Barnard's New Women's Center and the Thinking Behind It, 1971

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"Barnard's New Women's Center and the Thinking Behind It"

Presentation at group session for Women's Colleges at AAC National Conference by Nora Percival, Director of Alumnae Affairs, Barnard College

Yesterday afternoon many of us heard a,good many quotations at the Women's Lib session. I'd like to contribute another.

Two hundred years ago Samuel Johnson described an unconventional

feminine pursuit thus: "A woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” Though this condenscension may seem archaic to us,

it still strongly colors attitudes today —- only now we call it male chauvinism. Certainly the aim of the new feminists to reexamine and redefine sex roles in our society seems a necessary prerequisite to establishing new and more ample human roles for both sexes —— what Phyllis Johnson yesterday aptly described as "human liberation."

Barnard's involvement with programs for women is really the

renewal of an old commitment, since feminism has been from the

beginning a part of our history. Our name itself honors a president

of Columbia University for his belief in full educational opportunities for women and his efforts to promote them. One of our early deans,

sixty years ago, examined the sociological position of women through

the ages in a study which was reissued just last year. And Virginial Gildersleeve, who guided Barnard for 36 years, established a strong- tradition for its women to work toward broad social goals. As the

only American woman delegate involved in the formation of the United Nations, she amply demonstrated on how great a stage a woman could play her part. .

Now that the unfinished business of feminism has been brought out

to be decisively dealt with, we are realizing that women's own psychological conditioning to accept an inferior role was one large reason why the early gains were not pressed. So it seems important to provide opportunities

to help women understand their own history, natures, potentialities and social roles. And surely a college for women is a proper place to achieve this necessary understanding.

At Barnard our first major effort came in the spring of 1970, when we held a Conference on Women, with leading sociologist Alice Rossi as the major speaker. On that occasion we explored from many directions the social, economic and psychological needs of women and in what ways these could be more adequately met.

Our June Reunion program was also planned around this theme, and the enthusiastic response of the alumnae -- and even of the wider community -- was ample proof, if any was needed, that the subject is one of vital concern to a wide cross-section of our graduates.

We offered a varied a;d serious program, expanded to two full days. Here are some of the highlights:_ authoraalumna Elizabeth Janeway discussed

her new book, "Man's World, Woman's.Place"; Professor of Education Patricia Graham spoke on women in academe; a report was given on the vocational achievements and concerns of the Class of 1965; Congressman Jonathan Bingham described legislative changes of concern to women; a_ panel of alumnae discussed the psychological stresses on women in our society; and career workshops with alumnae were offered in the arts, business and science. Next fall our Alumnae Council too will focus on how the new feminism is changing education at Barnard.

But our in—depth effort this year has been a study of how the college could most adequately respond to the new challenges. A Task Force on Barnard and the Educated Woman, with trustees, faculty, alumnae, students and administrators represented, has been exploring such basic questions as the extent of our responsibilities to women beyond our own students and alumnae, and what we can or ought to do to show our students what it means to be an educated woman in contemporary America.

My report will attempt to summarize the conclusions of the Task Force and the directions which they recomend as most promising. Their Report did not address itself to purely undergraduate areas, such as new courses

-on women, where much activity is already in progress.

The Task Force concluded that Barnard could serve women who were not a part of its student body in ways compatible with its character as a college; that it could best serve its alumnae and women interested in academic pursuits, but that its programs should be flexible enough to be of interest to many other women; and_that it must do more to equip its students to deal with problems which they might encounter after graduation. As one of our Biology professors pointed out, "Too many people think an educated woman less useful and competent than any educated man, a theory which puts the educators of women in an odd position.”

Behind these conclusions lay certain basic assumptions on which the Task Force was agreed: '

_That because of its history, its staff, and its_location, Barnard is

particularly suited for becoming a national center for the study of women

and their interests;

That much of the study of the history, the psychology, and the talents of women has been either false or superficial;

That women, because of the demands of marriage and motherhood, often have irregular job patterns;

That Barnard has a rich resource, now largely untapped, in the talents and

energies of its alumnae and other women living in New York;

That as an undergraduate college, Barnard lacks the facilities for improving post-graduate academic opportunities for women, but it can work with other divisions of the University toward this end;

That students want and need a livelier, more personal sense of the world apart from the classroom. They should be brought into contact with women, both professional and otherwise, outside of the college. Moreover, too often members of the college community hold depressing illusions about women's intellectual skills, such as that women are both less rational and less adventurous than men; and that educating women is a less prestigious job than educating men. Only a systematic, yet sensitive, comunity self- scrutiny can end such myth-making..

These assumptions led the Task Force to the central conclusion that Barnard should move toward the creation of a Women's Center as a focal point for the study of women and their interests. With a growing research library, a competent director and staff, its natural close connections to the college and its undergraduate life, and eventually a self-sustaining financial structure, such a center could generate programs of vital import- ance to all women in their drive toward greater self-awareness and achieve- ment.

A great many program possibilities were discussed, and the priorities have not yet been fully determined, but some projects were recomended -- both academic and non-academic —- which seem promising.

