone offices that serve as the primary point-of-contact on these issues. However, on many campuses, the women’s center is also responsible for education about and service regarding sexual and relationship violence. [Editor's note: more on this in the third post in the series.]

Centers were founded on U.S. college and university campuses under a variety of circumstances. Anecdotally, we would group women’s center “origin stories” in several broad categories (under which, of course, not all centers will fit): as a result of student and grassroots campus activism; as a result of a campus climate study that exposed systematic gender inequity and raised concerns about the institution’s commitment to women students and/or employees; as a result of a high-profile incident such as a lawsuit or negative media coverage; or as a result of an allied administrator who was willing to allocate resources in order to start a program that s/he identified as necessary for the campus.

Centers tend to be as unique as the campuses they are located on — some are well-funded, well-staffed, and located in beautiful space, while others are a “one-woman shop” with a $300 annual budget and a closet-sized space. They all have one commonality, however, which is a shared mission to advance gender equity on their campuses and in their communities. As what that equity looks like evolves, particularly in regard to trans issues, more centers are adapting their programming to include questions of gender identity and expression (many centers have always done that, but it’s becoming more explicit for many), and some are changing their names to Women’s & Gender Centers, Gender Centers, or Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Centers.

Anitra Cottledge is: a higher ed professional, women’s center staff emerita, teacher, writer, and compassionate questioner who tweets infrequently.

Brenda Bethman directs the Women’s Center and Women’s & Gender Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, spends way too much time on Facebook, and tweets once in a while.

Amber Vlasnik is the director of the Women’s Center and internships coordinator for the Women’s Studies Program at Wright State University, is passionate about working and teaching for gender and social justice, and has never tweeted (not even once).

Photo on 2014-06-26 at 12.58Gwendolyn Beetham’s undergrad campus did not have a women’s center, but she made up for it by getting a PhD in Gender & spending hours on the Gender Institute’s big green couch.

Scholarly queer feminist working to bridge the academic/online divide.

Read more about Gwendolyn

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