Why Campus Women’s Centers Matter

3458884720_1ac7845a4c_zThe National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) recently changed its bylaws, effectively removing the dedicated seats for women’s center professionals from the governing council of the organization. In their November 20 resignation letter to the NWSA, the co-chairs of the NWSA Women’s Centers Committee, Gina Helfrich and Adale Sholock, noted that the removal of “formal representation of women’s center professionals from the governing council” was a “symbolic culmination of years of marginalization of women’s centers professionals by the executive and board leadership [of NWSA].” The pair described the proposed changes as evidence of the “classism inherent in the organization.”

Many of us who work on behalf of women’s issues in higher education—in teaching and non-teaching capacities—are quite surprised by the NWSA’s decision. Why would women’s centers not have a dedicated seat in the governing body of a professional women’s studies organization? It seems historically, epistemically and ideologically regressive.

Allison Kimmich, executive director of the NWSA, explained the removal of the seats as the outcome of a strategic planning process. Kimmich stated that the new “member-at-large” seats are designed to “make governing council seats more open and flexible for all association members to stand for election.”

Trying to win a member-at-large seat through an election process depends on many variables within the voting constituency of NWSA. It is up for chance, and grounds for needless competition. The lack of formal representation for women’s center professionals within the NWSA governing body is troubling for a few good reasons.

Foremost is the vital historical role campus women’s centers have played in supporting collegiate women. In the 1970s, when women exercised our right to come back to campuses and work towards graduate or professional degrees and make a career for ourselves, we were a marginalized constituency. There were no departments, offices or official structures that were solely dedicated to women students. These early campus women’s centers not only supported the needs of “re-entry” women in higher education, but also became the crucible for raising our consciousness about our lives, roles, personal and social opportunities and expectations.

On many campuses, the struggle to gain institutional support for a women’s center—in terms of space, resources, budget, release time, director position etc.—itself became a litmus test of the institution’s commitment to women’s issues in the academe. The early women’s centers provided an empowering space for women to find like-minded others and build a radical, forward-looking community that worked for women’s equity. Women’s centers were critical to ending the visible marginalization of women on our campuses.

Secondly, women’s centers are and were always more than about undergraduate or graduate curriculum or classroom objectives. Women’s studies courses enroll students interested in the discipline, but campus women’s centers are open to all students. Indeed, many campus women’s centers augment the feminist curriculum by educating the collective student body on how to identify and confront sexism, starting with the campus and then looking out. On most campuses, this education of the collective campus body is spearheaded by enterprising students who work at the women’s center as part of their work-study programs, graduate internships or unpaid volunteering. Women’s centers provide students a formal space to practice feminist leadership and peer mentoring. Students take this valuable experience with them when they go out into the world and apply for jobs, as many of my students have done. Women’s centers teach our students feminist praxis.

Thirdly, women’s centers provide an alternate model of knowledge production through their libraries, publications, discussions and programs. As someone who managed the women’s center library at my alma mater in the 1990s, I can vouch for the radical space our university women’s center made for the dissemination of independent and feminist publishers. These publications included material not housed in the university libraries: pamphlets and newsletters about rape crisis intervention; self-defense; coming-out information; lesbian support groups; contraceptive options for women; healthcare; feminist and lesbian literature; women’s music; goddess scholarship; feminist mythology; and other progressive and unconventional ideas. Women’s centers introduce students, researchers and activists to an alternate paradigm of scholarship.

The NWSA’s decision to deny women’s centers a seat on its governing council loudly dismisses and diminishes the dedication and drive with which women’s centers have served the feminist cause of fighting sexism, advancing equity, innovating knowledge production, and promoting the personal and professional success of women. I look forward to the next round of bylaws revision, when this unfortunate decision could be reversed and women’s centers given full representation.

Photo via Flickr user Rich Anderson licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

About

Dr. Gayatri Devi is associate professor of English and women’s studies at Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania. A founding member of the campus women’s center, the HOPE Center, she has also served as the elected faculty coordinator of the Women and Gender Studies program.