The Women's Center could sponsor a permanent series of seminars on Women and Society —— on immediate political issues of concern to women,’ such as the Equal Rights Amendment, which call for objective analysis; on imediate personal issues of concern to women, such as the conflict between career and marriage, which call for mutual analysis; and on long- range academic questions about the study of women, which call for new research. A national academic journal to publish such studies on women might be a natural outgrowth. A

Alumnae too often are not exposed to new intellectual currents within the college. Videotapes of actual classroom sessions might be made available at cost through the Women's Center and local alumnae clubs.

Professor Sanders of our Geology Department has pointed out the acute intellectual, psychological, and political disadvantages women have in re-starting their careers in science. The Barnard science departments might serve as administrative and logistical bases for bringing women back into the competitive world of research.through a program of fellowships. Besides devoting themselves to reading, study and discussions, participants might operate part-time in teaching labs for undergraduates. ’

The Women's Center might set up a complaint bureau for alumnae who discover prejudice in graduate and professional schools. Barnard could cooperate with other women's colleges in clearing complaints from their graduates as well. The colleges might then bring concerted pressure to bear on the offending schools. C

We might also organize a committee of lawyers who are Barnard graduates, which would represent Barnard alumnae and other women in selected cases of job discrimination. ‘

A resource file can be set up, drawn from the large group of New York alumnae and other women who exemplify a variety of patterns of life. These women would be available for formal lectures in the classroom, (for example, an alumna who is a civil rights lawyer could speak before a political science class), and for informal discussions about a particular pattern of life.

Such speakers would be but one aspect of a larger program of realistic counselling for undergraduates and lectures which could be open to Columbia students and to residents of the community.

The woman who wants to go back to work after a period of years away from the job market has a number of needs: facts about kinds of available jobs; retraining in order to get certain jobs; funds to underwrite such retraining; and moral support.- Barnard could set up a data bank and a system of regional counselors to give women (and undergraduates) the M support they might want. Alumnae clubs in Philadelphia and Washington have already begun to do this on a local level.

The Seven College Conference is now exploring ways in which to establish a roster of women scholars. Possibly the Women's Center could administer that roster, as well as maintain lists of other women professionals, lists which institutions could consult while trying to correct inequities in hiring practices. ‘

Many students believe that the college should provide some informal" training in skills which a prevailing culture thinks ”unfeminine", such as plumbing, auto mechanics, electrical circuitry, and other day-to-day technology. Though this may seem a frivolous request, such training would have great validity in destroying the "helpless female" image and be of great practical use as well.

A second kind of fellowship program might be developed, to use Barnard's library.about women, to bring interesting people to the campus, and to encourage the intellectual and creative accomplishments of women. This program might also help provide the financial aid which is acutely needed by women doing work on the postedoctoral level, and by those doing community work relevant to women, such as abortion law reform.

As this outline should indicate, the role of our alumnae in these

projects will be enormously important, both as contributors and as recipients.‘

The Women's Center will, we hope, provide meaningful new ways to bind our graduates to the college.

All the evidence points to the need of a great many women for help

in resolving the social and psychological conflicts in which they find themselves engaged at different times in their lives, as well as raising

their own awareness of their enormous potentials as people. Many difficulties can be clarified and eased through the exchange of ideas and experiences

with one's peers, and by banding together into strong groups for effective action in support of individual members in need of help.

To present these opportunities to the alumnae can be as valid a service as the college can perform for them —— and a most potent means’ to rekindle their interest in their_alma mater.

We believe these projects would be of enormous use in revitalizing alumnae club programs. Many are well suited to regional development, which can best be carried on by the clubs. And they would provide meaningful and challenging projects around which to rally the younger, uninvolved" alumnae in the area. These programs can serve to bring back to the club -- and the college -- graduates who may feel that their education was irrelevant to their present lives. It can engage these women in practical programs for their own good, or for the good of their fellows. We have heard much at this Conference about the need of students -- who are steadily graduating into alumnae -— to serve social goals in valid ways. Certainly the programs of the Women's Center can provide these.

In fact, such involvement can be the catalyst to cooperation among alumnae groups in really large projects, such as lobbying for the reform of discriminating laws, or working to encourage more women candidates to run for office. Once joint action becomes an accepted way, there are few limits to the influence such a group can wield for good, in its own community or even in a broader arena.

Alma Mater, some time ago, in a report on attitudes of seniors toward alumni, quoted a Simons student as saying: "I think one of the handicaps that present alumni organizations face is that they have never been a vehicle for effecting social change. I think the people who are going to be entering an alumni organization are going to need an agency through which they can effect social change.” And in addressing an AAUW Convention in 1969, Barnard's own President Peterson made the same point more succinctly: "I really must question whether we have contributed, as women, what we are able to contribute to society... There are unlimited opportunities for things we should and must do... We need to establish a society in which... we can move ahead positively and strongly...”

We at Barnard hope thattin our efforts to provide opportunities for women to learn about themselves and their great untapped potential, we may be taking a meaningful step toward these goals.