Personal Reflections on Building a Women's Center in a Women's College, 1975, page 1

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          Personal Reflections

on Building a Women’s Center

in a Women’s College
Jane S. Gould

Looking back. two things seem remarkable: First. on a
personal level, it seems remarkable that l had the opportu-
nity to be an administrative officer at an influential institution
of higher education in a role that allowed me to be com-
pletely immersed in a major social revolution that touched
on every aspect of women's lives. Second. despite the on-
going tensions between the principles of feminism and those
of the institution. we were able to build a solid women’s cen-
ter which became an accepted feminist presence both on the
Barnard-Columbia campus and in the larger community.

l vividly remember the first time l sensed the excitement
which was to be part of so many Women’s Center programs.
lt was a cold. bleak February Saturday in 1973. the occa-
sion of the first Women's Center conference. “Women Learn
from Women." The brainchild of a few feminist scho|ars—
including Phyllis Chesler. Gerda Lerner. Florence Howe.
Wendy Martin. and Catharine Stimpson—and sponsored by
seven women's groups at colleges in the New York
metropolitan area, it was a groundbreaking experience for
all of us. Over 1,000 women, representing all ages and levels
of education and the full range of the women's movement.
streamed through the Barnard gates. many of them for the
first time. Some brought children (there were more than
thirty) and we ran our first daycare center. We spent the day
considering such heady topics as Androgyny. Controlling our
Bodies. Autonomy, Do Women Have a Separate Ex-
perience in Education?. After Consciousness Raising. What?.
and The Lesbian Experience in Education. lt seemed to me
that the decision to bring together women of different back-
grounds to discuss both academic and activist issues was a
bold move that resulted in a marvelously stimulating dialogue
and produced a vitality seldom before felt at Barnard. That
conference initiated important connections between Barnard
and women in the larger community. l felt a surge of pride
in the months following the conference as. time and again.
I heard at women's conferences throughout the metropoli-
tan area “the recent Barnard women‘s conference" referred
to as an important pioneer effort.

This feeling of excitement and pride in breaking significant
new ground in both process and content, and in making con-
nections among women who had heretofore been isolated
from each other. has characterized all Women's Center pro-
grams. Once we clearly understood the force of the women‘s
movement and the new scholarship on women. it was not
difficult to find scholars. artists, filmmakers, writers, and ac-
tivists who were eager to share new knowledge and insights
and join us in planning programs which would reflect this
revolution in thinking about women. Programs like the Reid
Lectureship, the series of monthly women’s issues lunch-

I would like to thank Christina Greene and Elizabeth K. Minnich for
their thoughtful comments and helpful suggestions

eons. the film and video festival. and the Scholar and Fem-
inist conference immediately took on a life of their own and
became a permanent part of our annual calendar and that
of the larger feminist community. It became very clear why
many distinguished feminists in all fields—including some
from abroad. such as Juliet Mitchell. Sheila Rowbotham. and
Helene Cixous—were willing to participate in Women's Cen-
ter programs even when the financial rewards and media at-
tention were often small.

But let me trace some of the threads in my own life. over
the last two decades. that prepared me for my role in build-
ing a women‘s center.

ln the early fifties, l was a white, middle-class college
graduate with a few years of unfocused work experience. As
a full-time homemaker with two small children. l shared a
feeling of frustration and lack of direction with many other
park-bench mothers with whom I spent hours. It seemed to
us that virtually nothing was being done to help us prepare
for any other career. In time, I realized that this as yet un-
named field-—-helping adult. college-trained women find their
way into the professional world—must be my own career.

l was lucky. As a Barnard graduate. I could call on a wise
and sympathetic placement office director. Ruth Houghton
With her help. l found a part-time job with a small member-
ship organization in New York City that provided counsel-
ing and placement for women college graduates. a job I held
for eleven years. lnitially. the women we saw were young.
recent college graduates, but this soon changed as increas-
ing numbers of mature women sought help in returning to
work and to school. I saw many of the myths and stereo-
types about women's motivations and capabilities dissipate
as married women with children achieved success both in
jobs and in demanding graduate and professional programs
These required skillful juggling of normal household and
community responsibilities. lt was not unusual for a woman
to tell me that she got up every morning at 4:30 to work
quietly on her dissertation for two or three hours before her
family arose, or that she made complicated child-care ar
rangements so that she could travel two hours each way
twice a week to take courses.

At that time, many of us accepted the prevailing middle-
class view that a woman's highest goal was to marry and
have children: Her first job was in the home. What was
emerging as new was our belief that we could be doing
more; that we were even entitled to some professional ful-
fillment. But we still believed that. unless there was dire eco-
nomic need, a job or school must be part time. certainly until
the child-rearing years were over.

This view was reinforced. in the decade 1955-65. by the
literature on continuing education for women and by statis-

Women's Studies Quarterly Xll.1 (Spring 1984)