Personal Reflections on Building a Women's Center in a Women's College, 1975, page 3

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ter Committee. the dean of the College at that time. refused
to give his approval until the following sentence was inserted:
“The Center welcomes the cooperation of all—men and
women—who are in sympathy with its aims."

From the beginning. the Women‘s Center was an enigma
to the College. On the one hand. Barnard pioneered in set-
ting up a women's center and in providing an operating
budget which increased each year (and I know of no other
women's college that has done this). At the same time. the
College. like others with "special provisions" for women.
regarded the Center as marginal and not part of its central
mission. The College's ongoing concern about its public im-
age. and its homophobia. so characteristic of women's col-
leges. have created tensions throughout the Centers exis-
tence. ln addition, the College has demonstrated a distaste
for emphasizing its commitment to women—except as stu-
dents in a highly traditional curriculum—in any way that
might offend segments of its constituencies. particularly con-
tributors. These tensions have been exacerbated by the man-
ner in which Barnard. like other academic institutions. has
responded to the new conservative climate at the same time
as feminists are insisting on making connections with what
is happening to women in the larger political arena. Yet the
College has undeniably made use of the Women's Center.
on occasion. to demonstrate its commitment. open-
mindedness. and good faith.

These contradictions between public posture and internal
practice created an ambivalence that permeated the College
community. lnitially, many faculty. administrators. and stu-
dents shied away from the Center. confusing it with a stu-
dent lesbian group on campus. Even after numerous articles
and reports on the Women's Center and its activities ap-
peared in College and community media. the questions.
“Why a women's center at a women's college?" or "Why
does a women‘s center need its own voice?" kept coming up
like a regular refrain. lt is my guess that there are still many
Barnard faculty who are tentative toward if not hostile to
women's studies. and who do not encourage their students
to do research on women.

Barnard provides important optimal components for the

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An official delegation of the People's Republic of China visit-
ing the Women's Center.

 

education of women; a woman as its administrative head
and a faculty and administration of more than fifty percent A
women; small classes and a faculty committed to teaching
and to teaching women. Yet. like its sister colleges. Barnard
often seems locked into its history The deep-seated fear of
being “lesser" than or “different" from a male college. or of
being labeled a "lesbian school." are part of a heritage that
is difficult to overcome As late as 1979. at the Centers
"Arden House Conference on Special Programs for Women
in Higher Education" held for seventy representatives of
women's programs in the northeast. we could see that rem
nants of these fears persisted among the prestigious womens
colleges.

Recognizing and understanding this ambivalence and
learning how to work with it have presented both a dilemma
and a challenge. In the early days. we were often on the
defensive. a position which demanded an excessive amount
of time and energy. ln retrospect. I can see that this posi-
tion also forced us to think through each issue carefully. de
veloping firm convictions earlier perhaps than we otherwise
would have. Knowing that name—calling and baiting have
been used throughout history to discredit. frighten. and di
vide women. we made a conscious and determined effort to
keep this from happening to us. We stopped reacting and
we worked even harder to be supportive of and sensitive to
the needs and interests of lesbian and other minority groups.
and we went to great lengths to include a diversity of women
and women‘s thinking in all our programs. whether in a lec-
ture on a “View of Women As Seen Through the Eyes of
Christine de Pizan." a fifteenth-century woman of letters; in
a film on Women of Wounded Knee: in a discussion of
grass-roots organizing for battered women; in an analysis of
the theological question "ls There a Feminist Understanding
of Sin?" or in a workshop on “Perceptions of Black Women
Writers " We learned that our programs must present per-
spectives that are directly related to the new thinking about
women and to the particular experience of women from
different races. class backgrounds. and sexual preferences

ln this spirit. we created the Reid Lectureship ln 1975.
with additional money from the Estate of Helen Rogers Reid.
Barnard ‘O3. we designed a program to bring to Barnard
each year one or. on occasion. two women who had distin-
guished themselves in their own fields and had shown some
commitment to other women We knew that it was impor-
tant to invite women who might not be heard at Barnard un-
der other circumstances. women from backgrounds tradition-
ally underrepresented at Barnard. ln fact. as we learned from
minority students about their need for more role models. we
established a rule that at least half of these lecturers would
be women of color

The full roster of Reid Lecturers reads: June Jordan and
Alice Walker. Helen Rodriguez-Trias. Rhonda Copelon and
Nancy Stearns, Ntozake Shange. Bella Abzug (the year she
was fired from the Presidents Advisory Committee on
Women). Bernice Reagon. Mirra Komarovsky (the year of
the Womens Center 10th anniversary celebration) and Toni)
Cade Bambara. The Lecturers were asked to share their per-
sonal perceptions and experiences as women. as well as their
professional experiences as feminists. both at a public lecture
and informally with small groups of students. alumnae.
faculty. staff. and community people over a period of a day
and a half. lt became an outstanding annual event June Jor-

Women‘s Studies Quarterly Xll 1 (Spring 19843